LGBTQ+ Seniors: Let’s Be Proud of How Far We’ve Come

It’s Pride Month again! But as we watch the parades and see all of the inspiring stories on social media, it’s important to remember that this celebration is not just about the young members of the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, the only thing that’s almost as important as looking to the future is remembering where we’ve come from, and honoring those who have made our present possible. So for all of you LGBTQ+ older adults out there, this is for you: a look at the original heroes of the movement! Just don’t forget to add your stories to these more well-known ones, because you all deserve a place in the rich history of your community.

1. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

illustration of a person in a suit next to a resignation letter
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was forced to resign from his job for being gay.

You might be surprised to find out that not all LGBTQ activism started in the 20th century. In fact, one of the first people to speak out for LGBTQ rights was a German living in the mid-19th century, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Ulrichs was a civil servant who was forced to resign from his job in 1854 for being gay. Amazingly, though, he did not fade into the shadows; instead, he went on to publish 12 volumes of work on sexuality, which included his theory that being gay is an “innate condition,” and not a “learned corruption,” as many people at the time believed. He even spoke out for LGBTQ rights, urging the German government in 1867 to repeal anti-gay laws. 

2. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon

Martin and Lyon had been together for 3 years in 1955 when they founded (along with 6 other women who came to the first meeting) the Daughters of Bilitis, the first social and political organization for lesbians in the United States. They started and were the first editors of the organization’s newsletter, The Ladder, which was widely read by the lesbian community, and earned Martin and Lyon a place as some of the first inductees into the LGBT Journalists Hall of Fame. They also fought against discrimination in the church, became the first lesbian members of the National Organization of Women (NOW), and helped to influence legislation in California outlawing discrimination in the workplace. Martin and Lyon married in 2004, but their marriage was later voided; then, in 2008, they were the first couple to get married when California legalized same-sex marriage. 

3. Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin is usually remembered as a civil rights leader, and an incredibly important one, at that: he was a close adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr, and a key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King gave his historic “I have a dream” speech. He was, though, also openly gay at a time when it was difficult to be so, and, as Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner for the last decade of his life, says, he was “someone who was working to expand our democratic freedoms and increase our civil liberties and our individual freedoms”.

4. Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk became a gay rights activist when he moved to San Francisco in 1972, before he became the first openly gay person elected to public office in 1977, when he won a seat on the San Francisco City Council Board. He continued to be an activist after his election, tirelessly advocating for rights in an engagingly hopeful way, until his assassination by a fellow city council member in 1978.

5. Audre Lorde

Lorde was a self-described “Black lesbian mother warrior poet.” Her work covered everything from civil rights and sexuality to her own battle with breast cancer, and she inspired Barbara Smith to found Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first U.S. publisher by, for, and about women of color. She made lasting contributions to feminist, queer, and critical race theory, using her powerful voice to speak for the voiceless: “I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t,” she once said. 

6. Magnus Hirschfeld

illustration of medical equipment
Magnus Hirschfeld established the world’s first gender identity clinic.

This might be a name you’ve never heard, unless perhaps you’ve seen the movie The Danish Girl. Hirschfeld established the world’s first gender identity clinic, and his clients included Einar Wegener (the protagonist of 2015’s The Danish Girl, who transitioned to become Lili Elbe – one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery). Prior to that, he had been living in Germany as an openly gay man from the late 19th century, campaigning for gay rights. 

7. Marsha P. Johnson

The next three names were huge figures in the LGBTQ rights scene of the 1970s and 80s, and will be forever associated with the Stonewall uprising of 1969. Marsha P. Johnson (who would tell people the “P” stood for “pay it no mind”)  was an outspoken transgender rights activist who, along with fellow trans activist Sylvia Rivera, helped form Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a radical political organization that provided housing and other forms of support to homeless queer youth and sex workers in Manhattan. She was also an AIDS activist, as well as a drag performer.

8. Sylvia Rivera

As noted above, Rivera was a trans activist along with Marsha P. Johnson, and helped form STAR with Johnson. Rivera endured a traumatic youth: her mother died by suicide and her grandmother threw her out for being too “effeminate,” so she became a child prostitute at the age of 11; fortunately, the local community of drag queens took her in. She also identified as a drag queen, participated in demonstrations with the Gay Liberation Front, and joined the Gay Activists Alliance. While there is some controversy over whether she was actually even at the Stonewall uprising, some credit Rivera with starting it by throwing the first punch – but this has never been definitively proven. Either way, she was an important figure in the LGBTQ rights movement for many years.

