Prime Timers: A New Age for Activism
Poet Robert Frost once wrote, “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected,” and a growing number of LGBT people who have surpassed the age of 65 are proving it’s true. LGBT trailblazers like George Takei, Alice Walker, and John Waters refuse to let yesterday’s definition of living in the golden years keep them from being powerful agents of change.
From authors and actors to artists and activists, we list several LGBT advocates who continue to inspire us and haven’t allowed the age formally known as retirement to sideline them in the battle for equality.
Lily Tomlin, 74, Actor
She’s been an acerbic telephone operator, a mischievous child, a bag lady who converses with extraterrestrials, a gospel singer, an office drone who rebels against her evil boss, and so much more. Lily Tomlin has been amazing us with her acting versatility and activist vigor for nearly half a century now. She first endeared herself to audiences on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, where she introduced phone operator Ernestine (“When what freezes over? Oh, Mr. Veedle…”) and little Edith Ann (“Nobody told me I shouldn’t shave the kitty, so I did”). She’s gone on to give great performances in any number of movies, including Nashville, Nine to Five, All of Me, Flirting With Disaster, and I Heart Huckabees, and has continued to appear frequently on television, with roles on The West Wing, Will & Grace, Desperate Housewives, Damages, Web Therapy, and many others. Her signature achievement, though, remains the one-woman theatrical smash The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by partner Jane Wagner, in which Tomlin brings to life a huge variety of characters: an everywoman feminist, an angsty teenager, a homeless woman who teaches her “space chums” the difference between soup and art, in a discussion of the works of Andy Warhol. Tomlin won a Tony for the show’s original Broadway run in 1985-86, and happily for audiences, she’s revived Search, toured with it, and committed it to film.
While she sometimes was cagey about her lesbian identity and her relationship with Wagner — “We never hid anything and we never denied anything, but we never said anything specific,” she told Bruce Vilanch in a 2009 Advocate interview — she has nonetheless consistently been on our side. She was a friend and ally of activist and film historian Vito Russo; she narrated the movie version of his book The Celluloid Closet and raised funds to get it made. She’s also advocated for other causes, including help for homeless people and animal welfare. And now, all the way out, she says that after 42 years together, she and Wagner may get married, since it’s become a legally recognized option. Whatever they decide, we wish them well — and say that Lily, in a world of soup, you are definitely art.
John Waters, 67, Director, Screenwriter, Actor
There are a number of words that have been used to describe John Samuel Waters Jr. throughout his career. He’s been known as a director, screenwriter, actor, journalist, comedian, artist, and trailblazer, but he’s never been accused of being mundane. The maverick moviemaker left his mark on a generation of LGBT filmgoers who grew up watching — and loving — many of his cult films, such as Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living. Waters’s work also launched the careers of several actors who are now considered LGBT icons, including Mink Stole, David Lochary, and Divine. Even has Waters began to skirt the mainstream with later films like Hairspray, Cry-Baby, Serial Mom, and Pecker, he still maintained his trademark style, a choice the filmmaker says reflects his view of the world. “I always said that my audience is [made up of] gay people that don’t get along with other gay people; black people that don’t get along with other black people; minorities that can’t stand even the rules of their own minority. And I’m one of them,” he said in an interview with Big Think. “Too much gayly correctness makes me crazy too. It’s like, are gay people losing their sense of humor? They have to be perfect now? I’m for gay villains. I think it’s healthy to admit there’s bad gay movies. Gay is not enough. It’s a good start.”
Edie Windsor, 84, Supreme Court Plaintiff
Our inspiration for starting this list could very well be Edie Windsor, who defied the conventional wisdom of LGBT organizations that she says once turned her away. Then she went on to bring her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. By now, you've heard the story of how Windsor helped bring down section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. After the death of her late wife of 44 years, Thea Spyer, Windsor was faced with the unfairness of a bill for $360,000 in estate taxes. That injustice won't happen to others because Windsor fought for her marriage to be recognized by the federal government. "If I had to survive Thea, what a glorious way to do it," said Windsor in a news conference after winning in June. "And she would be so pleased."
Sir Ian McKellen, 74, Actor and Activist
Considered one of the greatest actors of his generation, Sir Ian Murray McKellen is a trailblazer in every sense of the word. After spending several years building his reputation in British theater, McKellen came out of the closet to the general public during an interview on BBC Radio 3 in 1988, spurred to action by the British Parliament’s consideration and eventual passing of Section 28, a bill that prevented local authorities from “promoting homosexuality.”
