From physicists to authors to doctors to teachers, the world has received many inventions, literature, art, and human rights laws from remarkable members of the LGBTQIA+ family. Join us on a “pride parade” as we march through some of these exemplary figures!
Possibly one of the most famous trans people in the world today, Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Olympic gold-winning athlete, Bruce Jenner, is a force to be reckoned with. Jenner gained TV stardom on the hit reality show "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" as Kris's former spouse. However, in 2014, everything changed, and she revealed in a Diane Sawyer interview that she wanted to be recognized as a woman.
The next few years consisted of more outings and her very own reality show called "I am Cait," which detailed her transition.
Marsha P. Johnson
The Stonewall Uprising marked a revolutionary change for LGBTQ+ rights in the United States after police stormed a well-known gay club known as “Stonewall.” At the time, Marsha P. Johnson was a popular and self-identified drag queen and activist. Johnson responded to the riots, as did many other LGBTQ+ community members, and became a spearhead for the turning point uprising.
Johnson, forever the activist, would go on to co-found S.T.A.R: The radical organization served to assist homeless LGBTQ+ youth. Alongside fellow activist Sylvia Rivera, Johnson acted as a “mother” for the disenfranchised youth.
The witty Irish playwright and author Oscar Wilde left an impression on the literary world before his death at the age of forty-six, having penned the classics “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “The Picture of Dorian Grey.” The wordsmith was involved in what could be considered the first of the modern “celebrity scandal” after he was convicted on the grounds of “gross indecency” for having male lovers.
Wilde would spend two years in prison, a sojourn that would wreck his health and lead to his untimely passing. The literary world remains forever in debt to the Irish man of letters.
Andy Warhol was one of the most eccentric figures on the modern art scene. The revolutionary American artist would immortalize many celebrities in his unique avant-garde pop art styles. Andy Warhol was an unabashedly out gay man throughout his life, long before the gay liberation movements took place.
He introduced many homoerotic themes in his artworks and even found himself being rejected for the pieces being too “explicit.” Warhol did find success with the thematic elements later on in his career as he drew inspiration from the underground counterculture of gay New York.
Actress and daytime television host Laverne Cox has trailblazed a path for transgender people throughout her career. The actress was first featured on the Netflix comedy-drama serial “Orange Is the New Black.” She won over fans and soon became a recurring character.
In addition to her acting, she hosted a daytime television show, “Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word.” Cox would go on to win an Emmy for her executive producing skills on the highly rated show, a first for a trans woman.
James Arthur Baldwin
Celebrated author and poet James Arthur Baldwin was born at a social intersection of American history. Enlightenment of sorts had taken hold in his native New York, the civil rights movement was beginning to make headway in American society, and the country was reeling from The Great Depression. A born writer and social commentator, Baldwin found social and artistic asylum in Paris, where he could put the racial laws of America behind him and focus on his craft.
It was there that Baldwin penned several pieces of literature that detailed the struggles for self-acceptance gay and bisexual men sought.
The ill-fated English writer, poet, and novelist Virginia Woolf had an extramarital relationship so life-changing that it inspired an entire novel as she dealt with the question of her sexuality. Virginia Woolf, at the time married to Leonard Woolf, fell in love with Vita Sackville-West, herself a highly acclaimed author.
Their affair would become historical. Woolf pursued many same-sex dalliances throughout her life and was very frank about her pursuits. However, the bond between her and Sackville-West remained unbroken throughout.
Evan Wolfson joined “Lambda,” the gay rights law firm founded by Bill Thom, in 1989. Wolfson held a prestigious and prominent position at the law firm for well over a decade. He specialized in same-sex unions and was instrumental in challenging federal laws discriminating against LGBTQ+ people from receiving the same legal recognition as heterosexual couples.
Wolfson founded “Freedom to Marry,” a bipartisan organization that advanced the fight for equal marriage rights. The organization successfully disbanded once it achieved its goal in 2015 after the United States government federally recognized same-sex marriages.
