The Philadelphia-based Equality Forum is celebrating LGBT History Month by honoring a gay community icon on each of October’s 31 days.
Over the past eight years, the forum has celebrated nearly 250 lives, says Malcolm Lazin, Equality Forum executive director.
The earliest known observance of a history month in the community was in the mid-1990s, when 29-year-old Missouri school teacher Rodney Wilson sought support for teaching students about the roles gays and lesbians have played in history, science, sports and the arts. In 1994, Wilson came out to his high school class after a lesson on the Holocaust.
The first coordinating committee for history month included Johnda Boyce and Jessea Greenman, at universities at the time; Kevin Jennings, a teacher who founded the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and went on to work for the Obama administration; Kevin Boyer at the Gerber/Hart Gay and Lesbian Library and Archives in Chicago; Torey Wilson, a Chicago area teacher and the late Chicago columnist-activist (and former WiG contributor) Paul Varnell.
Varnell, who would prepare what he personally planned to read or study well in advance of each history month, wrote about the observance for the Chicago Free Press in 2001: “Perhaps most obviously, it is a way to make clear to skeptical heterosexuals that far from being a threat to Western Civilization, gays and lesbians made some of the greatest contributions to that civilization.
“In short, when you sing a song, listen to a symphony, view a painting, attend a church, read a novel or poem or see a play, they may well have been written, composed, painted, or designed by a homosexual. Homophobes do not want people to know this; that is why everyone must.”
October was suggested as the month for the observance because that’s when National Coming Out Day is held, and it’s also when schools are in session. Gay history buffs were also enthusiastic about the month because it includes Oscar Wilde’s birthday – Oct. 16.
In 2006, the Equality Forum assumed the lead in promoting history month, and each year the group posts biographies, graphics and other materials to its website – lgbthistorymonth.com – for teachers, activists, journalists and others to download and share.
This year’s 31 honorees in the Equality Forum’s celebration were selected from about 500 nominations. They include: South African activist Zackie Achmat, playwright Edward Albee, transgender hero Gwen Araujo, Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas, activist Axel Axgil, author Djuna Barnes, activist Joseph Beam, Holocaust survivor Gad Beck, documentarian Joan Biren, author Patrick Califia, activist Mandy Carter, author Willa Cather, singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman, Apple CEO Tim Cook, journalist Anderson Cooper, Belgium Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, historian Martin Duberman, artist Tom of Finland, “Mother of Pride” Brenda Howard, actor Nathan Lane, entertainer Queen Latifah, South African activist Simon Nkoli, author Bruce Nugent, “Mother of Blues” Ma Rainey, national hero Sally Ride, filmmaker Marlon Riggs, film historian Vito Russo, activist Jose Sarria, actor George Takei, fashion designer Jason Wu and John Lawrence and Tyron Garner, who won the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that overturned anti-gay sodomy laws.