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Meet LGBT History Month icons Virginia Apuzzo, Josephine Baker, and Xavier Bettel

(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.)

Oct. 1: Virginia Apuzzo

Virginia “Ginny” Apuzzo is a New York native and a former nun who played a pivotal role in LGBT civil rights and the fight against AIDS during the 1980s and ’90s.

Apuzzo joined the Sisters of Charity in the Bronx when she was 26, but left after the Stonewall riots (1969) to come out publicly as a lesbian and establish herself as an activist, educator and civil servant.

“I read about Stonewall in the newspaper,” Apuzzo said in “Stonewall Uprising,” a PBS documentary. “Here I’d thought I was the only one ... it was as if suddenly a brick wall opened up.”

Apuzzo joined the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and served for many years as its executive director, working to include LGBT issues in the 1976 Democratic Party platform. In 1978 she cofounded the Lambda Independent Democrats.

In 1980 she became one of the first openly lesbian delegates at the Democratic National Convention when she co-authoredthe first gay and lesbian civil rights plank for the Democratic Party. In 1997 Bill Clinton appointed her to the White House senior staff as assistant to the president for administration and management, making her the highest-ranking out lesbian in the federal government. 

Apuzzo joined the Women’s Caucus, an arm of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, with her partner, Betty Powell, who was the first black lesbian on the group’s board. The two became increasingly vocal about lesbian rights after butting heads with well-known feminists whom they accused of insufficiently embracing lesbians in the women’s movement.

It was during her tenure with New York City’s Department of Public Health that Apuzzo became one of the earliest, most vocal female AIDS activists in the country. In New York she created a volunteer infrastructure to address the community’s needs and established one of the first telephone hotlines to help with AIDS education and resources. Apuzzo testified at the first congressional hearing on AIDS, blasting the government’s lax response to the virus, and continued to lobby passionately for federal funds.

“It was the most tragic time of my life,” she said, “each year seeing whole segments of the gay male activist community wiped out.”

In 1985 New York Governor Mario Cuomo named her vice chair of the New York State AIDS Advisory Council. She publicly challenged pharmaceutical companies over the rising cost of AIDS drugs and helped rewrite insurance policies. Years later, she worked with President Clinton to secure disability benefits for people living with the disease.

Apuzzo was a tenured professor at Brooklyn College. In 2007 New York Governor Eliot Spitzer appointed her to the Commission on Public Integrity, where she worked until she retired.

 

Oct. 2: Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker was an American-born entertainer who found fame as a dancer, singer and actress in Paris. Sometimes called the “Jazz Cleopatra,” Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in a poor neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri. After facing abuse and racial discrimination in America, she moved to France in the 1920s where she became a celebrated performer and the first black woman to star in a major motion picture. Her exotic beauty inspired Ernest Hemingway to describe her as “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” 

Baker’s landmark cabaret show, “La Revue Nègre,” became the toast of Paris thanks to her on-stage antics. She exuded sexuality, wearing next to nothing and performing tribal-inspired dances with comic touches and cultural commentary.

When she returned to the United States as a major star a decade later, the reception was quite different. American audiences rejected her, and The New York Times called her a “negro wench.” She went back to Europe brokenhearted.

During World War II, Baker earned recognition performing for troops and smuggling secret messages on music sheets for the French Resistance. She also served as a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary Army. She was honored with the Croix de Guerre and named Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Baker again faced racial discrimination in America, where the most popular clubs prohibited her from performing. She publicly criticized the Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation and refused to perform in segregated clubs. In 1951 Baker was honored for her activism by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which declared May 20th Josephine Baker Day. Baker talked publicly about racial equality in France and segregation at home. She spoke at the March on Washington in 1963 alongside Dr. Martin Luther King.

Baker married and divorced four times and adopted 12 children of varying ethnic backgrounds, which she called “The Rainbow Tribe.” One son later described his mother as a bisexual, noting a relationship she had with the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Baker also has been linked romantically to the novelist Colette, fellow expatriate performer Bricktop and other women.

Baker became a citizen of France, where she remains an icon.

In 1991 HBO released “The Josephine Baker Story,” which earned five Emmys and a Golden Globe. 

 

Oct. 3: Xavier Bettel

Xavier Bettel is the prime minister of Luxembourg. A member of the Democratic Party, he became the country’s first openly gay leader in December 2013 and one of only three openly gay world leaders. Previously, Bettel served as mayor of Luxembourg city and also as a member of the city’s chamber and council.

Bettel has described Luxembourg as a place where “people do not consider the fact of whether someone is gay or not.” The tiny European country—one of the smallest in the word with just over half a million people—is a leading financial and banking center, second only to the United States in investment funds.

As prime minister, Bettel has advocated for teaching ethics instead of religion in public schools. He is credited with reinvigorating the political scene with progressive reforms and was instrumental in passing same-sex marriage laws in the predominately Roman Catholic country. He has been vocal on social media about LGBT rights.

Under Bettel’s leadership, Luxembourg legalized same-sex marriage in 2014. One year later, after the marriage reforms went into effect, Bettel married his partner, the architect Gauthier Destenay. Bettel is the first openly gay European Union leader and only the second gay leader in the world to marry. The couple have been civil partners since 2010. “I wish for everyone to be as happy as I am,” Bettel told a crowd gathered on his wedding day.

Born in Luxembourg city, Bettel graduated from the University of Nancy where he received a masters degree in public and European law, followed by a post-graduate diploma in advanced studies of political science and public law. He hosted a weekly television talk show early in his career. 

Bettel came out publicly in 2008.