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October 20, 2006
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Volume 34
Issue 42
 
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Gay Pioneers: Martina Navratilova, Harry Hay & Larry Kramer
Gay Pioneers: Martina Navratilova, Harry Hay & Larry Kramer
by Jason Villemez - Special to the SGN

MARTINA NAVRATILOVA

The world sporting landscape has seen few openly Gay or Lesbian athletes. Martina Navratilova's road to coming out began in 1981, when she disclosed her relationship with Rita Mae Brown to a reporter. For the next 10 years, though, tennis would play the greater role in the young Martina's life, with her sexuality taking a backseat.

A tennis phenom in her native Czechoslovakia, she defected to the U.S. in 1975, proudly but riskily listing herself as Bisexual on her application for asylum. After her defection, she flourished into one of the most successful tennis stars in history. Her title list includes nine Wimbledon, four U.S. Open, three Australian Open, and two French Open singles titles, and 41 Grand Slam doubles titles. She holds the world record of 167 singles titles in total.

Her aggressive style was unique for a female player at the time, and is viewed as revolutionary in women's tennis. Though her success brought her much celebrity, the 49-year-old was long secretive about her private life to the press, portraying herself as Bisexual throughout the 1980s and in her 1985 autobiography, Martina. In 1991, her breakup with partner Judy Nelson attracted oppressive media attention, virtually forcing Navratilova completely out of the closet.

However, the turn of events would work in the LGBT community's favor, as she embraced her sexuality and publicly supported various causes. One such cause is the Rainbow Card, which she helped create with VISA in 1993 to raise money for LGBT non-profit groups. The card has raised over two million dollars since its inception.

Navratilova retired from major competition in 1995 and made a successful comeback from 2003 to 2006, which culminated in winning the 2006 U.S. Open Championship in mixed doubles.

HARRY HAY

Born in 1912, Harry Hay was a different breed from the radical activists who proliferated within the movement in the 1960s. Hay founded the Mattachine Society, based partly on a historical Italian court-jester figure who spoke social truths to the king that others were too discreet to mention.

The new society served to educate and inform the then-underground homosexual population, encouraging community consciousness and support. November 1950 saw the group's first meeting, with 5 people participating, including Hay and his then-lover, fashion designer Rudi Gernreich. Although it was often viewed as illegal for homosexuals to congregate at the time, membership increased as word of the society spread.

When one of Hay's original members was arrested on grounds of soliciting a police officer for sex, Hay and the society came to his defense, establishing the Citizens' Committee to Outlaw Entrapment. The case was eventually dropped after all but one juror voted for acquittal. News of the case swelled Mattachine membership, but also furthered a growing anti-Gay resistance to the group.

In 1953, new membership demanded a change, partly because of Hay's left-wing politics during the McCarthy era, and Hay broke away from his creation. Hay drifted around in the latter 1950s, often excluded from organizations because of his outlandish opinions.

Ten years after his break from Mattachine, he was introduced to his future life partner John Burnside. The two joined the civil rights struggle together. Hay was elected to lead the Gay Liberation Front in Southern California. Burnside and he were staples of picket lines during the 1969-70 uprising period. In mid-1970, the two left California for New Mexico, where Hay studied Native American culture.

He later formed the Radical Faeries, a group fostering the idea of equals between lovers. Hay continued with the Faeries until developing lung cancer in 1999. His adoring partner brought him to San Francisco, where he died in 2002.

Despite being lost amid the radicalism of the civil rights struggles, Hay has been recognized as a founder of the movement for LGBT equality.

LARRY KRAMER

A talented screenwriter, playwright, and staunch AIDS activist; Larry Kramer has made contributions to battling the epidemic that transcend mere words on paper. Born in 1935, Kramer was already an established writer when the first infections spread throughout America. His screenplay adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love received an Academy Award nomination in 1970, and his 1978 novel Faggots became a best seller, trumping heated criticism over its negative portrayals of homosexuals.

Just three years after Faggots' release, the first AIDS cases hit New York, and Kramer immediately began urging action to stop the spread of the disease and to help those already devastated. He co-founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis, which provided much-needed care and support to Gay men with the disease, many of whom had been rejected by hospitals and shunned by others in the community.

What began as a small gathering in Kramer's apartment, GMHC boasts a huge list of breakthroughs for AIDS support, including the first AIDS hotline, which received 100 calls its first night, the first AIDS Walk, with 4500 walkers raising $710,000, and the first million-dollar fundraiser, an art auction held at Sotheby's.

Despite the group's success, Kramer left his position at GMHC in 1983 due to its perceived lack of political presence. He realized his growing political desires in 1987, co-founding the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), which continues today in reduced numbers. ACT UP became known for its militant protests and civil disobedience, including famed disruptions on Wall Street, at the New York City General Post Office and at the National Institutes of Health, as well as a brief takeover of the CBS Evening News in 1991.

Though the groups he established are responsible for some of Kramer's fame, he continued his playwriting, touching upon his own experiences as a Gay man during the AIDS crisis in 1986's The Normal Heart, one of the most acclaimed works of the AIDS era and of Kramer's career. Regardless of whether his political or cultural discourse dominates his body of work, Kramer will be remembered as one of the earliest and most influential AIDS activists.

He currently lives in New York and Connecticut with his partner.

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