20 LGBTQ+ People Who Changed the World

Laverne Cox

Following Laverne Cox on social media is a bit like coming up for a breath of fresh air. Her feed is constantly filled with deeply intimate, sensitive, heartfelt content, and that vulnerable strength may have much to do with how she’s blazed so many trails. Since her becoming a series regular on Orange Is the New Black, Cox has become the first trans person to cover TIME, the first trans woman to receive a Daytime Emmy as an executive producer for Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word — which was also the first trans documentary to receive win a Daytime Emmy — the first transgender person to play a transgender series regular on broadcast television, the first trans person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy in an acting category, and the list goes on. Read more about Laverne here.

Sylvia Rivera

“Two years before her death, Stonewall veteran Sylvia Rivera served as muse for a photography series captured by Valerie Shaff. The black-and-white images feature the outspoken activist dolled up with razor-thin eyebrows, a bold lip, and wind-strewn hair on a makeshift encampment near the Hudson River. A nearly 50-year-old Rivera was living there in protest of the mostly gay- and lesbian-focused organizations and community groups at the time — particularly, The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center(then known as the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center Inc.), which was mere city blocks away.

Rivera contended that the mainstream LGBTQ+ organizations were ignoring the needs of local homeless youth and transgender people. For her, the LGBTQ+ nonprofit industrial complex had grown into something far different from the initiatives she’d spearheaded throughout her lifetime.

‘Sylvia was really for the democratization of our movement. She was unwilling to have an agenda be set behind closed doors by the most elite people in the community,’ says Dean Spade, a trans activist and associate professor at Seattle University School of Law.  ‘We see this even now: There are always battles over how homeless people and people with psychiatric disabilities are treated at LGBTQ+ centers and events. The battles over those exclusions are an example of carrying on Sylvia’s work in a deep way.’” – Out Executive Editor Raquel Willis, “How Sylvia Rivera Created the Blueprint for Transgender Organizing

James Baldwin

“Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924 during its intellectual, social, and artistic Renaissance — a time period that gave way to Black art of all stripes and coincided with the Great Depression. It was during this time that he would meet painter Beauford Delaney, who he said was his ‘first living proof that a Black man could be an artist.’ Writing became Baldwin’s art, and his first published work appeared in The Nation in 1947. By the time his first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, debuted in the mid-1950s, he was already known for his literary and cultural commentary. With his second novel, Giovanni’s Room, he courted controversy because of its explicit depictions of homosexuality, prompting him to first publish it abroad. And although the Civil Rights Act was passed less than a decade later, white supremacy in the form of state-sanctioned violence, spatial segregation, and the war on drugs was still king — and the promise of freedom from oppression, Baldwin understood, was not yet complete.

This made his socio-political interventions, especially at the intersection of queerness and Blackness, all the more audacious as he linked the struggles of communities once thought to be in opposition. Because he was wary of focusing on identity categories themselves rather than on the systems that produced them, he also refused the monikers foisted upon him. Among his more resounding lines was, ‘As long as you think you’re white, I’m going to be forced to think I’m Black.’ Baldwin also expressed ‘impatience’ with the word ‘gay,’ suggesting the term answered a false argument that queer people had to prove their humanity.” – Out Director of Culture & Entertainment Tre’vell Anderson, “James Baldwin’s Blueprint For the LGBTQ+ Rights Movement

Brenda Howard

“A month after the [Stonewall] riots ended, New York City saw one of the country’s first public marches where [LGBTQ+] people proudly, publicly claimed their identities: The Christopher Street Liberation Day March. The parade influenced other cities around the world, laying the groundwork for Pride parades internationally. And while Stonewall has become an iconic moment in our collective [LGBTQ+] history, many are unaware that the first Pride parade, the Liberation Day March, was organized by a bisexual woman. A year later, the same woman coordinated the one-year anniversary of the Christopher Street Liberation Day march, sparking what would become a lifelong passion for the late Brenda Howard. 
‘You needed some kind of help organizing some type of protest or something in social justice?’ recalls Howard’s partner, Larry Nelson. ‘All you had to do was call her and she’ll just say when and where.’” – Eliel Cruz, “Remembering Brenda: An Ode to the ‘Mother of Pride’

Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir

Former Icelandic Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir made history as the first openly LGBTQ+ leader of a nation, but to many of her constituents she was just another leader. “Most Icelanders saw nothing unusual about a lesbian prime minister,” writes Trudy Ring for The Advocate. “The country had repealed laws against gay sex in 1940, when it was a dependency of Denmark. In 1996 it became one of the first nations in the world to establish civil partnerships for same-sex couples. In 2006 it followed up by approving adoption rights for gay and lesbian couples. In 2010, a year into Sigurdardóttir’s tenure as prime minister, Iceland passed a marriage equality law. She and her partner, author Jonina Leosdóttir, were one of the first couples to take advantage of it. The women, both divorced mothers, had been in a civil partnership since 2002.” Sigurðardóttir left office in 2013. 

Alicia Garza

“It was July 2013 when the world encountered a brilliant, powerful assemblage of words that would come to define a generation. Alicia Garza gifted Black millennials the rallying cry #BlackLivesMatter in the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. She unleashed the power of digital activism to create a movement and revealed to us that a hashtag, a post, an image, and a video shared online could change the course of history.

Before joining forces with community organizers Patrisse Cullors-Khan and Opal Tometi, Alicia’s work had already spanned nearly two decades. Drawing inspiration from her childhood growing up in a household with a single mother, the lifelong Californian began her early work with an emphasis on reproductive justice. Since then, she has been able to see how the pieces of seemingly disparate issues like economic justice, students’ rights, and police brutality are all intertwined in the fight against state violence.”

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy

“Miss Major has dedicated 50 years of her life to organizing for trans women of color. She is a veteran of the Stonewall riots, a survivor of Attica Correctional Facility, and the founding executive director of Transgender, Gender Variant, Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), a nonprofit that centers and supports trans, gender-nonconforming, and intersex people in and out of prisons, jails, and detention centers. And when most wept at the election of Trump, Major persevered in her retirement, moving from the comfort of home in San Francisco to Arkansas, where she heard a call to help the trans community build a stronger movement. In Little Rock, she’s building the Griffin-Gracy Education Retreat and Historical Center, lovingly known as the House of GG.” – Janet Mock, “50 Years After Stonewall, Miss Major Is Still Leading the Trans Revolution

Langston Hughes

The jury is still out on if Langston Hughes was queer, and the historians will surely continue to argue both ways. But we’re claiming the Joplin, Missouri poet either way. An innovator of the then-new literary art form of jazz poetry — or poems that seem to have jazz-like rhythm or the feel of improvisation — Hughes is best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. By the time he died in 1967, he’d been honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship and numerous honorary degrees, with his written work spanning poems, plays, children’s books, and short stories. – Tre’vell Anderson

Bayard Rustin

“There is no question that Rustin was utterly audacious during a time when being neither gay nor socialist were exactly fashionable. A brilliant organizer and tactician, the reasons to cite him are many. Not only did he urge [Reverend Dr. Martin Luther] King to lean deeper into the politics and practice of nonviolence, but he was also an unabashed pacifist who was jailed for two years for refusing to enter the draft during World War II. And in addition to organizing the 1963 March on Washington, three years later he and labor leader A. Philip Randolph devised an ambitious plan to end poverty in the United States.” – Tre’vell Anderson, “Op-ed: Bayard Rustin’s Legacy Is Complicated, And That’s Okay.”

Miss J. Alexander

Miss J. Alexander of America’s Next Top Model fame was the first real, queer, accessible representation for many LGBTQ+ people consuming television around the turn of the century. “Miss J. was the runway expert and taught an entire generation of models — as well as queer people at home — how to walk the runway,” says Out staff writer Mathew Rodriguez, a personal fan of the show. A triumph for visibility, Alexander is a professional runway coach, designer, author and model. Read more about Alexander’s life and work in our 1994 profile of the legend and in Alexander’s book, Follow the Model, “an empowering, no-nonsense guide to living the Miss J way—fully and fabulously!”

