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Dramaturgical Deep Dive: LGBTQ+ History

"We need our community, we need our history. How else can we teach the next generation who they are and how they got here?"

In The Inheritance Part 1, Act, 2, Scene 2, The Lads engage in a discussion that contains a plethora of references – historical and contemporary – to major figures and events in LGBTQ+ history. We hope this guide, thoughtfully curated by Geffen Literary Manager & Dramaturg Olivia O'Connor, provides context and serves as a launching point to further your own research.

Tristan: Oh God, Jason just played the Harvey Milk card!


Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to public office when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. A powerful public speaker, Milk used his platform to advocate for gay rights, build coalitions between diverse communities, and champion public services like day care centers and affordable housing. He was assassinated in November 1978, less than a year after taking office.

Photo Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Jason #1: Tristan’s niece may know “Yass Kween” but I bet she can tell you nothing about the UpStairs Lounge fire, Barbara Gittings, or the sip-in at Julius’.


On June 24, 1973, 32 people died at the UpStairs Lounge, a second-floor gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, when it caught fire in an arson attack. The attack, which took place during a meeting of the Metropolitan Community Church, was the largest mass murder of LGBTQIA+ people in the US until the Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016. Just this year, the New Orleans City Council issued an apology for “the way that those who perished were not adequately and publicly mourned as valuable and irreplaceable members of the community” and passed a motion directing city services to recover the remains of four fire victims who were buried in unmarked graves.


A prominent gay rights activist. Gittings was an out advocate in the “homophile movement” (as it was then called) as early as the 1950s; she co-founded the New York Chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian rights org, in 1958. It was in part due to her lobbying that the APA removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in the DSM.

Photo Credit: New York Public Library


In the 60s, it was in practice, if not in explicit law, illegal to drink while gay. Bars could be raided and have their liquor licenses revoked for “disorderly conduct” like a man buying another man a drink, so many places refused service to gay people altogether. On April 21, 1966, three members of the Mattachine society (an early gay rights group) approached the bar at Julius’, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. Though many gay men were already there drinking, these three actually announced that they were gay, forcing the bartender not to serve them in order to bring publicity to the practice (they were accompanied by four reporters). The “sip-in,” one of the earliest acts of civil disobedience in the gay rights movement, was inspired by the lunch counter “sit-ins” of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1967, New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled that “well-behaved homosexuals” could not be denied service. (Fun fact: the men unsuccessfully tried to execute their plan at four other places before they landed at Julius’).

Photo Credit: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

Tristan: They have appropriated a phrase from drag culture— much of which was itself appropriated from ball culture—and they’ve built a brand off it. Every time I hear a straight girl say “yassss kween,” I wanna say to them, “Tell me who Willi Ninja is and then you can play.”


Dancer, choreographer, model, and cultural icon Willi Ninja was known as the “Grandfather of Vogue.” He was a legendary performer in the 1980s ball scene and brought vogueing to the national and international stage, performing (and training dancers and models) around the world. Ninja died in 2006, at the age of 45, of AIDS-related heart failure.

Ballroom culture started as early as the 1860s, took off in the 1920s, and had perhaps its most iconic era in 1980s Harlem. A queer community of mostly Black and Latinx people (many of them TGNC) gathered for pageant-like competitions in which performers participated in lavish, categorized fashion shows. Vogueing, a stylized form of improvised dance inspired by modeling (and sometimes the medium for a fight/battle between two performers), emerged from the ballroom scene. The “houses” within ball culture, often led by “mothers,” cultivated a social support system that was especially important for performers with strained or nonexistent family relationships. The 1990 documentary Paris is Burning featured performers in the Harlem ballroom scene, including Willi Ninja. The film captured a piece of ballroom history, but since its release, it has been criticized for the white gaze of director Jennie Livingston and for not compensating the performers it featured. Madonna’s 1990 hit “Vogue” also takes its inspiration from (and has been criticized for appropriating) the ball scene; Malcolm McClaren got there a year before Madonna, with “Deep in Vogue.” RuPaul’s Drag Race takes some of its format from ball culture, as well.

Tristan: And I’m still waiting on that Bayard Rustin biopic nobody’s yet bothered to make.


American Civil Rights activist and advisor to Martin Luther King. Rustin was the main organizer of the March on Washington in 1963 and also helped to plan the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rustin was gay (he was arrested and served 50 days in jail for “lewd conduct” and “vagrancy” in 1953) and had some ties to the Communist Party; as a result, he was considered something of a liability to the Civl Rights Movement at the time and did much of his work out of the public eye. In the 1980s, he spoke publicly about being gay and worked to bring the NAACP’s attention to the AIDS crisis. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2013) and pardoned for his 1953 conviction (2020). Fun fact: there IS going to be a Bayard Rustin biopic, starring Colman Domingo and produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company. Netflix recently released the first-look photo.

Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin in the new biopic 'Rustin,' about the activist's life. Photo Credit: David Lee/Netflix

Eric: And in queer culture, we feel the stirring of pride when we reflect on the meaning of Stonewall, Marsha Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Edie Windsor, Matthew Shepard, Islan Nettles, and the bravery of the people on the front lines of the epidemic.


