October is LGBT History Month in the United States. When it was founded in 1994, LGBT History month celebrated contributions by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Americans, but it has since grown to celebrate the diverse spectrum of LGBTQIA communities and is inclusive of people who identify as Queer, Intersex, and Asexual as well. October was chosen as the month to celebrate LGBTQIA history because it coincides with National Coming Out Day and the Second March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987 (The Great March), which are both commemorated on October 11th.
It is worth noting some of the pioneers of LGBT history all year round, however, and we’ve shared a few brief profiles below of people and organizations that have played a big part in moving LGBTQ rights forward and helped mainstream what were once considered fringe ideas into the larger American and global culture.
Magnus Hirschfeld and Lili Elbe
Magnus Hirschfeld was an outspoken advocate for gay and transgender rights, and an out gay man who lived in Germany after the turn of the century. He established the world’s first gender identity clinic in 1920’s Berlin, the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft. The Institut housed a large archive and library on sexuality and provided educational services and a full range of mental and physical health services. He was one of the first physicians who treated Lili Elbe, an artist who became the first person to undergo gender confirmation surgery. With the rise of Nazism, Hirschfeld was forced into exile, the institute was sacked, and all the books in the library burned.
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera may be best known for their vanguard roles during the Stonewall Riots in 1969, but that is only one small part of the contributions they made to LGBTQIA health and communities. They both knew from personal experience that systemic poverty and racism can have health impacts on an entire community, and together in 1972 co-founded STAR House, a shelter to support youth who were being forgotten and left behind by the larger cisgender and white movements of the time. Marsha died in 1992 under suspicious circumstances that were at first ruled a suicide, the investigation into her death has recently been reopened as a possible homicide. Her story is a reminder of the high risk of violence against trans people, and especially trans women of color, that still exists to this day.
Sara Josephine Baker made many contributions to public health during her lifetime but is probably best known for her role in tracking down Mary Mallon, the infamous Typhoid Mary. She graduated second in her class at the New York Infirmary Medical College in 1898 and soon went to work studying mortality in New York City’s slums, with a focus on infant mortality. Baker invented a safe infant formula that allowed mothers to work to support their families, and designed a container made with antibiotic beeswax for keeping medication doses from becoming contaminated. During World War I, Baker pointed out that babies born in the US had a higher mortality rate than soldiers in France and was able to use the publicity from her comment to start a lunch program for school children. Dr. Baker lived for many years with novelist Ida A.R. Wylie and fellow health professional Louise Pearce and is known to have described herself as a woman-oriented woman.
ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power)
ACT-Up was formed in March of 1987 at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York in response to the inadequate response by the US government to the AIDS crisis. ACT-Up organized visible protests and acts of civil disobedience to demand transparent, expedited, and accessible drug trials for people living with HIV. Just a few of the places they successfully protested include the FDA, Wall Street, and the CDC. They successfully partnered with the very people they protested to pioneer more transparent and effective drug trials, and, at great personal cost, brought wider attention to one of the greatest health crises in modern times.
Louise Pearce was an American pathologist from Winchester, Massachusetts, who helped to develop a treatment for African Sleeping Sickness. She traveled to the Belgian Congo in 1920 where she designed a drug testing protocol for human trials to test the safety and effectiveness of tryparsamide. Her trial proved successful at combating the fatal disease with a recovery rate of 80% compared to nearly 100% fatality without treatment. She received the Order of the Crown of Belgium and the Royal Order of the Lion for her work. Pearce was also successful at developing treatment protocols to treat syphilis with tryparsamide before antibiotics. She spent much of the rest of her career studying cancer in animals. Pearce lived with fellow health professional Dr. S. Josephine Baker and with novelist Ida A. R. Wylie. They were all members of a heterodoxy feminist book club with many other members who were known to be lesbian or bisexual.
Alan L. Hart
Alan Hart was a physician, radiologist, and tuberculosis researcher who pioneered the use of x-ray photography for tuberculosis detection. Born Lucille Hart in 1890, Alan’s family allowed him to present as a boy until starting school at age 12. He attended Lewis and Clark College and Stanford before receiving his medical degree from the University of Oregon (now Oregon Health and Science University). His medical degree was issued to his birth name, which would cause credentialing issues when he presented as male to future employers. Hart was one of the first Americans to undergo transition surgery and legally change his name and gender. He would later become one of the first individuals to use testosterone as part of his transition. Hart and his wife, Edna, settled in New England, where his work on early diagnosis of TB helped to cut the death rate substantially before the introduction of antibiotics.