Trailblazer. Pioneer. Groundbreaker. Leader. Accomplished. Smasher of glass ceilings. Fighter of stereotypes and the patriarchy: Women who stood up for lesbian rights
These words and phrases can be used to describe many womxn in history. Womxn have had to fight for their voices to be heard, and in particular, lesbian womxn have had to try harder to be afforded the same opportunities and platform as others. In honour of LGBT History Month, we want to acknowledge some of these queer womxn and celebrate their successes that have had an impact on society as we know it.
Here is a small compilation of powerful and pioneering womxn from different walks of life who have paved the ways for lesbians today.
Sappho (620 – 570 BCE)
Sappho was a Greek lyric poet who was extensively popular in Ancient Greece. While it is not known definitively or explicitly, it is widely believed that Sappho was a lesbian. Her work centred on the themes of love, romance and desire, directed commonly towards women.
Hailing from the island of Lesbos, Sappho work not only tackled the topic of same-sex attraction, but she also covered politics and promoted the education of women. Her poetry had emotional, passionate and erotic tones (often about women) and was most well known for her songs (often referred to wedding/nuptial songs).
She remains an important figure in the world of poetry to this day.
Gladys Bentley (1907 -1960)
Glady Bentley was a prominent performer in 1920s, and worked as blues singer, pianist and cross dresser during the Harlem Renaissance.
Bobbie Minton (her stage name) sang provocative songs in deep, growling voice, dressed immaculately in a black and white tuxedo and a top hat. She was often advertised by promoters as a male impersonator and would flirt with women in the audience during her raunchy versions of popular songs. Her songs often confronted important issues such as sexual orientation, sexual abuse, and male privilege.
Gladys was an incredibly successful performer, who deconstructed rules about gender and sexuality, firmly establishing a unique space in history for her.
Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992)
Having described herself as a "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde was used her writing talent for activism.
She used her voice to talk about issues of race, sexuality, gender and class. Audre was not afraid to confront issues that other shied away from. She had a Master’s degree in Library Science and worked a librarian for years before she published First Cities in 1968, which was her first volume of poetry. Audre explored her black female identity in her work and spoke about non-intersectional feminism and civil rights.
Audre made an impact not only in feminism but created social movements and opened dialogue about lesbianism and racism, in an academic and public platform.
Nancy Cárdenas (1934 – 1994)
Nancy Cárdenas was a Mexican playwright, actor, poet and director who led a gay liberation movement in 1970s.
It was during an interview that discussed the firing of a gay employee that Nancy publicly declared herself a lesbian on the TV show 24 horas, becoming one of the first Mexican celebrities to come out on such a public platform. She founded the Gay Liberation Front (FLH) which was the first gay organisation in Mexico in 1974 and headed the first gay pride march in Plaza de las Tres Culturas.
She was a proud feminist and activist, who had an incredible career in film, theatre and poetry. Nancy thrived in her artistic endeavours just as much as she did fighting for gay rights and equality.
Most prominently known as the television host of her own talk show The Ellen DeGeneres show, Ellen DeGeneres is an American comedian, actress, and writer.
Ellen made a serious impact in the entertainment industry when she came out on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1997. At the time, there was mass media coverage and was not seen as a great career move. However, her decision to come out publicly was important for queer representation on TV. She led the way for people in entertainment to be open and proud of their sexuality and has used her platform give back to the wider community.
Now, after over 20 years on screen, she continues prove her sexuality was not a hindrance on her success and is something to celebrate.
Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir is not only the first female prime minister of Iceland (serving from 2009 – 2013), she was also the world’s first openly LGBT head of government.
Jóhanna had always been passionate about trade unions and social justice and this was something she carried into her work as a politician, particularly in her work as the Minister of Social Affairs and Social Security. In her time as prime minister, she helped overcome Iceland’s financial crisis, stabilise the country’s economy and made Iceland a model country for gender equality.
Previously been named amongst the 100 most powerful women in the world by Forbes magazine, Jóhanna demonstrated that lesbian women could lead countries, and they could do it really well.
Using her experience as a woman and lesbian, Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby has recently made society change the way they think about comedy (particularly at the expense of women).
Her stand-up show on Netflix, Nanette, won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special this year. In this special, she deconstructs the very nature of comedy and glorification of the “straight white male” throughout history. She discusses experiences of being misgendered, being physically and sexually assaulted, and used self-deprecating to expose ‘tension’ within her comedy.
Hannah’s thought-provoking show has shone a light on the experiences of marginalised communities, particularly those in comedy. The honesty of her work has created a dialogue about social structures and making people accountable for their actions (and how they discriminate against others.
These are just a few womxn who identify as lesbians who had made an impact on society and history. Some others include Angela Davis, Barbara Gittings, Barbara Jordan, Cynthia Nixon and Samira Riley.
There will be many more womxn from the LGBT community that will break down barriers and pave the way for more queer women in society. Some of these womxn have not yet seen themselves represented in a public platform (i.e. non-binary lesbians) but will then be the ones to carve out a space for people like them. Just like the womxn before them, present day LGBT womxn are ready to create change and our history books more inclusive and diverse.