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 the last installment of our four-part series celebrating Champions of Pride, we honor some of the trailblazers who have played a major role in LGBTQ+ history.
The Adventurer: Marion Barbara ‘Joe’ Carstairs (1900 – 1993)
When it comes to models for living an out and proud life, you can’t find a much better example than Marion Barbara “Joe” Carstairs. An heir to the Standard Oil fortune, Carstairs was born in London in 1900. Like many at a very early age, she immediately knew she was queer. Before she had even reached her teenage years, Carstairs had begun shunning the period’s frilly girls’ clothing and telling her mother she wanted to be called “Joe.” Sadly, her family didn’t approve of her identity and they sent her to boarding school in Connecticut — but when she reached the U.S. school, she thrived with the change. She continued to dress in boys’ clothes. She began getting tattoos, which was virtually unheard of for women at the time. And she learned to drive.
Enamored with automobiles and desperate for a chance to drive them as fast as possible, she ultimately left school early to become a Red Cross ambulance driver for America during World War I. When the war ended, Carstairs returned to London and started X-Garage, a local car service run entirely by women (including female drivers and even mechanics). It was during this period that Carstairs also began a series of relationships with some of the city’s most eligible and beautiful women including Tallulah Bankhead, Mabel Mercer and screen legend Marlene Dietrich.
Constantly on the lookout for new experiences, Carstairs’ passion for technology soon shifted from cars to boats and she set out to become a champion racer. She ended up spending millions on speedboats and racing yachts, earning numerous racing titles and ultimately becoming known as “the fastest woman on water.” In 1934, Carstairs even purchased her own island in the Bahamas. Whale Cay became the ultimate luxury retreat for Carstairs and her friends and lovers and was one of five islands she ultimately bought as part of her Caribbean portfolio. She visited and enjoyed each regularly for decades, right up until her death in 1993.
In her own words: “I was never a little girl. I came out of the womb queer.”
The Athlete: Bill Tilden (1893 – 1953)
Before the NFL’s David Kopay, baseball’s Billy Bean, or Olympian Caitlyn Jenner, there was Bill Tilden, who was not only one of the first-ever out sports legends but who is also often considered one of the greatest tennis players ever in American sports history. Born in Philadelphia in 1893, “Big Bill” as he was often called, set the sporting world on fire, owning the title of No. 1 amateur tennis champion for six consecutive years. Tilden then progressed to become the No. 1 ranked tennis professional in 1931, 1932 and 1933. In the 192 tournaments he competed in over the course of his 20-plus career, Tilden won a remarkable 138, including 14 major singles titles,10 Grand Slam wins, three Wimbledon championships, six straight U.S. Open titles, and countless others — many records that still hold to this day.
With his famed “cannonball” serve, Tilden was a superstar sporting attraction, able to fill major arenas like Madison Square Garden for big-money matches. Truly regarded as one of the all-time tennis greats for his incredible talent and skill, Tilden changed the face of sports. But like many other gays and lesbians of his time, he wasn’t able to live out his life without challenges. In the 1940s at the height of his career success, Tilden was charged with having sex with another man. He served seven-and-a-half months in jail. In 1949, he was arrested again, this time for a sexual encounter with a male hitchhiker.
The trauma of the two back-to-back incidents was hard for Tilden to overcome and ultimately ended his career. He died just four years later. However, it didn’t take long for people to recognize once again just what an important sporting legend he had been. In 1959, Tilden was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. And even today, nearly 100 years after his time in the spotlight, the tennis great is still recognized not just for his wins and records but also for his impactful representation of gay men in athletics and the way he ultimately helped to broaden the field and make every sport a bit more welcoming for LGBTQ+ individuals.
In his own words: “Tennis is more than just a sport. It’s an art, like the ballet. Or like a performance in the theater. When I step on the court I feel like Anna Pavlova. Or like Adelina Patti. Or even like Sarah Bernhardt. I see the footlights in front of me. I hear the whisperings of the audience. I feel an icy shudder. Win or die! Now or never! It’s the crisis of my life.”
The Groundbreaker: Christine Jorgensen (1926 – 1989)
For a period in the early 1950s, Christine Jorgensen wasn’t just one of the most famous women in America — she was the most famous and well-known transgender woman in the world. A model for transgender representation and inclusion, Jorgensen not only introduced the concept of gender identity to the masses, but she also worked tirelessly throughout her life to educate and promote transgender acceptance and equality.
Born in the Bronx in 1926, Jorgensen identified as female at an early age — in a time when gender identity was rarely discussed and not well understood. Bullied by her classmates, Jorgensen channeled all her feelings and emotions into her first true love: photography. At the age of 19, she was taking classes at the New York Institute of Photography and planned to dedicate her life to the practice. But all that changed when she was drafted into the military for World War II. Because of her small, light frame, she ended up serving as a clerk in Fort Dix, New Jersey.
When she was ultimately discharged from military service, Jorgensen began studying to become a dental hygienist. It was also during this period, however, that she first heard about some of the first-ever sexual reassignment surgeries which were being done at the time in Europe. She researched the procedures extensively, began taking estrogen, and ultimately decided she should go through with the treatment. Jorgensen flew to Copenhagen, met her physician — Dr. Christian Hamburger — and was later said to be “thrilled” with the success of the procedure.
Jorgensen excitedly wrote to friends back home telling them about the surgery and sharing photos of her change — and in an unexpected twist, her story was leaked to the press where it became front-page news. When she stepped off a plane a few months later to return to the states, she had become one of the first openly-transgender women in the world. Unable to carry on with her dental studies or photography, Jorgensen instead decided to embrace and promote her story, writing magazine articles, doing press interviews and writing and publishing her autobiography. Its release led to more TV and radio appearances, driving Jorgensen to then even further capitalize on her newfound fame by launching a new career as an actress and nightclub singer.
A star of incredible renown throughout her life, she consistently used her public platform to advocate for transgender rights, give lectures, appear on talk shows, and become a model for transgender representation to countless transgender individuals who saw themselves in her story.
In her own words: “We didn’t start the sexual revolution but I think we gave it a good kick in the pants!”