Zanele Muholi

Visual activist Zanele Muholi forever changed the image of Black queer South Africans through her portraiture and organizing during a time when the country’s LGBTQ+ media representation sensationalized and demonized queer people. “In 2006, Muholi developed Inkanyiso (meaning ‘illumination’ in Zulu) as a digital platform for queer media and activism ‘in response to the lack of visual histories and skills training produced by and for LGBTI persons, especially artists (in the form of photography, film, visual arts, and multimedia).’ Three years later, it grew into a full-fledged organization and now boasts seven volunteer contributors (according to their website) and a mobile school of photography, educating community members on how to also be agents of documenting the world around them.

Through the organization, Muholi has created opportunities for younger Black LGBTQ+ community members to hone in on their strengths. Throughout our conversation, Muholi makes mention of Lerato Dumse, their work partner who handles everything from coordinating the logistics of the visual activist’s special projects to writing accompanying reports on their findings in South Africa. ‘Lerato means love,’ Muholi says with pride, later telling me they consider Dumse and their ensemble of artists and journalists (including Yaya Mavundla and Thembela ‘Terra’ Dick) like a family.” – Out Executive Editor Raquel Willis, “Zanele Muholi Forever Changed the Image of Black Queer South Africans

Alan Turing

Considered by many to be the “founder of computer science,” Alan Turing was a British mathematician and scientist who played a key role in breaking the code for the Nazi Enigma machine in World War II, assisting in no small part in the defeat of Adolf Hitler and the resolution of the second world war. 
Months after he broke the code, according to The Times, the British government arrested Turing on the charge of “gross indecency” under the Criminal Law Amendment Act, the same charge used against Oscar Wilde. Turing was chemically castrated after information about his relationship with another man became known.  He committed suicide two years later.

Barbara Gittings

“Born in 1932, Barbara Gittings heard the term “homosexual” for the first time in her life when she was rejected for membership to the National Honor Society when a teacher suspected her of ‘homosexual inclinations.’ By college she was a psychiatrist-confirmed lesbian who, with no groups or organizations to turn to, took it upon herself to research her ‘condition.’ …
“In 1956 Gittings met with the founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian-centric organization in the United States. In 1958 the founders asked her to start a DOB chapter in New York City, placing Gittings in the thick of a near-silent movement. The DOB often invited doctors, ministers, and psychiatrists to their meetings to speak, even when they expected the message to be disapproving of them as queer women. …

“By the 1960s Gittings became a recognizable face on the picket line, lobbying for gay rights in Washington and around the country. In the early 1970s, shortly after the Stonewall riots, Gittings helped with petitioning the American Psychiatric Association to change its stance on homosexuality. In 1973, the APA withdrew its definition of homosexuality as a mental disorder. … The fervor with which she delved into libraries in search of literature on homosexuality led Gittings to push to make such literature more available.” – Dennis Hinzmann, “The Legacy of Pride: Barbara Gittings

Sally Ride

America’s first female astronaut, the first woman in space, and space shuttle robotic arm operator, Sally Ride helped pave the way for women in STEM — and when she came out posthumously, and subtly, in her obituary, she became many, many more firsts for queer women everywhere. 

The end of the obit stated simply: “In addition to Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years, Sally is survived by her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin, and nephew, Whitney; her staff of 40 at Sally Ride Science; and many friends and colleagues around the country.”

Her pioneering work to increase women in STEM didn’t stop short at simply being iconic representation: the company mentioned in her obituary, Sally Ride Science, was founded in 2001 to “inspire young people in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and to promote STEM 

iteracy.” Among its co-founders was O’Shaughnessy, who is now executive director of the relaunched Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego.

“Sally never hid her relationship with Tam,” her sister Bear wrote in an essay after Sally’s death. “They were partners, business partners in Sally Ride Science, they wrote books together, and Sally’s very close friends, of course, knew of their love for each other. We consider Tam a member of our family.”

Harvey Milk

Activist and legend Harvey Milk was not the first LGBTQ+ person to hold public office, but he was immensely influential in shaping the spirit of queer resistance from even before his historic term on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors as California’s first out gay politician.  

Milk is now known widely for many acts of early queer activism and legislative progress. In 1978, he helped introduce the city’s first LGBTQ+ rights ordinance, which Milk referred to as “the most stringent gay rights law in the country,” according to The Times. The ordinance banned discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on “sexual preference.”

