An Incomplete Timeline of RI LGBTQ+ History

Researched and written by Matthew Lawrence, 2023.

This timeline features moments in the history of Rhode Island’s LGBTQ+ communities—legal victories and political wins, but also painful obstacles, cultural battles, and achievements by individuals with complicated legacies. These events took place across the state, from the largest city (Providence) to the smallest town (New Shoreham). Timelines can be a bit misleading because they suggest a steady forward movement, but in many cases scandals and injustices from decades ago are still being repeated today.

Rhode Island is a small but densely populated state with a recorded history of LGBTQ+ culture that dates back to at least the eighteenth century. From mill villages to beach towns, the state has been the site of protests, celebrations, and historic achievements, as well as shameful homophobia and transphobia that continues to this day. Even in a small state like Rhode Island, a whole book could easily be written about the history of its LGBTQ+ communities. Perhaps it could begin in 1776, the year that someone known as the Public Universal Friend renounced their given name and their gender, refusing to acknowledge any gendered pronouns at all.

This timeline begins in the 1940s with the opening of a bar. Bars have long been important spaces for queer people to gather together, have fun, and exist on their own terms. It continues with the death of an internationally renowned drag performer, the formation of a lesbian activist group, and the targeting of gay men by law enforcement. These themes—nightlife, drag, political organizing, and policing—recur again and again throughout history.

The timeline also focuses on the lives of some LGBTQ+ Rhode Islanders—heroes and villains, famous and forgotten. It is not meant to be an all-encompassing list. The timeline also leaves out significant figures who were born in Rhode Island but moved away as children, such as the novelist Alexander Chee, or those individuals who studied at colleges and universities in Rhode Island before moving on, such as fashion editor Andre Leon Talley, author Kate Bornstein, artist Glenn Ligon, or singer Halsey.

Language is tricky and constantly evolving. The word queer, for instance, was once used as a slur but has since been reclaimed by many (but not all) in the LGBTQ+ community. The word gay was also regularly used as a slur in the 1990s and 2000s but never went away. This timeline was written in 2023. Accounts from fifty or sixty years ago may include language that is not standard today, such as the word homosexual. It is possible that within a few years some language in this timeline will have fallen out of favor, and may even seem insulting to some. The goal is not to be offensive.