Pride Month is a time to reflect on the trailblazers, freedom fighters, and history makers who fought valiantly to increase inclusion and representation for the LGBTQ community, and who have paved a way for a better tomorrow for future generations.
In Part Three of our four-part series celebrating Champions of Pride, we honor some of the leaders who have played a major role in LGBTQ+ history.
The Activist: Ruth Ellis (1899 – 2000)
Born in Springfield, Illinois, in 1899, Ruth Ellis was the child of two former slaves. Despite a challenging upbringing — she survived the turmoil and upheaval of the 1908 Springfield Race Riots (where a mob of thousands attacked the small Black community Ellis and her family called home) — Ellis is said to have possessed an incredibly joyous and exuberant spirit. And she excelled in everything that she did. She came out as a lesbian at age 16, in an era where such a thing was virtually unheard of. She earned a high school diploma at a time when just 7% of Black students were graduating. And in 1936, she met the love of her life — and future partner of 34 years — Ceciline “Babe” Franklin.
One year into their relationship, Ellis and Franklin moved to Detroit and opened their own offset printing business. The pair of entrepreneurs did well, and they shared their success with their community, turning their home into what they ultimately dubbed the “Gay Spot.” From the mid-1940s until the early 1970s, Ellis and Franklin regularly welcomed young queer individuals into the space, giving them a place to congregate and gather when they were turned away from local clubs and bars. Years before the Stonewall Riots or the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, the pair had already begun the tireless fight for inclusion and the advancement of Black and LGBTQ rights and equality.
Franklin passed away in 1973, but Ellis continued on in her honor, helping lesbians of color research their roots, creating her own variation on the Big Brothers, Big Sisters mentorship program (pairing younger and older lesbians and gays as social companions), and more. In 1999, when Ellis had reached the age of 100, her extraordinary life was even chronicled in the acclaimed documentary “Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100.” That same year, officials in the city of Detroit also helped found the Ruth Ellis Center, an organization that lives on to this day promoting the ideas Ellis championed throughout her remarkable trailblazing life.
In her own words: “I never thought about hiding who I was. I guess I didn’t go around telling everybody I was a lesbian, but I wasn’t lying about it either. If anyone asked me, I’d tell them the truth, but it wasn’t the sort of thing people talked about much.”
The Representative: Barbara Jordan (1936 – 1996)
Born in a poor rural neighborhood outside of Houston, Texas, Barbara Jordan seemed destined for a life in politics from an early age. A lover of language and debate, she began her professional career campaigning to help get John F. Kennedy elected as president, managing a highly organized get-out-the-vote program throughout the city’s primarily Black election precincts. Inspired by her efforts with JFK’s campaign, Jordan decided to enter politics herself, running for the Texas House of Representatives in both 1962 and 1964. Although she lost both elections, she ran again in 1966 — this time for the Texas Senate — and won, becoming not only the first Black state senator in the U.S. since 1883 but also the first Black woman ever elected to the chamber.
Following a successful stint in state politics, in 1972, Jordan was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where she became the first woman ever elected to represent Texas in the nation’s capital. An eloquent speaker known for her ability to successfully get meaningful legislation passed, Jordan sponsored or co-sponsored more than 70 bills during her time in D.C., the majority of which were aimed at supporting minorities and the underprivileged.
Although she was never officially “out” as a lesbian, the respected lawmaker made no secret of her longtime relationship with Nancy Earl, an educational psychologist she met on a camping trip in the late ‘60s. When Jordan’s health began to deteriorate in the ‘90s as a result of multiple sclerosis and leukemia, Earl served as her primary companion and caregiver. At her funeral in 1996, President Clinton reflected on Jordan’s incredible life saying, “Whenever she stood to speak, she jolted the nation’s attention with her artful and articulate defense of the Constitution, the American Dream, and the common heritage and destiny we share, whether we like it or not.”
In her own words: “I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included in ‘We, the people.’”
The Pioneer: Sylvia Rivera (1951 – 2002)
Like her close friend Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera is often considered one of the founders of the modern LGBTQ+ equality movement. But like all great leaders of any movement, it took time for her to reach her legendary status.
Born in New York City in 1951, Rivera recognized her true gender identity early in life at a time when such realizations didn’t come easily. By the fourth grade, she was wearing makeup to school and embracing her feminine qualities. Bullied relentlessly by a family that didn’t support her or her expressed identity, she left home and at the age of 11 began living on the streets. Fortunately, the family she found there — her chosen family of drag queens and hustlers — gave her the support and community she so desperately needed.
As she grew older, Rivera became involved in both Puerto Rican and Black youth activism, joining the Young Lords and the Black Panthers. And then, in 1969, the Stonewall Riots occurred, introducing her to the gay rights movement and helping to create the start of her storied legacy. In the 1970s, Rivera had become an active member of the Gay Liberation Front as well as the Gay Activists Alliance. She protested and fought for LGBTQ-inclusive rights often, once even climbing the walls of NYC’s City Hall (in heels and a dress no less) to raise awareness against a bill she didn’t support. In addition to her membership in those groups and her growing civil disobedience, Rivera and Johnson also helped to found the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) – an organization committed to helping homeless transgender women. The group fought tirelessly for the successful passage of the New York City Transgender Rights Bill as well as for a transgender-inclusive New York State Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act.
Rivera’s LGBTQ+ advocacy continued all the way through the ‘80s, ‘90s, and into the 2000s — right up to her tragic death due to complications from liver cancer at the age of 50 in 2002. Today, her legacy lives on through the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, an organization that provides legal aid to low-income people of color who are transgender, intersex and/or gender non-conforming.
In her own words: “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned.”