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9 Overlooked Moments in LGBTQ+ History

9 minute read
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Pride Month in the United States begins each June to mark the June 28, 1969, uprising in response to a police raid of the beloved New York City gay bar Stonewall. The outrage sparked a new chapter in the LGBTQ+ movement in which activists could organize openly.

Historically, the subject of queer history beyond Stonewall has not been widely taught in schools. Out of the 50 U.S. states, only seven require public schools to teach an LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum, the latest being Washington State as of March 2024. And for the past couple of years, novels with LGBTQ+ material in school libraries and public libraries have been the target of unprecedented book ban attempts.

TIME asked experts on queer history nationwide to talk about a milestone moment in modern queer history that is often overlooked but essential to learning a complete history of the queer liberation movement.

“It’s important to remember that Stonewall is only one event in a long story of LGBTQ+ resistance in the face of oppression,” says Wendy L. Rouse, author of Public Faces, Secret Lives: A Queer History of the Women's Suffrage Movement.

From radical displays of affection to conventions that provided a safe space, the moments detailed below highlight lesser-known examples of queer resistance.

casa susanna
Lili on the diving board, Casa Susanna, Hunter, NY, September 1966American, 19th century, chromogenic print, Sheet: 12.8 x 8.8 cm (5 1/16 x 3 7/16 in.), Art Gallery of Ontario Purchase, with funds generously donated by Martha LA McCain, 2015 2014/851, Photo © AGO

A historic, secret trans convention in 1962

Before RuPaul’s Drag Race, one of the hottest drag shows in history took place Halloween weekend 1962 at Casa Susanna, a retreat for transgender women and cross-dressing men in the Catskills. During this trans convention, activist Virginia Prince formed a national sorority of cross-dressers called F.P.E., Full Personality Expression. There was a lot of singing and erotic dancing in the barn, but also some serious, pioneering discussions in which psychiatrists from the Kinsey Institute spoke about the psychology of cross-dressing in a safe space.

Casa Susanna “was a countryside house with a vast land all around. That was very important because people were totally protected,” says Sébastien Lifshitz, director of Casa Susanna, streaming on PBS June 4. Beyond the Halloween convention, people who liked to cross-dress often visited the house on weekends and holidays, and were welcome to take all of their meals there, or help with the gardening.

The queer film from 1963 that is still considered obscene

When Flaming Creatures—a provocative experimental film, depicting queer love and featuring gender fluidity and semi-nudity, directed by Jack Smith—debuted at a New York City theater in 1963, the police banned future showings. A legal battle ensued, and in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the film was obscene. The ruling was never overturned so it’s still technically illegal to show Flaming Creatures in the state of New York. Smith was distraught about the bad publicity and never directed another film.

Yet in some ways, the censorship generated more interest in the film, and underground screenings on university campuses followed. Diarmuid Hester, author of Nothing Ever Just Disappears: Seven Hidden Queer Histories, sees its existence as proof that queer joy has long existed. Hester argues that the lack of popular knowledge of queer history before Stonewall gives people the false impression that gay people were all lonely and isolated.

“Students have this idea that before 1969, all queer people were like living in isolation, in silence, totally atomized from each other,” Hester tells TIME. “Flaming Creatures is a window into a queer, subversive culture of artistic people who worked together, who created these kinds of luminous works of art even in repressive times… They were underground. But they did exist.”

The Compton Cafeteria riot in 1966

Three years before gay people resisted arrest at Stonewall, a group of trans women resisted arrest at Gene Compton’s cafeteria, a popular eatery among drag queens, who often went there after their shows. The fighting started when a policeman grabbed a drag queen, and she threw a cup of coffee in his face. Then people flipped tables and tossed cutlery, and sugar shakers crashed to the floor. Trash-can fires burned as police loaded people into paddy wagons.

The event shows how prevalent police action at gay bars was, even before Stonewall. The eatery’s patrons were “very used to police arrests for loitering or being seen as disorderly, under the assumption that they’re taking part in sex work,” explains Cookie Woolner, author of The Famous Lady Lovers: Black Women and Queer Desire Before Stonewall. The riot also raised awareness of the transgender community. The trans resistance to police violence at the Compton’s Cafeteria riot shows that “there was resistance to disenfranchisement, long before Stonewall.”

The Farm
In 1970 the Gay Liberation Front hung a sign outside a bar called The Farm declaring it was liberated after the bar no longer policed gay men for hugging and kissing.Photo by Lee Mason—Courtesy of ONE Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries

The power of the 1970 kiss-in

At a time when bartenders would call the police if they saw same-sex kissing, hugging, and dancing, Gay Liberation Front (GLF) activists decided to organize a “kiss-in” of sorts. They brought a bunch of gay men to a gay bar called The Farm in Los Angeles and encouraged them to kiss and hug until the music stopped and the police were called. Gay men stood and linked arms, and the police didn’t arrest any of them. The bar no longer policed gay men for hugging and kissing, prompting the GLF to put up signs that said “This Bar is Liberated.” 

