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.
Jerry Joachim was among the founders of The Advocate. The now internationally known magazine is celebrating its 45th anniversary of covering LGBT lives. But it began as a newsletter for a group called PRIDE, an acronym for Personal Rights in Defense and Education, and Joachim was its president. The newsletter evolved in September 1967 into a local LGBT newspaper called The Los Angeles Advocate. Joachim hosted a meeting between LGBT groups and local police in his own home and the forum was announced in the first issue, promising that “a complete account of what went on” would come in the next issue. And so began The Advocate’s reporting on the LGBT movement.
While many of us associate the 1960s and 1970s with sexual liberation, mainstream films were still fairly buttoned up. But Pat Rocco made gay films when no one else dared take the risk.
His homocentric, erotic love stories and were the first films of their kind to be shown in public movie theaters.
Yet while the prolific gay beefcake photographer was defining modern male erotic film, Rocco in his spare time was documenting the fledgling gay rights movement. Rocco was behind the scenes, often working with his friends at The Los Angeles Advocate as a photographer capturing early pride festivals, rallies, and other historically important events from which images are rare. Rocco wasn’t always behind the camera, though. He became the first official president of Christopher Street West Association, the organization behind Los Angeles’s pride festival, and he helped launch the first festival in 1974.
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.
When Frank Kameny was dismissed from the Army Map Service in 1957 because he was gay, it started a long argument.
In 1961 a lawsuit that Kameny filed arrived at the U.S. Supreme Court, decades before it even declared sodomy laws unconstitutional in Lawrence v. Texas. It was also the year he cofounded the Mattachine Society of Washington, which lobbied aggressively for gay rights. Kameny picketed the White House in 1965, the first time a demonstration was ever held there by LGBT rights supporters. And in 1969 he testified before the Department of Defense, delivering a speech titled “We Throw Down the Gauntlet” that propelled his charge against “the de facto denial of security clearances to homosexuals as a class or group.”
The next year, 1970, when Kameny was still speaking out, it was clear he would never stop. People praised Kameny when in 1973 the American Psychological Association stopped classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder, which had been used as an excuse by the military to deny gays and lesbians the right to serve. It seemed people might start agreeing with Kameny, that “Gay Is Good.”
But it wasn’t until 2009 when the Civil Service that had once kicked him out finally issued a formal apology. When President Obama signed a repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2010, Kameny was among the honored guests. So many contributed to that moment, but Kameny set it in motion.
Kameny died just weeks after the repeal went into effect and gays and lesbians began serving openly in the military.
“Never forget that we are American citizens, with all that is implied by those two words, as well as homosexuals, whatever you may think is implied by that word,” he said during that 1969 hearing. “We stand our ground. We throw down the gauntlet.”
In 1970, Jack Baker (left) and his partner Michael McConnell became the first-ever same-sex couple to apply for a marriage license, despite being turned away. 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 them 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 continued to grow with a hotline, and by providing counseling services to the people who needed it. He also sought to grow a library of periodicals, books, and other resources for LGBT people to better understand their history and rights.
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.
A diva of the genre before the term “reality television” had been invented, the vivacious and lovably over-the-top Lance Loud made history when he came out as gay on the groundbreaking PBS documentary series An American Family in 1973. An instant gay icon, Loud went on to front the new wave band the Mumps, which became a staple of Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs during the clubs’ heyday. With an irrepressible personality and a tendency toward performance, Loud became a contemporary of Warhol superstars Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn and went on to become a celebrated columnist for the The Advocate as well as Details, Interview, and Creem.
Loud died in 2001, but his legacy as a pioneer and true advocate lives on. HBO’s Emmy-nominated film Cinema Verite, a behind-the-scenes look at An American Family, premiered in 2011 and starred Diane Lane, James Gandolfini, Tim Robbins, and Thomas Dekker as Lance, whose coming-out figured prominently in the film.
—Tracy E. Gilchrist
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.
On September 22, 1975, a 33-year-old former Vietnam veteran named Oliver Sipple saw Sara Jane Moore pointing a gun at President Gerald Ford outside a San Francisco hotel. Sipple lunged at Moore and the bullet missed its target, instead hitting and slightly injuring a taxi driver. For saving the leader of the free world, Sipple was branded a hero, but the story got complicated when the media discovered he was gay. The press picked up the angle and the news caused major friction between Sipple and his family — he would later unsuccessfully sue several newspapers for invasion of privacy.
In a 2001 interview, Ford denied giving a fig about Sipple’s sexual orientation, but after the assassination attempt the president simply sent a thank-you letter to Sipple — no ceremony, no award, no phone call.