Milk’s work in the late ’70s in defeating Prop 6, known as the Briggs’ Initiative, also goes down in history alongside his name. Proposed by former Calif. Rep. John Briggs, the initiative would have banned the employment of any teacher in the state who “was gay or in support of gay rights,” according to ACLU North Carolina. The Briggs Initiative lost by more than a million votes.

Milk was assassinated less than one year into his term, in 1978. Read longtime activist and author Cleve Jones on his close relationship with Milk, his personal mentor and hero, in “Happy Birthday, Harvey Milk.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin

In 2013, Sen. Tammy Baldwin became the first openly LGBTQ+ senator in American history — and from Wisconsin, no less. A staunch, longtime defendant of LGBTQ+ rights, Sen. Baldwin has most recently helped introduce the Equality Act: the nation’s first ever comprehensive legislation to protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination. And while the Act has very little chance of passing the Senate, with politicians like Sen. Baldwin in Washington the fight to pass federal non-discrimination legislation is long from over.

Lily and Lana Wachowski

Probably two of the most famed filmmakers of the early 21st century, the Wachowskis should be a family name you know. The duo is listed as writers, directors, producers or some combination of the three as of 2018’s end: The Matrix (all three titles in the trilogy), V for Vendetta, Cloud Atlas, and LGBTQ+ cult classic Sense8. As big names in the cinematic arena, the Wachowskis have paved the way for LGBTQ+ creatives to enter the space, and left many, many words of caution as to how to best do so after a turbulent ride with mainstream industry interests. For a great introduction to the Wachowskis’ stories, and some of that industry advice, watch Lana’s acceptance speech after receiving the 2012 HRC Visibility Award.

Ellen DeGeneres

Ellen DeGeneres has earned her place as one of the most prominent lesbians in entertainment. In 1994, nearly a decade after her first television appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, her sitcom Ellen went on air for the first time — and three years after that, the mainstream media giant came out using that very platform, making her the first person to star as an openly gay character on prime-time television. Instantly lambasted by conservative viewers, the backlash to her announcement went as far as to elicit bomb threats.

Now, after over 20 triumphant years of airtime, rumors of DeGeneres retiring from her long-running daytime talk show The Ellen Degeneres Show are being quelled: Ellen was renewed recently for a three-year contract in 2019, per USA Today, and the magnate has recently been branching out to expand her empire across genres. As one of the most powerful queer people in entertainment, she’s also recently faced criticism regarding what she decides to do with that power.

Barbara Smith

“In her 72 years, Barbara not only cofounded the Combahee River Collective, she helped build a visible Black feminist movement during a period when one did not exist. ‘Virtually everything I have done has been in service of that mission,’ Barbara says, from teaching one of the first courses on Black women writers in the United States in 1973, to building the field of Black women’s studies by asserting that there was and could be such a thing, and cofounding Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in 1980, the first United States publisher for all women of color to reach a large national audience, which published the second edition of the beloved and groundbreaking anthology This Bridge Called My Back. ‘Arguably, the history of Black women’s organizing would be very different if none of these interventions had occurred,’ she tells me.” – Janet Mock, “Know Barbara Smith: One of Our First Proud, Out Black Lesbians

Michael Sam

“The implications of having a gay or bisexual man playing at the top level of American sports was not lost on anyone at the time. Millions of people from coast to coast show unwavering allegiance to their NFL team each week, game in and game out, season after season, from cradle to grave. The popularity of the NFL meant a massive platform. Sports and the military were also considered two of the last bastions of heterosexual exclusivity — and, well, the federal government has been dismantling “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Men’s sports had to be next.

‘When I came out, I wasn’t doing it for anyone,’ Sam told Out in late February. ‘I was just doing it for myself. I wasn’t doing it for the LGBT community, I wasn’t doing it for the black community, I wasn’t trying to come out to change the world. My true coming out was to my teammates. Not to ESPN or anyone else. I was so happy that my school supported me so much that I felt like it was easy. I could live my life just like this.’”

— Out Managing Editor Michelle Garcia, “Five Years Later, Michael Sam Is Doing Just Fine, Thanks

Courtesy of Out

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