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  • Writer's pictureMatt Pipes

Finding inspiration in Queer history’s humble heroes

Updated: Sep 22, 2019

This summer I had the chance to see the “Love and Resistance” exhibit that the New York public library put on to celebrate 50 years since Stonewall. It was an incredible collection of photographs and memories that really helped put my journey through Queer history into focus.

Portrait of Za Zu Nova, Member of Gay Liberation front and founding member of New York Gay Youth

For the past couple of years I have been fascinated by the history of the civil rights movement and the struggle for LGBTQ+ equality. What has inspired me the most was the incredible impact individuals from humble backgrounds could achieve by having the courage to challenge and overcome the limitations that their times imposed on them.

ZaZu Nova is a good example of a person who lived with adversity but who found the strength and courage to take up the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights. ZaZu was, like Martha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, a “Transvestite” sex worker. As someone who’s gender was non binary she would have been subjected to constant threat of violence and harassment by the police and general public. Despite these threats she fought back, she was not shy about defending herself, and after Stonewall fought to defend others. She was active in the Gay Liberation Front and was a founding member of New York Gay Youth.

Portrait of José Sarria performing at the Black Cat Club San Francisco circa 1950’s

José Sarria (AKA The Empress Norton, The Grand Mere Absolute Empress de San Francisco) is another figure from Queerstory who‘s incredible force of will and determination changed the world. Born in 1922 to immigrant parents, Sarria had wanted to become a teacher, but realized that his sexuality would be a barrier to that. Rather than live a closeted life he chose instead to lead an exceptional one! His exploits are too numerous to mention, but among his achievements are: Being the first openly gay candidate for public office in the United States, running for city supervisor in San Francisco in 1961, he lost but not by much, running on a platform of equality and workers rights. Undaunted he later formed the Imperial Court, an organization that uses Drag to raise money and awareness for LGBTQ+ causes and equality.

Portrait of Ruth Ellis on her letter press

Ruth Ellis is someone who I found out about because someone reached out to me to paint a portrait of her for a fundraiser for the Ruth Ellis Center ( which provides services for homeless and runaway LGBTQ+ youth. The center was named to honor Ellis who was exceptional in many ways: She died in 2001 at the age of 101 and had come out in 1915 at the age of 16. Her and her partner lived in a house that Ellis ran her printing business from (first woman owned printing business in Michigan) and their home was known as the “Gay House” because they hosted dinners, dances and social events for the Detroit gay community. They were also known because everyone knew that if they got kicked out for being gay the would have a meal and place to stay with Ruth!

There are so many examples of people who overcame extreme obstacles to make incredible contributions to Queerstory: Bacardi Rustin, James Baldwin, Harvey Milk... The list goes on and on, and will provide me with inspiration to paint for some time! Knowing that they tackled situations that seemed impossible to change and created a more equitable world gives me so much hope and serve as a reminder to keep up the struggle!

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