These Are The 22 Most Iconic Figures From The LGBT Movement

Even though many countries in the world are gradually becoming more open-minded regarding sexual diversity, this was far from true half a century ago. Members of the LGBT community faced discrimination and many of their basic rights were systematically denied. In this list, we’ll go over some of the most influential LGBT figures in history. Some of them were artists, some were politicians, while others were ordinary people – just like any of us – who felt outraged by social injustice and fought for the rights of sexual dissidents. It’s thanks to these people that we live in a freer and juster world, so let’s learn a bit about their lives and contributions to world equality!

Photo: Courtesy of USA Today

#22. Edie Windsor

Edie Windsor was an American mathematician who became an LGBT activist after reading about the Stonewall Riots on the news with her partner, Thea Spyer, in 1969. When Spyer died in 2009, she was forced to pay taxes after inheriting her partner’s estate.

Photo: Courtesy of The Advocate

Therefore, Windsor took on the US government based on the Defense of Marriage Act. The United States v. Windsor case received worldwide coverage, and Windsor won the case in March 2013. Her victory was key in the fight for marriage equality in the US, and it also led American federal agencies to extend rights and benefits to married same-sex couples.

#21. Evan Wolfson

Evan Wolfson is an American attorney who lives in New York, and who has worked for many years in the LGBT organization Lambda Legal until 2001. That same year, he launched the Freedom to Marry organization, an advocacy group for same-sex marriage in the U.S.

Photo: Courtesy of

In 2004 he published a book titled Why Marriage Matters; America, Equality and Gay People’s Right to Marry. That same year, he was listed as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine.

#20. Barbara Gittings

Barbara Gittings was a famous American activist who stood up for LGBT rights a decade before the famous Stonewall riots. She launched the New York chapter of America’s first lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis and edited its national magazine for several years.

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She participated in dozens of demonstrations against gay discrimination, and she always stood in the front in picket lines. She’s the woman holding the “Homosexuals should be judged as individuals” sign in what became one of the most iconic pictures in LGBT history.

#19. Steve Endean

Steve Endean was an American political scientist and LGBT rights activist. In 1980 he founded the Human Rights Campaign Fund, one of the first LGBT political action committee ever, whose aim was to support those candidates who publicly endorsed gay rights legislation.

Photo: Courtesy of Red Book

The Human Rights Campaign Fund reached a membership of over 3 million, becoming the world’s largest advocacy group of LGBT rights. In 1991, he published Into the Mainstream, which contained his memoirs.

#18. Magnus Hirschfeld

Magnus Hirschfeld was a German physician and sexologist who began studying sexuality in 1896, focusing particularly on homosexuality. He always believed that the scientific study of sexuality would foster tolerance of sexual diversity.

Photo: Courtesy of PinkNews

He co-founded the first gay rights organization, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. Although some of his views may seem anachronic nowadays, he went to great lengths in his fight for the rights of the LGBT community.

#17. Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde was an American writer, librarian, feminist, and civil rights activist. Her poems expressed outrage towards the world’s social injustices, and many of them explored issues such as civil rights, sexuality, and lesbianism.

Photo: Courtesy of Red Book

Lorde was a very shrewd spokesperson and she capitalized that talent to speak out against racism, homophobia, and sexism. She passed away in 1991, and in 2001, the Publishing Triangle association created the Audre Lorde Award to honor works of lesbian poetry.

#16. Janet Mock

Janet Mock is an American writer, director, and television host born in 1983. She came out as transsexual in 2011, and ever since then, she has been writing about her trans experience, among other topics. She underwent sex reassignment surgery in Thailand.

Photo: Courtesy of Red Book

Her debut book Redefining Realness, in which she talks about her transition, has become a New York Times bestseller. She is an advocate for trans rights, and in 2014 she promoted a campaign against a Phoenix law which allowed the police to arrest anyone suspected of prostitution, but which particularly targeted black female transgenders.

#15. William “Bill” Thom

William “Bill” Thom was an American lawyer LGBT activist who in 1971 founded Lambda Legal, an organization that fights for LGBT rights as well as for people living with HIV and/or AIDS.

Photo: Courtesy of Red Book

When Lambda Legal was created, there almost weren’t any openly gay lawyers in the USA. Therefore, in 1973, the organization created a Board of Advisors of New York lawyers who were publicly supported gay rights. Ever since then, Lambda Legal has provided legal assistance to the LGBT community.

#14. Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin was an American activist who played a key role in social movements for socialism, civil rights, and gay rights. He fought against racial segregation alongside Martin Luther King, and he played a crucial role on the 1941 March on Washington Movement against racial discrimination in the labor field.

Photo: Courtesy of Red Book

He was one of the few leaders of the Civil Rights Movement who was openly gay. Before his death in 1987, he urged New York City mayor Ed Koch to pass a bill on gay rights. In 2013, US President Barack Obama gave him the Presidential Medal of Honor.

#13. Del Martin And Phyllis Lyon

In 2004, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin became the first same-sex couple to get married in the US. Their marriage took place in San Francisco, right after the city clerk provided marriage licenses to gay couples. Their marriage was then voided by the California Supreme Court, but they re-married in 2008 when the state court legalized same-sex marriage.

Photo: Courtesy of Red Book

Martin and Lyon were also well-known feminists and gay rights activists who co-founded the LGBT organization Daughters of Bilitis together with Barbara Gittings in 1955. They were also president and editor of The Ladder, the first American nationally distributed lesbian publication, until 1963.

#12. Gilbert Baker

Gilbert Baker was an American artist and LGBT rights activist born in 1951. During his early adulthood, he joined the drag activist group Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. He used his designer skills to create banners for different gay-rights demonstrations.

