22 LGBTQ+ figures you should know

22 LGBTQ+ figures you should know
  • June is Pride Month, a time to honor the Stonewall riots and celebrate the LGBTQ+ community.

  • Activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Larry Kramer helped fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the 1980s.

  • In 2022, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez became the first transgender actress to win a Golden Globe.

Pride Month is here, and as people and companies around the world prepare to celebrate, it's also a good time to reflect and recognize the groundbreaking individuals who helped advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and representation.

From politics and media to entertainment and sports, figures like Harvey Milk, Laverne Cox, and Billie Jean King have been instrumental in uplifting the voices and stories of the LGBTQ+ community to promote acceptance and understanding.

Here are 22 LGBTQ+ figures you should know.

Alan Turing created modern computer science, but he was persecuted for being gay.

Alan Turing.
Alan Turing.Heritage Images/Getty Images

Alan Turing was a mathematician who is often credited with creating the foundation of artificial intelligence and computer science. He also played a major role in World War II, helping break several German codes.

In the '50s, he told police that he had a sexual relationship with a man and was arrested for gross indecency, Biography.com reported. He was then chemically castrated. He died in 1954 due to cyanide poisoning.

BBC News reported that Turing was given a posthumous royal pardon in 2013. Three years later, the UK government announced it would posthumously pardon other men convicted of abolished sexual offenses, in what was dubbed the "Turing law."

James Baldwin is one of the most influential writers in history.

james baldwin
James Baldwin.Sophie Bassouls/Getty Images

James Baldwin grew up in Harlem, New York, and published his first book, "Go Tell It on the Mountain," a semi-autobiographical novel, in 1953. The following year, he published his groundbreaking novel "Giovanni's Room" — its main character is a gay man. Throughout the rest of his writing career, Baldwin continued writing books and essays with Black and LGBTQ+ characters.

Christine Jorgensen was one of the first people to come out publicly as transgender.

Christine Jorgensen
Christine Jorgensen.New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Christine Jorgensen grew up in the Bronx, New York, and lived a quiet life. But Jorgensen said she felt like a woman stuck in a man's body. When she read about a doctor who was carrying out gender therapy in Copenhagen, she jumped at the chance to go.

After hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery in Europe, Jorgensen returned to the US in the 1950s as Christine. Overnight, she became a celebrity, as the media and the general public were fascinated with her physical transformation.

Bayard Rustin worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr., before turning to LGBTQ+ activism.

Bayard Rustin
Bayard Rustin.AP Photo/Eddie Adams

Although most people associate the March on Washington with Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin was a key organizer, per the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In fact, Rustin is the one who taught Dr. King about Gandhi's belief in non-violence and civil disobedience.

Rustin was also an openly gay man, so he often spoke about the importance of fighting for LGBTQ+ rights. He shifted his focus from civil rights to LGBTQ+ activism in the '80s.

His life was the focus of the 2023 Oscar-nominated film "Rustin," starring Colman Domingo.

Barbara Gittings was a well-respected activist in the gay rights movement.

Barbara Gittings.
Barbara Gittings.AP

Before the Stonewall riots, Barbara Gittings was on the frontlines, attempting to normalize homosexuality.

Per Time magazine, she joined the Daughters of Bilitis, the first organization that focused on lesbian rights, and started its New York chapter in 1958. She also began editing the Ladder, a magazine by and for lesbian women.

Beyond that, Gittings was also an important figure in reversing the American Psychiatric Association's belief that homosexuality was a mental illness.

Marsha P. Johnson was on the frontlines of the Stonewall riots.

Marsha P. Johnson and others at the 1982 Pride March.
Marsha P. Johnson and others at the 1982 Pride March.Barbara Alper/Contributor/Getty Images

Although Marsha P. Johnson never officially identified as transgender, she is considered a transgender pioneer. As a drag performer, sex worker, and self-identified "transvestite," Johnson played a major role in the historic Stonewall riots in 1969 that jump-started the gay liberation movement, CNN reported.

After the riots, Johnson and her friend, Sylvia Rivera, became leaders in the community and used their power to open Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, which helped provide housing for homeless and transgender youth.

Sylvia Rivera was a gay and transgender activist, but she's mainly known for her role at the Stonewall riots.

Sylvia Rivera speaks during a rally in City Hall Park in New York City in 2001.
Sylvia Rivera speaks during a rally in City Hall Park in New York City in 2001.Mariette Pathy Allen/Contributor/Getty Images

Sylvia Rivera is often credited with throwing the second Molotov cocktail at the Stonewall riots in 1969 when she was only 17, according to Biography.com. After taking her place in history, she joined forces with her friend Marsha P. Johnson to create Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.

Rivera experienced drug addiction, incarceration, sex work, and racism, so she fought for the rights of many marginalized groups throughout her lifetime.

Billie Jean King, a professional tennis player, was outed as a lesbian in 1981 and became one of the first out gay athletes.

