[Editor’s Note: The following post is part of American Masters’ #InspiringWomanPBS campaign, which highlights the powerful, creative, and innovative women in our lives. Visit the Inspiring Woman page to join the campaign and submit the story of a woman who inspires you.]
Women have been critical to every major social movement in America, and the push for LGBT equality is no exception. Whether as members of the LGBT community or allies, women from all walks of life have contributed their voices, their resources, and their labor to help build a world where people of all sexual orientations and gender identities can live open and authentic lives.
Public figures have been particularly important in changing hearts and minds. Below are four famous women, past and present, who have demonstrated a belief in equality and justice for all.
In April, folk singer Joan Baez–who helped catalyze the ascension of Bob Dylan and spark an American Roots revival in the 1960s–was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In her acceptance speech, she made a heartfelt plea for social justice. It was a fitting moment for a woman who prioritized activism throughout her storied career.
In addition to her participation in the Civil Rights movement, anti-war protests, and international human rights work, Baez has vocalized her support for LGBT equality. In the 1970s, she performed at concerts organized in opposition to anti-gay legislation in California and marched to mourn the assassination of Harvey Milk, the openly gay mayor of San Francisco.
Billie Jean King
One of the most venerable names in tennis, Billie Jean King racked up 39 Grand Slam titles by the time she retired in 1983. Coinciding with her legendary athletic accomplishments is her legacy as a tireless advocate for women’s and LGBT equality.
King led the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association, and in 1973 pressured the U.S. Open to offer equal prize money to men and women. She was painfully forced out of the closet in the 1980s, but has since used her visibility to lift up LGBT people around the world.
King attended the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi as a U.S. delegate, offering hope to LGBT people suffering under Russia’s anti-gay regime. For her work to advance the rights of women and LGBT communities, King was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 by President Barack Obama.
Visit our site to learn more about Billie Jean King and her American Masters documentary.
In 1982, Alice Walker published The Color Purple, a masterpiece that went on to receive the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In addition to her work as an acclaimed author, Walker is a fervent activist who has spoken up for women and oppressed communities across the world.
Walker came up with the term “womanism” in 1983, which helped make space for Black women, including lesbians, to lead feminist discussions. She has also challenged traditional notions of sexuality with her romantic partnership with singer Tracy Chapman during the 1990s.
Since its publication, The Color Purple has been developed into not only a classic film, but also a hit Broadway musical. She officiated a gay wedding for a producer of the musical and his partner in 2008.
Visit our site to learn more about the iconic author and the American Masters documentary Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth.
Lorraine Hansberry is best known for her classic play A Raisin in the Sun, but she was also a staunch advocate for social justice. With peers such as Paul Robeson and James Baldwin, Hansberry didn’t hesitate to use her platform to rail against racism and misogyny. It wasn’t until after her untimely death in 1965 that scholars discovered that she was also an advocate for LGBT rights.
In the 1950s, Hansberry joined the Daughters of Bilitis, a pioneering lesbian organization, and contributed letters to gay journals. In a 1961 letter that never saw publication, she made the connection between sexism and anti-gay oppression:
“I have suspected for a good time that the homosexual in America would ultimately pay a price for the intellectual impoverishment of women. Men continue to mis-interpret the second-rate status of women as implying a privileged status for themselves; heterosexuals think the same way about homosexuals; gentiles about Jews; whites about blacks; haves about have-nots.”
To learn more about Lorraine Hansberry’s position on gay rights, read Kai Wright’s insightful article for The Root.