Dave Kopay tried to fit the profile of a squeaky-clean, all-American football player, and for the most part, he did. Kopay was a star at Notre Dame High School in Los Angeles and was recruited to play at the University of Washington. As co-captain of the Huskies, Kopay led his team to the Pac-10 conference title, and he was named an All-American running back. Kopay was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in 1964, and led the team in rushing yards in his rookie year. He dated girls and even married a woman, but Kopay knew he was gay.
Kopay was later recruited by the Washington Redskins under legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi, whose brother was gay. The team’s assistant general manager and the sport’s information director were also gay. Kopay had dated tight end Jerry Smith, a 13-year veteran of the Redskins who later died due to AIDS in the 1980s.
Kopay retired in 1973. Two years later, a frustrated Kopay read an anonymously sourced article about gay athletes and decided it was time. He became the first NFL player to come out and gave an interview to The Advocate in 1976. He later wrote The David Kopay Story, a best-seller in 1977. Though he did apply for coaching jobs in the NFL and college football, Kopay said he largely believes he was turned away because of his sexual orientation.
Since then, Kopay has been working in his family’s business while remaining a voice for gay athletes. Only a handful of professional athletes have come out since Kopay, but his story endures as more young athletes look to his example and guidance in their own coming out.
Harvey Milk won election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in November 1977, becoming the first openly gay official elected to anything of any significance in the United States, 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 introduced a successful 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 on June 25, 1978 to a giant crowd, calling on them 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.”
When Harvey Milk was assassinated, it was Dianne Feinstein who found his body. She announced to the public that he and San Francisco mayor George Moscone had been killed by former city supervisor Dan White.
“There was a bullet hole through Harvey,” Feinstein told The Advocate in 1998, describing the horrific scene she discovered. “I put my finger on his wrist to try to get a pulse. I knew he was dead. It was a terrible, terrible moment.”
Feinstein, who took over for Moscone as San Francisco mayor in 1978, memorably eulogized both of the fallen leaders. Then she set about calming and uniting the city after White was given a light sentence and riots broke out.
The tragedy changed the course of her life, and Feinstein went on to become one of the LGBT community’s strongest allies. She is now California’s senior U.S. senator and was among the few, for example, to oppose the Defense of Marriage Act when it was proposed in 1996. Feinstein has introduced the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal DOMA if passed by Congress.
— Lucas Grindley
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.”
California governor Jerry Brown, in his second run for president, appealed explicitly to LGBT voters. He called himself a “comrade in arms” in their movement. And Brown had certainly used his political career to further extend rights in California, in 1976 signing a repeal of a law that had criminalized homosexuality and in 1979 appointing the first openly gay judge in the United States. Brown had also spoken out in 1978 against the Briggs Initiative, which would have made it legal to fire any school official or teacher who openly favored gay rights. During his newest term as California governor, he signed a law in 2011 requiring the history of the LGBT rights movement to be included in school curricula. “History should be honest,” he said in a statement after signing the law.
Billie Jean King first exploded onto the tennis scene in the 1960s, winning her first Wimbledon title during her first doubles tournament, and then 20 more Wimbledon titles by the end of the 1970s. In 1971, she was the first female athlete to win more than $100,000 for winning a match, but King knew it was wrong that she and other female players were generally paid less than male players.
She fought Bobby Riggs, one of the top-ranked U.S. players of the 1930s and 1940s to take a stand against sexism and unequal pay in one of the most famed and storied tennis matches of her life, the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes.” Though Riggs was past his prime at that point, he claimed that the women’s game was inferior, striking a nerve with King. She trounced him, in a tennis match watched by 50 million people around the world. Three years later, King became the first president of the Women’s Tennis Association.
King was well accomplished by the arrival of the 1980s, when a palimony lawsuit from a former lover suddenly put her personal life in the spotlight. King, who was married, was having an affair with her assistant. King beat the lawsuit, but it still cost millions in endorsements and lead to a divorce. Despite all she had lost and left to lose, the tennis star decided to host a press conference in 1981 against her lawyer’s wishes to admit to the affair. Now she is one of the most vocal proponents of LGBT people and women in sports from the school level, up to the pros.
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.”