Despite the common belief that such an admission would be career suicide, McKellen’s star continued to rise higher in his home country, where he was knighted in 1991 for his dedication to the arts, and in the United States, where his film career took off with critically acclaimed performances in And the Band Played On, Six Degrees of Separation, and Gods and Monsters.
With his reputation as a master thespian well secured, McKellen began to venture into the realm of sci-fi and fantasy movies, gaining mainstream popularity thanks to his portrayal of Magneto in the X-Men films and the wizard Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. His part in these successful franchises proved broad audiences would not only embrace a gay actor in an action role, but view them as the living embodiment of popular characters.
Today, McKellen continues his unwavering dedication to furthering LGBT equality around the world. He cofounded Stonewall, an LGBT activist group in the U.K., and has worked with several other LGBT organizations, including the Lesbian and Gay Foundation and Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Highlighting his passion for LGBT equality, McKellen once stated on his website, “I have been reluctant to lobby on other issues I most care about — nuclear weapons, religion, capital punishment, AIDS, because I never want to be forever spouting, diluting the impact of addressing my most urgent concern; legal and social equality for gay people worldwide.”
Rita Mae Brown, 68, Author
Rita Mae Brown is often credited as the mother of lesbian feminism, earning the title for her groundbreaking, best-selling lesbian coming-of-age novel Rubyfruit Jungle as much as for her well-publicized removal from the National Organization for Women after founder Betty Freidan bemoaned the “lavender menace” of lesbianism supposedly holding back the fight for women’s rights. When Brown was forcibly removed from the then-fledgling organization, she refused to go quietly, writing columns and leading the “Lavender Menace” direct action at NOW’s Second Congress to Unite Women in 1970. Two years later, Brown published Rubyfruit, which grabbed headlines and flew off bookshelves, buoyed by Brown’s enigmatic prose and unapologetically graphic (for the time) lesbian content.
Now 68, Brown is still an out and proud rabble-rouser, touring the country promoting her work as an author, playwright, and novelist. Brown is also an avowed animal lover — she told Time magazine in 2008 that she loves animals more than people. Brown also happens to be a master of American fox hunting, which she’s quick to note is all about the chase — no fox hides are brought home as trophies. Brown also founded and is still a leader of the Blue Ridge Polo Club, the nation’s first all-women polo team.
When Brown isn’t riding her beloved thoroughbreds leading a fox hunt around her sizable Virginia farm, she’s writing books and touring the country promoting her prodigious body of work. Her latest efforts include a pair of mystery novels “coauthored” by her cat, Sneaky Pie Brown, starring a fictional feline sleuth named Mrs. Murphy.
While Brown is still an outspoken supporter for racial, gender, and economic equality, the current mainstream gay agenda, with its nearly singular focus on marriage equality, doesn’t interest her. “Remember, I’m a farmer,” Brown told the Gay and Lesbian Times. “I’m really basic, and so the emotional element of gay marriage is not important to me, but I know that it is to others; it’s very compelling to millions of people.”
Miss Major, 70, Activist
Miss Major is a sassy, beloved activist, speaker, and executive director of TGI Justice Project, a San Francisco–based advocacy organization that fights for the rights of transgender, intersex, and gender-variant people who are in prison or have served jail time. Her early days as an activist included joining the high-kicking drag queens and gender-nonconforming patrons who launched the Stonewall Riots in 1969, and today she still walks with the same kind of pep in her step.
At TGI Justice, Major takes great pride in working with “her girls,” as she calls her clients, to help secure paths back into civilian life after incarceration, which remains a daunting struggle, especially for transgender women, who are often economically disadvantaged to the point that they turn to sex work as a means of survival. That also means many of her clients are HIV-positive, and Major is dedicated to helping these women find the resources they need to live a full and healthy life. But even more than connecting other trans women with resources, Miss Major serves as a compassionate point of contact for women who often feel that society has forgotten them.
"When we do get involved with the facilities of care, in hospitals, they just treat us like rag dolls," Major said. "Some of the girls who I know are passing away [in those hospitals] just asked [the nurses] to let her get some lipstick and brush her hair, and they wouldn't let her do it. So me and a couple girls went there, and we brushed her hair, let her put her little face on, and she was so happy."
"But [mainstream health care systems] go out of their way to crush us so that we feel ignored, and rejected," Major lamented. "And that no one wants to pay attention to us. And that our wishes and desires don't count. How could they possibly do something like that, not include us?"
