So many queer historical figures have been erased from history. These luminaries include performers, activists, writers, and scientists whose contributions are invaluable but not given their due praise.
Fortunately, more and more books are being published that highlight the lives of queer and BIPOC people alike. The following list contains several queer historical figures who have not yet had books written about their lives, although some of them have written their own autobiographies. Though they are lesser known, these people deserve to have their stories known and celebrated.
Alan L. Hart (1890–1962)
Dr. Alan L. Hart, also known as Robert Allen Bamford, Jr., was a transgender man who was born in October 4, 1890. He was a physician, a radiologist, a writer, and a prolific tuberculosis researcher.
Early Life and Transition
From a very young age, his parents allowed him to dress masculinely and freely express his gender. Hart attended Albany College, then Stanford, then he received his PhD from The University of Oregon. He married in 1918. Later that same year he became the first transgender man to have a hysterectomy.
While working in Gardiner, Oregon, Hart was outed by a former classmate and forced to move soon after. His wife left him in 1923, but he soon married his second wife, Edna Ruddick, and this marriage lasted until the end of his life. He began to take hormone treatment in the 1940s, when it became available.
Career and Controversy
Hart spent much of his life devoted to researching tuberculosis. By pioneering x-ray photography for tuberculosis detection, he saved thousands of lives from the once common disease. Alongside his astounding career as a physician, he also published a number of fiction novels, many of them medically themed. After his death from heart failure in 1962, his wife followed his wishes and had his assets used to start a leukaemia fund.
Following his death, there has been some controversy as to how he should be categorized in contemporary terms. Some scholars argue that he had dressed as a man in order to disguise his lesbian identity and pass as a straight man. However, other scholars argue that this is a transphobic erasure of his identity. It is impossible to know for sure, as the term transsexual was only coined in the 1920s, and it didn’t come into wide use until after his death. What we do know for sure it that Hart fully presented and identified as a man, and worked very hard to conceal his earlier life before his transition.
Dr. Hart has had articles written about his life and he has published some of his own diaries. Like many other queer historical figures, there has never been a book written about his life.
Gladys Bentley (1907–1960)
Gladys Bentley was a renowned blues singer, pianist, and entertainer during the height of the Harlem Renaissance. As far as queer historical figures go, she is somewhat controversial.
Bentley was born in Pennsylvania August 12, 1907, to an African American father and a Trinidadian mother. Her mother had wanted a boy and this caused a great deal of strain on her relationship. Gladys believed that this rejection shaped her behaviour. She hated her brothers, didn’t want men to touch her, wore men’s clothes, and had a crush on a female teacher in school.
Bentley began to perform in New York, starting her career in underground establishments and at parties. She is lesser known than her other contemporary counterparts because her performances were considered more risqué. Despite that, she gained notoriety. She performed the piano on Groucho Marx’s show, and attempted to take her work to Broadway, where she was shut down due to legal issues as well as complaints due to how raunchy her performances were.
She dressed fully in men’s clothes and presented as a “bulldagger“, a butch lesbian. At the time, she was publicly and proudly lesbian, and made her way as a working woman and as an outstanding singer. She had a public ceremony in 1931, marrying a white woman whose identity is now unknown.
Later Life and Marriage
Sadly, when she moved from Harlem in the 1930s, she began to get harassed for dressing as a man. She married a man not long after, J.T. Gipson, who died in 1952. The same year, she married Charles Roberts for a very short time, and they were subsequently divorced.
Bentley published an essay in Ebony magazine proclaiming that she was “cured” of her homosexuality. She stated in “I Am A Woman Again“ that she took female hormones and had undergone an operation to “reestablish” her heterosexuality. She passed away January 18, 1960.
Bentley’s portrait now hangs in Smithsonian in the Museum of African American History. As of now, no nonfiction books have been written about her life.
Michael Dillon (1915–1962)
Michael Dillon was a psychologist, a writer, and the first trans man to undergo phalloplastic surgery.
Early Life and Transition
Dillon was born May 1, 1915, in Kent, England, the descendent of British aristocracy. He presented as his assigned gender at birth until he was 24. By then, he learned that he was more comfortable in men’s clothes and presenting as male. In 1939, he acquired masculinizing hormone treatment from a doctor, but was advised to discuss his gender identity with a psychiatrist before transition. The psychiatrist was indiscreet, gossip ran rampant, and Dillon was forced to leave town and moved to Bristol.
