(Editor's note: October is LGBT History Month, celebrated annually to recognize the notable achievements of LGBT people throughout time. Each day this month, Equality Forum will feature one LGBT icon who has made notable contributions to society and SDGLN will publish the story here in the Causes section. View previous LGBT History Month icons HERE.)
Dr. Frank Mugisha is one of the most famous and outspoken advocates for LGBT rights in Uganda, a country where being gay is a criminal offense. He is the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) and advocates on behalf of LGBT Ugandans who face prison or even death for being openly gay. He has received both the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and the Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize for his work.
When Mugisha was 14, he came out to his strict Catholic family. Many family members and friends disowned him. The rejection later inspired him to create Icebreakers Uganda, a group to help other young people with the coming-out process.
In 2014 he came out publicly about Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law, which not only outlawed homosexual acts and compelled citizens to report suspected homosexual activity, but also mandated life imprisonment for LGBT citizens. “I want my fellow Ugandans to understand that homosexuality is not a Western import,” Mugisha said, “and our friends in the developed world to recognize that the current trend of homophobia is.”
Mugisha was also a plaintiff in a lawsuit against American evangelist Scott Lively for his work on Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill. Mugisha has received death threats for his ongoing advocacy, but he has said, “For me, it is about standing out and speaking in an environment where you are not sure if you will survive the next day; it is this fear that makes me strong, to work hard and fight on to see a better life for LGBTI persons in Uganda.”
“I am a gay man. I am also Ugandan. There is nothing un-African about me.”
In 1961, along with Frank Kameny, Jack Nichols cofounded the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., the the first gay civil rights organization in the nation’s capital. Four years later, Nichols and other members of the organization conducted the first gay rights protest at the White House.
Nichols also participated in the Annual Reminders—pickets held in front of Independence Hall each Fourth of July from 1965 to 1969. The Annual Reminders helped galvanize the organized LGBT civil rights movement, paving the way for the Stonewall Riots in 1969.
Nichols joined Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings and other activists in a multi-year battle with the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. The APA eventually conceded, after failing to produce scientific evidence to support the classification.
In 1967 Nichols became one of the first Americans to speak openly about being gay in the documentary “CBS Reports: The Homosexuals.” Though he appeared on screen, he said he was forced to use a pseudonym after his father, an FBI agent, threatened him, fearing the U.S. government might discover his son was gay.
Nichols, along with his partner Lige Clarke, wrote the first LGBT interest column, “The Homosexual Citizen,” in a mainstream publication in 1969. The famous couple would later launch GAY, the first weekly gay newspaper in New York City. The publication flourished until Clarke was murdered in Mexico in 1975. Nichols later became an editor for the San Francisco Sentinel and GayToday.com.
“Every person I work with knows something better than me. My job is to listen long enough to find it and use it.”
Elaine Noble served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives for two terms starting in 1975, becoming the first-ever openly gay candidate elected to a state office. Noble says that during her controversial, groundbreaking campaign, her windows were shot out, her car was vandalized, and she and her staff suffered ongoing harassment. She still managed to win the election.
“I was elected in an largely Irish Catholic town,” she later said. “There was a level of animosity in all strata of society against homosexuality.” Noble’s victory came three years before Harvey Milk, the gay San Francisco supervisor, was shot to death.
In 1977 Noble was among the first delegation of gays and lesbians invited to the White House by President Jimmy Carter. She helped form the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus with Ann Lewis, the sister of former U.S. Congressman Barney Frank. Frank was not out about his sexuality at the time.
Noble ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate and went on to work for Boston Mayor Kevin White. At the time, she was romantically involved with the writer Rita Mae Brown.
In 1986 Noble helped create the Pride Institute, an LGBT alcohol and drug treatment center in Minneapolis. She eventually moved to Florida to teach and sell real estate. She also became involved in the local Democratic Party. In 2009 she helped raise money to build the Palm Beach LGBT Center.
“I was elected in spite of being gay.”