LGBTQIA+ ancestors inspire and encourage Queer people. LGBTQIA+ communities need this inspiration and encouragement, as they suffer higher rates of mental illness, often brought on by discrimination and oppression not impacting other straight and cisgender individuals.  

LGBTQIA+ ancestors can be activists who won rights and freedoms—and still fight that fight—for this community. They are a noble part of the history of LGBTQIA+ rights. The community also takes inspiration from the history of great Queer artists.

  • William Shakespeare, who is known as the English language’s greatest playwright, wrote 126 love poems to a man. Amy Lowell won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1926 and has been called the finest lesbian love poet since ancient Greece.
  • James Baldwin was one of the greatest public intellectuals of the 20th century, and his wisdom remains a touchstone today.
  • Philadelphia’s own gay philosopher and critic Alain Leroy Locke and legendary bisexual jazz vocalist Billie Holiday are a source of inspiration for many around the country and the world.
  • Lesbian artist and muralist of the Pennsylvania  Capitol building Violet Oakley made her home in Philadelphia.

Looking back at great LGBTQIA+ activists, artists and thinkers—or those that are believed to have been LGBTQIA+—boosts our pride in who Queer people can be and the things they can accomplish.

Recently I’ve been researching transgender people of the past.

  • The Chevalier D’ Eon was a diplomat, spy, and fencing master from the time of Napoleon. Assigned male at birth, she lived as a woman from the time she was 49 and successfully petitioned the English courts to be legally recognized as a woman.
  • Son of a Black father and Native American mother and assigned female at birth, Ralph Kerwineo lived his life as a man in the American Midwest more than a hundred years ago.
  • Billy Tipton, also assigned female at birth, was a great American jazz musician and bandleader through the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s who lived as a man.
  • April Ashley was a woman who transitioned in 1960 at age 25 and became a successful model in British Vogue.

Transgender people have shaped our culture for centuries. Learning about their lives can help us all see that character, bravery, and greatness are not just for cisgender and straight people. 

The burden of proof for a person to be widely understood as LGBTQIA+ is unfairly higher than that required for a historical figure to be seen as straight and cisgender, and denying the Queer past has been a way to erase and other LGBTQIA+ people for many years. For me, rediscovering people who were LGBTQIA+ in the past is a quest. I hope to help build a place for myself and all sexual and gender minorities in the world’s history and culture. 

About the Author: Andrew White is the LGBTQIA+ Community Equity Engagement Specialist for the DEI Team at DBHIDS. He also writes for the Gay and Lesbian Review.