The LGBTQ+ Pioneers You Should Know

Posted by Jolie Peters
(@Jolie Peters)

From politicians to TV stars, here are the LGBTQ trailblazers you need to know about.


Edith Windsor was an LGBTQ activist and tech manager at IBM. She was the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court of the United States case United States v. Windsor. The case overturned section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. This monumental case is considered a landmark victory for same sex couples. June 26, 2013 Windsor and her spouse’s marriage was recognized. Sadly, Windsor died last year in 2017.


Who doesn’t love Ellen? Most millennials may not know that her T.V. presence extends far beyond her daily talk show. Ellen was one of the first prime-time actors to publicly come out, and in doing so she redefined her domain in television.


Rustin worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr., and then switched his focus stating that “gay people are the new barometer for social change,” during a speech in 1986. His work for the LGBTQ community led to the passage of a New York gay rights bill and also created a newfound awareness amongst the NAACP about the aids epidemic.


In the buttoned-up 1950’s, gay rights was virtually nonexistent. That didn’t stop Barbara Gittings from founding the first New York chapter of America’s lesbian organization, Daughters of Bilitis. But perhaps the greatest legacy she left behind is the American Library Association’s bibliography of literature about gays and lesbians, one of the first collections of its kind.


In 1980, a young Aaron Fricke was looking forward to his senior prom at his high school in Rhode Island. Unlike his classmates, Fricke was planning to attend the prom with another male student – which created quite the stir amongst the school’s faculty. Instead of bowing down, Frick challenged his high school in court, and won his right to attend prom with a male date. The judge even required his school to provide enough security to keep them safe from harassment. Fricke v. Lynch is now considered a landmark case in the fight for LGBTQ student rights.


Even 40 years after his assassination, Harvey Milk remains one of the most well-known gay rights figures in history. His claim to fame was his election into California’s public office as he was one of the first openly gay people elected in the country.


One could argue that the Pride parades across the country wouldn’t have happened without the incredible Marsha P. Johnson. The infamous Stonewall Riot in 1969, where a raid at the well-known gay bar, devolved into a horrific fight between patrons and police. This incident is often noted as the catalyst for the gay rights movement. Johnson was a trans woman from New Jersey, and she fought on the front lines of the riots. After the incident occured, she helped sparked national resistance and continued to raise awareness and support for the LGBTQ community during the AIDS epidemic.


Before 1973, homesexuality was defined as a psychatric disorder in the DSM. Even after it’s declassification, the stigma amongst the medical industry persisted. Richard Isay – a gay man himself – was one of the first psychiatrists that encouraged his LGBTQ patients to embrace their identity. In 1992, Isay teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union and threatened the American Psychoanalytic Association with a discrimination lawsuit. The APA agreed to start treating analysts the same, regardless of their sexuality and to promote education on the subject within the network.


This Orange is the New Black star is the first trans actor to earn an emmy nomination and to play a regular role on a nationally broadcasted television show. She is also a LGBTQ rights activist, film producer, motivational speaker, and all around bad-ass.


Paul Collins not only played 13 seasons for the NBA, but he was the first publicly gay athlete to play in any four major North American pro sports leagues. He was featured on Time Magazine’s cover for their issue of the 100 Most Influential People in the world.


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