Raised Voices Among Pretty Manners: Profiles of LGBT Activists for Social Justice
Edna St. Vincent Millay could be expertly nonchalant. “Oh, you mean I'm homosexual! Of course I am,” she once commented, “and heterosexual too, but what's that got to do with my headache?”1 Yet, she could also let loose literary cannon blasts (and not only across the bow). In her essay, “Fear,” she hit comfortable society broadside. The piece was her response to the executions of two anarchists—Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Many worldwide saw their trial for armed robbery and murder as biased and unjust. She herself was arrested for picketing on their behalf at the State House in Boston.2
Addressing her readers directly in the text, she chastises “you [who] long to return to your gracious world . . . where people had pretty manners and did not raise their voices.”3 For you, “Justice is a woman of stone above a courthouse door.”4 “It is impossible,” she concludes, “for you to conceive that men could weep in public and women permit themselves to be thrown in jail because (as it seemed to them) the blue hem of Justice was being dragged in the mire.” 5
With those words, the bohemian poet hit the nail's head. What matters is justice—along with its offshoots: equality, liberty, inalienable rights, and the like--not as a figurine in stone, but as a necessity vital, robust, and real. For such, no doubt, is why so many of our LGBT ancestors refused in various ways to sit back on their haunches and accept the world, the one constructed by human foibles, as is.
Baron von Steuben threw himself into winning an American war of liberation. Abolitionist Mary Grew urged buying only “free produce” untouched by slave labor and worked vigorously within the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society to combat slavery.6 7 Harlem Renaissance novelist Claude McKay strived to give “back to the Negro race its heritage.”8 (Amid 1919's “Red Summer” of race riots, he also provided in verse a defiant black voice: “If we must die, let it not be like hogs / . . . Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack, / Pressed to the wall, dying, but—fighting back!”9 10) Hanged in 1916 as a British traitor, Irish national hero Sir Roger Casement fought to end atrocities against natives exploited for rubber in the Congo and Peru's Putumayo river basin.11 Anita Augspurg and her life-companion Lida Gustava Heymann co-founded Germany's first women's suffrage group, and, for their radical feminist agitation, the two women were forced out of Nazi Germany.12 At a time when other hospitals continued to deny patients of Chinese heritage healthcare access, Dr. Margaret “Mom” Chung co-founded the Chinese Hospital in San Francisco.13 14 Jean Cocteau's protégé, the poet Jean Desbordes, described as “soft-spoken . . . short, slight, like a little clerk,” became a Resistance fighter and, interrogated under torture, died revealing nothing to the Gestapo.15 Withstanding hurricane winds of national hysteria, Will Geer safeguarded civil liberties and human decency in the 1950's. Asked by a Congressional committee if he was a Communist, the blacklisted actor refused to name names and replied, “The word Communist is an emotional word--like the word 'witch' in Salem.”16 And Cecil Williams, the Caucasian freedom-fighter and militant collaborator with Nelson Mandela, as well as black South African Simon Nkoli, jailed for his anti-apartheid activism, helped to crush apartheid in South Africa.17 18
Like the people mentioned above, each of the LGBT forebears profiled below possessed a deep-rooted social consciousness. (One of those individuals is still living and still possesses that attribute!) All were involved in social justice efforts and movements--whether anti-slavery, women's suffrage, civil rights and civil liberties, economic justice, peace, or other endeavors--geared (to put it simply) to making things better for us all.