10 Pioneers Of Lesbian Visibility From 1816 to 2020

To all 10 of these lesbian pioneers, we salute you!

Lesbian Visibility Day is celebrated every year on April 26th. While lesbian visibility certainly remains a work in progress in 2020, we’ve come a long way from the days when the very word “lesbian” was too taboo to say out loud. These days, there are prominent lesbians in the media, politics, science, sports, and beyond, from Lori Lightfoot to Megan Rapinoe. They’re out and proud, a model for all the young lesbians and queer women who are trying to figure out how to be themselves in a world that doesn’t always accept or even see them. 

Throughout history, there have always been women like this: trailblazing lesbians who weren’t afraid to be themselves in public, ushering in an era of greater visibility for generations to come. Before Megan Rapinoe, there was Ellen DeGeneres. Before Ellen DeGeneres, there was Stormé DeLarverie. Before Stormé DeLarverie, there was Radclyffe Hall. We can look to these pioneers to understand just how far we’ve come — and to inspire us to keep going. 

Here, we’re highlighting 10 lesbians in history who helped make Lesbian Visibility Day a possibility in 2020.

Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876)

Charlotte Cushman (left) and Matilda Hays. Photo by Wikipedia

Lesbian actress Charlotte Cushman, who lived from 1816 to 1876, was one of the most famous actresses of her time. She played both male and female parts — wearing male clothes to play a role was one of the only types of “cross-dressing” deemed acceptable at the time. She was in a public romantic relationship with her partner Matilda Hays at a time when “Boston marriages” were the norm.

Radclyffe Hall (1880-1943)

Radclyffe Hall. Photo by Wikipedia

Radclyffe Hall was a badass British author and butch lesbian who was active in the early 1900s. Her novel “The Well of Loneliness,” published in 1928, was a semi-autobiographical novel about a lesbian woman who longs to be accepted as a man. Banned in the UK at the time, it was secretly beloved by thousands and remains a crucial contribution to butch lesbian literature.

Gladys Bentley (1907-1960)

Gladys Bentley. Photo by Library of Congress

Gladys Bentley was a major performer during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s. She became “Harlem’s most famous lesbian” according to The New York Times, and she often wore a top hat and tuxedo while singing salacious blues songs at Black establishments. Bentley doesn’t often get the recognition she deserves, but in fact, she was one of the first visible Black lesbian entertainers in American history.

Stormé DeLarverie (1920-2014)

Stormé DeLarverie. Photo by Wikipedia

Biracial butch lesbian Stormé DeLarverie, born in New Orleans in 1920, is known as the “Rosa Parks of the gay community.” Some say her confrontation with the police sparked the 1969 Stonewall uprising, and for decades, she remained an icon in the lesbian nightlife scene, working as a bouncer, MC, singer, and drag king. DeLarverie MCed and performed at the first racially integrated drag revue in North America from 1955 to 1969. She was also a major pioneer for androgynous, gender non-conforming fashion for women.

Phyllis Lyon (1924-2020) and Del Martin (1921-2008)

Del Martin (left) and Phyllis Lyon (right). Photo by Vimeo

Phyllis Lyon and her wife, Del Martin, worked tirelessly for feminist and LGBTQ+ rights together for decades, spearheading efforts to decriminalize homosexuality, encourage religious acceptance of gay people, outlaw discrimination, and so much more. Thanks to evolving laws, they had to marry twice, in 2004 and 2008. It was the first legal same-sex marriage in San Francisco. Lyon passed in March 2020.

Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

Audre Lorde. Photo by Poetry Foundation

Audre Lorde described herself as a “black, lesbian, feminist, mother, poet, warrior.” Born in 1934, her poems and essays remain an indispensable part of queer, feminist, and racial studies, including classics like “Sister Outsider” and “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.” She’s also the originator of the concept of “self-care.”

Leslie Feinberg (1949-2014)

Leslie Feinberg. Photo by Wikipedia

Leslie Feinberg’s 1993 novel “Stone Butch Blues” is a pillar of not only butch lesbian literature but also gender studies as a whole. She played a major role in bringing issues of gender, sexuality, and gender expression to the general public, raising awareness and giving people the vocabulary to talk about these topics.

Lea DeLaria (born 1958)

 

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Lea DeLaria became famous on a whole new level when she starred as Big Boo in “Orange Is The New Black.” For lesbians, though, Lea DeLaria had long been a towering influence, known for her work as a comic and drag king who was unafraid to yell the word “dyke” on stage. In 1993, she became the first openly gay comic to appear on a late-night talk show. She’s also the alleged originator of the “U-haul” joke, which she first performed in 1989.

Ellen DeGeneres (born 1958)

Ellen DeGeneres. Photo by Wikipedia

No roundup about lesbian visibility can be complete without Ellen DeGeneres, who came out as a lesbian in 1997. Her character on her sitcom “Ellen” also came out, and the show was canceled a year later. DeGeneres triumphantly returned to TV with her daytime talk show, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” a few years later, and her openness about her identity served as a major inspiration for an entire generation of young queers. Needless to say, the show is still around almost 17 years later.

Wanda Sykes (born 1964)

 

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Wanda Sykes came out in 2008 when she was 44 years old and already a legendary comedian for many years. She’s living proof that it’s never too late to own who you are. She chose to come out at a rally for marriage equality — which has since become a reality — to put a face on LGBTQ+ rights that proved that it wasn’t only affecting “white gay men,” per an interview with O Magazine. She remains one of the funniest comics out there today.

To all 10 of these lesbian pioneers, we salute you!


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