As a former sex worker and welfare recipient who’s spent time behind bars herself, Major is all too aware of the stigma and criminalization that transgender women of color face at astoundingly high rates. She’s also keenly aware of how intersectional issues of race, gender, class, sex, sexual orientation, and disability affect one’s social mobility and welfare. In 2008, Major spoke before the United Nations about how trans people are mistreated in the United States. For her outspoken and dogged advocacy, Major was recently awarded the Social Justice Sabbatical Award from the Vanguard Public Health Foundation.
David Norris, 69, Irish Senator
The independent senator from Dublin came very close in 2011 to becoming Ireland's president, which would have been a first for that country and a first for any gay man globally. Polls showed David Norris outpacing competitors — until attacks painted him as sympathetic to pedophiles. At his lowest point, the longtime LGBT rights activist withdrew from the race. When support persisted, Norris made a failed comeback bid. "One of my colleagues said you’re mad to go back in because it’s going to be a crucifixion," Norris recalled during an interview with The Advocate in 2012. "I’m a religious person, and one thing they forget is that after Good Friday comes Easter, after the crucifixion is the resurrection. I do not intend to stay silent." Norris has easily kept that promise and continues to generate headlines with his candor.
Felice Picano, 69, Author
Felice Picano is unquestionably one of the giants of gay literature — and literature in general. He’s written more than 25 books, encompassing fiction, poetry, memoir, and general nonfiction, and including best sellers such as The Lure, Like People in History, and The Book of Lies. He’s also penned plays and screenplays. In the early 1980s he was part of a group of pioneering and influential gay writers collectively known as the Violet Quill; other members were Andrew Holleran, Edmund White, Christopher Cox, Michael Grumley, Robert Ferro, and George Whitmore. “They tackled the technical problems of writing gay literature from a gay perspective and within a narrative context,” Frank Pizzoli wrote recently on the Lambda Literary Foundation website. “They didn’t explain where homosexuality came from nor did they bother to explain gay customs. Their work was ‘of gay, by gay, and for gay.’” In the same article, Picano told Pizzoli, “I have met so many people who said to me, ‘I’m gay because I read your book The Lure.’ They realized there was much more to gay life … than they had ever dreamed of, because I made gay life a complex society filled with people of different ethnic and color persuasions.” The novel, published in 1979, was the first gay-themed work selected by the National Book Club, and it brought Picano fame but also death threats. He was not intimidated, though, and he’s still writing and publishing; his latest book, 20th Century Un-Limited, containing a short novel and a novella, came out in April. He has received numerous awards and honors, including, this year, the city of West Hollywood’s Rainbow Key Award.
Jewelle Gomez, 64, Author and Activist
Her birthday is only a few days away, so it's a good time to celebrate. Jewelle Gomez's Lambda-award winning first novel, The Gilda Stories, has been in print for more than 20 years and she's gone onto a career that explores her Native American roots plus her feminist point of view. Photos recently captured the moment at City Hall in San Francisco when Gomez and her wife, Diane Sabin, heard the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling overturning Proposition 8. It shouldn't come as a surprise they were there. They were also there in 2004 when San Francisco led the country and suddenly began issuing marriage licenses. Then they joined with 11 other couples in a legal challenge that led to California briefly legalizing same-sex marriages, including their own. So the Supreme Court ruling was the end of a long story.
Don Bachardy, 79, Artist
The younger half of his 33-year-long coupling with author and diarist Christopher Isherwood, Bachardy has been a working artist for five decades. After the start of their controversial relationship (Isherwood was 48 to Bachardy’s 18) Don Bachardy, through force of will, found his own hard-won identity and became the portraitist of note in Southern California. His book Stars in My Eyes (2000) was a collection of his celebrity portraits, often searing and unapologetic. His haunting and unflinching "Last Drawings of Christopher Isherwood," assembled in 1990 is an elegy to his long-term partner, made up of drawings and paintings he created in a frenzy of activity as Isherwood lay dying. And as if attending a cotillion or a debutante ball, many young, handsome men have come to the studio in the house that Isherwood and Bachardy shared in Santa Monica to have their portraits painted — sometimes nude, sometimes not.
Bachardy is a link to two previous generations (at least — he was friends with E.M. Forster) of gay men and women. He knew, drew, and befriended many of the stars of Hollywood’s golden age. He continues to be prominent in the art world. His 1984 portrait of California governor Jerry Brown, commemorating Brown's first tenure in office, still hangs in the state capitol. And he is remarkably prolific and active at 79 — he had a one-man exhibition at Cheim & Read in New York City earlier this year.
