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U.S. Postage Stamp Campaign Launches to Honor LGBTQ Trailblazers

by Kevin Schattenkirk

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday March 3, 2021

A mural depicting Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera in Queens, New York.
A mural depicting Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera in Queens, New York.  (Source:Matthew Wexler)

The National LGBTQ Task Force and the International Imperial Court System, two prominent LGBTQ organizations, have announced a campaign to call on the U.S. Postal Service to issue stamps honoring four influential LGBTQ trailblazers: Bayard Rustin, Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and José Julio Sarria.

"As we just celebrated Black History Month and begin Women's History Month, we want to celebrate our Black and trans LGBTQ icons; Bayard Rustin and Marsha P. Johnson, in the company of two extraordinary Latino icons; Sylvia Rivera and José Julio Sarria," said Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, Queen Mother I of the Americas of the International Imperial Court System.

"The National LGBTQ Task Force is thrilled to continue supporting this effort," said Kierra Johnson, Executive Director, "This campaign recognizes the contributions that the trans and drag communities, particularly people of color who have given so much to the larger LGBTQ community and still do not have the visibility or credit they deserve. We saw the tremendous success of the Harvey Milk stamp and encourage the U.S. Post Office to create more - and more diverse — representations of LGBTQ icons," concluded Johnson.

The campaign's impetus arose when Murray-Ramirez saw a series of Bugs Bunny Forever Stamps, some of which included the iconic Disney character in drag. Murray-Ramirez felt that real-life transgender heroes Johnson and Rivera and drag artist Sarria should also be honored.

Walter Naegle, Rustin's long-term partner, will serve as the campaign's honorary chair. Rustin was an advocate for expanded civil rights, LGBTQ rights, socialism, and pacifism. Alongside A. Phillip Randolph, Rustin helped organize both the 1941 March on Washington and the 1964 March on Washington. He is perhaps best-known for advising Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. Rustin died in 1987 and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Acclaimed screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for his 2008 film "Milk" about another gay icon, Harvey Milk, is currently writing a documentary film about Rustin and will be produced by former President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

Johnson and Rivera are iconic drag queens and trans activists who played prominent roles in the 1969 Stonewall uprising and became leaders in the Gay Liberation Movement. Together, Johnson and Rivera helped found the group Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STARR, providing housing to homeless transgender youth. Johnson and Rivera recognized that homeless transgender youth were a particularly vulnerable group, some of whom, suffering the rejection of their families, turned to sex work and encountered hardships and dangers. Johnson and Rivera both contended with mental illness and financial instability in their lifetimes, but this didn't stop them from opening the first LGBTQ youth shelter in North America. Johnson was found dead of a mysterious cause in 1992, and Rivera succumbed to liver cancer in 2002.

Finally, Sarria served in the military during World War II. In 1961, while living in San Francisco, he became the first openly LGBTQ candidate to run for public office. He is best known as the founder of the International Imperial Court System — one of the organizations leading this campaign. The Imperial Court currently has 70 city chapters throughout North America. Sarria also founded the League for Civil Education in 1961 and the Society for Individual Rights in 1963, two of the earliest gay-oriented civil rights organizations in the U.S.

"I have said for over half a century: a community and civil rights movement that does not know where it came from and whose shoulders it stands on does not know where it's going," Murray-Ramirez said.

UN Free and Equal postage stamps.  (Source: UNPA)

Both organizations also sponsored a successful campaign resulting in the Harvey Milk Forever Stamps, unveiled in May 2014 at the White House by President Barack Obama on what would've been Harvey Milk's 84th birthday. They were also responsible for a successful campaign to the Secretary of the Navy, which resulted in naming the U.S.N.S. Harvey Milk — the second of the John Lewis class of underway replenishment oilers commissioned by the United States military — currently under construction in San Diego, California, where Milk was stationed for duty in the 1950s as a U.S. Navy commander.

In 2016, the United Nations unveiled a series of stamps devoted to LGBTQ equality.

"One of the stamps represents someone who is transgender," Sergio Baradat, designer of the stamps, told UN Radio, referring to the stamp that depicts a person with butterfly wings, an image he says represents a person "becoming who they really are, blossoming," he said.

"We live in a world where even though [developed] nations have embraced marriage equality [and] LBGT equality, we still have a far, far, far way to go, but we are making some strides," he added.

"There are some countries in the world right now where not only are we not celebrated or respected, but we are beaten and killed. And I thought that it would be a wonderful opportunity using art, to use postage stamps as a vehicle — using art to change hearts and minds."

Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.