The Stonewall Inn was a popular (unlicensed, Mafia-owned) West Village gay bar. After midnight on June 28, 1969, the Inn was raided by police. Such raids were not uncommon in the era or even at the bar; the Inn had been raided earlier that week. But the raid on June 28 sparked a new response: resistance. As police officers arrested the bar’s employees, as well as trans patrons and patrons wearing drag (“masquerading” as a member of the “opposite” sex was a crime), people gathered on the street to watch, and more police officers showed up. At some point (likely around the arrest of Stormé DeLarverie), the tension broke into violence: onlookers started yelling at the cops, throwing things, and slashing tires on police vehicles. Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two trans women of color who became leaders in the gay liberation movement, were among those who resisted. The police retreated into the Inn and barricaded themselves inside; protestors infiltrated (in part using a parking meter). Hundreds of people gathered that night; over the following days, thousands more showed up at Stonewall as police and resistors continued to clash. The night after the initial confrontation, the Inn opened for business again (sans alcohol); when police were sent to quell a growing crowd, they beat and tear-gassed those gathered. 21 people were arrested over the totality of the rebellion; no one was killed or seriously injured. The next several nights were less violent, but the community connections and activist energy that was generated throughout the six days of the Stonewall Uprising marked a turning point in the gay rights movement, shifting the approach from one of buttoned-up civil disobedience (like the “sip-in”) to the more radical mobilization and public pride of the gay liberation movement. The swell in LGBTQIA+ organizing after Stonewall included the first Pride march, which took place a year after the uprising. It’s worth noting: the details of Stonewall are endlessly debated… because the records of the night are almost all anecdotal, you’ll find lots of different variations on the story.

Unidentified young people celebrate outside of the Stonewall Inn (53 Christopher Street), after the riots, 1969. Photo Credit: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images.


On October 7, 1998, Matthew Shepard, an openly gay 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was abducted by two men after meeting them in a local bar. The men beat Shepard beyond recognition and tied him to a fence near Laramie; he was discovered by a cyclist after 18 hours and died in the hospital five days later. The cruelty of the murder sparked national outrage. Shepard’s parents started a Foundation in his honor and worked towards the expansion of federal hate crime legislation.

Photo Credit: Matthew Shepard Foundation


A performer, mentor to trans youth, and activist in the gay liberation movement. Johnson, a trans woman, was a vibrant figure in the downtown scene; she also worked as a sex worker. She would have been 23 at the time of the Stonewall Uprising. She’s sometimes cited as the first person to throw a brick at police at Stonewall, but wasn’t (debates on the subject continue). She also, anecdotally, shimmied up a lamppost to drop something heavy on a police vehicle’s windshield, shattering it. Marsha P. Johnson was her chosen name; the P, she told a judge, stood for “Pay It No Mind.” Johnson and her friend Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in 1970, an organization created to help homeless LGBTQ youth. The first trans women of color to lead an organization in the US, they opened the first LGBTQ+ youth shelter in North America. Johnson was diagnosed with HIV in 1990 and died in 1992; her body was found in the Hudson River off the West Village Piers. Though initially ruled a suicide, the actual circumstances of her death are unclear, and some believe she was murdered. See: the 2017 Netflix documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson.”

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, ca. 1989-1990. Photo Credit: The Rudy Grillo Collection, Rudy Grillo / LGBT Community Center Archive.


Close friend to Marsha P. Johnson; the two met in 1963. She was a key figure in the Stonewall Uprising and an activist in the gay liberation movement that followed. Like Johnson, she is sometimes credited with throwing the first brick at police at Stonewall, but has clarified in interviews that she actually threw the second (and that it was a molotov cocktail). Rivera and Johnson co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in 1970, an organization created to help homeless LGBTQ youth. The first trans women of color to lead an organization in the US, they opened the first LGBTQ+ youth shelter in North America.


Activist and plaintiff in a landmark 2013 case that struck down the definition of marriage as being between a man and woman (as per the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act). Windsor sued the IRS when they refused to grant her the spousal exemption on estate taxes, leaving her responsible for upwards of $360k after her wife’s death. The case didn’t yet affirm the right of same-sex couples to marry or to have their marriages recognized in all states (that would come in 2015, with Obergefell v Hodges).

LGBT activist Edie Windsor at DC Pride, 2017. Photo Credit: Rex Block


On August 17, 2013, Islan Nettles, a fashion assistant, was walking home with two friends in Harlem, NY when she was approached by a man on the street who wanted to flirt with her. When the man realized Nettles was trans, his friends mocked him; he punched Nettles and hit her again when she was on the ground. She died five days later. Both the men who murdered Matthew Shepard and the man who murdered Islan Nettles used a version of what is known as the LGBTQ+ “panic” defense in court, which suggested that their violence was a result of fear and shock at learning their victims’ sexuality or sex assigned at birth. The defense was banned in New York in 2019; it’s also explicitly banned in 16 other states.

Photo Credit: Islan Nettles

The Inheritance Part 1 & Part 2

SEP 13 – NOV 27, 2022
Written by Matthew López
Inspired by the Novel Howards End by E. M. Forster
Directed by Mike Donahue
Featuring Bill Brochtrup, Tantoo Cardinal, Juan Castano, Jay Donnell, Eric Flores, Israel Erron Ford, August Gray Gall, Adam Kantor, Eddie Lopez, Kasey Mahaffy, Miguel Pinzon, Avi Roque, Bradley James Tejeda & Tuc Watkins

In contemporary Manhattan, Eric and Toby are 30-somethings who seem to be very much in love and thriving. But on the cusp of their engagement, they meet an older man haunted by the past, and a younger man hungry for a future. Chance meetings lead to surprising choices as the lives of three generations interlink and collide—with explosive results.

The Inheritance reunites Geffen Playhouse alums Matthew López & Mike Donahue (The Legend of Georgia McBride, 2017) for an extended run of the celebrated Stephen Daldry production after its Olivier Award–sweeping London and Tony Award–winning Broadway runs.


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