9. Storme DeLarverie

A biracial, butch lesbian, DeLarverie is also credited with starting the Stonewall uprising, with other eyewitnesses agreeing with this account of the beginnings of the encounter with police. She worked for much of her life as an MC, singer, bouncer, bodyguard, and volunteer street patrol worker, becoming known as the “guardian of lesbians in the Village.” She is also known as “the Rosa Parks of the gay community.” In addition to her work for the LGBT community, she also organized and performed at benefits for battered women and children. When asked why she chose to do this work, she replied, “Somebody has to care.”

10. Larry Kramer 

red ribbon
Larry Kramer rallied and protested during the AIDS pandemic for the rights and prevention of it in the gay community. 

When the AIDS epidemic struck NYC in the 1980s, Larry Kramer, an openly gay novelist, screenwriter, and playwright, began writing to rally the gay community to action. He became an outspoken activist, calling on his community to embrace their anger, and ended up as one of the most prominent voices in the AIDS crisis, advocating for research, civil rights, and the prevention of AIDS, as well as for care for people afflicted by the virus.

11. Miss Major Griffin-Gracy

Miss Major is a trans woman activist and community leader for transgender rights, with a particular focus on women of color. She herself has experienced homelessness and incarceration, which has fueled her activism surrounding the trans community and incarceration. She served as the original Executive Director for the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, which aims to assist transgender persons, who are disproportionately incarcerated under the prison-industrial complex. 

We could go on and on (and on!) when it comes to the history of the LGBTQ+ community, and we encourage you to keep reading and researching. You might even be surprised by the number of amazing people who have shared the same struggles and triumphs with you. Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Florence Nightingale, Sally Ride, James Beard, Alan Turing, Barbara Jordan (the first African American elected to the Texas Senate in 1966, and the first woman and first African American elected to Congress from Texas in 1972), and even Oliver Sipple, the man who is credited with saving President Ford from an assassination attempt – all were part of the LGBTQ community, and made changes to the world in their own ways. So this Pride Month, be proud of those whose legacy you share, and be proud of your own place in history!

What We Can All Learn from Pride Month

It’s June, and that means it’s Pride Month! Last year gathering together in-person was out of the picture, but this year, things are looking up! So as we reflect on the struggles we’ve been through over the past year, and as we start to feel thankful for the hopefulness on the horizon, it’s worth remembering that periods of struggle often lead to real progress and change. The same is true for the struggle for LGBTQ rights. People in this community (and their allies) have bravely fought for their rights and, while the fight is not over, they have achieved amazing things and changed our society for the better – because what society does not benefit from everyone enjoying equality and safety, and generally being able to get in on that whole life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness deal? So this Pride Month, let’s both look back at where things started and look forward to where we’re going, because there are lessons we can all learn from Pride Month. 

The History of Pride Month

So why June? It’s not because of the beautiful weather, although that makes the fabulous parades (here’s hoping they come back soon!) all the more enjoyable. No, the reason that Pride Month takes place this month dates back to what is considered the start of the modern LGBTQ movement: the Stonewall riots. The LGBTQ movement didn’t start with the Stonewall riots – LGBTQ activists have been organizing since the 1920s – but they definitely provided the momentum for change, with the overflowing emotions of those times pushing the movement to a new level.  silhouette of people rioting and protesting The riots all started with something that might seem unimaginable to us now, but was in no way unusual for the time. On the night of June 27 – 28, 1969, 8 police officers from New York City’s Public Moral Division, which enforced all laws regarding “vice,” like gambling, prostitution, drugs and, yes, homosexuality (they could even arrest and force hospitalization of gay people), raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. That night, though, was the night that patrons would fight back. 

There are multiple myths surrounding how the riots actually began, including stories about who might have started everything by throwing the first brick (was it Marsha P. Johnson?), the first molotov cocktail (was it Sylvia Rivera?), or the first punch (was it Storme DeLarverie?), but it’s still unclear what really happened that night. What is clear is that Stonewall, and the movement it sparked, was at heart a collective uprising, which was the peak of an entire community’s frustration at their treatment. That activists like Johnson, Rivera, and DeLarverie were involved is important in that it reminds us of the huge part that LGBTQ people of color and African American Trans women played, and continue to play, in the movement.