Soon, he began to pass fully as male and worked at a garage. He also suffered from Hypoglycemia, low blood sugar, and while recovering at the Royal Infirmary, he encountered one of the world’s few plastic surgeons. This surgeon performed a double mastectomy on him, and put him in touch with Sir Harold Delf Gillies, who was a pioneering plastic surgeon who was reconstructing the genitalia of men injured in war.
Gillies was willing to operate on Dillon. He performed 13 surgeries on him during the construction of his phalloplasty. Dillon attributed his limp to a war wound, and Gillies publicly diagnosed Dillon with another illness in order to conceal the true nature of the surgeries.
Writing and Spirituality
In 1946, Dillon published Self: A Study in Ethics and Endocrinology, a book about transsexualism. This book brought him to the attention of Roberta Cowell, a transgender woman who was an ex-fighter pilot. Dillon performed sex reassignment surgery on her and Gillies later performed her vaginoplasty.
Although he did not reveal his own transgender status in Self, it was eventually revealed due to connections to his aristocratic background. Dillon didn’t care for the press attention. This was part of the reason that he journeyed to India in 1958. He became a Buddhist monk, but he was unable to become fully fledged due to his transgender status. He passed away in 1962.
His memoir Out of the Ordinary was saved from being destroyed and was finally published in 2017. Although this book was published several years ago, there are no other biographies about Michael Dillon’s life. Like the other queer historical figures on this list, he led a complex and fascinating life worth knowing and celebrating.
Stormé DeLarverie (1920–2014)
“[Stonewall] was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience – it wasn’t no damn riot.”
Stormé DeLarverie was a proud butch lesbian and drag king. She was a singer and performer, and has become a key person in the queer civil rights movement and one of the most iconic queer historical figures.
DeLarverie was born December 1920 in New Orleans to a white father and an African American mother. Her mother worked for her father as a servant. DeLarverie was never given a birth certificate, as her birth was illegal at the time, and she never knew her exact date of birth. She chose to celebrate her birthday on Christmas Eve.
Her father sent her to private school after she experienced harassment at a young age. She discovered that she was a lesbian at age 18. She met her life partner Diana, and the two of them were together for 25 years. Diana passed away in the 1970s, and DeLarverie allegedly carried a photo of Diana with her at all times.
Stonewall and Drag
DeLarverie performed with the Jewel Box revue through the late 1950s, which was the first non-segregated drag revue. The Jewel Box regularly performed for mixed race audiences and for high end venues such as the Apollo or Radio City Music hall, which was groundbreaking during the era of segregation. Her drag style was subversive and she has since been considered influential in fashion for gender-nonconforming women.
Several eyewitnesses testified that DeLarverie was the first person to throw a punch at the historic 1969 Stonewall uprising. Allegedly, DeLarverie was being harassed by the police, and had turned to the crowd and said “Why don’t you do something?” After that, the situation began to escalate. It was never confirmed whether DeLarverie was this woman, but she claimed to have thrown the first punch and it was definitively proven that DeLarverie fought the police at Stonewall.
DeLarverie continued her work in activism throughout her life and passed away in 2014. While her life has been documented in film, she has never been written about as a queer historical figure.
Nancy Cárdenas (1934–1994)
Nancy Cárdenas was a Mexican poet, actor, writer, playwright, and feminist. She pioneered the gay rights movement in Mexico and was one of the first Mexican queer historical figures to publicly declare her sexual orientation.
Cárdenas was born in in Parras de la Fuente, Mexico, in 1934. She earned a doctorate in philosophy and she studied staging, film, and theatre at Yale in the United States. When she was 20, she became a radio announcer, and not long after that she became an actress in plays. She wrote her first play, El cántaro seco (The Empty Pitcher) in the 1960s, and soon began her career as a journalist.
In the 1950s, Cárdenas began to advocate with her friends for the communist party in Mexico, which was not a popular viewpoint at the time. She began to speak at rallies and participate in large scale activism to promote leftist viewpoints. In 1968, she was arrested for protesting police violence.
