Prime Timers: A New Age for Activism

From authors and actors to artists and activists, these 25 LGBT prime timers are still on the front lines in the battle for equality and show no signs of slowing down anytime soon.



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.