Edie Windsor’s unrelenting advocacy led to a landmark ruling in the United States: overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), signed into law by ex-president Bill Clinton. A section in the act upheld that marriage would only be federally recognized as between a man and a woman. The fight began when Windsor’s wife and lifelong partner, Thea Spyer, passed away, and Windsor was denied tax exemption on Spyer’s estate.
Windsor filed a lawsuit against the government, and two years later, a judge ruled Section 3 of the DOMA unconstitutional, paving the way for spousal recognition for same-sex couples.
The flamboyant and groundbreaking artist Frida Kahlo defied every cultural imposition placed on her. The openly bisexual Kahlo had relationships with both men and women that she felt no need to keep secret, paving the way to becoming a cultural icon and figurehead in different social activism and justice spheres.
Although Kahlo passed away in 1954 at the very young age of forty-seven, her art and likeness became synonymous with both the LGBTQ and feminist movements of the twentieth century. Kahlo explored sexuality through her artworks, and the international recognition she gained helped advance the LGBTQ+ narrative in modern society.
New Yorker Christine Jorgensen became nationally famous for being one of the first transgender women to undergo a complete sexual reassignment in the 1950s. The operation was highly publicized, and Jorgensen used the opportunity to advocate and speak on behalf of transpeople nationwide, giving lectures and holding meetings with political officials throughout her life.
By her admission, Jorgensen envisioned a life out of the limelight, but this was not to be. The highly talented performer went on to create a prosperous career as a singer and actress, and her groundbreaking transition was a celebration.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs
Sociologist Volkmar Sigusch gave German lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs the title “the first gay man in world history.” While this is obviously, not true, Sigusch was employing some creative license to describe the resistance that Karl Heinrich Ulrichs presented to the social disdain European society had towards homosexuality at the time.
The outspoken lawyer came out to his family in 1862, at the age of thirty-seven, and went on to write extensively about the reformation of social laws and norms toward gay rights. Ulrichs even took the step to present his case before the Congress of Jurists to reform laws.
The gorgeous Indya Moore prefers to be referred to as they. Moore is both an actor and a model and is known for playing Angel Evangelista on the TV show “Pose.” The show's success has put Indya on the map. They have numerous modeling campaigns under their belt.
Moore grew up in the Bronx and was kicked out of their childhood home at age 14 for being trans. As a black trans-person coming from poverty, they have found a way to become an incredibly successful activist and actor. They are truly living the American dream.
Dana International became an instant icon when she won 1998's Eurovision Song Contest with her song “Diva.” Dana was born in Tel Aviv as the youngest of three children. As a young child, there were two things she already knew — that she felt like a woman and that she desperately wanted to become a singer. Her family was poor but supportive; her mom made sure they spent every extra penny paying for Dana's music lessons.
One of the truly amazing facts about Dana is that she came out at age 13, which is an early age even today. Back then, the year was 1982, and people were not as aware as they are today. She has managed to find commercial success in Israel.
German sexologist and doctor Magnus Hirschfield may have established the first scientifically backed organization that supported gay and transgender rights and helped vindicate the LGBTQIA+ from accusations of mental health diseases. The Nazi party revoked the eminent doctor of his German citizenship for his efforts.
Hirschfield penned "The Homosexuality of Men and Women" in 1914 and detailed how homosexuality is natural and omnipresent in almost all cultures globally. Hirschfield found increasing persecution under the emerging Nazi regime and fled to France, where he passed away two years later.
A name that hardly needs any introduction, Freddie Mercury’s tenor has continued to reverberate thirty years after his passing at the age of forty-five. The lead singer of “Queen,” although one of the world's most recognizable personas, was notoriously private and never publicly acknowledged his sexuality.
It is known that Freddie Mercury had a long-term relationship with a woman, Mary Austin, and would go on to have relationships with men after her. Fellow bandmate Brian May revealed in an interview it was obvious when Mercury’s dressing room visitors changed from “hot women” to “hot men”!
American screenwriter, playwright, and novelist Larry Kramer took it upon himself to publicize the AIDS crisis that was sweeping across the United States throughout the eighties. The vehement activist, a gay man himself, stated that he grew increasingly incensed at the “bureaucratic paralysis” that was preventing a national health intervention from the government.