He has appeared in a number of documentaries about himself and Isherwood, including the acclaimed Chris & Don: A Love Story, released in 2008. And he had a cameo role in A Single Man, the film by Tom Ford based on Isherwood’s novel about what his life might have been like without Don.
Lee Lynch, 67, Author
It's a testament to the enduring importance and terrific impact of lesbian writer Lee Lynch that she was inducted into the Saints and Sinner Literary Festival's Hall of Fame in 2006, awarded the Golden Crown Literary Society Trail Blazer award for lifetime achievement in 2009, and then the following year given the James Duggins Mid-Career Outstanding Novelist Prize, after more than 45 years of published writing.
Lynch garnered her first attention as a lesbian writer as a frequent contributor to The Ladder, the earliest national lesbian magazine, in the 1960s; she worked with lesbian icons like Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. Her weekly column, The Amazon Trail, has been syndicated in LGBT and feminist publications since 1986.
It's ironic that Lynch, who was born in Manhattan in 1945, would rise to fame by authoring a series of novels, short stories, and essays about rural lesbian life, many set on the West Coast (Lynch made rural Oregon her home for many years).
Her very public partnership in the 1980s with artist and photographer Tee Corinne (famed for her labia portraits and The Cunt Coloring Book) made for the original lesbian power couple long before we knew Ellen and Portia. Nearly every lesbian literary figure came through their home, and Lynch recalled, while eulogizing Corinne, that "Ours was a furiously creative household. " Lynch wrote a number of novels and story collections that are still popular today, including That Old Studebaker, Old Dyke Tales, Morton River Valley, and Sweet Creek. Earlier this decade, she released (along with two friends) The Butch Cookbook, featuring well-known butch lesbians offering their best recipes, often with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
Several authors, male and female, have been inspired by her work, especially her Bold Strokes Books labelmates, whom she's served as a mentor to in recent years.
"When I was first discovering my sexual identity, Lee’s novels helped me navigate a mysterious new world of women loving women," recalls Cate Culpepper, the author of eight novels released by Bold Strokes Books. "Her characters were the kind of people I hoped to attract to my life, and her books set a high standard to strive for in my own writing. Among the many vests Lee wears in our community — writer, social activist, archivist, butch cook — she is foremost a natural mentor, inspiring other writers and other gay women to take charge of their craft and their lives."
For many years her primary following was lesbians, but gay men and others have been discovering her work in the past decade.
"Lee Lynch was one of the first lesbian writers I read, and her insightful writing made me rethink a lot of what I knew and believed about feminism, the rights of women, and the overall systemic sexism in our culture and society," says Greg Herren, the award-winning gay author of Lake Thirteen."She is a national treasure."
To date, Lynch has written 14 books and coedited two more. She's fast at work on her next novel, the first of a "quartet of novels that start in old Florida and should follow a couple into old age. I hope to know something about the subject by then," she says, laughing. Her most recent novel, The Raid (Bold Strokes), told the stories of a group of gay bar friends and a police raid's impact on them.
Though many assume Old Dyke Tales, a now-renowned collection of short stories often taught in women's studies courses today, was her first book, her debut was actually the novel Toothpick House, "which I wrote because Barbara Grier felt I needed to have a novel out before she could do a collection," Lynch says. She's one of a handful of authors still alive today who wrote for the legendarily demanding and exacting Naiad publisher.
Lynch and her wife, Elaine, live in Florida these days and are enjoying a world where marriage equality is becoming more commonplace. "Elaine and I both feel financially and socially more secure since the Supremes acknowledged the legitimacy of our relationship," Lynch says. "We were married in Massachusetts a few years ago. The ceremony, attended by both relatives and friends, has, I believe, strengthened our commitment to each other and enabled our families and friends to respect our tie in ways they — and other gay people — might not have in the past. It's difficult for me to adjust to both this new freedom and this new gravity and dignity that comes with marriage. I am glad of the difference."
But marriage doesn't mean that equality is a given, says a woman who was an out lesbian before even the Stonewall Riots happened. "The world has changed for many privileged lesbians in terms of being able to be out in every part of their lives, including work, enlightened families, spiritual practices, motherhood, health care, and on and on," she admits. "For others in, for example blue-collar jobs or poverty, or who follow conservative religions, or who come from repressive cultures and for many others, nothing has changed."
