As always, we limited ourselves to selecting the 10 people who were most influential on LGBT lives during the last year, and the resulting list represents some of the biggest stories of 2015. This was a landmark year. Marriage equality is a reality nationwide, and the list reflects progress and struggles culturally, in courtrooms, in religion, and more.
Who is The Advocate's Person of the Year? (Find out here.) Here are nine other runners-up for the title.
The Women of #BlackLivesMatter: Living (and Fighting) at the Intersections
Although it first emerged in response to the 2012 murder of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, #BlackLivesMatter has this year solidified as much more than a slogan. The decentralized nationwide movement — founded by three black women, two of whom identify as queer — now serves as a national rallying cry that unites protesters around the country for peaceful demonstrations, controversial interruptions of political candidates, and heated discussions around kitchen tables and presidential debate podiums.
While organizers consistently reject the dismissive tone inherent in retorts that "All Lives Matter," there's one modification of the movement's message that sits well with the queer women who started it all: Black Trans Lives Matter.
Alicia Garza, a San Francisco-based activist and one of the founding members of #BlackLivesMatter, has used her increasingly influential platform to highlight this year's unprecedented epidemic of transphobic violence, which has taken the lives of at least 21 trans women in the U.S. The vast majority of those victims have been women of color, and among them, most have been black women. This harsh reality becomes a deadly intersection when combined with the fact that black women are the fastest-growing segment of incarcerated individuals in the country.
Keenly aware of the power she holds, Garza and her queer cocreator, Patrisse Cullors, have mobilized their massive media followings to sound the alarm and declare that, indeed, #BlackTransLivesMatter.
"As a Black cisgender woman, my privilege in being able to have this conversation means that I’m able to speak freely on my privilege when it’s convenient and when it feels comfortable," wrote Garza on Facebook, talking about an article she wrote that explains how the issues intersect. "But I have to recognize that I’m part of the problem even in penning this article. I might even be praised for these same points that many Black transwomen have continuously strived to bring to light but go unheard."
— Sunnivie Brydum
The Stonewall Rioters: Rabble-Rousing for a New Millennium
When the news broke that Roland Emmerich would be directing a movie based on the 1969 Stonewall riots, many voiced concern about whether the out filmmaker — better known for popcorn fare such as Independence Day and Godzilla — would capture the spirit of a defining moment in LGBT history. By the time the first trailer for Stonewall was released, the Internet had its answer.
A disappointed public decried that the real, historical LGBT people of color (especially trans and gender-nonconforming "street kids") who truly led the charge in the uprising were substituted in Emmerich's Stonewall for a fictional white cisgender protagonist who throws the proverbial first brick.
While the chorus of outrage included LGBT folks of all ages and identities, the most biting critique came from the Stonewall veterans who lived through the police brutality and fought to birth the modern LGBT rights movement.
“It’s so disappointing,” said Stonewall veteran and trangender pioneer Miss Major in an interview with Autostraddle. “Young people today aren’t stupid. They can read the history, they know that this is not the way it happened.”
Major was correct. Growing calls to boycott the film contributed to a dismal opening weekend, when it took in just $187,674 at the box office. And while this year's Stonewall protesters may not have clashed with police as did their ancestors, they ensured the moment is remembered by history as it should be.
Even out gay actor Jonny Beauchamp, who played the gender-nonconforming character Ray/Ramona in this year's Stonewall, echoed the sentiments in an interview with The Advocate.
“Nothing that’s been said is anything that shouldn’t have been said,” he explained. “In general, if these are conversations people are having, if this is how people are feeling, then people need to know about it. People need to know that people want to see these stories. Producers, writers, directors, everyone — the industry needs to know that this is how people are feeling. I think it can only perpetuate more stories and more storytellers.”
In this sense, Stonewall may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The film’s release inspired a plethora of articles, op-eds, and think pieces that honored those early revolutionaries and enlightened a new generation of LGBT people about their contributions. In a year that saw the enactment of nationwide marriage equality, this conversation was much-needed and long overdue. And although a script that honors their achievements remains unwritten, their voices were heard, and their spirit of revolution lives on. — Jase Peeples
Transgender Members of the U.S. Military: Courage Under Fire
While it's impossible to know how many transgender service members have been kicked out under a long-standing ban (because the government doesn't track it), 2015 is on target to become the last year such numbers exist at all. After serving in silence since the 1970s, transgender members of the U.S. military came out in force this year — demanding the right to serve their country openly.