Just as AIDS began to ravage New York City in 1981, Sheryl Lee Ralph starred in the original production of the Broadway smash Dreamgirls. That time in her life would be formative, as she watched many of her gay friends succumb to AIDS. Ralph soon became one of the earliest celebrity HIV activists, with her work chronicled in a 1983 edition of The Advocate. The actress — who would move on to roles in Moesha and Barbershop — has raised millions for HIV charities through her DIVA Foundation and her Divas Simply Singing events. While many have turned their back on AIDS-related work, Ralph continues to shout from the rooftops.
“A young man called me up yesterday to say, ‘Miss Ralph, you told me to take the test … and I’m positive,’” Ralph told us recently. “That call has never changed over 30 years — the same fear, the same apprehension.”
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.
David Goodstein, the influential former publisher of The Advocate, died in 1985 after transforming the local Los Angeles newspaper he had bought into a national newsmagazine covering the LGBT rights movement.
Goodstein’s career seemed set after he founded a computerized investment company and then joined Wells Fargo Bank, which Goodstein said fired him when executives realized he was gay. Goodstein used outrage and his financial success on Wall Street to help fund a long list of causes for the expansion of LGBT rights. He bought The Advocate; founded the Whitman-Radclyffe Foundation, a gay rights organization devoted to educating the public; and he cofounded the group Concerned Voters of California to defeat a proposed law that would have banned supporters of gay rights from teaching or working in schools.
Goodstein is the creator of the Advocate Experience, a weeklong empowerment conference for gays and lesbians, a central mission of his life.
Director Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts got the attention of Sundance in 1986, but it still has the affection of lesbians who were moved by its love scenes. The independent film portrayed intimacy between two women with such reality that it changed the filmmaking that followed. When The L Word on Showtime was taped, it was required viewing for each actress. The movie tells the story of an uptight university professor who is romanced by a younger casino worker. Deitch won the Outfest Achievement Award in 2008 for that and her continued excellence in portraying LGBT themes, including during Emmy-nominated miniseries The Women of Brewster Place.
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 co-founded 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 inaction on the disease. His semi-autobiographical chronicle of the AIDS fight, A 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, entitled The American People: A History.
Sir Ian McKellen came out as gay at age 49, in 1988, while debating on a radio show. McKellen and other, were fighting to stop legislation called Section 28 from becoming law in the United Kingdom. It prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” through gay-themed books, films, and artwork in libraries and schools. It passed in Parliament but was repealed in 2003.
McKellen went on to help found the British LGBT rights group Stonewall UK. He regularly visits schools when asked to advise on how to handle antigay bullying. And he sometimes talks to students during the visits and reflects on his years as an actor and activist. If he tells the story of coming out, McKellen might describe it as he did once in a newspaper op-ed about Section 28. “A bit late in the day, but it remains the best thing I ever did,” he wrote.
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 Who’s Afraid of 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.
Bill T. Jones’s choreography has been performed all over the world, often by the dance company he founded in 1982 with his late partner Arnie Zane, who died of AIDS in 1988. Jones himself has been HIV-positive since 1985, never hiding the diagnosis. After Zane’s death, Jones choreographed a tribute to his partner. And in 1990, Jones was on the cover of The Advocate urging gay men to never stop loving.
Jones’s provocative piece Still/Here drew attention in 1994 to the casualties of the AIDS pandemic. In it, dancers wearing blood-red costumes moved against a backdrop of projected images of the people Jones had met while leading “Survival Workshops” across the country.
Jones is writer and director of Fela! and the recipient of many major awards, including two Tonys and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, also known as the “genius” grant. With all that audiences have seen of him, Jones still told The Advocate in 2009, “I am mystery to myself and I am certainly not an open book to you.”
When Patricia Ireland became president of the National Organization for Women in 1991, The Advocate praised her as “America’s Most Powerful Woman.” That was the headline on the cover story in which Ireland came out as bisexual in an interview that same year.
For her part, Ireland avoided labels of her influence or her relationships, saying, “The words I use are the words I use.”
Ireland was already well known as a guiding voice for lesbian rights through her work with NOW in Florida. During her 10 years running NOW and those that would follow, Ireland has fought antigay ballot initiatives, been arrested in front of the White House for protesting the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and she helped organize the 1993 March on Washington for Gay, Lesbian and Bi Civil Rights. “I am not the exception to the rule,” Ireland wrote in her memoir of the realization that propelled her into activism on behalf of women. “I fall into an oppressed category, and I damn well don’t like it.”
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 absolute 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
For any liberal person following politics in the early 1990s, Republican U.S. senator Jesse Helms was center stage as the villain, fighting against many liberal causes including the National Endowment for the Arts. Despite the North Carolinian’s looming presence, and over his protest, the U.S. Senate confirmed Roberta Achtenberg as the highest-ranking openly gay person to serve in any presidential administration up to that time.
