10 All-Around Bad-Ass Queer Women You (Probably) Have Never Heard Of, Part Two
The world’s oldest living lesbian
On October 5, 2000, we lost a legend when Ruth Ellis died at the age of 101. Born in 1899, Ellis came out in 1915 and was recognized as the world’s oldest open lesbian.
Ellis lived her life out and proud…and as an advocate for the LGBTQ+ and African American communities. The Detroit home she shared with her lifelong partner, Ceciline “Babe” Franklin, was known as a gathering place and refuge for Black gays and lesbians at a time when few such places existed.
In 1999, Living with Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @ 100, a documentary about her remarkable life, was released. That same year, the Ruth Ellis Center opened in Michigan to provide trauma-informed services to homeless and at-risk LGBTQ+ children, teens, and young adults.
Ellis died in her sleep. Her ashes were spread at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, a feminist women’s event that she attended every year.
(Photo credit: Ruth Ellis Center)
A remarkable life in a man’s world
In the early part of the 20th century, women doctors were rare, and then there was Margaret Chung—the first Chinese-American woman to become a practicing physician.
After graduating from medical school in 1916, Chung was denied a number of opportunities because of her race and gender. This included not being allowed to participate in medical missionary work through the Presbyterian Church, in which Chung was raised. She did eventually complete an internship at a hospital in Chicago and then began practicing medicine in California where she treated the local Chinese-American population, as well as a number of celebrities.
In medical school and early in her career, Chung adopted masculine dress, which was not unusual for women of the day who practiced in professional fields traditionally populated only by men.
During World War II, she hosted dinners at her home for officers and soldiers, eventually “adopting” a squadron of young men who affectionately called her “mom.” After the war, her “adopted sons” purchased a home for her as a gift.
While she longed to be more involved with the Chinese community, her lack of fluency in the language and rumors about her sexuality made this very difficult. Chung associated with many who were openly gay or lesbian, including poet Elsa Gidlow, sometimes going to establishments that catered to the community. While she never identified as lesbian or bisexual, a majority of Chung’s long-term relationships were very close “friendships” with women, including actress and comedian Sophie Tucker, who Chung met while she was in medical school. Notes that Chung wrote to Tucker reveal real, lasting love—whether it was romantic or not.
Chung’s relationship with Tucker would continue until her Chung’s death in 1959 of cancer.
The mother of social work
Addams with visitors to Hull House
In 1931, four years before her death at 74, Jane Addams became the first American woman
awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. At a time when women were just starting to find their agency, Addams was forging the path.
Addams is widely seen as the founder of professional social work. As a reformer, suffragette, sociologist, and activist, Addams’ life was spent trying to make the world a better place for the people in it. Her many accomplishments include co-founding the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Addams was always exploring what it meant to be a woman, especially in a society that seemed to reject the role she wanted to play. She became fascinated by democracy and philosophy and how those ideas could shape a better and more equal world.
In 1889, Addams co-founded Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago. Like all settlement houses of the day, Hull House was a place for community and to share civic ideas, but with one main difference: all of its residents were women. Addams and her first known romantic partner (and Hull House’s co-founder), Ellen Starr, were the first occupants.
After Addams and Star’s relationship ended, Addams began a romance with philanthropist Mary Rozet Smith. The two would remain together for almost 40 years, until Addams’ death.
Man Enough to Be a Woman
Jayne County is rock’s first openly transgender singer. With a career that spans decades, County has a lot of classic hits to her name, including “Man Enough to Be a Woman” and “Stuck on You.”
County set off to make a name for herself at the age of 19, leaving her home in Georgia for New York City. One of her regular haunts was the Stonewall Inn and she was there in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969 when the police raided and then the patrons rioted.
In the 1970s, County was signed to David Bowie’s management firm and her band, Wayne County and the Electric Guitars, regularly played at New York’s seminal music club CBGB. The English rock band, The Police, would support the group’s 1977 tour in Holland. Late in the decade, County would appear alongside Adam Ant, Little Nell, and Jordan, among other punk rock luminaries, in the film Jubilee.
In 1979, County began publicly identifying as a woman.
While County never achieved mainstream success, she has been named by many well-known artists—including David Bowie, Patti Smith, and Lou Reed—as a key influence.
Over the decades, County has continued to perform and record her music. Her most recent release is the 2017 EP called Here Comes the JC5.
(Photo credit: jaynecounty.com)
A gay superhero
Meet Stormé DeLarverie, who, by many accounts, threw the punch that set off the Stonewall riots, inspiring the Pride and LGBTQ+ rights movements we know today. By the way, DeLarverie hated that term: “It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience—it was no damn riot.”
Born in 1920 to a Black woman who was impregnated by the white man she worked for, DeLarverie was never exactly sure of her birthday, eventually adopting December 24 as the day to celebrate.
She began her entertainment career as horserider with Ringling Brothers Circus, but soon she left the big tent for bigger ambitions. DeLarverie would become a well-known Drag King, touring with the first racially integrated revue in the U.S. Her tailored suits, striking good looks, and baritone voice became a favorite of audiences wherever they played, including the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
When she wasn’t performing, she was the self-proclaimed “guardian of lesbians in the Village”, working as a bodyguard and bouncer.
DeLarverie’s partner of 25 years, Diana, died in the 1970s. Friends say DeLarverie carried a picture of Diana with her at all times.
After DeLarverie’s death, at 93, in 2014, her obituary in the New York Times called her a “gay superhero.”