Kramer believed there was an unconcern toward gay men, and the Department of Health was merely ignoring the pandemic. In response, Kramer founded “Gay Men's Health Crisis,” a network that assisted people living with HIV. Kramer’s efforts are acknowledged as the government's attitude towards the crisis is changing.
Danish artist Lili Elbe made history as one of the earliest surgically transitioned women. Lili Elbe spent her early years as Einar Magnus Wegener and established herself as a prominent painter under this name. Elbe would, however, dress as a woman for specific events and introduce herself as the sister of Einar.
Gender reassignment surgery, although highly radical and far from perfect at the time, was an option, and Elbe underwent the transition over a two-year period. Tragedy struck when an infection set in after Elbe had a uterus implanted. The young Elbe passed from septic shock at the age of 48.
The modern, computer-using world owes Lynn Conway a debt of gratitude: the highly accomplished electrical engineer and computer scientist pioneered computer processors to be far faster and more efficient. However, Lynn Conway survived an era where being transgender meant the end of your career, family, and social circle.
During Conway’s employment with IBM, she took the step to undergo gender-affirming surgery. IBM not only refused her medical leave but fired her. However, Conway went on to transition, and she kept it from her colleagues and friends for decades. Conway has since gone on to be a champion for transgender rights.
Troy Perry, the founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, acknowledged himself as a gay man. Still, the piously devoted church member was advised to marry a woman and “pray” to resolve himself of his sin. This led to a very predictable divorce and an attempt at taking his own life. Thankfully, the attempt failed, and Perry resolved to create a safe space for Christian LGBTQ+ to worship.
What started as a group of nine people in a living room flourished to over one thousand members in just under three years.
Texan-born Michael Sam was the first American football player to openly come out as a gay man. The celebrated sportsman stated that coming out was a natural and personal choice and was not intended to champion any cause besides being true to himself and his teammates.
The athlete opened the doors for other sportspeople to come out, and the most recognized instance of this was when Carl Nassib posted a social media video detailing his coming out. The player would go on to be signed as a season regular for the Las Vegas Raiders. Sam acknowledged and thanked Nassib for “owning his truth.”
The late Ifti Nasim left a lasting legacy in the LGBTQ+ community. Nasim was the first openly gay man to have published an entire collection of poetry in Urdu, the national language of his native Pakistan.
After fleeing his homeland due to being persecuted because of his sexuality, the charismatic poet found sanctuary in the United States. Nasim thrived in the far more open and welcoming society and went on to become a champion for LGBTQ rights. He founded SANGAT, an organization focused on creating a safe space for South Asian LGBTQ+ youth.
Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon
Del Martin and her wife Phyllis Lyon were the twentieth-century power couple of LGBTQ+ advocacy. The couple helped found the “Daughters of Bilitis” in 1955. The organization was the first ever lesbian-centric civil rights organization in the United States and provided a safe space for lesbians to meet and find support amongst each other.
Martin and Phyllis would be married twice in their lifetimes, first when the city of San Francisco granted marriage licenses to same-sex couples and then again in 2008 after the California Supreme Court gave them full marriage rights.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was better known by her last name, Colette. The multifaceted Colette was a trailblazer in the critical thinking arena surrounding lesbian and gay sexuality in the quickly modernizing western world. She was a “woman of letters,” an early term for someone who published opinion pieces in the same way a columnist would today.
Alongside her writing, Colette was a well-known actress and performer. The French police arrested her for performing an on-stage kiss with the niece of Napoleon Bonaparte! Colette passed away at the age of eighty-one.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy
As Miss Major Griffin-Gracy approaches her nineties, the vociferous champion of LGBTQIA+ rights shows no signs of slowing down. As a self-identifying transwoman, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy battled bigotry, ostracization, and abuse throughout her early years. Griffin-Gracy put a special focus on incarcerated transwomen after she went through the prison system, always finding herself placed among male prisoners.
Gracy-Griffin's lifelong activism career began when a close friend had her life tragically taken from her, and the police, indifferent because she was transgender, did not assist in apprehending the culprit.
