Hidden History: Female Activism in the LGBTQ+ Movement

From the Stonewall Uprising to the HIV/AIDS Crisis, women have always been at the forefront of the fight for LGBTQ+ equality. However, their activism has often been overlooked or forgotten entirely. In this blog article, we shine a light on them.

The story of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising has been told, and retold, countless times. Tired of harassment, patrons of the Stonewall Inn threw bricks and bottles at the police after the bar was raided unexpectedly. The rebellion is viewed as the beginning of the modern-day LGBTQ+ rights movement, but what is often forgotten are the women who incited it. 

It remains unclear who threw the first brick at Stonewall, but numerous eyewitnesses have identified either Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992) or Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002) - both trans women of colour - as the instigator. One man, Robert Heide, remembered, “I just saw her [Johnson] in the middle of the whole thing, screaming and yelling and throwing rocks … she was the person who really started it.” Rivera did identify a group of “street queens*,” including herself and Johnson, as inciting the uprising, but noted that she wasn’t the first to throw something at the police. She did admit, however, to throwing the second Molotov cocktail. 

We may never know for sure who threw the first brick, but it remains clear that the LGBTQ+ community owes their fight for equality to trans women. We must honour the legacy, and fearless activism, of these women when celebrating LGBTQ+ History Month and Pride Month, especially because their contribution has often been overlooked. This included at Christopher Street Liberation Day - held on the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising – where trans women were discouraged from attending, and even banned from speaking. Undeterred by this, Rivera declared to the crowd, “If it wasn’t for the drag queen, there would be no gay liberation movement. We’re the front-liners.”  

A decade later, the LGBTQ+ community faced a new crisis, and female activists once again came to the fore. Reports of a new virus, killing almost exclusively gay and bisexual men, emerged in 1981. With little known about this ‘gay cancer,’ fear spread rapidly amongst medical staff. Pathologists refused to perform post-mortems on AIDS patients, and nurses burnt their bedsheets after use. One former patient recalled that “Nurses didn’t even touch a patient’s notes (which had ‘Infectious’ written at the top) without gloves.” 

Outside of the hospital walls, groups like ACT UP campaigned for adequate treatment and compassionate care of AIDS patients. Inside, lesbian and bisexual ‘Blood Sisters’ flooded wards to voluntarily care for their queer brothers. One gay man remembered, “Suddenly, the hospitals were full of lesbians who were volunteering. Volunteering to go into those rooms and help my friends who were dying. I remember being so moved by them because gay men hadn’t been too kind to lesbians. We’d call them ‘fish’ and make fun of the butch dykes in the bars – and yet, there they were.” 

More than simply donating their time, many women also donated their blood. In the wake of blood donation bans on gay and bisexual men*, community groups like the London Lesbian Line encouraged women to become donors “to provide an undeniable community service (and point out that gay men are being missed by the Transfusion service).” To honour the activism of lesbian and bisexual women during the HIV/AIDS Crisis, the community officially altered their identifying acronym – then GLBT – to begin with ‘L.’ 

It’s so important to recognise the fearless female activists of the LGBTQ+ movement – from instigating change, to sustaining the community through crisis. Their stories should not remain hidden. 

* The term ‘transgender’ was not used at this time. ‘Street Queen’ or ‘Drag Queen’ were more common.
* In the UK, a lifetime ban was placed on gay and bisexual men donating blood in 1985. This was only repealed in 2021.