Celebrating Lesbian Trailblazers

According to James Brown, “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” It’s so man-tastic, in fact, that it requires three repetitions of the word man to exactly quantify how manly it is. Furthermore per Brown, Man made the cars to take us over the road, man made the train to carry the heavy load, man-made electric light to take us out of the dark, man made the boat for the water.”

And if you read history books, you’ll probably believe it’s true: man is out there inventing space shuttles and nanotechnology and women are sitting in caves scratching at the ground with sticks and wondering what that water is falling from the sky. Because men seem to write all the history books, too.

Throughout (actual) history, however, women have consistently overcome the institutional and social barriers that otherwise have held 51% of the world’s population down and achieved successes no less important than that of their male colleagues, although these women have often been less celebrated.

In honor of Women’s History Month, AfterEllen recognizes just a few of many trailblazers to remind the world that not only are women contributors to exploration, innovation, and discovery, but lesbians are too!

Ann Bancroft: The Arctic Adventurer

photo via University of Oregon

Ann Bancroft is a modern adventurer, following the lineage of other explorers like Robert Peary and Edmund Hillary. In 1986, Bancroft became the first woman to reach the North Pole by foot and dogsled, traveling 1,000 miles from Canada as part of the Will Steger International North Pole Expedition. In 1992, she was the first woman to ski across Greenland as she led the first east-west crossing of Greenland. In 1992-93, she led a four-woman team on skis to the South Pole, becoming the first woman to cross both polar ice caps.

In 2001, she and Norwegian explorer Liv Arnesen became the first women to sail and ski across Antarctica. Recently, Bancroft has begun planning expeditions to bring awareness to environmental issues and empower young women. In 2015, Bancroft led a seven-woman expedition on the 1,500 mile long Ganges River to highlight the importance of clean water, and she has additional trips planned to Africa in 2019, Oceania in 2021, South America in 2023, Europe in 2025, and a return to Antarctica in 2027. Take me with you, Ann! Fun fact: Bancroft is an honorary Minnesota RollerGirl and her derby name is “S’no Mercy.”

Diana Nyad: The Extreme Athlete


Diana Nyad tried four times to swim the 110 miles between Florida and Cuba before she finally succeeded on the fifth attempt. She was 64 years old, and it had taken her 35 years of trying to succeed. Nyad’s grueling 53-hour swim set several records, including the first Cuba-Florida crossing for a swimmer without the use of a shark cage, and was only the latest in a career full of record-breaking.

In 1970, Nyad set a women’s record in her first 10-mile race in Lake Ontario. In 1975, she swam around Manhattan in just under eight hours, breaking a 45-year-old record and making her one of if not the world’s greatest long-distance swimmer. In 1979, she swam 102 miles from the Bahamas to Florida, setting a distance record for non-stop swimming without a wetsuit. Nyad battled jellyfish, massive ocean swells, exhaustion, and dehydration during her multiple attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida, but proved that willpower–even more than age or gender–is the key to success in extreme endurance events. Fun fact: Nyad was also once ranked thirteenth among US women squash players!

Lesbians in the Military: The Loyal Warriors

For as long as women (including women posing as men) have served in the military, lesbians have been disproportionately represented. Although many might be familiar with the story of Margarethe (Grethe) Cammermeyer, here are a few others that show the experiences of lesbians in the military over time:

Nell “Johnnie” Phelps joined the first Women’s Army Corps (WAC) battalion during World War II. She first served in the South Pacific as a medic (she received a Purple Heart and her female paramour was killed when their boat was bombed while landing in the Philippines), then went to Germany as part of the post-WWII occupation force under General (and future US President) Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In 1946, Phelps was assigned to head Eisenhower’s motor pool. One day, Eisenhower told her, “It’s come to my attention that there are lesbians in the WACs. We need to ferret them out.” Phelps replied, “If the General pleases, sir, I’ll be happy to do that, but the first name on the list will be mine.” Eisenhower’s secretary then added, “If the General pleases, sir, my name will be first and hers will be second.”

Phelps then reportedly told Eisenhower, “Sir, you’re right, there are lesbians in the WACs – and if you want to replace all the file clerks, section commanders, drivers, every woman in the WAC detachment, I will be happy to make that list. But you must know, sir, that they are the most decorated group – there have been no illegal pregnancies, no AWOLs, no charges of misconduct.” Later, Phelps said “There were almost nine hundred women in the battalion. I could honestly say that 95 percent of them were lesbians.”

Adrianna Vorderbruggen, right, with her family.

Air Force Major Adrianna Vorderbruggen spent years fighting the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and finally was able to marry her partner in 2012. Three years later, she was killed by a suicide bomber while she was leading a security patrol near Bagram Air Base. Vorderbruggen is not only believed to be the first openly (to her service) lesbian active duty service member to die in combat, but she is also the first openly LGBT Air Force member to have died in combat (two lesbian National Guard members died before her).

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: The Civil Rights Vanguard

Frances E. W. Harper epitomizes the OG social justice warrior: she energetically supported abolition, prohibition, and women’s suffrage in the mid- to late 1800s. She was a friend of suffragettes Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and in 1851, she helped escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad and served as chair of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. In 1858, she refused to give up her seat and ride in the “colored” section of a segregated trolley car in Philadelphia, almost a full century before Rosa Parks.

In 1859, she wrote the first short story to be published by a black woman in the United States (her first book of poetry was published in 1845, when she was just 20 years old). She helped found the National Association of Colored Women in 1894, when she was 69 years old, and served as its vice president. In her life, so many of her articles were published that she has been called “the mother of African-American journalism.” She is listed in Lesbian Lists as an “early Black Lesbian and Bisexual Writer,” although there are no other references to her sexual orientation online.

Chavela Vargas: The Muse and Singing Legend


Lesbians and guitars go together like milk and cookies. Chavela Vargas (born Isabel Vargas Lizano) was born in Costa Rica, but as a teenager she moved to Mexico, where she sang on the streets, slept with women (probably including Frida Kahlo, with whom she lived for a few years), wore men’s clothing, smoked cigars, and drank heavily. One of the biggest influencers of Mexican music in the 20th century, she specialized in the “ranchera,” a traditional Mexican folk music genre normally sung by a man about love and its disasters.

Chavela kept the female pronouns in her songs, although she didn’t officially come out until she was 81, and replaced the traditional mariachi band accompaniment to rancheras with a simple, acoustic approach. Although her life was plagued by alcoholism, she experienced a career revival in her eighties when she served as a muse to Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar and finally achieved sobriety. In 2017, a biography called “Chavela” was released that featured interviews with Chavela about her sexual orientation, her life, and her music.

Florence Nightingale: The Mother of Women in Medicine

Florence Nightingale is pretty much solely responsible for the development of modern nursing, and bears a lot of credit for getting women into medicine and reducing the death rate of patients in hospitals in general. She organized the world’s first secular nursing school, advocated for reforms for hospital hygiene, and regularized some medical practices. In 1854, Nightingale became famous for her work in Crimea during the Crimean War (where she trained 28 volunteer nurses and lowered the death rate of British soldiers through better hygiene practices).

In 1860, she founded the Nightingale Training School and published a foundational introduction to nursing that not only became standard reading in the curricula of nursing schools, but was also read by the British public. In 1907, she was the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit by the British Government. In recognition of her pioneering work, new nurses take the Nightingale Pledge (the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath), and the Florence Nightingale Medal is the highest international distinction a nurse can achieve. Furthermore, International Nurses Day is celebrated on her birthday.