One thing that's changed for her, though, is that at 67, time is marching on, despite how young she feels. "It surprises me that I am seen as old. It's a new suit that doesn't fit quite yet. I enjoy the respect it brings, deserved or not. It makes me sad that so many LGBT folk have not lived long enough to enjoy the fruits of aging."
And her advice to those who are young today? "Don't give up — queer is magical! Celebrate your specialness. Be kind and love one another."
Jim French, 81, Photographer
Jim French is a legendary perfectionist. He also has an amazing eye for what is attractive, sexy, and well composed. He combines an erudite eye and classical aesthetics with the grit and sweat of the muscular moment to achieve a visual ideal of sexual beauty in men that no one had experienced before.
French was a successful a commercial artist who founded Colt in 1967 as a vehicle to house his erotic work. French came to use the camera more and more as he made his magnificent drawings, often under the name Luger.
For more than 40 years, French has been the king of the perfect male photograph. He published his first book of male photography, Man, in 1972, and out in September is his Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor: Jim French Polaroids. These are his first images with an early Polaroid camera that he took mainly as reference material for his drawings. This is a rare chance to see the master at work.
Tenacity and patience are required to the best physique models the world had ever seen. But physical perfection was not enough, French created images that were spontaneous, heroic, perfectly composed, and often infused with his sexy sense of humor. He opened the door for the next generation of stellar photographers like Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber.
Meredith Baxter, 66, Actor
Best known for the TV shows Family and Family Ties, Meredith Baxter received a warm welcome to our family after she came out in The Advocate and on the Today show in 2009. The actress who played Elyse Keaton was also hoping to change some hearts and minds among straights. “The message I get is that I’m America’s mom,” Baxter told The Advocate at the time. “And because research seems to show that people who have someone who is gay in their family — or a friend or just know someone in the community who is gay — they seem to have a more open attitude about gay and lesbian issues. So I can say I’m still that mom. I am still the same person. I’m nonthreatening, I’m very friendly, I’m accessible, and if they can say, ‘OK, well, she’s a lesbian, maybe that’s not such a scary thing. And if she can come out and say that without too much fear, then maybe I can do that.’ If it makes a difference to a couple of people, then I guess it’s worthwhile.” Since then, Baxter has continued her acting career — one of her most recent appearances was this year on Glee — and written a candid autobiography, in which she discussed being a survivor of alcoholism, breast cancer, and domestic abuse (by second husband David Birney, she says) as well as coming to terms with being a lesbian. Baxter, who has been with partner Nancy Locke since 2005, is a frequent public speaker on her life experiences and lessons learned.
John Ashbery, 86, Poet
Considered one of America’s foremost poets, John Ashbery has penned more than 20 books and has been awarded almost every major prize in his field, including the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize, all of which honored his book Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror. Published in 1975, the book and its title poem reference the 16th-century painting by Parmigianino, which depicts the artist reflected in a convex mirror, a potent symbol for a gay writer. His most recent book, Quick Question: New Poems, was published last year.
A graduate of Harvard University, the poet received his M.A. from Columbia University, and has gone on to teach at Brooklyn College and, currently, Bard College. He is also a former poet laureate of New York State. As The New York Times declared in a 2008 review: “No figure looms so large in American poetry over the past 50 years as John Ashbery.”
“There is a school of criticism that says that my poetry is so torturous and obscure because I've been trying to cover up the fact of my sexuality all these years, and I think that's an interesting possibility,” Ashbery told Time magazine, in response to a query if growing up in “an era where it was shameful to be gay” could have influenced his work. “But I'm not sure whether that's the generating force in my poetry. I think I would have been attracted to the surrealists anyway.”
Although frank references to his own sexuality within his work are uncommon, there are notable exceptions. In “How to Continue,” the poet crafts an elegy for those who died early in the AIDS crisis, painting the gay retreat Fire Island as “a marvel of poetry / and irony,” a place of “friends and lovers galore … moonshine in winter / and starshine in summer.” Until, one day, “a gale came and said / it is time to take you all away.”
And when it became time to go
they none of them would leave without the other
for they said we are all one here
and if one of us goes the other will not go
and the wind whispered it to the stars
the people all got up to go
and looked back on love
Sheila Kuehl, 72, Politician and Former Actor
Sheila Kuehl has come a long way since her days as a juvenile actor, when her most notable role was Zelda Gilroy, the smart, nerdy girl with an unrequited passion for the title character in the TV sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Well, even if Dobie didn’t love her (his loss), audiences did, but the show’s cancellation in 1963 forced Kuehl to reevaluate her career options.