"I am a homosexual.” These words were emblazoned on the cover of TIME magazine, along with Leonard Matlovich’s face. The outspoken Leonard Matlovich took the courageous step of outing himself while an active member of the United States Air Force.
The American military discriminated against LGBTQ+ at the time. Matlovich, a highly decorated member, was offered to sign a contract to “never practice homosexuality again” to remain a service member. Matlovich refused and was given an honorable discharge. Matlovich passed away in 1988, and his tombstone reads, “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
School teacher Jeanne Manford found herself at the forefront of the gay rights movement in the 1970s after her gay son was attacked by bigots. Manford went on to approach radio and news stations to highlight the passivity of police in dealing with hate crimes against LGBTQ+ folk. From her activism, Manford would go on to establish “PFLAG”: Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
The movement was created to help facilitate communication between heterosexual and gay family members. Manford was posthumously awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal for her groundbreaking efforts.
Perplexed by a rejection to be a member of the National Honor Society for “homosexual inclinations,” psychiatrist Barbara Gittings took it upon herself to begin psychoanalyzing herself about what it meant to be a lesbian woman in 1950s America.
Barbara Gittings would then approach the “Daughters of Bilitis,” the only lesbian organization and support group in the United States. Her involvement with the group would put her at the forefront of their New York division. Gittings's psychiatric skills allowed her to challenge the mainstream convention of homosexuality being defined as a mental disorder, and as a result, it was retracted in the medical literature.
Non-binary South African-born artist Zanele Muholi began documenting the lives and experiences of LGBTQIA+ youth in South Africa in the early 2000s. Muholi describes themself as a visual activist instead of just simply an artist. Muholi brings focus to the hate crimes and stigma that LGBTQIA+ people face in South Africa and tackles issues such as assault and HIV.
As of 2021, Muholi has extended their efforts into rural communities, offering workshops to provide photography and painting skills to underprivileged youth.
Tab Hunter was a forerunner of the Hollywood heartthrob stereotype. The blonde, green-eyed New York native lived up to being, in his own words, “swoon-bait.” The actor had no doubts about his sexuality as a gay man, but, in 1950s America, that was a death knell for any acting career aspirations.
The studios had press houses write false articles about Hunter’s supposed liaisons with other actresses to bolster his macho, heterosexual image. Hunter finally addressed his sexuality in his 2005 autobiography, where he revealed he was not only gay but had been married to his husband for almost three decades!
Hawaiian-born Janet Mock has helped the trans world find a broader voice through the media industry. The ambitious media mogul has led several campaigns to highlight issues faced by the transgender community. Mock released a memoir, “Redefining Realness,” in 2011 that detailed her journey as a transwoman.
A heated exchange developed between Mock and journalist Piers Morgan when Mock accused the talk show host of ignoring the biases and challenges faced by the transgender community and only focusing on exaggerating her life. Mock received an Emmy award for her executive producing skills on the show “Pose.”
The twentieth and twenty-first century owes its most defining invention, the computer, to a single man: mathematical genius Alan Turning. The brilliant scientist was similarly instrumental in defeating the Germans in WWII as his now legendary code-cracking skills managed to intercept and decipher numerous German messages, preventing full-scale attacks.
In an ironic twist, Turing’s own government brought about his eventual demise. The British government convicted Turing of “gross indecency” after being found to have a male lover. Turing passed away from cyanide poisoning a few days before his forty-second birthday. Whether the poisoning was intentional has been debated.
Barbara Smith, a lesbian feminist and scholar, had an early start in political and social activism. The young civil rights campaigner was present at Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches and participated in demonstrations denouncing school segregation.
Through direct action and writing, her involvement laid the groundwork for her lifelong cause: the advancement of Black feminism in the United States. Barbara Smith was responsible for the now popular term “identity politics.” Smith founded the book publishing company ”Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.” The company helped publicize Black female authors such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrisson.
British painter and artist David Hockney brought the theme of gay men to the forefront with his artworks during the 1960s pop art movement. David Hockney’s painting style and counterculture themes have cemented him as one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century.
