By Kālewa Correa of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, Meredith Holmgren of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Howard Kaplan of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Emily Margolis of the National Air and Space Museum and the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, and Sara Cohen of Because of Her Story
When painter Romaine Brooks wore masculine clothing around Paris, she signaled her sexuality to those in the know. Fellow upper-class lesbians understood that she was a member of their group.
This Pride Month, learn about seven women who shaped history and worked to support their LGBTQ+ communities.
Artist Romaine Brooks
In her self-portrait, Romaine Brooks looks out from the brim of her black top hat and stares directly at you. She's dressed in a long black jacket and wears dark gloves. Brooks painted all her work in a muted palette of black, white, and subtle shades of gray, sometimes adding highlights of red or different browns.
Brooks lived for almost a century. The daughter of wealthy American parents, she was born in Rome in 1874 and died in Paris in 1970. She had a difficult childhood, marked by unhappiness and abuse. Her unpublished memoir about those times is titled No Pleasant Memories. As the only woman enrolled in her art school, the Scuola Nazionale in Rome, she often faced harassment from the men in the class.
After school, Brooks lived most of her life in Paris. She was a leading figure of an artistic group of upper-class Europeans and Americans who rejected the social mores and conventions of the times. Brooks consistently challenged established ideas of how women should look and behave. Many women in her community were creative, unconventional, lesbian, and wealthy. Prizing gender fluidity and sexual freedom, they often chose to adapt elements of traditionally male dress to challenge traditional roles for women and allow upper-class lesbians to identify and acknowledge one another. In the 1920s she painted portraits of other daring women. They included Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein, pianist Hannah “Peter” Gluckstein, and her romantic partner of more than 50 years, writer Natalie Barney. Brooks’ focus on portraiture, identity, and selfhood helped make lesbian lives visible. She inspired future generations of LBGTQ+ women to express themselves honestly and freely.
Nearly 70 of Brooks’ artworks are in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. You can learn more about her life in their webcomic, “Do You Think I’m Hiding?” See her papers in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.
More LGBTQ+ Women to Know
Explore the stories of seven notable activists, artists, pilots, musicians, and dancers with objects and stories in the Smithsonian.
1. Photographer Laura Aguilar
Laura Aguilar became famous for her portraits of her LGBTQ+ and Latina communities. Born with auditory dyslexia, Aguilar’s work explores disabilities, gender, race, sexuality, and beauty. In her Latina Lesbians series, created from 1986 to 1990, Aguilar photographed women in their choice of outfits and locations. She asked each person photographed to include a handwritten statement. The series was sponsored by Los Angeles’ lesbian social services center, Connexus Women’s Center/Centro de Mujeres. In her own self-portrait in the series, “Laura A,” she expresses her discomfort with language around sexuality. She writes, “Im not comfortable with the word Lesbian but as each day go’s by I’m more and more comfortable with the word LAURA. I know some people see me as very child like, naïve. Maybe so. I am. But I will be damned if I let this part of me die!” See more of Aguilar’s artwork from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
2. Composer Sorrel Doris Hayes and Sound Engineer Marilyn Ries
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1941, Sorrel Doris Hays was an important artist of experimental music. Classically trained, she interpreted music by composer Henry Cowell early in her career. She soon composed new pieces that blended piano, magnetic tape, electronic synthesizers, documentary fieldwork, and feminist commentary.
In “Southern Voices,” she used contact microphones on her subjects’ throats. She recorded their Southern speech dialects, then ran these through a Buchla synthesizer. She called the pieces “documentary music.” Supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, excerpts of the project were eventually released as Voicings for Tape/Soprano/Piano on Folkways Records in 1983. The photograph included here shows her working on the project with a child in Albany, Georgia.
Her spouse, Marilyn Ruth Ries, was an accomplished sound engineer. Ries produced many recordings of the women’s music movement, including the 1975 album Lavender Jane Loves Women, which is considered one of the earliest full-length commercial records geared explicitly toward lesbian women.