She became an administrator at her alma mater, the University of California, Los Angeles, and then, having witnessed sex discrimination there, she enrolled in Harvard Law School, emerging as a lawyer specializing in women’s rights. Eventually she went into politics, in 1994 becoming the first out gay or lesbian candidate elected to the California legislature. She served six years in the Assembly and eight in the state Senate before being term-limited out of office in 2008, and over her tenure she authored 171 bills that were signed into law. Her legislative priorities included women’s and LGBT rights, family leave, environmental protection, and health care; now a political consultant, she continues to advocate for universal health care in California. Since leaving the legislature she’s also been the founding director of the Public Policy Institute at Santa Monica College, plus she’s worked with the Williams Institute, an LGBT-focused think tank at UCLA’s law school, as well as Planned Parenthood and many other organizations. And Kuehl, a former Advocate columnist, is poised to jump back into the electoral fray: She’s running for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 2014. If elected, she’d make history again, as she would be the first openly gay or lesbian person on the board.
Patricia Field, 72, Designer
Some people never lose their youthful zeal: 72-year-old Patricia Field is Exhibit A. The fuchsia-haired out designer, entrepreneur, and fashion icon became known to much of gay America in the late ’90s as the forward-thinking costume designer for HBO’s Sex and the City. She cemented her legend as the vision behind the eye-popping costumes worn by Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, and Emily Blunt in 2005’s film of The Devil Wears Prada. Field was trendsetting, albeit on a smaller scale, long before that — she opened her first New York boutique in 1966. After her first job styling for TV, on the ’80s drama Crime Story, her taste was seen by film and TV viewers regularly, including on Spin City and, more recently, Ugly Betty and Confessions of a Shopaholic.
Field, a lover of interior design as well as clothes, gutted her longtime East Village house last year and turned it into a 4,000-square-foot flagship store for her own label. She then moved on to her next endeavor, the K Fashion Project, in which she helps young Korean manufacturers hook up with American retailers. A lover of travel, Field visited South Korea years ago and fell in love with Seoul.
“It’s an exciting place: it’s active, it’s young. It’s very up to date,” she told Upstart Business Journal. “I like that energy and I’m attracted to it.” It’s not hard to see why.
Clive Davis, 80, Music Producer
With his memoir this year, The Soundtrack of My Life, music great Clive Davis came out as bisexual and in a longtime relationship with a man. "Bisexuality is misunderstood; the adage is that you're either straight or gay or lying, but that's not my experience," he wrote. "To call me anything other than bisexual would be inaccurate." Davis has had one of the most storied careers of any music producer in the business, handling such talents as Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin, and even Kelly Clarkson. Now he's chief creative officer for Sony Music.
David Geffen, 70, Film Executive
A Brooklyn native and the son of Jewish immigrants, Geffen moved to Los Angeles as a teenager to pursue a career in entertainment. Although he did not have a college degree, a young Geffen won promotion from the mailroom of the William Morris Agency by pretending to be a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, a lie that allowed him to become a talent agent and, as of today, one of the most powerful gay men in entertainment.
As the founder of Asylum Records in 1970, Geffen has helped launch the careers of Jackson Browne, the Eagles, and many more music luminaries. A decade later, Geffen translated his success to motion pictures by founding his own production company, the Geffen Film Company — later changed to Geffen Pictures — which created Risky Business (1983), Little Shop of Horrors (1986), Beetlejuice (1988), and Interview With the Vampire (1994). With Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, Geffen founded of DreamWorks Studios, which released award-winning films such as Amistad (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998), American Beauty (1999), and Shrek (2001).
Geffen’s net worth is presently estimated at $6 billion, according to Forbes, and he was featured in Out magazine’s Power List 2013. As a result of his substantial fortune and influence, Geffen has devoted considerable resources to philanthropy — particularly to medical research organizations that focus on HIV and AIDS. Since 2002 he has donated a total of $300 million to the School of Medicine at UCLA, which has changed its name to become the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. In this twist of fate, Geffen has became the largest individual donor to the California university, a school whose name first opened the door to his path to power.
In July, Geffen told The Hollywood Reporter that he intended to give “every nickel” of his money to charity, and he plans to make his donations very public. "I don’t agree that the best giving is anonymous,” said Geffen, 70. “We should be examples to our friends and communities. I should be an example to young, gay kids.”