President Bill Clinton nominated her in 1993 as the assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Helms launched an intense campaign against Helms, even calling her a “damn lesbian” who had a vendetta against the Boy Scouts, because she was part of a group that condemned the organization for not admitting gay and bisexual members. Prior to her confirmation, the Christian Action Network distributed videos to each senator, showing Achtenberg and her partner, Mary Morgan, embracing at a gay pride parade. Eventually, however, Achtenberg was approved with a 58-31 vote. She later moved up to senior adviseor to HUD secretary Henry Cisneros.
Achtenberg’s roots are in California, where she now serves on the board of trustees of the California State University system and as a director of the Bank of San Francisco and the San Francisco-based software company Andrew J. Wong Inc. Previously, Achtenberg was a senior policy adviser for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the San Francisco Center for Economic Development, and was on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. She also practiced law with Equal Rights Advocates and was a founder of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. In 2011, Achtenberg was appointed by another president — Barack Obama — to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
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.
Light played Jeanne White in the 1989 TV movie The Ryan White Story, which chronicled the life of a young boy who became a face of HIV/AIDS at a time when stigma and discrimination against people with HIV was rampant. In the soapy dramedy Ugly Betty, Light played media matriarch Claire Meade, mother of Rebecca Romijn’s transgender character, Alexis. She’s even credited with helping former Who’s the Boss? co-star Danny Pintauro to come out.
Off screen, Light has tirelessly raised funds and awareness for LGBT rights, as well as HIV. She has been aligned with several philanthropic and activist organizations like Broadway Cares; Equity Fights AIDS, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the Hetrick Martin School, and dozens of others.
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.
Shepard, beaten and left for dead the night of October 6 because he was gay, was found the next day in a remote spot outside Laramie, Wyo., and he died October 12. Aaron McKinney and accomplice Russell Henderson were convicted of the crime and are serving prison sentences. During the trial, McKinney used a “gay panic” defense, claiming Shepard came on to him and that triggered the violence, putting his antigay bias unashamedly on public display.
It wasn’t until 2009 that Congress finally passed and President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act that made what McKinney and Henderson did a federal crime.
The president gave Shepard’s mother a kiss on the cheek after signing the bill, saying, “I promised Judy Shepard when she saw me in the Oval Office that this day would come.” She and her husband, Dennis, had fought a long fight to pass inclusive hate-crimes legislation in honor of their son and to protect those like him.
“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.
New York City fire department chaplain Mychal Judge, who his coworkers learned was gay after his death, symbolizes those who risked their lives to help others. The Franciscan friar died while helping victims at the World Trade Center. Helping others is what he had always done, working with the homeless or AIDS patients, plus victims of the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800.
Mark Bingham made it clear that the hijackers picked the wrong flight with United 93, and the bravery of he and fellow passengers has changed every flight since. In addition to a judo instructor, a weightlifter, a one-time paratrooper, and a former college quarterback, the 6-foot-4 gay rugby player Bingham was on board. The 31-year-old San Francisco public relations entrepreneur was one of the those who stormed the cabin, preventing the al-Qaeda terrorists from slamming United 93 into either the U.S. Capitol or the White House. Bingham and the other rebels on that flight saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.
-Neal Broverman, Lucas Grindley
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.”
After he became bishop, the church threatened to split apart over the election. Robinson held forums at Episcopal churches all over the country so people who were uncomfortable or angry could ask questions. But Robinson’s ascension to bishop set off a conversation about the role of LGBT people in all churches, not just his own. All the while, through heated debate and repeated death threats, Robinson insisted he was doing God’s work.
“As long as I’ve got the attention of the world’s media,” Robinson told The Advocate in 2003, “I’m going to use it for the church and I’m going to use it for God.”
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.”
When Melissa Etheridge was named The Advocate’s Person of the Year in 1995, she admitting knowing why: “I’m sort of a gay success story.” Etheridge came out during President Clinton’s inaugural ball and went on to sell hit records.”What happened to me is exactly the opposite of what closeted people fear: They think they’ll lose everything if they come out. This did not happen to me at all. In fact, everything came back tenfold.” Then when Etheridge publicly fought breast cancer in 2005 and won, her story once again became a tale of hope. “Let my life have been an inspiration to anyone — gay, straight, breast cancer, woman, mother — any human being,” she said after her star was added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2011. “Believe in your dreams, my friends, believe because they do come true.”
