Helen Keller (1880-1968)
Helen Keller was born to wealth and privilege in Tuscumbia, Alabama. She had all five of her senses at birth, but an illness at 19 months, now believed to have been scarlet fever or meningitis, left her totally deaf and totally blind. In 1887, her parents brought Annie Sullivan, a visually impaired teacher who had graduated from the Perkins School For the Blind in Boston, to try to teach Helen how to read and write.
Bessie Smith (1894-1934)
Bessie Smith was a big African American woman with a huge voice.
Known as the Empress of the Blues, she was the most popular blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s, and she influenced many jazz singers. Signed by Columbia Records in 1923, she was most likely the first black artist to be wooed by a white-owned record label.
Smith, who had an overtly sexual stage persona, never hid her relationships with women.
In 1937 she was critically injured in a car accident. She died before she could reach a hospital.
Kitty Genovese (1935 – 1964)
Late one night in 1964, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death as she walked from her car to her apartment in Queens, New York after her shift working at a local bar. Reportedly dozens of her neighbors ignored her cries for help as she was repeatedly stabbed and bled to death only steps away from safety.
The story of Genovese’s death made headlines and today remains a symbol of urban apathy. Allegedly, some neighbors watched her lying on the ground bleeding from their windows and still did nothing. Several books and a 1975 TV movie titled Death Scream were all inspired by Genovses’s murder.
Decades after her death, it was revealed that Genovese was a lesbian. Her partner Mary Ann Zielonko was included in Kevin Cook’s book Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America. The women were “roommates” to their neighbors because they couldn’t come out in 1964, but Zielonko said that they were very much in love. They only had a year together.
Lesley Gore (1945 – 2015)
Lesley Gore was another pop star who achieved fame during the 1960s. Her song “You Don’t Own Me” was a massive hit, becoming somewhat of a feminist anthem. In the song, Gore tells an unnamed boyfriend that she is free to do as she pleases, just as he is. The song made a recent comeback when Oakland rapper G Eazy sampled the tune and lyrics in his song of the same name. Gore also topped the charts with “It’s My Party” and “Judy’s Turn to Cry.”
Gore came out as a lesbian in middle age. Though her career tapered off in the 1980s, she continued composing songs and made occasional appearances. In 2004 she began hosting the LGBTQ television news magazine In The Life on PBS.
Gore died of lung cancer in 2015.
Alice B. Toklas (1877 – 1967) and Gertrude Stein (1874 – 1946)
A lesbian couple in Paris during the early part of the 20th century, both Toklas and Stein were Americans. They met in Paris around 1907, remaining together until Stein’s death in 1946. They were part of a circle of American expatriates living in the City of Light — writers, artists, and poets — that included some of the era’s most famous literary figures.
For Stein and Toklas, Paris was a place where they could live openly as a lesbian couple, which was not the case in the USA at that time.
Both women were writers, though Stein was, during her lifetime, the more celebrated of the two. Toklas was more of a background figure, serving as Stein’s secretary.
Stein’s most remembered book is The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which was actually a memoir of Stein’s own life, written as though Toklas were telling it. Published in 1933, it was ranked by Modern Library as one of the 20 greatest English language books of the 20th century.
After Stein’s death, Toklas struggled to make a living. Stein had left her estate to Toklas, which included a vast and valuable art collection, but Stein’s family took this from Toklas. At a time when queer relationships were not legally recognized, Toklas had no recourse.
Toklas made a living writing columns for newspapers and magazines. She eventually achieved cult status for her 1954 book The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. A mixture of memoir and recipes, the cookbook included Hashish Fudge — fruit, nuts, spices, and “Cannibus sativa.”
The year after her death, Toklas was immortalized when the comedy film I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968) was released. The film included a hilarious sequence in which a hippie chick (Leigh Taylor Young) makes Toklas’ pot brownies and then proceeds to get her boyfriend’s conservative, overbearing mother stoned.
The women are buried side by side in Paris.
Dusty Springfield (1939 – 1999)
British born singer Dusty Springfield moved to the USA around 1964, where she became a wildly popular pop singer. Her 1969 hit Son of a Preacher Man was an envelope-pushing tale of a teenage girl who has a summer fling with the pastor’s son. The song was part of her album Dusty in Memphis, now considered by music critics to be among the greatest of all time.
Springfield, who died of breast cancer in 1999, was listed in the Equality Forum’s 31 Icons for 2015 LGBT History Month. Her relationships with women were well known within the LGBTQ community throughout her life.