Although notoriously press-shy, Geffen agreed to participate in a PBS documentary, Inventing David Geffen, which aired last November and can be viewed at PBS.org.
Jan Griesinger, 71 and Alix Dobkin, 73, Activists and Codirectors, Old Lesbians Organizing for Change
Old Lesbians Organizing for Change is a national network of lesbians 60 and older, who are leading the fight against ageism in a community that seems ever-fixated on youth and stereotypical beauty. The group believes its members have “a great deal of wisdom, experience, and strength to share with our communities as well as among ourselves,” as stated on its website. And as for that name? Members proudly claim the “old” moniker and reject the assumption that it’s a derogative word.
“We refute the lie that it is shameful to be an ‘old’ woman,” proclaims Old Lesbians on its site. “We name ourselves ‘old lesbians’ because we will no longer accommodate ourselves to language that implies in any way that ‘old’ means inferior. We call ourselves OLD with pride. In doing so, we challenge the stereotypes directly. Thus, we empower and change ourselves, each other, and the world.”
Today, activist Jan Griesinger (age 71) and singer-songwriter Alix Dobkin (age 73) lead the Ohio-based organization as codirectors, overseeing 17 independent chapters nationwide. In addition to publishing a quarterly newsletter and hosting twice-yearly steering committee meetings, Old Lesbians also has a semi-annual national conference to connect its members and brainstorm new, innovative ways to confront ageism. The next conference will take place in Oakland, Calif., July 23-27, 2014, under the title “Lesbian Activism Changing the World: OLOC Celebrates 25 Years.”
Griesinger first discovered Old Lesbians at a national gathering with an older partner in 1996, then formally joined the organization as an intern at age 58 in 2000. In the past 13 years she’s served as a member of its steering committee, and she still travels the country speaking at universities and community centers about the scourge of ageism. In February, Griesinger and an Old Lesbians colleague hosted a luncheon at Ohio University’s Women’s Center.
“We think the damage to old people is that you started feeling like ‘maybe I’m not worth anything, maybe my opinions are not worth anything,’” Griesinger told student newspaper The Post about how ageism affects the community. “‘Maybe I shouldn’t advocate for myself because maybe I’m not remembering what happened’. It can be very damaging for old people.”
Codirector Dobkin has been an out, proud, and loud lesbian since she first created Lavender Jane Loves Women in 1973, which she lauds as the first album by, for, and about lesbians in the history of the world. Since then she’s produced six records, three CDs, and a songbook. Continuing her lifelong legacy as an outspoken advocate for lesbian rights, Dobkin published a retrospective in 2009 called My Red Blood: A Memoir of Growing Up Communist, Coming Onto the Greenwich Village Folk Scene, and Coming Out In the Feminist Movement. Dobkin has sometimes attracted criticism for her staunch defense of women-only spaces, to the exclusion of transgender women, as well as her critiques of postmodernism and sadomasochism. Dobkin published a regular political column in Chicago’s Windy City Times called Minstrel Blood until 2000, which is coincidentally when she joined Old Lesbians. She signed on as a codirector in 2011.
Elton John, 66, Musician
The iconic performer's 2012 memoir, Love Is the Cure, talked extensively about the friends he's lost to AIDS and how he was transformed by the epidemic in the 1980s. He's gone on to be a reliably enormous fund-raiser for the cause of fighting the disease, using his Elton John AIDS Foundation to generate millions for projects all over the world. His annual Academy Awards Viewing Party is a big part of that. Plus the singer has used his fame to raise millions for marriage equality.
Larry Kramer, 78, Writer and Activist
When Larry Kramer wrote Faggots in 1978, he ignited a firestorm of criticism from both the mainstream press and the New York gay community. Banned from bookstores at the time of its release, the novel, which portrays the vain and promiscuous lifestyles of Fire Island residents, is now considered a seminal work of LGBT literature. And today, decades later, it remains in print. In both his writing and activism, Kramer has never been afraid to cause controversy, assuring his perennial place as one of the most vocal and LGBT prominent advocates.
In addition to Faggots, one of Kramer’s most famous works is The Normal Heart, an essentially autobiographical play about the AIDS crisis in the United States. Currently, it is being adapted into a film directed by Ryan Murphy. Based on Kramer’s experiences as a cofounder of the health service organization Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the play tells the story of Ned Weeks and his dying lover during the early stages of the AIDS epidemic. Like the character of Weeks, Kramer has devoted much of his life to calling out political leaders, health organizations, and the gay community itself for turning a blind eye to the threat caused by HIV. This passion led him to found the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power in 1987, an international advocacy group that continues to criticize institutions and individuals whenever it sees fit.
