In October 1994, a group of U.S. activists led by Rodney Wilson, a teacher in Missouri, created LGBT History Month. Adopting a strategy pioneered with Black History Month in the 1970s and Women’s History Month in the 1980s, the activists launched the project as a way to ensure the varied and often unacknowledged contributions of queer people would be collectively recognized and remembered.
Now in its twentieth year, LGBT History Month is annually observed in schools, on campuses, and in the media, and is widely used as a tool for public education. Within queer communities, too, the project has prompted lively, productive debates about reclaiming figures who would not necessarily identify as LGBT, fully representing the rich diversity of the LGBT spectrum, and deciding who or what is iconic enough to include in a growing canon.
One of the things LGBT History Month tends to obscure, however, are the more gradual trends that can’t be crystallized into a single moment or personified by a lone trailblazer. Movements like the push for LGBT rights are animated by committed advocates working in tandem, often with little recognition or acclaim, and typically over long periods of time. As the critical response to Jo Becker’s recent history of the same-sex marriage movement suggests, LGBT histories do not always recognize the activists who labor behind the scenes to lay the groundwork for headline-grabbing victories.
The burgeoning recognition of LGBT rights in global human rights forums offers a good example of a phenomenon that is much bigger than any single activist, victory, or setback might suggest. Last month, the UN Human Rights Council adopted an unprecedented resolution affirming the rights of LGBT people as human rights. Although the resolution was heralded as a significant breakthrough by activists and journalists around the globe, that vote, like other recent developments, was only possible because of the tireless work sexual rights advocates have undertaken over the past twenty-five years.
LGBT history is far richer when it is not concerned with milestones alone, but encourages a deeper understanding of gradual transformations and the day-to-day work of activists who make landmark advances possible. In my upcoming book, Transnational LGBT Activism: Working for Sexual Rights Worldwide, I explore the politics of global LGBT human rights advocacy through an ethnographic study of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). IGLHRC, founded in 1990, was among the first organizations to promote the concept of LGBT rights as human rights, and remains on the forefront of advocacy efforts almost twenty-five years later. One of the arguments underpinning the book is that the growing recognition of sexual rights, like other human rights, is the product of persistent advocacy by committed groups of activists, at IGLHRC and elsewhere. Although they carry legal and philosophical weight, human rights are not static concepts, but are constructed, promoted, and institutionalized by individuals who give them meaning.
And paying attention to activist practice illustrates that the milestones we commemorate in our LGBT histories are seldom, if ever, the product of one brave, just, or visionary individual acting alone. Activists have mentors who guide them, colleagues who challenge and sustain them, and constituencies who inspire them. Even in transnational advocacy—a field where geography and distinctive political systems can create formidable obstacles for collaborative organizing—activists develop ways to share knowledge, strategies, and support in the pursuit of shared goals.
Understanding that movements are bigger than any single milestone or person counsels a much more expansive understanding of LGBT history. In the United States, celebrations of LGBT history often tend to be extremely U.S.-centric, with perfunctory nods in the direction of Alan Turing or the ancient Greeks. It is far rarer to see recognition of figures like Simon Nkoli and Bev Ditsie, who were groundbreaking voices for LGBT people in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement; Karen Atala, who fought a tireless battle to win custody rights for lesbian mothers in Chile; or Victor Mukasa, who won a judgment recognizing that LGBT people had rights under the Ugandan Constitution. Figures like these continue to make pathbreaking advances around the globe—just this month, for example, the trans activist Audrey Mbugua won a judgment from the High Court of Kenya granting her gender-affirming documentation. They also challenge the notion that there is one way that LGBT history might unfold, and vividly illustrate a broader range of goals and strategies.
Individuals around the globe are forging LGBT histories that will be remembered and celebrated, and doing so in very different contexts. Alongside each of them are communities that are reshaping conversations about sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and bodily autonomy, and creating the kind of slow, steady, and sometimes imperceptible change that makes the most historically notable victories possible. And by broadening our understanding of LGBT history – beyond the United States, and beyond any single riot or parade, TV episode or book, vote or judicial ruling – the lessons we can take from that history become infinitely richer.
Ryan R. Thoreson is author of Transnational LGBT Activism: Working for Sexual Rights Worldwide. Thoreson has a JD from the Yale Law School and a DPhil in anthropology from Oxford University.