Any celebration of the The Advocate’s founding in 1967 must honor the heroes for LGBT rights that we’ve covered for 45 years. With one honoree named per year, the list will be announced in parts and culminate in an event in Los Angeles this month.
California Assemblyman Willie Brown successfully combined his “outrage” with his skill for political maneuvering and finally passed a bill that decriminalized gay sex with its signing in 1976. He had introduced the legislation every year since 1969.
“Passing the bill required one of the most daring — and fun — political capers I ever was involved in,” the former San Francisco mayor wrote in his memoir. “It wasn’t all political opportunism. The legislation also emerged from a sense of outrage. My outrage. The penalties didn’t affect just gays; they affected everyone.”
His commitment was all the more evident when reapportionment moved the Castro out of Brown’s district in 1971 and yet he kept fighting. The bill passed the Assembly 46-2 in 1975. But it was only approved in the Senate after conspiring with another future San Francisco mayor, George Moscone, a state senator at the time. The vote came down to 20-20 on last-minute commitments, so the lieutenant governor had to be flown back from an out-of-state trip to break the tie. Meanwhile, opposition senators were locked in the chamber so they couldn’t escape and lose quorum.
The decriminalization of homosexuality inspired backlash from a group called the Coalition of Christian Citizens that vowed to put a repeal of the law up to a statewide referendum. But it was also seen as an inspiration the LGBT rights movement across the country.
Before there was Harvey Milk, there was Elaine Noble, the first known openly gay person to ever be elected to a state legislature. Noble was the target of harassment from colleagues when she first entered the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1974, but she eventually endeared herself to her fellow representatives, and constituents alike. Her 1976 reelection campaign was a sweep, with Noble winning nearly 90% of the vote in her heavily Irish-Catholic, Boston-area district.
Noble was part of the first delegation of LGBT people to be invited to the White House for a conversation with President Jimmy Carter on gay rights in 1977. Though she did put out a staunch effort to boost gay rights in Massachusetts, Noble saw that one of the most important fights of her time in office would be to help desegregate Boston’s schools. Noble broke from other white legislators and some gay rights activists who thought she was abandoning her own people. She recruited volunteers and members of her campaign staff to ride buses with Boston’s black children to predominantly white schools to ensure their safety. Noble left the office after two terms, but her efforts did not go in vain. A decade later, Massachusetts was an early adopter to a statewide gay rights bill, and in 2003, it became the first state to legalize marriage equality.
Robin Tyler, Lucia Valeska, Phyllis Frye, and Troy Perry (pictured below, clockwise from top left) organized the first gay rights march on Washington, held in October 1979. The watermark event in LGBT history was put together by Frye, an attorney, advocate, and Texas’s first openly transgender judge, along with Valeska of the National Gay Task Force. The women were joined by Tyler, a pioneer as an openly gay comedian and longtime LGBT activist, and Perry, the founder of the gay-affirming Metropolitan Community Church in Los Angeles. The gathering drew more than 79,000 demonstrators — some organizers say it was more like 100,000 — and placed the call for gay equality on the evening news and the morning’s newspapers. Speaking at the Mall, Tyler roused the crowd: “If freedom shall ring in this country it must ring for all Americans or in time it will not ring at all for anyone.”
Biomedical researcher Robert Gallo led the team that discovered HIV, the infectious agent responsible for AIDS, back in 1984 when the disease was felling thousands of gay men. A medical researcher with the National Institute of Health, Gallo would go on to develop the first HIV blood test, which enabled doctors and nurses to screen blood for the deadly disease. His HIV breakthroughs continued through the ’90s — he discovered a natural compound known as chemokines that can block HIV and halt the progression of AIDS. “His research also helped physicians develop HIV therapies to prolong the lives of those infected with the virus,” according to the Institute of Human Virology, the health organization that Gallo founded and now directs.
Edward Albee, one of the most revered playwrights of the 20th Century talked to The Advocate about being gay, and writing gay characters in 1989. “Some of the characters in my plays are gay… and that’s fine because that’s the way life is, but gay is not a subject. Societal pressure on gay people is a subject.”
