Part 1: Our Hall of Fame
In 1970, Jack Baker (left) and his partner, Michael McConnell, became the first same-sex couple to apply for a marriage license anywhere. They were turned away, and Baker sued the state of Minnesota in the landmark case Baker v. Nelson. His case was eventually thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court, and he lost his job as a librarian at the University of Minnesota, but still Baker persevered.
He adopted his partner, earning him access to the types of benefits afforded dependents. In 1971, Baker and four others launched Gay House, a single-family home on Ridgewood Avenue that was meant to be a sort of LGBT youth center near the university. The house eventually offered a hotline and provided counseling services. He also sought to grow a library of periodicals, books, and other resources for LGBT people to better understand their history and rights. —Michelle Garcia
Madeline Davis founded the Western New York Mattachine Society in 1970, positioning her to become an important figure for LGBT rights in the region. In 1972 she taught the United States’ first course on lesbianism and became the first openly lesbian delegate ever elected to a major political convention when she was chosen for the Democratic National Convention in Miami. At that convention, she gave the first noted stump speech encouraging the Democrats to include gay rights in the party's platform, reminding delegates and leaders that an estimated 20 million gay people would be voting that November. Davis went on to coauthor Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community with Elizabeth Kennedy.
Harvey Milk won election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in November 1977, becoming the first openly gay man elected to public office in Californa, and a hope to gay people who read the news all over the country.
Milk made three unsuccessful campaigns for office before finally winning. While in office, he successfully sponsored an ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. But he was perhaps best known for his words, and the way he said them — with passion. He delivered his famous “Hope Speech” at the Gay Freedom Day Parade June 25, 1978, to a giant crowd, calling on gay people to come out of the closet and declaring, “I'm tired of the conspiracy of silence.”
Before being assassinated at age 48 by former supervisor Dan White in City Hall in 1978, Milk reiterated his call for gays and lesbians to come out. “If a bullet should enter my brain,” he said, “let that bullet also destroy every closet door in the country."
California congressman Henry Waxman called a first-of-its-kind hearing in April 1982 to investigate a disease that was killing primarily gay men. The hearing of the House of Representatives subcommittee on Health and the Environment, over which he was chairman, focused on Kaposi's sarcoma, a skin disease whose purple lesions were a telltale sign of HIV/AIDS before drugs existed to treat the epidemic.
"There is no doubt in my mind," Waxman said at the time, "that if the same disease had appeared among Americans of Norwegian descent, or among tennis players, rather than among gay males, the reponses of the government and the medical community would have been different."
He didn’t stop his advocacy in 1982 and hasn’t stopped since. “What we don’t need is another study. What we need is leadership,” Waxman said in 1988 of President Reagan’s inaction on AIDS. “Once again, the president is hiding.”
Few figures loom as large in LGBT history as Larry Kramer. Kramer was a screenwriter — he wrote the 1970 film adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love — before he turned the publishing world on its head in the late ’70s with his novel Faggots, which criticized his fellow gay men for sexual promiscuity and lack of emotional commitment.
But it was the AIDS crisis that transformed Kramer the Writer into Kramer the Activist. After his New York friends began falling victim to HIV, he cofounded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (still very active today) and started the influential organization ACT UP, which took leaders like New York mayor Ed Koch and President Ronald Reagan to task for their lack of action on the disease. His semiautobiographical chronicle of the AIDS fight, The Normal Heart, premiered off-Broadway in 1985, while a Broadway revival swept the 2011 Tonys.
Kramer’s writing — from Just Say No to The Tragedy of Today’s Gays — is nothing if not ambitious. His latest project: a narrative of a nation, titled The American People: A History.
k.d. lang has always played by her own rules. She’s a Canadian singer who made it big in Nashville, a rising star who went mainstream and was later embraced by indie circles, and maybe most importantly, an openly gay celebrity before it was such a thing.
At the height of her fame in the early ’90s, lang came out on the cover of The Advocate. She always seems fearless — maybe that’s part of the reason the public embraced her after the announcement and turned the album Ingenue into a mega-hit.
She’s no longer perceived as simply a “gay artist,” just a critically acclaimed one. Her velvet voice is heard on soundtracks, albums, and talk shows, and her rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at the opening ceremonies for the 2010 Olympics was unforgettable. She’s done so much since that 1992 interview and always seemed so comfortable in her own skin that it’s easy to forget how brave she was for speaking the truth two decades ago. Here’s to long memories.
— Neal Broverman
With the iconic headline, “Yep, I’m Gay,” and her smiling face on the cover of Time magazine on April 14, 1997, comedian and actress Ellen DeGeneres forever changed television — and solidified herself as a target for the “haters,” as she’s called them.
Even this year, the religious right tried and failed to get DeGeneres fired from a job as spokeswoman for JCPenney just because she’s a lesbian. But those forces were much stronger during the ’90s. The star once told The Advocate it seemed she had “lost everything” after her ABC show was canceled, her relationship failed, and her follow-up sitcom never picked up steam.
When DeGeneres rose from all of that with her role in Finding Nemo, her hugely successful daytime talk show, her marriage to actress Portia de Rossi, and as host of a big event in American culture, the Academy Awards, it was more than a comeback. Important through all of it was how much it mattered that no one seemed to care anymore what the headline on Time magazine said in 1997.
In an interview with Diane Sawyer on Primetime Thursday, Rosie O’Donnell came out and used her fame as the “Queen of Nice” to draw attention to laws banning adoption for same-sex couples.
O’Donnell and her former partner had tried to adopt a child in Florida and came up against a ban there. So she decided to fight in the way she knew best — via television and other media. O’Donnell had earned six consecutive Daytime Emmys as an enormously likable talk show host. And so she easily commanded the media spotlight.
She used her star power again when San Francisco began defiantly marrying same-sex couples in 2004, attracting throngs of cameras as O’Donnell and her partner joined in. Meanwhile in Washington lawmakers were considering President Bush's Federal Marriage Amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Even now, O’Donnell’s new show on the Oprah Winfrey Network, The Rosie Show, calls out injustices against LGBT people and highlights positive stories.
When Florida’s governor finally said in 2010 that the ban would stop being enforced, O’Donnell was to the point: "After 33 years, it's about time.”
Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president was a sign of the character she would later prove again as secretary of State, becoming an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights worldwide. “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights,” she said during a landmark speech in 2011 to United Nations members.
While cutting a path through the U.S. Senate that would lead to a run for president, Clinton didn’t shy from promoting LGBT rights. She helped defeat the "Federal Marriage Amendment" proposed by President Bush, pushed for better funding of HIV/AIDS services, and her LGBT supporters noted during the campaign that she was an original cosponsor of the hate crimes bill that would later pass during President Obama’s first year. She also sponsored the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that still lingers before Congress.
“You just have to keep pushing that door open,” she told The Advocate in an interview following a debate devoted to LGBT issues. Afterward, she headed to a fundraiser at a West Hollywood bar where LGBT people had watched the debate on television and cheered her on.
“The gay rights movement has been unbelievably successful over a relatively short period of time,” she said in 2007. “I know that if you’re in the midst of it, you see the failures to move forward, not how much forward motion has occurred. The lesson is to keep going, don’t give up. Know that you’re laying the groundwork for people being more understanding and accepting. But just keep going.”