“No one approached me to attack me, all I received were congratulations but nobody gave me work,” said Cárdenas regarding this historic event.
After coming out, she gained more interest in participating in the LGBTQ+ community of Mexico. In 1974, she founded the first gay organization in Mexico, Frente de Liberación Homosexual Mexicano. In 1978, she headed the first pride march in Mexico city.
Cárdenas passed away in March of 1994, leaving behind a legacy of activism in Mexico. The Nancy Cárdenas Latin American and Mexican Lesbian Documentation and Historical Archives Center was named after her.
Jackie Shane (1940–2019)
Jackie Shane was a black transgender blues singer who performed mainly in Ontario, Canada. She one of the lesser known queer historical figures, and is best known for the single Any Other Way, which made it into the top 10 charts in Toronto.
Background and Career Beginnings
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1940, Shane first performed in church gospel groups. She gravitated towards the R&B and soul scene and began performing in the 1950s in long hair, jewelry, and full makeup. Wanting to escape the south, she joined a travelling carnival and travelled to Ontario in 1959. She travelled to Montreal in 1960 and joined Frank Motley and his Motley Crew, relocating to Toronto in 1961 when the band moved. At this time, Shane was still presenting as male.
Shane released her first single in 1962, a cover of Money (That’s What I Want) by Barrett Strong. The song that she is most known for is her cover of Any Other Way. This cover peaked at #2 of the top songs in Toronto in 1963.
In the chorus of the song, Shane sings, “Tell her that I’m happy, tell her that I’m gay, tell her I wouldn’t have it any other way.” The song plays on the double entendre of “gay”, and it wasn’t uncommon for her to include local LGBTQ+ terms in her lyrics. Though the lyrics weren’t originally intended to reflect queer identities, Shane turned them on their head and made them her own.
Shane presented as a gay man for most of her career. After her career, she was written about as a gay man who dressed in women’s clothing. Her style was fluid, both on and off the stage. When questioned, she deflected with ambiguous answers. Some debate that she was a drag queen. However, when interviewed about her gender in 2017, she confirmed herself to be transgender. Shane passed away at the beginning of 2019.
Simon Nkoli (1957–1998)
Simon Nkoli was a South African anti-apartheid activist and gay rights activist. He was known for his activism as well as being one of the first African gay men to publicly acknowledge their HIV-positive status.
Nkoli was born in November of 1957. He began to realize that he was gay while in his teens and soon entered into a longterm relationship with another young man. Neither set of parents approved. Nkoli’s parents took him to a psychiatrist to help change his sexuality, but the psychiatrist turned out to be gay himself and instead helped Nkoli hide his relationship.
From a young age, he took part in activism against the apartheid law with the Congress of South African Students (COSAS). In 1983, he joined the Gay Association of South Africa, which was almost entirely white. Subsequently, he formed the first black gay group in Africa, known as the Saturday Group.
Nkoli spoke at rallies in support of rent boycotts. In 1984, he was arrested and faced the death penalty for treason due to his activism. He came out while in prison. His brave actions helped to change the attitude that the African National Congress had against gay rights. He was soon acquitted and was released from prison in 1988.
Nkoli viewed his political struggle as intrinsically linked with gay rights. He founded the Gay and Lesbian Organization of the Witwatersrand (GLOW) in 1988, which was aimed to create an explicitly non-homophobic, non-racist, and non-sexist space for gays and lesbians living in and around Johannesburg. He organized the first pride parade in South Africa in 1990, along with the LGBTQ+ activist Beverly Palesa Ditsie. Additionally, he represented Africa as a member of the International Lesbian and Gay Association board, met with Nelson Mandela, helped to repeal anti-sodomy laws, and worked to protect people from anti-gay legislation. Nkoli was given several human rights awards during his travel and activism work.
In 1986, Nkoli was diagnosed with HIV. Subsequently, he created the Positive African Men group in Johannesburg, which was a peer support group that was established in 1996. Nkoli passed away in 1998, after struggling with HIV/AIDS for 12 years, and serious illness in his last four.
Nkoli is one of the most powerful and iconic queer historical figures. Despite living this incredible life, no biographies have been written about him as of today.