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Lesbians and Bisexual Women in History

Lesbians From the Past Who Made a Difference

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These lesbian and bisexual women lived in a time where it was not as easy to be out and proud. These women paved the path that we walk on today.

1. Gertrude "Ma" Rainey

Gertrude "Ma" Rainey
Ma Rainey was known as the Mother of the Blues. Even though she was married to Pa Rainey, Ma Rainey did nothing to hide her love of women. In 1928 she recorded "Prove it on Me Blues," which makes no secret of her relationships with women.

2. Mabel Hampton

Mabel Hampton
© Lesbian Herstory Archives
Mabel Hampton, a Black lesbian pioneer inspired many during her 87 year stay on this planet. One of her early jobs was dancing in an all women’s troupe that performed on Coney Island. For Hampton the 1920's were a time of dancing in all black productions. In 1984 Mabel Hampton addressed the crowds at New York City’s pride parade. She said "I, Mabel Hampton, have been a lesbian all my life, for 82 years, and I am proud of myself and my people. I would like all my people to be free in this country and all over the world, my gay people and my black people."

3. Barbara Gittings

Barbara Gittings
© credit Kay Tobin Lahusen/Stonewall Productions
Barbara Gittings was a Lesbian and Gay Rights Pioneer. Barbara Gittings helped organize gay rights demonstrations in front of the White House and in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 1965 to protest federal employment discrimination.

4. Jane Addams

Photo:Lewis Wickes Hine (Library of Congress)
Jane Addams was a Nobel Peace Prize winner and perhaps the most famous social worker from the United States. She was also the lover of women and lived in a Boston Marriage with another woman.

5. Gladys Bentley

Gladys Bentley
Gladys Bentley has an interesting story. Back in the 1920s she was a popular performer in Harlem. She was out and proud butch or "bulldagger" and openly flirted with women. Later, in the 1950s, as McCarthyism swept the country, Gladys Bentley tried to clean up her act to save her career. In 1952 she published an article in Ebony magazine claiming, "I am a woman again."

6. Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon are married in 2008
© Getty Images
In 2004 and 2008, Del and Phyllis were the poster children for same-sex marriage in California. In 2004, they were the first couple married when Mayor Gavin Newsom declared that same sex marriages be allowed in San Francisco. They were married again June of 2008 when the California Supreme Court declared banning of same-sex marriage unconstitutional. They were authors and activists, starting the first lesbian organization in 1955.

More about Phyllis Lyon.

More about Del Martin

7. Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Although it is hard to "out" people after their deaths, there is much evidence to believe that Eleanor Roosevelt was bisexual or lesbian. The First Lady, wife to FDR, was known as "First Lady to the World" and had a long-standing relationship with another woman.

8. Lilli Vincenz

Lilli Vincenz
courtesy of Lilli Vincenz
Lilli Vincenz was one of the early founders of the modern gay rights movement in the United States. She was the only female member of the early gay-rights group The DC Mattachine Society. She joined the army in the 1950s because she heard there were lesbians there and was then discharged for being gay. She remembers the police gay bar raids and help organize early gay rights demonstrations.

9. Jerre Kalbas

Jerre Kalbas
© Cathy Renna
Jerre Kalbas had just celebrated her 90th birthday when she spoke to Lesbian Life. She recounts her early life, struggling with her attraction to women and how she eventually found her community.

10. Barbara Gittings

Pioneer Gay rights activist Barbara Gittings at the first homosexual rights demonstration 1965.
credit Kay Tobin Lahusen/Stonewall Productions
Barbara Gittings helped form the New York City chapter of Daughters of Bilitis, lesbian social organization formed in San Francisco in 1955.

 

11. Barbara Jordan

Barbara Jordan Stamps
© Kathy Belge
Barbara Jordan was an accomplished politician from Texas. Although she was in a long-term relationship with another woman for more than 20 years, she never publicly came out. It was only after her death in 1996 that the press reported about her sexual orientation

 

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