3. Educator and Filmmaker Kumu Hina Wong-Kalu
Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, also known as Kumu Hina, is a kānaka maoli (native Hawaiian) māhū (third gender) activist, artist, composer, historian, and storyteller. She is widely recognized for furthering 'ōlelo Hawai'i (the Hawaiian Language) as an educator at the University of Hawai'i and Hālau Lokahi Public Charter School. She also creates documentary films looking at historical and contemporary gender norms of the Pacific. A voice for māhū rights, she has advocated for embracing the traditional ways of gender acceptance in Polynesia. Kumu Hina has participated in many Smithsonian Institution events. These include the Asian Pacific American Center’s ʻAe Kai Culture Lab in Honolulu, O'ahu, and the Mother Tongue Film Festival. Her film The Healer Stones of Kapaemahu will be shown at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s Mother Tongue pop-up theater.
4. Spokesperson Jazz Jennings
At age 21, Jazz Jennings has spent 15 years of her life as a public figure. Jennings says that she always knew she "was a girl trapped in a boy's body.” She and her family shared Jazz's girlhood with millions of Americans to raise awareness about transgender children. Jazz was six years old during her first appearance on national television, on the news program 20/20. Since 2015 Jennings has starred in “I Am Jazz,” a reality television show that documents her life. Jennings has used her fame to support other transgender children, including creating the TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation with her family. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History included childhood drawings and poetry where Jennings reflects on her gender identity in the exhibition Girlhood (It’s Complicated).
5. United States Air Force Veteran Helen James
Helen G. James began her military career in 1952 at the age of 25. Inspired by her father, a World War I veteran, James enlisted in the United States Air Force (USAF) and USAF Reserves. She became a radio operator, and later crew chief, at Roslyn Air Force Base in New York. Her promising career was cut short when the Office of Special Investigations began questioning and harassing James for being a lesbian. At the time, the U.S. military sought to remove gay and lesbian service members, falsely believing their sexuality posed a threat to national security. Undesirably discharged in 1955, James was denied veterans benefits, including tuition assistance. She appealed her discharge status three times—in 1968, 2016, and 2018. At age 90 she finally received the honorable discharge she deserved. Read how archivist Patti Williams collected documents and photos from Helen James for the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Archives.
6. Musician Toshi Reagon
Composer, activist, and producer Toshi Reagon has been creating music for more than four decades. Her work incorporates versatile disciplines, including blues, folk music, gospel, and theater. Toshi grew up deeply influenced by both racial justice and women’s empowerment movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, is a musician and civil rights icon. Her life-long collaborations with her mother have included producing Sweet Honey in the Rock studio albums, as well as composing and performing original work. Their rock-opera interpretation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower has received critical acclaim. In 1997, Toshi released her solo album Kindness on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Out magazine described Kindness as “dominated by Reagon’s fiery commitment to life and justice.” Toshi has been recognized with many awards over the course of her career, including OutMusic’s Heritage Award in 2010 and the 2021 Herb Alpert Award in the Arts.
Sara E. Cohen is the digital audiences and content coordinator for Because of Her Story, the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative. She shares lesser-known histories of women through this website, Because of Her Story newsletter, and Smithsonian social media.
Kālewa Correa serves as the curator of Hawai'i and the Pacific for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. His work includes the Our Stories Program which holds storytelling film and podcast camps for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) youth across the Pacific and US diaspora. He also works across Smithsonian units as a subject matter expert advising and collaborating on all things NHPI.
Meredith Holmgren is the curator of American women's music at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Her work tells stories about women and music using sound recordings, multimedia, and material culture from across the Smithsonian.
Howard Kaplan is writer at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He recently launched Drawn to Art: Ten Tales of Inspiring Women Artists, a collaboration with the Ringling College of Art and Design, to use graphic storytelling to illustrate the lives of women artists in SAAM's collection.
Emily A. Margolis is curator of American women's history at the National Air and Space Museum and Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. She works to center women in the history of aviation, spaceflight, astronomy, and planetary science through research, exhibits, and programs.