Billie Jean King attends the "Alan Cumming Is Not Acting His Age" Broadway opening night in 2024.
Billie Jean King attends the "Alan Cumming Is Not Acting His Age" Broadway opening night in 2024.John Nacion/Contributor/WireImage

Billie Jean King is one of the most famous names in professional tennis. She earned 39 Grand Slam titles from 1966 to 1975, and also beat Bobby Riggs in the famous "Battle of the Sexes" match.

But in 1981, King was outed as a lesbian, and her publicists told her to deny the claim. Instead, she confirmed that she was a lesbian and became one of the first out gay athletes.

Harvey Milk was a gay rights activist and politician in San Francisco.

harvey milk
Harvey Milk.James Palmer/AP

Harvey Milk was the first out gay politician to ever be elected in California. While on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, Milk made a name for himself as a prominent, outspoken LGBTQ+ activist.

He was assassinated in 1978 in City Hall.

Eerily, Milk predicted his death by saying, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country," NBC News reported.

Gilbert Baker created the gay pride flag, which remains a prominent symbol today.

gilbert baker and flag
Gilbert Baker.Spencer Platt/Getty Images

CNN reported that, in 1978, Harvey Milk asked his friend Gilbert Baker to make a symbol that would represent gay pride.

Using the US flag as inspiration, Baker hand-sewed a rainbow flag. He said each color on the flag represented something that was important to the community. For example, the hot pink was for sex, and the red was for life. The rainbow pride flag was first flown in San Francisco on June 25, 1978, for Gay Pride Day.

Larry Kramer is known for his writing, but he also created two influential organizations during the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Larry Kramer.
Larry Kramer.Catherine McGann/Getty Images

Playwright Larry Kramer was on the frontlines of the HIV/AIDS crisis, which disproportionately impacted — and still impacts — members of the LGBTQ+ community, per the Human Rights Campaign.

In 1981, Kramer created the Gay Men's Health Crisis organization, which was the only group devoted to helping those who were HIV-positive, The New York Times reported. He later created Act Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which was an organization that held high-profile demonstrations.

In the '80s, Kramer wrote the play "The Normal Heart," which chronicled his experience in AIDS activism. In 2011, the play finally went up on Broadway and then was turned into an HBO movie.

RuPaul is a drag queen who has brought the art of drag into the mainstream.

RuPaul attends the premiere of "Bob Mackie: Naked Illusion" in 2024.
RuPaul attends the premiere of "Bob Mackie: Naked Illusion" in 2024.Amy Sussman/Staff/Getty Images

RuPaul got his start in the '90s in the music industry, releasing his hit single "Supermodel (You Better Work)," which reached the top 50 of the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. At the same time, he appeared in a number of films as his drag persona, including "Crooklyn," "The Brady Bunch Movie," and "Blue in the Face." In 2009, he started a drag-queen competition show, "RuPaul's Drag Race," and it quickly became a hit among the LGBTQ+ community.

Throughout the years, the series gained momentum and has become a major hit for mainstream audiences, leading to several spinoffs. The star has gone on to win 14 Emmys, per the Television Academy.

Although she's known as a commentator, Rachel Maddow is also a longtime LGBTQ+ activist.

Rachel Maddow.
Rachel Maddow.Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

After college, a young Rachel Maddow became an AIDS activist, joining Act Up and the AIDS Legal Referral Panel in San Francisco. After that, she became the first openly gay woman to be a Rhodes Scholar, and she studied AIDS in prisons.

Maddow hosted her own radio show, which was eventually turned into "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC in 2008, which in 2024, continues to air its 16th season. The journalist continues to be a public LGBTQ+ activist.

Edith Windsor was the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that declared the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional.

Edith Windsor.
Edith Windsor.AP Photo/Richard Drew

Edith Windsor's wife, Thea Spyer, died in 2009, igniting a court battle that would change LGBTQ+ rights forever. The federal government did not recognize Windsor and Spyer's marriage, so Windsor was left to pay $350,000 in estate taxes, per NPR. She waged a war against the Defense of Marriage Act in court.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2013 that Section 3 of DOMA —which prevented the federal government from recognizing any same-sex marriages for the purpose of federal laws — was unconstitutional, paving the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Anderson Cooper is another news anchor who is open about his sexuality.

Anderson Cooper.
Anderson Cooper.Angela Weiss/Contributor/Getty Images

Anderson Cooper started as a correspondent for ABC News, but in 2003 he got his own show on CNN, "Anderson Cooper 360." In 2012, he became the news story when he came out as gay.

"The fact is, I'm gay, always have been, always will be, and I couldn't be any more happy, comfortable with myself, and proud," Cooper wrote in an email to Andrew Sullivan, who was then given permission to publish in The Daily Beast, per Today.com.

In 2020, he revealed on his CNN segment that he had a son via surrogate and that he would be raising him with his ex-partner. "As a gay kid, I never thought it would be possible to have a child, and I am so grateful to all those who paved the way," Cooper said.

He welcomed his second child in 2022.

