To the lesbians who have come before us and paved the way, the lesbians today who are making waves, and the younger lesbians who will lead the future – we see you, commend you, and celebrate you. Today we’re highlighting some badass, historical LGBTQIA women trailblazers you maybe don’t know, but should.
Tallulah Bankhead (1902–1968)
Tallulah Bankhead was an American bisexual actor. Bankhead was undeniably talented, but was known for being outspoken and vulgar at a time when many actresses were expected to be demure. In 1933, Bankhead nearly died following a radical hysterectomy to cure an STI. Afterward, she said to her doctor, "Don't think this has taught me a lesson!"
Gladys Bentley (1907–1960)
Gladys Bentley (stage name, Bobbie Minton) was a blues singer during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s. She would appear on stage as an openly lesbian drag king, dressed in a white tuxedo with bobbed hair slicked back. Bentley was a pioneer in challenging the boundaries of gender and sexuality with parody. She accompanied herself on the piano as she sang parodies of popular songs that ranged from risqué to obscene.
Roberta Cowell (1918–2011)
Roberta Cowell was a British World War II fighter pilot and Grand Prix racing driver who was born male and became (in 1951) one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery. After her surgery, she was no longer allowed to compete in Grand Prix racing. However, she continued to be active in motor racing and won the 1957 Shelsley Walsh Speed Hill Climb.
Barbara Gittings (1932–2007)
Barbara Gittings organized the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), served as editor of DOB's magazine and helped organize the first gay rights protests at the White House and the State Department. Gittings and Frank Kameny later led the efforts that resulted in homosexuality being removed from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental disorders.
Audre Lorde (1934–1992)
As a self-professed “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde fought injustices against the marginalized, confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. Throughout the mid-20th century, her revered literary works encouraged readers to see differences in race or class as a reason for celebration. Despite many trying to silence her, she fearlessly embraced her identities.