The gay romance told in Brokeback Mountain was so intimate it almost never got made. Agents pushed their actors away from the script. Common wisdom in Hollywood was homophobic and had always assumed roles like these could derail promising careers. That’s why two up-and-coming young actors willing to play the roles of cowboys Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, who were locked in a secret affair in the Wyoming mountains, were repeatedly called “brave.”
The late Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were both nominated for Academy Awards for their performances. The movie was a Best Picture nominee. All of them lost while Ang Lee won for Best Director and the screenplay and music took home Oscars.
It’s a testament to what they accomplished, though, that the next time a gay romance comes along with two buzzed about young actors in the lead roles, it’s unlikely the actors will be commended for their courage.
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.”
Dustin Lance Black writes about people who have changed the world and manages to change it all over again.
Black won an Academy Award in 2008 for Best Original Screenplay after his biopic Milk reminded the world of Harvey Milk’s perseverance on behalf of LGBT people and his assassination for trying. Black also wrote a screenplay about Pedro Zamora, who changed opinions of the MTV generation by sharing his experiences as an HIV-positive gay man in a reality show.
Now Black is a founding board member for the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is challenging California’s Proposition 8 as unconstitutional. Black wrote a play, called 8, about what happened as LGBT activists fought the law in court. A cadre of Hollywood’s brightest stars joined in readings in New York and Los Angeles, and now the show is headed to states where same-sex marriage bans are on the ballot. As before, Black’s work has taken something too few people had noticed and given it a bigger stage.
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.”
The public has followed Chaz Bono since birth, really. He was born Chastity Son Bono in 1969 to very famous parents, Sonny and Cher. And on the day in 2010 that he legally changed his name and gender the TV cameras were there once again. A documentary about his transition called Becoming Chaz aired on Oprah Winfrey’s network, and a memoir titled Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man told his story so others couldn’t do it for him.
Bono sensed, or hoped, the public was finally ready for a story like his. But he has since become a lightning rod for attacks on transgender people, heightened by his casting on the family-friendly, prime-time reality show, Dancing With The Stars. “All I can do is share my experience, and you’re either going to relate to it or not,” Bono told The Advocate in a 2011 cover story before the show. “It wasn’t my job to make other people feel OK about this. It was time to take care of myself. When that clicked it was full steam ahead.”
When “don’t ask, don’t tell” was finally repealed in 2011 and troops began serving openly, many thought of Army National Guard Lt. Dan Choi. For one thing, he’d already caused a ruckus when trying to reenlist.
Numerous soldiers had spoken out, groups had formed to fight for DADT repeal, but Choi knew how to make an impression, whether speaking at rallies or being arrested for handcuffing himself to the gates of the White House in protest. It began when he went on The Rachel Maddow Show in 2009 and came out.
“Only an unflinching commitment to improve the lives of others can determine the nature of one’s service,” Choi said after the military announced it would honorably discharge him 17 months later.
Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts is the first openly gay member of Congress to come out voluntarily, and ever since he has been a lightning rod for antigay rhetoric. Never one to just take a punch without punching back, Frank’s blunt take on politics didn’t make him any less of a target. But that same style combined with know-how got things done for LGBT rights.
To name a few, Frank helped pass a hate crimes bill, he is a founder of the Stonewall Democrats, and he hired a senior legislative assistant who become the first openly transgender Hill staffer in 2009. His critics claim he pushes the “gay agenda,” an accusation which Frank proudly replied to after repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” was signed by the president in 2010, saying the agenda is “to be protected against violent crimes driven by bigotry, it’s to be able to get married, it’s to be able to get a job, and it’s to be able to fight for our country. For those who are worried about the radical homosexual agenda, let me put them on notice. Two down, two to go.”
Frank, the highest-ranking openly gay member of Congress, came out after the late Gerry Studds of Massachusetts. Studds was forced to come out while Frank was the first member of Congress to come out voluntarily. He talks now about starting work in 1971 at age 31, a year before being elected to the Massachusetts state House, worried that someone would learn his secret.
“I spent nights and weekends alone and terrified that someone would find out that I was gay,” said Frank in an It Gets Better video. “I didn’t have the courage to be honest about my sexuality until I was 47 years old, I’d been a member of Congress for six years.” But Frank understands the value of coming out at any age, even while downplaying the weight of his own decision. “I have enormous admiration for people who do that now when they’re in their teens and are not in some ways insulated from the prejudice,” Frank said. “So for those who do that, I thank you, because you’ve helped make this world better or all of us.”
Frank is retiring from Congress in 2012 after 16 terms.