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Celebrate Pride Month with these trailblazing LGBTQ figures

<i>Catherine McGann/Getty Images</i><br/>Larry Kramer is seen here at the Village Voice AIDS conference on June 6
Catherine McGann/Getty Images
Larry Kramer is seen here at the Village Voice AIDS conference on June 6

By Leah Asmelash, CNN

(CNN) — This year’s Pride Month comes at an arduous time for many people, as restrictions on drag performances, transgender health care and other LGBTQ rights take center stage in many states.

Still, the month is a time for celebration and, of course, pride. To commemorate the month, CNN is highlighting five major LGBTQ elders – some who have passed on, and some who haven’t – highlighting their achievements.

From a drag king who fought discrimination on the streets of New York to a famous mathematician who stood up to adversity despite legal limitations, here are five LGBTQ figures to know.

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin was instrumental in the civil rights movement, leading and organizing many protests. But Rustin wasn’t only a leader in the movement – he was also someone who helped push Martin Luther King Jr. toward nonviolent ideas and tactics.

Rustin studied in India for seven weeks to learn Gandhian philosophies in 1948, and he passed those teachings down to King. Following the success of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, Rustin became a close confidant of the iconic reverend, and later organized the March on Washington in 1963.

Rustin also played a significant role in the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, also known as SCLC. Still, though Rustin was an out gay man, some believed his sexuality would undermine the movement. In 1953, Rustin was arrested for having sex with another man in a parked car, landing him on the sex offender registry.

The charge was used against him – most notably by former Sen. Strom Thurmond, a segregationist, who read his arrest record on the Senate floor and used it to delegitimize the civil rights movement. Almost 70 years later, Rustin was pardoned by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Larry Kramer

When playwright and activist Larry Kramer published his essay “1,112 and Counting” in 1983, AIDS was a highly stigmatized, little understood disease primarily affecting gay men.

“Our continued existence as gay men upon the face of this earth is at stake,” he wrote. “Unless we fight for our lives, we shall die. In all the history of homosexuality we have never before been so close to death and extinction. Many of us are dying or already dead.”

Kramer’s essay spared no punches, criticizing everyone from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to doctors and local politicians. And it was no less than tide-shifting, motivating thousands of people to protest and, eventually, propelling a nationwide response to the crisis.

Just a few years later, Kramer also founded ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), an organization known for organizing die-ins, political funerals and speeches against officials, all in an attempt to encourage AIDS research and advocate for LGBTQ people.

Though he died in 2020, his impact was deep – with Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, crediting Kramer for changing medicine in the US.

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy

Alongside transgender activists like Marsha P. Johnson, Miss Major was on the frontlines of the Stonewall uprising in New York in 1969. But that’s not where her activism ended.

A prominent figure in both Chicago, where she was born, and New York, the road hasn’t been easy for Miss Major. After being kicked out of two colleges for wearing dresses, Miss Major relied on sex work and drag work for money.

But a year after Stonewall, Miss Major was arrested for robbery, landing her with a five-year prison sentence. Her time in incarceration directly impacted her advocacy for transgender and gender nonconforming people behind bars.

Decades after her release, Miss Major spent time as the executive director of the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project. She also wrote letters to people in prison and helped those who were newly released find jobs, while also supporting young drag performers and other young LGBTQ folks – earning her the nickname “Mama Major.”

Stormé DeLarverie

Rumored to have thrown the first punch at Stonewall, Stormé DeLarverie spent her life fighting “ugliness” – her word for discrimination of any kind.

Dubbing herself the “guardian of the lesbians in The Village,” DeLarverie would patrol the streets of Greenwich Village in New York with a concealed rifle (and a state gun permit), ensuring the safety of lesbians and kids at night. She was also a drag king performer, known for her work with the Jewel Box Revue, a traveling company of drag performers, mostly drag queens, and the first racially integrated company of its kind.

Born in New Orleans to a Black mother and White father, DeLarverie first saw success as a jazz singer in nightclubs as a teenager. She spent her life performing for and protecting the community she loved.

“Be a smartass and start putting people down, I won’t have it. You don’t do it around me. Just don’t try it,” she said in a 2009 interview. “That’s inexcusable. Ugliness is totally unnecessary.”

Alan Turing

Alan Turing’s mind was one of the best.

Not only was Turing active in cracking Germany’s Enigma code and deciphering messages sent by the Nazis during World War II, he later worked on designing the ACE (Automatic Computing Engine) at the National Physical Laboratory in England. That design was so revolutionary, it’s considered a predecessor to the modern computer.

And yet, Turing was arrested in 1952 after calling police to report a burglary in his home. Officers discovered Turing was in a relationship with a man and arrested him. Turing was found guilty of “gross indecency,” which at the time was punishable by a lifetime jail sentence.

Though he accepted a punishment of chemical castration, Turing remained open about his sexuality. Two years later, he died of cyanide poisoning, with a half-eaten apple found nearby – though some people have argued that Turing may not have intended to die by suicide.

Still, his legacy continues. The 2014 movie “The Imitation Game” brought his story to the big screen. Three years later, the Turing Law was passed, allowing anyone convicted of consensual gay sex in the UK to be pardoned.

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