The kiss-in is one of many acts of queer resistance that often gets overlooked. “The 1970 demonstration at the Farm symbolizes the enduring power of queer love as an act of resistance,” says Rouse. 

Lesbian softball teams in 1970s Atlanta

Georgia’s Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance (ALFA) ran a softball team called the ALFA Omegas. Public displays of affection were welcome. They started a second team called the ALFA Amazons, and a local lesbian bar even started a team called the Tower Hotshots.

At a time when the LGBT-rights movement was growing after Stonewall, softball became “a really important way to recruit” to members to ALFA’s causes, according June Thomas, author of A Place of Our Own: Six Spaces That Shaped Queer Women's Culture. Once ALFA got more members, they switched to other political strategies, but the softball teams will always be remembered as a place where women could be out and proud in daylight, as opposed to just dark bars that drew a lesbian clientele.

United States Air Force Sergeant Leonard Matlovich
Left: United States Air Force Sergeant Leonard Matlovich on the cover of TIME in 1975. Right: Matlovich holds his Honorable Discharge papers at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, Oct. 22, 1975. TIME; Bettmann/Getty Images

The first out gay man on a U.S. magazine cover in 1975

In a March 6, 1975, letter, Air Force Sergeant Leonard Matlovich became the first service member to out himself in order to challenge the military's ban of homosexuals. At the time, the U.S. military was discharging 1,000 service members a year for homosexuality or suspected homosexuality. Matlovich—a conservative Republican boasting a Purple Heart and Bronze Star—was seen as the perfect candidate to sue the military.

When he appeared on the cover of the Sep. 8, 1975, issue of TIME, it was the first time an out gay person appeared on the cover of a U.S. news magazine. “It made Matlovich into an overnight celebrity,” says Neil J. Young, author of Coming Out Republican: A History of the Gay Right. “He was the most famous gay man in America in the 1970s.” While Matlovich didn’t win his legal case, he started a national conversation. LGBTQ individuals have been able to openly serve in the military since 2011.

Attendees at the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, Washington DC, Oct. 14, 1979. Mark Reinstein—Corbis/Getty Images

The first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979

Sixteen years after Black Americans marched in Washington, D.C., to protest discrimination, about 75,000—both LGBTQ+ and straight allies—marched in Washington for a ban on discrimination in the federal government based on sexual orientation and a repeal of anti-homosexual laws nationwide. Many were also protesting Ronald Reagan, a conservative who was running for President, and mourning Harvey Milk, the first out gay man elected to public office in California, who was assassinated in 1978.

“It was the first national recognition that there was a nationwide queer rights movement,” says Martin Padgett, author of A Night at the Sweet Gum Head: Drag, Drugs, Disco, and Atlanta's Gay Revolution. “Coming together in public protests was useful to show people who we were but also to connect with other queer people and then take that message back to your hometown where you can start your own organization.”

A Black Panther who cared for HIV/AIDS patients in 1990

Ericka Huggins, a former Black Panther party member, became the first woman practical support volunteer coordinator for the Shanti Project, where she organized home visits to HIV/AIDS patients. She taught them about meditation at a time when many people were still afraid to go near HIV/AIDS patients because they were afraid they were contagious. Huggins also worked at the AIDS Project Contra Costa County to help coordinate health care for women and children.

Black queer HIV/AIDS patients endured stigma on multiple fronts—racism, homophobia, and stigma about HIV/AIDS. When Huggins, who is now out as being queer, ran HIV/AIDS volunteer and education programs between 1990 and 2004, her goal was to educate patients about the disease and “dispel myths around HIV/AIDS and any type of shame that any of the patients might have had,” explains Mary Phillips, author of the forthcoming Black Panther Woman: The Political and Spiritual Life of Ericka Huggins.

Boy scouts pride parade
Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts prepare to lead marchers while waving rainbow-colored flags at the 41st annual Pride Parade in Seattle on June 28, 2015.Elaine Thompson—AP

Boy Scouts of America allows gay scouts in 2013

Thirty-five years after instituting a policy banning gay members, Boy Scouts of America voted to allow gay youth on May 23, 2013. Two years later, it allowed gay adults to serve as volunteers.

The change in policies were in large part driven by the activism of Scouts for Equality and Jennifer Tyrrell, a lesbian mother and cub scout leader who was kicked out of her unit in 2011 once the leadership found out she was gay. “This was a very clear story of a mother just trying to help her son and being discriminated against,” says Mike De Socio, author of Morally Straight: How the Fight for LGBTQ+ Inclusion Changed the Boy Scouts―and America. The Boy Scouts of America also faced financial pressure; UPS, Intel, Merck were among the biggest corporations that announced they would cease donations to the Boy Scouts of America if they continued to ban gay members.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com