Laverne Cox became the first transgender person nominated for an Emmy Award for acting.

Laverne Cox.
Laverne Cox.Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Laverne Cox jumped into the spotlight in 2013 when she started playing transgender inmate Sophia Burset on Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black." For her role in the series, Cox was nominated for four Emmy Awards, becoming the first transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy in an acting category, per the Television Academy.

She is well known as an activist for transgender rights, serving as executive producer of "Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word," which won a Daytime Emmy for outstanding special class special in 2015, making her the first transgender woman to win the award.

Cox also starred on CBS's "Doubt" in 2017 and appeared in Netflix's "Inventing Anna" in 2022. She has been a host of E!'s "Live From the Red Carpet" since January 2022 as well.


Michael Sam was the first out gay man to be drafted into the NFL.

Michael Sam attends the OUT Magazine #OUT100 Event in 2017.
Michael Sam attends the OUT Magazine #OUT100 Event in 2017.Bryan Bedder/Stringer/Getty Images for OUT Magazine

In 2014, Michael Sam came out as gay in an interview with ESPN and made history that same year when he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams, becoming the first out gay man to ever be drafted into the NFL.

Unfortunately, Sam was let go from the team, and in 2015, CBS reported that he announced he was leaving the sport for good, citing mental health reasons.

In 2017, Lena Waithe became the first Black gay woman to win an Emmy Award for comedy writing.

Lena Waithe.
Lena Waithe.Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for Viacom

Lena Waithe won the Emmy for comedy writing for her work on the Netflix series "Master of None." During her speech, she took a moment to thank the LGBTQ+ community, Time reported.

"I love you all and last but certainly not least my LGBTQIA family," she said. "I see each and every one of you. The things that make us different, those are our superpowers — every day when you walk out the door and put on your imaginary cape and go out there and conquer the world because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren't in it."

Waithe also uses fashion as a statement to speak out for the community. In 2019, she wore a rainbow flag to the Met Gala that was Catholic Church-themed. A year later, she wore a pantsuit that read "Black Drag Queens Invented Camp" to the same event.

Janet Mock is a transgender trailblazer who is changing the face of television.

Janet Mock attends the Vanity Fair Oscars after-party in 2020.
Janet Mock attends the Vanity Fair Oscars after-party in 2020.Taylor Hill/Contributor/Getty Images

Janet Mock's powerful 2014 memoir, "Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More," chronicled her experience being transgender and became a New York Times bestseller. She released her second book, "Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me," in 2017.

Since then, she has moved into television and become the first transgender woman of color to write and direct an episode of television on Ryan Murphy's groundbreaking show "Pose," the National Women's History Museum reported. She also directed and produced episodes of Murphy's "Hollywood."

In 2018, Time named Mock one of the most influential people in the world.

Elliot Page is one of the most visible transgender actors in Hollywood.

Elliot Page attends the 2024 TIME100 Summit.
Elliot Page attends the 2024 TIME100 Summit.Craig Barritt/Stringer/Getty Images for TIME

Elliot Page is known for starring in the Oscar-winning film "Juno" and Netflix's "The Umbrella Academy." In 2020, he came out as transgender and said he uses he/they pronouns.

"I love that I am trans. And I love that I am queer. And the more I hold myself close and fully embrace who I am, the more I dream, the more my heart grows and the more I thrive," the actor wrote in his coming-out post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Since then, Page has gone through top surgery and he sat down with Oprah Winfrey for an interview in April 2021 to explain his journey.

"It felt important and selfish for myself and my own wellbeing and my mental health," Page told Winfrey about coming out. "And also with this platform I have, the privilege that I have, and knowing the pain and the difficulties and the struggles I've faced in my life, let alone what so many other people are facing, it absolutely felt crucial and important for me to share that."

Page published a memoir called "Pageboy" in 2023.


Robert Dover is recognized as the first out Olympic athlete.

Olympian Robert Dover in 2013.
Olympian Robert Dover in 2013.Michele Eve Sandberg/Contributor/Corbis via Getty Images

Per the US Olympic and Paralympic Museum, Robert Dover became the first out gay athlete when he competed in the Olympics in 1988.

The six-time Olympic equestrian athlete and four-time bronze medalist told the museum, "I feel very fortunate that the equestrian community is made up of progressive thinking people for the most part," because he knows athletes in other sports have not always been as lucky.

"The US Equestrian Team and the federation itself has always been very fair with me and they have been my family," Dover added.

In 2022, Ariana DeBose became the first queer Afro-Latina woman to win an Academy Award.

Ariana DeBose attends the premiere of "Argylle" in 2024.
Ariana DeBose attends the premiere of "Argylle" in 2024.Karwai Tang/Contributor/WireImage

For her role as Anita in Steven Spielberg's 2021 adaptation of "West Side Story," DeBose won the Academy Award for best supporting actress, becoming the first queer Afro-Latina woman to do so.

"So to anybody who has ever questioned your identity, ever, ever, ever, or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us," DeBose said in her acceptance speech.

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