Art history was made in 2018 when Hockney’s seminal painting “Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures)” was auctioned for a staggering ninety million dollars. The sale set an art world record for Hockney as it was the most expensive piece of art sold by a living artist.
American senator Tammy Baldwin has built an illustrious political career. The openly gay politician has championed bills that advance the non-discrimination and protection of LGBTQIA+ folk. As a member of the senate and house of commons, Tammy Baldwin, who identifies as lesbian, helped draft and vote into law a number of bills that rolled back previously discriminatory laws against LGBTQIA+ citizens.
Some of these include the law that prohibited gay men from being organ donors, granting spousal visas to same-sex LGBTQIA+ ambassadors from countries that do not recognize same-sex civil unions, and having the White House celebrate Pride Month.
The passionate advocate moved from his native Australia to England after coming out in the late 60s to avoid being drafted into the Australian army. A long-time anti-apartheid activist, Tatchell coined the term “sexual apartheid,” highlighting the discriminatory laws placed over LGBTQIA+ people.
Tatchell would be present and oftentimes spearhead numerous sit-ins at pubs that refused to serve gay men. The prolific campaigner went on to help draft anti-discrimination laws and continues to broaden his advocacy to include a number of human and animal rights and environmental causes.
Audre Lorde described herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” The poet and non-fiction author combined her career with civil rights issues and wrote extensively on the injustices that plagued American society when she was growing up.
Lorde’s poetry and writing are credited with helping bridge the intersectionality of gay rights, racism, classism, and feminism. Lorde advanced “womanism” and developed the philosophy that another branch of thought and activism was needed to encompass the Black lesbian experience separate from mainstream feminism.
Before Mark Ashton’s young life was tragically cut short at the age of twenty-six, the passionate activist changed LGBT+ history in his native United Kingdom by allying with another marginalized group: miners. While the alliance may initially sound surprising, it developed a united front for civil rights.
Miners had embarked on a strike, and the British government, led by Margaret Thatcher at the time, sequestered all donations for the protesting union. Mark Ashton formed the “Lesbians and Gays Support Miners” foundation that would go on to fundraise almost £100,000 in donations for the National Union of Mineworkers.
American author Dan Savage has been a driving force in the LGBTQ+ community. Savage has held a long-running website where he writes on the topic of sexuality. Along with his husband, Terry Miller, Savage founded the “It Gets Better Project” in 2015 following the tragic passing of Billy Lucas, a fifteen-year-old teenager who took his own life after severe antigay bullying.
The project has LGBTQ+ adults submit video testimonials of how even though they were victims of discrimination and bullying, their lives eventually did get better.
Retired American politician Barney Frank made the most of his career in politics by effecting sweeping reforms within federal policies across the United States. Frank, who publically acknowledged that he was a gay man in 1987, helped legislation in the “1990 Immigration Act” that ensured immigrants could not be disqualified for legal status based on their sexuality.
Frank was one of three openly gay Members of Congress, alongside Jarrod Polis and Tammy Baldwin. The LGBTQ+ publication “Out” awarded the politician top spot in its “Annual Power 50 List” in 2009.
The American writer Gore Vidal produced a lifetime of work that dealt with many social topics, notably that of sexuality within mainstream American society. The prolific writer, who was openly bisexual, held a curious stance on the issue of gay rights that began surfacing as popular opinion in the 1960s.
Vidal maintained that the label “gay” had no meaning as it related only to acts within a relationship rather than the individual’s sexuality. Vidal wrote that "homosexuality is a constant fact of the human condition, and it is not a sickness, not a sin, not a crime.”
Icelandic politician, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, has a number of historical accolades to her name. She is not only the longest serving member of parliament in Iceland but, in 2009, was nominated to become Prime Minister. This nomination made the openly gay stateswoman the first female Prime Minister of the Scandinavian country and, subsequently, the first gay Prime Minister in the world.
While groundbreaking for the world, Icelanders were nonplussed as homosexuality was declared legal in 1940. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir took control of the Althing, the national parliament of Iceland, during Iceland’s worst financial crisis in the wake of a total collapse of its banking system.