At present, Kramer perseveres to weave together creativity and activism. Since 1980, Kramer has been writing his magnum opus The American People, a 4,000-page history of gay life in America from prehistory until present day. For Kramer, the book is an opportunity to give a voice to the gay people of the past who were forgotten by records or forced to be silent.
“It’s a history of a lot of things,” Kramer told the Toronto Star. “The most important fact is that gays have been here since day one. To say otherwise is a gross denial and stupidity. We played an enormous part in the history of America.”
The book, called “a work of fiction” by his publisher Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, is scheduled to be released in 2014.
George Takei, 76, Actor
George Hosato Takei may be best known for his role as Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek, but since publicly coming out of the closet in 2005, the former helmsman of the starship Enterprise has helped plot a course for LGBT equality around the world. Shortly after revealing that he's gay, Takei immediately began aggressively battling LGBT stereotypes and using his celebrity as an iconic science fiction actor to raise awareness of the struggles facing our community. "[LGBT people] are masculine, we are feminine, we are caring, we are abusive,” he said in a 2005 interview with Howard Stern. “We are just like straight people, in terms of our outward appearance and our behavior. The only difference is that we are oriented to people of our own gender."
In 2006, Takei took his mission on the road and embarked on a nationwide tour, “Equality Trek,” where he shared stories from his life as a gay Japanese-American, his long-term relationship with Brad Altman (whom he married in 2008), and his experience as a part of the Star Trek legacy.
Since then, Takei has been a tireless advocate for the LGBT community, speaking out on political issues, marching in Pride parades, and aligning with several organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, where he serves as a spokesman. In recent years he has also become a social media juggernaut with millions of followers who hungrily devour his unique mix of social commentary, comedic videos, and wacky internet memes. The popularity of his online presence prompted the 76-year-old actor-activist to write a book about his experience in the digital frontier, Oh Myyy! (There Goes The Internet), where he spills his secrets on everything from making memes memorable to taming trolls.
Gene Robinson, 66, Clergyman
Gene Robinson made history in 2003 when he became the first openly gay man in the Episcopal Church to be elected a bishop. Controversy and death threats followed, with conservatives claiming Robinson’s election would only cause a divide between the Episcopal Church and its worldwide body, the Anglican Communion. Still, Robinson did not back away from his calling and bravely continued in his service of the church, taking the appropriate precautions, which included wearing a bulletproof vest at events and increased security at his consecration.
Since then Robinson has become a heroic figure and household name among LGBT people, who felt his election signaled the evolution of the church’s attitude toward them. Robinson’s work and visibility as gay bishop led Out magazine to include him in the publication’s 2009 Power 50 list.
Though he retired in January of this year, Robinson continues to use his voice to support LGBT equality and continues to work on bridging the gap between religious bodies and the LGBT community.
Alice Walker, 69, Writer and Activist
Writer Alice Walker is perhaps best known for The Color Purple, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel whose main character, a young black woman living in the early-20th-century American South, grapples with racism as well as violence within her own community. The story hits close to home for Walker, who, as the youngest daughter of a poor African-American sharecropper in Georgia, witnessed the myriad injustices of the Jim Crow era and heard stories of the horrors of slavery, passed down in her family through oral tradition. Thanks to Walker’s intelligence and to the perseverance of her mother, she was able to receive a full-tuition scholarship to Spelman College. Later, she graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, bringing her opportunities to record the essence of these inherited stories into print, including an editorial position at Ms. magazine.
As reflected in her writing, Walker is a lifelong activist. From her participation in the U.S. civil rights movement to her protests of the Gaza war to her recent advocacy for Chelsea Manning, the gay soldier who gave classified information to WikiLeaks, the feminist and poet has established herself as one of the country’s most prominent voices for minority groups. Now 69, the bisexual author continues to be prolific in her written work as well, having recently published a collection of essays, The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm's Way, and a book of poetry, The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness Into Flowers. A documentary on her life, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, by lesbian filmmaker Pratibha Parmar, was released this year. Featuring interviews with Walker as well as friend and contemporaries — including Angela Davis, Danny Glover, Sapphire, and Steven Spielberg, who adapted The Color Purple into an Academy Award-nominated film — Beauty in Truth chronicles Walker’s life, the lovers and partners who influenced her, and her rise to become one of America's most revered and controversial literary lionesses.