Roy Cohn is perhaps best known in popular culture as a leading antagonist in Angels in America, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that was later adapted into a popular HBO series, in which Al Pacino portrayed Cohn in all his closeted hypocrisy. During the Red Scare era of American history, Cohn was an attorney who, under the authority of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, led a series of high-profile prosecutions of suspected members of the Communist Party. A prominent member of the U.S. Department of Justice’s prosecution team, Cohn was a major player in the 1951 trial and conviction of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, pulling strings as well as pulling false testimony from Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, in order to secure the guilty verdict.
He was also a major player in the Lavender Scare, one who helped convince President Eisenhower to bar gay people from employment with the federal government by promoting fears that they would pass on secrets to Communists abroad. Cohn would go on to target many public figures suspected of being gay, though there was speculation about his own gayness — and a rumored relationship with his chief consultant G. David Schine — during his lifetime. Eventually, he died of AIDS-related causes at the age of 59. — Daniel Reynolds
When Barbara Jordan died of complications from pneumonia on January 17, 1996, she became the first black woman buried in the Texas State Cemetery — and likely the first lesbian, though her 30-year relationship with partner Nancy Earl wasn’t publicly acknowledged until Jordan’s obituary ran in the Houston Chronicle. A great civil rights leader and progressive politician who grew up in segregated Houston, Jordan was the first woman to serve in the House of Representatives in Texas in her own right (in 1972) and the first African-American in that state’s Senate after Reconstruction. In 1974 she was introduced to national audiences delivering a landmark speech on TV in favor of impeaching President Nixon, and in 1976 she was shortlisted as a possible running mate for Jimmy Carter.
That didn’t pan out, but she did become the first black woman to deliver the Democratic National Convention’s keynote address. She battled multiple sclerosis and later leukemia, leading her to move out of politics, but Jordan stayed active in progressive causes long after she left elected office, chairing the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform until her death. President Bill Clinton told KUT radio, for the documentary Rediscovering Barbara Jordan, that he wanted to nominate Jordan for the United States Supreme Court, but by the time he could do so her health was too poor for her to be able to accept the post. — Diane Anderson-Minshall
In the 1950s and 1960s, American TV audiences enthusiastically welcomed Raymond Burr into their homes, first as ace defense attorney Perry Mason, who never lost a case, then as detective Robert Ironside. These heroic characters stand in stark contrast to Burr's most famous film role, as the sinister Lars Thorwald in the Hitchcock classic Rear Window. Would mid-century viewers have so readily accepted Burr as a hero if they knew he was gay? Most likely not. Burr took an unusual approach to covering up this fact — while other gay actors would go on studio-arranged dates with women, Burr (or perhaps a publicist) made up dead wives out of the whole cloth.
He claimed he had been married to a Scottish actress who was killed in the same 1943 plane crash that took the life of movie star Leslie Howard. A second dead wife and a dead son later became part of his story, but like the first wife, they never existed. In reality, Burr was married once, briefly, to an aspiring actress, and they were divorced. Despite his prevarications, he appears to have been a likable man, and he had a happy long-term relationship with Robert Benevides, an actor who became his business manager as well as his life partner. They met early in the run of Perry Mason and remained together until Burr's death in 1993. — T.R.