Gilbert Baker’s influence is widespread nowadays, but his name remains mostly anonymous against his most iconic artwork: the rainbow flag. Gilbert Baker’s emblematic, six-colored flag first flew at an event in 1978. Baker was adamant that the flag represented the collective, not any single individual, and refused to copyright the design.
When the rainbow flag reached its twenty-fifth anniversary, Baker designed a pride flag so large that it ran from the Gulf of Mexico right through to the Key West islands in Florida. The flag was then cut up and a piece was sent to one hundred cities worldwide.
Bayard Rustin’s name is not as popular as his counterpart’s, Martin Luther King Jr., due to the sad indictment of the attitude towards gay men in 1960s America. Bayard Rustin was the right hand to Martin Luther King Jr. and was responsible for orchestrating one of the largest civil rights protests in American history: the “March on Washington.”
However, due to Rustin’s open acknowledgment of being a gay man, the organizers of the movement had to suppress Rustin’s involvement as it was feared that his sexuality would be used as a weapon to discredit its figurehead Martin Luther King Jr.
Harvey Milk broke barriers when he stormed onto the American political scene. Although Harvey Milk would become most famous for being elected as the first openly gay official in Californian history, the firebrand politician did not aspire to either politics or social justice in his early career.
Milk instead found himself at the forefront of politics after being involved in the uprisings of the 1960s. That was where gay rights shared the social justice stage alongside civil rights, the Vietnam war, and the hippie counterculture revolution. Among the many policies that Milk instituted, gay rights in federally protected legislation were his most recognized.
The massively famous actor Elliot Page, formerly knowns as Ellen Page, broke the internet with his second coming out statement. He now joins the ranks of his fellow trans peers. As a trailblazer in the LGBTQ+ world, Page first came out as gay in 2014 before coming forward as a masculine-identifying transperson.
Page expressed immense gratitude in his statement, expressing how happy he is to be a part of a world where he feels accepted. The actor has an enormous resume, of course, with an Oscar nomination for the film "Juno." Going through his transition in between two seasons of the hit Netflix show "The Umbrella Academy," the transition had to be written into the series.
Stormé DeLarverie holds the honorific title of “the Rosa Parks of the Gay community.” She is widely recognized as the spark of the “Stonewall Uprising” flame after it was reported that she was the first to be arrested, an arrest which she resisted, that fateful evening at Stonewall nightclub.
The events of Stonewall reinforced DeLarverie’s role in the fight for civil rights in the LGBTQ+ movement, featuring prominently in the streets of New York as an armed protector and guardian of its lesbian denizens.
Sylvia Rivera is a name synonymous with the twentieth-century reformation of laws and attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community. The outspoken Sylvia Rivera helped co-found S.T.A.R alongside fellow activist and “Stonewall Uprising” veteran Marsha P. Johnson. The firebrand had a troubled youth. Rivera fled her grandmother's home after being orphaned and found herself homeless as a result. It was at this point she found sanctuary within the wing of the drag queen community.
Rivera became a prominent activist at the age of eighteen and helped pave the way for homeless LGBTQ+ youth to find safe accommodation.
Sally Ride’s meteoric rise as an astronaut made history. Her titles of firsts are admirable: the first female astronaut, the first woman in space, and the first woman to be an operator of a space shuttle. Sally Ride did not publicize her long-term relationship with girlfriend Tam O’Shaughnessy, and her identity as a gay woman was only known when her obituary mentioned O’Shaughnessy.
O’Shaughnessy honored her lifelong partner by helping to co-found the “Sally Ride Science” organization. The organization helps young women of all backgrounds achieve their academic goals in the STEM field.
Jackie Shane had an invincible spirit. The transgender singer was a trailblazer for LGBTQIA+ folk in the entertainment industry. Shane was born in Tennessee during a period in history when homophobia and racism were rampant and acceptable in society.
When the rhythm and blues singer was asked how she defined her sexuality, she famously replied, “I never tried to explain myself to anyone — they never explained themselves to me.” The American singer moved to Toronto to escape these two social ills and soon became the darling of the music industry there, chalking up the number two spot on the billboard top 100.