The Stonewall riots lasted for six days, with hundreds of people resisting arrest and fighting back against police oppression. The unrest occurred at a pivotal time in US history, when there were massive societal changes happening all around, and when the media was really able to show people in real time what was happening in the world around them. That meant that coverage of the riots allowed people to see the LGBTQ struggle with their own eyes, and to relate to it as a struggle of those fighting for basic rights. The events of Stonewall also emboldened other activists to mobilize and take action.

One year later, the anniversary of the Stonewall riots was marked by demonstrations in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. At first, the New York City day of celebration was called “Christopher Street Liberation Day.” In Los Angeles and San Francisco, these events became known as “Gay Freedom Marches,” and the day was called “Gay Freedom Day.”  Chicago had Gay Pride Week. All of these events were focused on both celebration and politics, and aimed to promote visibility of the LGBTQ community, as well as to make clear what LGBTQ activists were fighting for, like protection against harassment, greater awareness of the AIDS epidemic, and marriage equality, among other rights. 

The voices of these activists began to be heard, and the marches grew from having a few hundred participants to the parades and events of today, which draw hundreds of thousands of people. In the 1980s, as the culture shifted, and a different style of activist took over the parade committees, the words “liberation” and “freedom” were dropped from the events, and the term “Gay Pride” became popularized. people in the street holding rainbow flags

Pride Today

Now, in the 21st century, June is celebrated as Pride Month, with two Presidents before Joe Biden (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) officially declaring it as such during their presidencies. The LGBTQ community and allies come together for a month-long celebration of love, diversity, acceptance and, of course, pride, with parades, marches, parties, concerts, and workshops. The month is also meant to commemorate the impact of LGBTQ activists on history here in the US and around the world, as well as memorialize those who have lost their lives to the AIDS epidemic and hate crimes throughout the decades. 

And that hard work is something worth celebrating: it has led to great strides, and now marriage equality and the right to adopt children in all 50 states are legal. Not only that, but during Pride Month 2020, in a victory 60 years in the making, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ employees from discrimination.

But while these are all huge gains, there is still a long way to go. For example, there are glaring gaps in the protections of the Supreme Court’s ruling, LGBTQ couples still face financial inequalities, Trans rights (as well as the safety of Trans people) continue to be at risk all around the country, and LGBTQ youth continue to face a mental health crisis. As with most struggles to progress and make positive change, there is no fixed end point: those dedicated to making things better will continue their work, generation after generation.

Lessons for Today and for the Future

All of the above is why Pride Month is so important for the LBGTQ community, as well as for people who aren’t part of the LGBTQ community. Pride is a way to support the LGBTQ community, and a way to remind everyone that we should never take freedoms, rights, and protections for granted. Pride is vital because the achievements of the LGBTQ community need to be made visible and celebrated as wins for all of society – but we also need it because the continuing struggles have to be acknowledged as part of the problems of our wider society, so that we can all move forward. There are so many lessons we can take from the origins of Pride, and from what it stands for today. For example:hands on top of each other

  • When people come together, they can make change. The 20th century was a time of massive changes to society, many of which were sparked by activists and protests, but our present is, in many ways, just as intense. The last year has seen protests erupting all over the country, and the LGBTQ community has drawn a parallel between their activism and the activism of groups like Black Lives Matter, proving that we can all be allies and make change together. For example, last year LBGTQ and civil rights organizations called for action in an open letter, stating “We celebrate June as Pride Month, because it commemorates, in part, our resisting police harassment and brutality at Stonewall in New York City, and earlier in California, when such violence was common and expected. We remember it as a breakthrough moment when we refused to accept humiliation and fear as the price of living fully, freely, and authentically. We understand what it means to rise up and push back against a culture that tells us we are less than, that our lives don’t matter. Today, we join together again to say #BlackLivesMatter and commit ourselves to the action those words require.”
  • Telling your story makes a difference. Collective action is one important piece of the puzzle, but Pride also reminds us that personal stories of individuals can be just as impactful. Coming out, for example, can be extremely powerful: it can change people’s minds and make them see things in a different way. Telling your story, whatever it is, can have a ripple effect that leads to change! Speaking out about injustice you see, whether you are a member of the LGBTQ community or not, is also a way to have an impact on those around you. 
  • Change takes time, but even small personal commitments are worthwhile. How long have marginalized groups been working for change? Decades? Centuries? Progress is incremental, but everyone can claim a piece of it by making small commitments, such as

    one hand reaching for another with words of unite and connecting in the hands
    Ask how you can support others in order to help make a change.
    • Speaking up about the issue of LGBTQ rights (or any other issue that you are committed to!) in your social circle
    • Protesting
    • Calling your legislator
    • Educating yourself on the best things you can do right now, even if it means just listening!
    • Asking how you can support others

Pride Month can mean so much to so many people: it can be a time to express joy and self-love, to memorialize and celebrate those who came before you, and to look forward to the  future – all at the same time! And, while we enjoy a little more togetherness this year (safely!), remember we’ve been through tough times before, and we’ve been able to move forward, we just have to keep hold of what matters.