Photo: Courtesy of Red Book

However, he is most famous for being the designer of the rainbow flag. The flag was unveiled for the first time in 1978 at the San Francisco Pride Parade. Ever since then, it has become an international symbol of the LGBT community and of LGBT pride.

#11. Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera was a Latin American transgender rights and gay liberation activist. She was also a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front. She was a close friend to Marsha P. Johnson, and together they co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.

Photo: Courtesy of BESE

It is rumored that Rivera threw one of the first bottles during the Stonewall uprising, but let’s not forget that she advocated and fought for LGBT rights years before the 1969 riot. In her honor, the NYC Sylvia Rivera Law Project aims to guarantee that everyone feels free to determine their gender identity and expression.

#10. Lynn Conway

Lynn Conway is an American computer scientist and electrical engineer. After coming out as trans in 1999, she became a transgender rights activist. She created a website to provide resources and offer aid and advice to the trans community.

Photo: Courtesy of Red Book

When she was a child, she was diagnosed with gender dysphoria. During the past years, she has stood up to the medical and psychiatric community and defended the elimination of Gender Identity Disorder from the list of mental diseases.

#9. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was a German writer, lawyer, and journalist, and he’s considered as one of the pioneers of the modern LGBT movement. In fact, he’s considered to be the first person to publicly “come out of the closet” in 1862.

Photo: Courtesy of Red Book

Ulrichs criticized the use of the term “homosexuality”, as he felt that queer identity went beyond mere sexual acts. In his memory, the International Lesbian and Gay Law Association grants the Karl Heinrich Ulrichs Award to acknowledge the most important contributions regarding the endorsement of sexual equality.

#8. Frank Kameny

Frank Kameny was an American gay rights activist born in 1925. In 1957 he was dismissed from the Army Map Service, where he worked as an astronomer, because of his open homosexuality. He appealed his firing, and although he didn’t win, his proceeding left a mark in history as it became the first known case of civil rights claim based on sexual orientation in the U.S.

Photo: Courtesy of National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

In the early 60s, he drafted a bill together with the D.C. branch of the Mattachine Society to abolish Washington DC’s sodomy laws. The bill was passed thirty years later, in 1993. He also played a crucial role in getting the American Psychiatric Association to eliminate homosexuality from the list of mental disorders.

#7. James Baldwin

James Baldwin was an American playwright, novelist, and activist. Most of his essays – which have been collected in Notes of a Native Son – dealt with issues such as racial, sexual and class inequalities in Western societies.

Photo: Courtesy of Red Book

It’s worth mentioning that Baldwin wrote gay and bisexual characters and wrote about sexual equality years before the LGBT community took form. Baldwin also played an active role in the Civil Rights Movement.

#6. Larry Kramer

Larry Kramer is an American writer, film producer, and LGBT rights activist. He rose to fame during the 70s after his work centered on the gay experience. During the AIDS pandemic, he co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the largest private organization of the time to help people living with the disease.

Photo: Courtesy of The New Yorker

During the late 1980s, he continued with his AIDS activism and launched the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (Act Up). Years later, he narrated his experience in the play and TV movie The Normal Heart, which won an Emmy Award.

#5. Leonard Matlovich

Leonard Matlovich was a technical sergeant and Vietnam War veteran. He became internationally known after standing up against the military’s ban against homosexual service members. He did this by openly declaring his sexual orientation in a letter to his commanding officer in 1975.

Photo: Courtesy of BBC

After “coming out”, he was discharged from the Air Force, a decision which he challenged. Surprisingly, the court ruled in his favor in 1980, and his case became the talk of the town all over the world. On September 8, 1975, his picture appeared on the front cover of the Times magazine.

#4. Jeanne Manford

Jeanne Manford was an American teacher and activist who co-founded the support group organization PFLAG in 1972. PFLAG was the United States’ first and most important organization for parents, families, and allies to LGBT people.

Photo: Courtesy of Red Book

Manford is the woman holding the banner that reads “Fathers in support of gays“, in what became one of the most iconic photographs of LGBT history. A few months after her death in 2013, she was granted the Presidential Citizens Medal.

#3. Christine Jorgensen

Christine Jorgensen was an American transsexual woman born in the Bronx, New York City, in 1926. She worked as an actress and night club singer and became one of the first American citizens to undergo sex reassignment surgery.

Photo: Courtesy of Red Book

She served in the US Army during World War II and returned to her home town in 1953. That same year the New York Daily News ran a front-page story about her life and her transition. She became one of the most important advocates for the rights of the trans community.

#2. Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk was an American politician who left his mark in history when becoming the first openly gay elected official in the USA. Milk got involved in politics and gay activism in his 40s and ran twice for a position on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors before being elected member of the City-County Board.

Photo: Courtesy of Red Book

During the 11 months in office, Milk worked on a bill banning discrimination in employment and public accommodations based on sexual orientation. He was assassinated by city supervisor Dan White in 1978, and Milk has become an icon of the LGBT community ever since.

#1. Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson was an American drag queen and gay liberation activist. She was one of the main instigators of the Stonewall uprising, which represented a turning point in the modern history of the LGBT community and possibly the most iconic event of LGBT history.

Photo: Courtesy of USA Today

Jhonson launched the Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries, an organization that helped homeless transgenders in New York City. She was also an AIDS activist with ACT UP. Her death in 1992 unleashed outrage among the LGBT community after the case was ruled as suicide.

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    Hernán Tamargo

    Teacher. Political Scientist. Writer. Feminist... and much more!

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