Albee, who has won a multitude of honors, including Pulitzer prizes and Tony awards, as well as the National Medal of the Arts, was the scribe behind the powerhouse play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? After a tumultuous childhood, Albee dropped out of Trinity College to live in Greenwich Village in New York City in the 1950s. After a succession of odd jobs, he completed his first dramatic work, the one-act play, The Zoo Story, which premiered in 1959. In 1962, he followed up with Virginia Woolf, which won a Tony award, but was the subject of debate from the Pulitzer committee. That year, the committee decided that no one would win the award. The Pulitzer committee later honored Albee with A Delicate Balance in 1967. After several years of success, Albee began teaching young, up-and-coming playwrights at the University of Houston in 1989, and is still writing into his eighties.
Pedro Zamora made his debut as an HIV-positive cast member in the third season of MTV’s reality show, The Real World: San Francisco. During his time on the show, which was hugely popular for the network, Zamora used the platform to educate his fellow cast mates about HIV and, vicariously through them, the rest of the world who were watching.
He went so far as to bring a scrapbook to the house with him to help show his house mates the kind of activism he did prior to the show. Zamora died shortly after the airing of the show.
In 2009, MTV and Bunim Murray, creators of The Real World, produced Pedro, a biopic written by Dustin Lance Black showing Zamora’s life from the time he left his family in Cuba up until his death.
When Tammy Baldwin won election to the U.S. House of Representatives and joined Congress in 1999, the odds were against her. Baldwin was the first woman to ever be sent to Congress from Wisconsin. And she was the first non-incumbent to run a campaign for federal office while openly gay.
“I’ve always believed that having a seat at the table matters,” Baldwin told The Advocate after announcing her newest run for office; this time, for U.S. Senate. “It matters that our legislative bodies are representative of the whole diversity of our country and of my state. Nobody checks their life experience at the door.”
Baldwin came out while serving on the Dane County Board of Supervisors. She went on to win a seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly. At every level that Baldwin has served, she argues for LGBT rights. She cofounded the LGBT Equality Caucus, fought “don’t ask, don’t tell,” advocates for marriage equality and is a cosponsor of a bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. Now the seven-term congresswoman, if elected, would become the first openly LGBT senator in history.
Actress Cynthia Nixon came out as a lesbian in 2004 after playing Miranda on HBO’s hugely popular Sex and the City. In the time since, Nixon has often spoken out on LGBT issues. She was a vocal opponent of Proposition 8 in California and made a video for Fight Back New York after the state’s marriage equality bill was shot down. In it, Nixon discussed her personal involvement in the fight against antigay state lawmakers.
When Nixon later explained in 2011 that she is bisexual, after a furor broke out because she told the New York Times that it shouldn’t matter whether being gay is a choice, Nixon told The Advocate that she will continue to be herself and to use her voice. “I believe we all have different ways we came to the gay community and we can’t and shouldn’t be pigeon-holed into one cultural narrative which can be uninclusive and disempowering,” she said. “While I don’t often use the word, the technically precise term for my orientation is bisexual. I believe bisexuality is not a choice, it is a fact. What I have ‘chosen’ is to be in a gay relationship.”
Television has helped define American culture, and television was dominated by singing contest American Idol in 2009 when Adam Lambert broke the preconceived notion of who this country could embrace.
Lambert, the glam-rocker who finished the show’s eight season as first runner-up, was the subject of an Entertainment Weekly cover story questioning whether he was gay even before the show ended. When it finally did, Lambert began learning what it is to identify as a gay man in mainstream pop music.
In his first post-Idol TV performance at the American Music Awards, Lambert stole headlines by kissing his male keyboard player. He’s become an advocate for The Trevor Project and Equality California. But his example as a reliable voice for being yourself is perhaps most important.
“I think visibility is a great tool,” he told The Advocate in a 2011 cover story. “If I’d had people in the public eye who were really up-front about it, it probably would have helped me.”