Political Notes: Additional queer female icons to be featured on US quarters

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Friday February 10, 2023
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Civil War era surgeon Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, left, and writer and lawyer Pauli Murray have been chosen for inclusion in the American Women Quarters Program for 2024. Photos: Walker, courtesy Whitman-Walker Health; Murray, Pauli Murray Center
Civil War era surgeon Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, left, and writer and lawyer Pauli Murray have been chosen for inclusion in the American Women Quarters Program for 2024. Photos: Walker, courtesy Whitman-Walker Health; Murray, Pauli Murray Center

The female namesake of an LGBTQ health clinic in the nation's capital and a lesbian poet and activist are among the latest American women chosen to be featured on U.S. quarters. Work is now underway to design their portraits that will appear on the coins to be issued next year.

The United States Mint announced February 1 that the 2024 cohort for the American Women Quarters Program would include the late lesbian writer and lawyer Pauli Murray, who died in 1985. A gender-fluid feminist and civil rights activist, Murray in 1977 was the first Black American perceived as a woman to become an Episcopal priest.

David J. Johns, Ph.D., executive director of the LGBTQ-focused National Black Justice Coalition, hailed the news about Murray's selection, which coincided with the start of Black History Month. Her becoming the first Black queer person to be featured on U.S. currency deserves celebration, he stated.

"This moment is a reminder that wherever there is history there is Black history, and that Black history has always included the contributions of Black queer, trans, and non-binary/non-conforming members of our beautifully diverse community," stated Johns, who identifies as same-gender loving.

The National Women's History Alliance in an Instagram post said it was ecstatic by the selection of Murray. Noting how, in 1966, she co-founded the National Organization for Women with Betty Friedan and other activists, the alliance wrote, "Murray is regarded as one of the most important social justice advocates of the twentieth century."

Murray was the subject of an LGBTQ History Month piece that ran in the Bay Area Reporter and several other LGBTQ publications in October 2021.

Also selected to appear on the 25-cent piece next year was Civil War era surgeon Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a women's rights advocate and abolitionist who died in 1919. She famously eschewed wearing women's attire and was only the second woman to graduate from a medical school in the United States.

She is honored in the name of the Washington, D.C.-based Whitman-Walker Health, a nonprofit provider of health services for those living with HIV and AIDS and members of the local LGBTQ community. The other half of the name honors the late gay poet Walt Whitman, who also earned distinction during the Civil War for his providing health care to soldiers.

"We are thrilled that Dr. Mary Edwards Walker will be honored with a coin. It's a remarkable way for more people to learn about her legacy and contributions to health," Whitman-Walker Foundation Executive Director Abby Paige Fenton told the B.A.R. in an emailed reply.

While some biographies about Walker refer to her as being a transvestite or genderqueer because of how she dressed, the organization that bears her name does not use such terminology to describe Walker. In describing "her unique style" on its website, the nonprofit does note Walker's preference for trousers, top hats and a "man's" coat, "something the 19th and 20th century publics couldn't always make sense of. Dr. Walker was arrested for her clothing on many occasions, and found pride in the arrests."

"We know she wore men's clothes but that was a choice she seemed to make for health vs. gender identity. She felt women's petticoats and long skirts were not healthy because they dragged on the ground in dirt," explained Fenton, a straight ally.

Unfortunately, when the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating "Dr. Mary Walker, Army Surgeon" in 1982, it chose a design that did not reflect how she presented herself. Whitman-Walker made note of the disconnect in the imagery in a biography about Walker it posted to its website in 2018 when marking its 40th anniversary.

"Ironically, the stamp portrays her wearing a frilly dress and curls," it states.

As part of the process to create the design for Walker's quarter, and that of the other women to be featured on the coins in 2024, the U.S. Mint does ask for feedback from the public. In response to a question from the B.A.R., Fenton said she and her colleagues are likely to submit their own recommendation for how Walker should be depicted.

"I think we will definitely make comment," replied Fenton. "Our favorite quote from her is 'I don't wear men's clothes. I wear my own clothes.' She should be in a suit."

Coins feature other queer female icons

Since the special quarters began being rolled out in 2022, a number of pioneering women celebrated as queer icons by the LGBTQ community have been picked for the monetary honor. Among the first group was the late astronaut Sally Ride, Ph.D., who posthumously came out publicly as a lesbian upon her death in 2012.

She was the first American woman in space when she made her historic voyage aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1983. At 32, Ride also became the youngest American to leave the Earth's orbit.

Her quarter was the second one to be issued as part of the special program.

A quarter featuring the late first lady Eleanor Roosevelt will be released this year. Photo: Courtesy U.S. Mint  

This year will see the release of a quarter honoring the late first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who died in 1962. She is now described as having been bisexual or queer due to her close relationships with women, particularly lesbian Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok, who died in 1968.

Like Walker, Roosevelt and Ride have also been featured on U.S. postage. Meanwhile, there is an ongoing effort to see a stamp featuring Murray.

As for the quarters, included in the 2024 class is the late Cuban-American singer Celia Cruz, who died in 2003. She will be the first Afro-Latina depicted on a piece of U.S. currency.

One of the most popular Latin artists of the 20th century, Cruz's talent, style, and flamboyant personality attracted a fervent gay fan base for the performer. As the website HOLA! noted in June 2022, "Cruz and her stunning and elaborated outfits onstage have inspired many generations, becoming the official face of salsa and a gay icon around the world, she is often celebrated in drag shows and pride festivals."

In addition to designing the next set of quarters, U.S. Mint officials are also deciding the five honorees to celebrate on the coins in 2025. It's the last year for the special quarters to be released under the Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act of 2020 passed by Congress.

Mint Director Ventris C. Gibson, in announcing the 2024 honorees, noted, "The women pioneered change during their lifetimes, not yielding to the status quo imparted during their lives. By honoring these pioneering women, the Mint continues to connect America through coins which are like small works of art in your pocket."⁠

The special coins can be ordered online via the website.

Due to the Presidents Day holiday, the Political Notes column will return Monday, February 27.

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Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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