12 historic LGBTQ figures who changed the world
These activists, artists, doctors, and writers had a lasting impact on communities around the globe.
Pride is a time for celebration and acceptance. Rainbow flags are hoisted high, droves rush to parades, and LGBTQ-identifying people and allies adorn their best Pride regalia. But it’s also a time to honor the people who have paved the way for gay rights activism, like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, or become cultural icons through their work, like writers Virginia Woolf and Ifti Nasim.
In honor of Pride Month, discover some of history’s most prominent LGBTQ figures and their lasting impacts.
Sylvia Rivera was a queer, Latina, self-identified drag queen who fought tirelessly for transgender rights, as well as for the rights of gender-nonconforming people. After the Stonewall riots, where she was said to have thrown the first brick, Rivera started S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), a group focused on providing shelter and support to queer, homeless youth, with Marsha P. Johnson. She also fought against the exclusion of transgender people in New York’s Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act. She was an activist even on her deathbed, meeting with the Empire State Pride Agenda about trans inclusion.
Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson was a black trans woman, a sex worker, and an activist who spent much of her life fighting for equality. She served as a mother figure to the drag queens, trans women, and homeless youth of Christopher Street in New York City. She was alongside Sylvia Rivera at the beginning of the Stonewall riots, and together they founded S.T.A.R. Johnson, along with Rivera, was a central figure in the beginning of the gay liberation movement of the 1970s in the United States.
Josephine Baker was a well-known entertainer of the Jazz Age and identified as bisexual. She was one of the most successful African-American performers in French history and used her platform as an entertainer to advocate for desegregation, refusing to perform in segregated venues and even speaking at the 1963 March on Washington. Baker also served as a spy for the French during World War II, passing along secrets she heard while performing for German soldiers.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs
Ulrichs is regarded by some as the pioneer of the modern gay movement and the first person to publicly “come out.” In fact, Volkmar Sigusch, a leading German scholar in sexual science, described him as “the most decisive and influential pioneer of homosexual emancipation … in world history.” Ulrichs was a judge in Germany but was forced to resign in 1854 after a colleague discovered he was gay. After he resigned, he became an activist for gay rights. He wrote pamphlets about being gay in Germany and, in August 29, 1867, Ulrichs spoke in Munich at the Congress of Jurists to demand legal equal rights for all sexualities.
Michael Dillon was the first trans man to undergo phalloplasty, or the surgical construction of a penis. He also is thought to be the first person to undergo testosterone therapy to begin his transition. Dillon then became a doctor and eventually served as a naval doctor. However, the press discovered that Dillon was not born male, and the attention caused him to flee to India. There, he took vows to become a monk in a Buddhist monastery.
The iconic feminist writer was married to Leonard Woolf while having an affair with fellow writer Vita Sackville-West, who was openly bisexual. When writing about her affair and marriage, Woolf said in her journal, "The truth is one has room for a good many relationships.” Her novel, Orlando, is thought to be a love letter to her relationship with Sackville-West. Sackville-West’s son described the novel as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”
Bayard Rustin was a close friend and advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. and organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. However, because he was an openly gay man, he did not receive wide recognition for his integral role in the civil rights movement. Rustin’s sexuality was used against him and Dr. King by opposing parties, who threatened to spread lies about their relationship. This forced Rustin to work in the shadows to prevent bringing further controversy to both Dr. King and the March on Washington. Despite this, Rustin still remained a political and gay activist, working to bring the AIDS crisis to the NAACP’s attention.
The former First Lady was a dedicated humanitarian, chairing the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for the United Nations and promoting social activism both during and after her time at the White House. While married to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt was thought to have had an affair with journalist Lorena Hickok, the first woman to have her byline appear on the front page of the New York Times. Their letters, almost 4,000 of them, chronicle a passionate romance. One includes a note from Roosevelt saying, “Oh! how good it was to hear your voice, it was so inadequate to try & tell you what it meant, Jimmy was near & I couldn’t say ‘je t’aime et je t’adore’ as I longed to do but always remember I am saying it & that I go to sleep thinking of you & repeating our little saying.”
Frida Kahlo was a gifted painter and openly bisexual. She used her medium to depict taboo topics, like female sexuality, pain, and feminine beauty standards, primarily through self-portraits. She also honored indigenous Mexican culture through her art, which drew the attention of Mexican painter Diego Rivera. Rivera became her patron and the two eventually married. During their marriage, Kahlo was known to have affairs with men and women, including Josephine Baker and Leon Trotsky.
Playwright and director Nancy Cárdenas is thought to be one of the first Mexican people to openly come out on television. Much of her work revolved around her lesbian identity, writing collections of poetry and plays addressing gay and lesbian themes. She wasn’t only a writer—she was also an activist. Cárdenas helped start the struggle against gay prejudice in Mexico and fought for equal rights for everyone, no matter their sexuality.
Simon Nkoli is seen by many as the central hero of the gay and lesbian struggle in South Africa. He was an anti-apartheid, gay rights, and HIV/AIDS activist who founded the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW). In 1990, Nkoli and GLOW organized the first Pride March in Johannesburg. They also played an integral role in convincing the African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling political party, to formally recognize gay and lesbian rights in the country. Five years later, Nkoli declared his HIV positive status and began working to destigmatize HIV/AIDS.
Ifti Nasim was a gay Pakistani poet who moved to the United States to avoid persecution for his sexuality. His collection of poems, Narman, is thought to be the first gay-themed book of poetry written and published in Urdu. He also founded SANGAT/Chicago, an organization which supported the South Asian LGBTQ community. Nasim was honored in 1996 by being inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.