LGBT+ History Month: Barbara Gittings, Sylvia Rivera and Phyll Opoku Gyimah
Barbara Gittings (She/Her)
‘Equality means more than passing laws. The struggle is really won in the hearts and minds of the community, where it really counts.’ – Barbara Gittings
Our narratives as individuals empower us, crafted by our identities and how we see ourselves. Often, our personal narrative might the only place we have power and can be truly honest with ourselves. But a truth all too familiar is our narratives and identities being construed externally. Not being recognised as you see yourself is a heart-breaking reality even in 2021.
However, the work of an activist like Barbara Gittings has helped to alleviate this harsh reality. Much of Gittings’ work was through libraries and literature which in the 1960’s was how most people were informed. Gittings worked hard to have a true representation of homosexuality portrayed in the literature accessible in libraries as well as fighting for the American Psychiatric Association to delist homosexuality as a mental illness. In Daughters of Bilitis, America’s first lesbian-rights organisation, Gittings ferociously battled against informative texts like medical literature where, as Gittings puts it, they treated lesbians like ‘curious specimens’ rather than human beings.
The power of our voices
Gittings’ work reminds us of the power of representation, and how important it is that we listen to minorities and allow them to tell their own stories and truths.
We can carry on the legacy of Gittings by remembering that the words we use matter. We should all be mindful as individuals of the power of our words. We can do this in the smallest actions from checking and using someone’s correct pronouns to lending our social media platforms to others to speak for themselves and their own identities.
Read Barbara Gittings’ amazing book and journey here – Gay Pioneer here
Sylvia Rivera (She/Her)
Sylvia Rivera was a Latin-American gay liberation and transgender activist and drag queen. With her close friend, Marsha P. Johnson, they founded STAR – Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a revolutionary organisation that provided support and housing for homeless LGBT youth and sex workers in New York.
After an incredibly difficult upbring in which she was abandoned by her father and faced the loss of her mother when she was just 3 years of age, Rivera began living on the streets and surviving on sex work from a very young age. She was later taken in by a group of drag queens and credits Marsha P. Johnson for saving her life.
Rivera and Johnson are known for the part they played in the gay rights movement, but before that, Rivera had fought in the Black Liberation movement and peace movement. She was an activist and advocate who fought for equality for all people, often working to protect the homeless community.
The Legacy continues
Rivera continued this work, primarily focusing on transgender activism, she was fondly known as the ‘mother of all gay people’. Sadly, Rivera passed away from liver cancer at the age of 50, in 2002. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project was founded just before her passing, a legal aid organisation set up to serve vulnerable people of colour, transgenders, and the gender non-conforming. She left behind a legacy of leading the way for transgender rights and Latin-American civil rights in America.
Explore more of Rivera’s work and legacy here
Learn more about Sylvia Rivera Law project here
Phyll Opoku Gyimah (She/Her)
Phyll Opoku Gyimah is a British activist of Ghanaian heritage, co-founder of UK Black Pride and executive director of the Kaleidoscope Trust, dedicated to helping the human rights of LGBT+ people on an international level.
Gyimah set up UK Black Pride in 2005, the first UK Black Pride was a day trip to South End, and it is now Europe’s biggest celebration of its kind for the African, Asian, Middle Eastern and Caribbean LGBT+ community. Black Pride was created after the feeling of many community members that the regular Pride events did not represent the lives and experiences of Black LGBT+ and Gyimah herself says, “it becomes increasingly important for us to create spaces, moments, and movements that centre our experience and that prioritize our lives”. With the creation of UK Black Pride, she has done just that, created a space where people feel represented, and celebrated.
Having also been a trustee for LGBT+ rights for Stonewall, Gyimah’s work has been dedicated to rights for all oppressed groups. Gyimah has served on a range of boards and committees, notably also working as a civil servant with some of her roles including Head of Equality, Health & Safety and Head of Political Campaigns and Equality.
Diversity at every level
Not only has Gyimah’s life and work been dedicated to supporting and lifting others, she also fought hard for representation and creating platforms which previously did not exist. Gyimah can be described as a brilliant role model for all as she dedicated her life to showing the power of representation and diversity at every level.
For more information on UK Black Pride click here
Watch a recent interview with Gyimah conducted by South Bank University on Youtube
If you missed last week’s LGBT+ History Month blog click here. This is the last week of our LGBT+ History Month campaign, we hope you’ve enjoyed the series, let us know what you think by hitting the connect button!