The Dark Side of the Rainbow: A Pride Month Spotlight on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health

We’ve come a long way in a short time towards protecting the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. In the last decade we’ve seen states outlawing conversion therapy for minors, banning biased coverage exclusions by health insurance companies, and allowing alternative gender expressions on identification and birth certificates. While the LGBTQ+ community is seeing legislative gains and political representation, there are still serious issues that need to be addressed. One of the most serious problems is the mental health crisis that is disproportionately affecting the youth of the LGBTQ+ community. 

The Hidden Enemy

caucasian hand with black nail polish on the floor with pills in her palm and on the floor.
39% of LGBTQ youth and more than half of all transgender and non-binary youth seriously considered attempting suicide.

In 2019, The Trevor Project, a suicide hotline for LGBTQ+ youth, contacted over 34,000 individuals in the United States for the largest ever survey on LGBTQ mental health. This survey gives us a better understanding of the experiences of these teens, and the picture it paints is a disturbing one. 

  • 39% of LGBTQ youth and more than half of all transgender and non-binary youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past twelve months.
  •  71% of LGBTQ youth reported feeling sad or hopeless for at least two weeks in the past year
  • 2 in 3 LGBTQ youth reported that someone has tried to convince them to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. Children and teens who have undergone conversion therapy are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide as those who did not.
  • 71% of LGBTQ youth reported discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity

Let’s Talk About It

The numbers don’t lie – LGBTQ youth are suffering. They face bias in and out of the classroom, unsupportive home environments, violence, and an uncertain political climate, all while struggling with their own identities. According to the Trevor Project, 87% of respondents said it was important to them to reach out to people with knowledge of LGBTQ issues. One way adults can help lighten their load is to serve as a safe space to process their experiences. In fact, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation says that support from caring adults is the greatest protection LGBTQ youth can have from depression and suicidal feelings. silhouette of a woman and an adolescent girl sitting on a bench facing each other with a sunset in the background.

What these young people want, more than anything, is for a trusted adult to tell them it’s okay – they’re okay – and that they’ll get through this. You can be that person for your children, their friends, and your community by remaining compassionate and open to conversation. If you notice a young person struggling, reach out to them and ask what’s going on. Something as small as checking in can show them that you’re on their team, and that can make all the difference.

Raise Your Voice

Youth engagement in American politics is at an all-time high. It’s wonderful that so many young people are inspired to speak up about issues that matter to them, but the unfortunate fact is that only having social media as a platform doesn’t always lead to true change. So while we, as adults, can’t single-handedly push congress to pass protective legislation, we can lend our voice by voting in local and national elections, with LGBTQ+ rights in mind. We can call or write to senators, state representatives, and congress demanding action for equal protections for LGBTQ+ youth and adults. Locally, you can attend board meetings and advocate for GSAs, inclusive bathroom policies, and comprehensive sex education. Attending board meetings also gives you a platform to speak up if your school is allowing hostile environments and bullying. By amplifying their voices, we can give validation to their messages, show support and solidarity, and help impact real change to improve the experiences of LGBTQ teens. 

Right now, the statistics paint a bleak picture for the future of LGBTQ youth. If we act now, with openness and compassion, we can make their future brighter.

a bunch of palms facing together with red painted on them to form a heart.

Reach Out

  • The Trevor Project: (866) 488-7386

The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people ages 13-24.

  • The National Runaway Safeline: 800-RUNAWAY (800-786-2929)

Provides advice and assistance to runaways, including resources, shelter, transportation, assistance in finding counseling, and transitioning back to home life. NRS frontline staff will also act as advocates and mediators if/as needed.

The True Colors Fund is working to end homelessness among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning youth, creating a world in which all young people can be their true selves.

  • The GLBT National Youth Talkline: (800) 246-7743

An agency that provides telephone, online private one-to-one chat and email support from youth for youth.