The LGBT Mount Rushmore: The Faces of the Gay Rights Movement

In the history textbooks, there are pages and chapters dedicated to the setbacks and successes of the various civil rights movements and of the faces with which people associate them. For the black civil rights movement, there were the writings of Frederick Douglass, the passion of William Lloyd Garrison, the inspiration of Martin Luther King Jr., the defiance of Rosa Parks, and the story of Ruby Bridges. For the women’s rights movement, there was the leadership from Susan B. Anthony, the social work of Jane Addams, and the books of Betty Friedan.

For the gay rights movement, it is a lucky and rare occasion if the Stonewall riots are included in history textbooks.

To a certain extent, this makes sense. The ages of both the black civil rights movement and women’s rights movement eclipse that of the gay rights movement’s five decades of existence. The women’s rights movement affects half of the population and the dawn of the black civil rights movement was entangled in slavery, a massive historical force in the United States’ adolescence.

They're the Gay Rights Bunch! | Illustration by Allan Lasser

With the gay rights movement still knee-deep in its greatest battle, the fight for same-sex marriage, it is impossible to know exactly which figures of the movement will pervade most into history years from now. It is, however, possible to analyze the different types of figures who have influenced the movement’s power and direction over the past five decades.

The Established Celebrity

Probably the most immediately recognizable type of gay rights movement leader, this category belongs to both LGBT people and their straight allies.

In many cases, the Established Celebrity has already amassed an enormous fanbase which, by default, contains his or her “gay fanbase.” The Established Celebrity will shower praise over the gay fanbase in magazine interviews, speak about stories of self-empowerment, and make statements in favor of gay rights objectives.

A recognizable example of this subset of Established Celebrity is Lady Gaga. She, amidst her songs about fame and disco sticks, champions self-acceptance in the song “Born This Way,” which includes the message “no matter gay, straight, or bi/ lesbian, transgendered life/ you’re on the right track, baby.” She has, however, pointed her support into words outside of her songs as well.

In October 2009, she spoke in front of the White House at the National Equality March. In September 2010, she made a Youtube video which exposed the difficulty of contacting senators. Later that month, she spoke in Portland, Maine with her “Prime Rib of America” speech directed at Maine senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

Other celebrities include those who have served as inspiration by coming out under the public eye, like Ellen DeGeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, Rosie O’Donnell, Wanda Sykes, and Ricky Martin. DeGeneres has frequently fought for gay rights and often uses her talk show as a platform to highlight breaches in basic human and civil rights. Neil Patrick Harris, contrary to controversial articles that argue differently, has proven that gay actors can play straight.

What muddles the leadership credibility of the Established Celebrity is the career aspect. It’s arguable that Lady Gaga is financially cashing in on her support of the gay community. The same goes for other prominent celebrities. It’s also arguable that they are also losing support from those opposed to the gay rights movement. Regardless, by holding down another major focus (a successful career), differences do stand between Gaga and DeGeneres from Martin Luther King Jr.

With all the visibility, speeches, and donations made, however, does it really matter that the Established Celebrity has another major gig going?

The Activist

In stark contrast to the Established Celebrity, the Activist rarely gains much permanent, mainstream visibility. The Activist dedicates much more focused energy towards the cause, but is often relegated to occasional news articles, online dedications to civil rights movements, and a Wikipedia page.

One example is Frank Kameny, a hugely influential gay rights activist who passed away on October 11, 2011– National Coming Out Day. In his decades of work, he took his sexuality-based firing to the Supreme Court, drafted a bill to oveturn D.C. sodomy laws, and did work to remove the American Psychiatric Association’s classification of homosexuality as a “mental disorder.”

Lieutenant Daniel Choi serves as another example who is not well-known to those not privy to the actions of the gay rights movement. Discharged from the United States Army after coming out on The Rachel Maddow Show, Choi created the organization Knights Out, a group of soldier alumni who support the LGBT community being able to serve openly. He protested vehemently against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, even to the point of handcuffing himself to the fence of the White House.

Dan Savage, however, has been able to break into public visibility thanks to the assistance of some Established Celebrities. In September 2010, the controversial sex columnist created the It Gets Better Project, a massive Youtube campaign now endorsed by thousands of user videos to end bullying. Savage has, however, received criticism and was recently glitterbombed by transgender activists.

Despite the massive work done by The Activists, will their legacies permeate into history despite their relative public obscurity?

The Politicians

If the work of The Activists is successful, the buck then is placed on the shoulders of The Politicians. Some of The LGBT Politicians lead by success and example, while others lead by lending their hugely appreciated support to the gay rights movement.

The most recognizable candidate is Harvey Milk, the man who was popularized by his eponymous movie. Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. After 11 months on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors as a representative of the Castro District, he was assassinated. Milk was a symbol of a success and a tragedy for the gay rights community.

Modern politicians from the LGBT community include Barney Frank, a Massachusetts U.S. Representative, and Houston Mayor Annise Parker, the first gay mayor of a major U.S. city. Their platforms? Ideas including budget cuts, security and economics in addition to civil rights. By being multi-platform candidates, they serve as legitimate, respectful politicians who just happen to be gay.

Lastly, there are the straight ally politicians who fight and even cross party lines to stand for the gay rights movement. Republican New York State Senator Roy McDonald made huge political waves in standing against his party and voting in favor of same sex marriage.

“Well, fuck it, I don’t care what you think. I’m trying to do the right thing,” said McDonald last June.

Do Faces Matter?

Although it is important to recognize the work of the Established Celebrity, Activist, Politician, and all of the other allies of the gay rights movement, a question is brought up about whether or not the movement needs a face like the other civil rights movements have had.

By in large, the gay rights movement is mobilized by local demonstrations and grassroots campaigns. Now that DADT has been repealed, the biggest obstacles for the movement lie at the state level. Six states in the United States allow same-sex marriage and it is up to the remaining 44 to progress the movement. It is the heroes of these movements that will make up the multi-faceted face of the gay civil rights movement.

About Jon Erik Christianson

Jon Christianson (COM/CAS '14) is the zany, misunderstood cousin of The Quad family. His superpowers include talking at the speed of light, tripping over walls, and defying ComiQuad deadlines with the greatest of ease. His lovely copyeditors don't appreciate that last one. If for some reason you hunger for more of his nonsense, follow him at @HonestlyJon on Twitter or contact him at!

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