The February inauguration of a new secretary of Defense helped encourage numerous active-duty service members to come out. And in interviews with The Advocate, to the covers of The Washington Post and The New York Times, these men and women risked their military careers to shine a light on the outdated military regulation that declares transgender people categorically unfit to serve. Just as sharing stories of highly respected LGB soldiers unfairly discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" helped push Congress to repeal that law in 2011, the courage of these transgender service members and veterans has pushed the Pentagon to move in uncharacteristically quick fashion.
Less than a week after being sworn in, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spoke to a group of soldiers (including at least one trans man who was out to his command) in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and said he was "open-minded" about letting trans troops serve openly.
A month later, the Army elevated the rank of the commander required to approve any trans-related discharges, effectively stemming the tide of soldiers being dismissed for who they are. In June the U.S Air Force announced that it would no longer consider transgender identity grounds for dismissal. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps followed suit by the end of Pride Month.
The White House Pride Reception also marked an important historic first. Senior U.S. Airman Logan Ireland became the first uniformed, active-duty, out transgender member of this country's armed forces to shake the president's hand. Ireland's fiancée, Cpl. Laila Villanueva, a trans woman who was at the time finishing 13 years of service as an Army nurse, reflected on the historic moment in an op-ed for The Advocate. "For the first time ever, I actually felt appreciated," she wrote. "Not just for my service, but for being true to myself."
On July 13, Carter announced the creation of a Pentagon working group to consider repealing the policy, operating under the presumption that transgender Americans can serve openly, without any negative impact to unit cohesion or readiness. The working group was given six months to identify and prescribe solutions for any "objective, practical impediments" to open trans service.
By August, national media was reporting that the working group expects transgender Americans to serve openly in all branches of the U.S. military by the end of May. The Pentagon will also reportedly consider upgrading the discharges of those service members dismissed for being trans, as such veterans are saddled with discharge paperwork that effectively outs them as trans. — Sunnivie Brydum
Lee Daniels: Giving Voice to the Unspoken
Lee Daniels has had a banner year. The Oscar-nominated director, known for such films as Precious, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and The Paperboy, co-created his first television show, Empire, which premiered in January.
The Fox drama, which centers on an African-American family vying for control of a prominent record label, is not only a ratings sensation. It is also a potent social commentary on race and sexuality, which has shown Hollywood how diversity both on-screen and behind the scenes can create a profitable hit.
In Empire, the 55-year-old director has made television history with Jamal Lyon (out actor Jussie Smollett), a black gay character who conquers stigma — from both his father, Lucious, and the music industry — to come out in the public eye. His courage ultimately wins him control of his father's company as well as the hearts and minds of the show’s millions of fans.
Daniels, who is also black and gay, is unafraid to show Jamal as a three-dimensional man who kisses and makes love to other men. And Daniels has been outspoken about his beliefs. In the past year, he made waves when he discussed issues like the “ick factor” from test audiences upon seeing a same-sex kiss, plus how he wanted Empire to “blow the lid” off of homophobia among African-Americans and the rest of America.
At a recent panel, Daniels also took other showrunners of hits like House of Cards to task for a lack of diversity. He's shown that he will continue to be a powerful force for creating change in writers’ rooms and living rooms around the world. — Daniel Reynolds
Miley Cyrus: More Than a Pretty Face
Miley Cyrus could have just been another bland pop chanteuse, a former Disney Channel star singing empty songs and promoting nothing but herself. But the little girl from Nashville started walking a new path about three years ago — and took a sharp left turn in 2015.
In a rarefied world of global fame, Cyrus somehow held on to her empathy and personal truth. Instead of dancing around the subject of her sexuality, the "Wrecking Ball" singer put it all out there this year, seemingly unconcerned with how it was received. When she gave interviews and described herself as pansexual, gender fluid, discussed relationships with men and women, and how she came out to her mom at 14, she gave the subjects weight but never appeared ill at ease. Now all the not-quite-straight, not-quite-"normal" kids of the world had a role model that made their otherness not so terrifying.
But Cyrus walks the walk too. In May she launched the Happy Hippie Foundation, a nonprofit that has provided clothes, meals, and gathering spaces for LGBT and homeless youth. This year Happy Hippie also launched the InstaPride campaign, in which gender-nonconforming people shared their stories on Instagram. Cyrus even contributed some artwork she made in honor of another trailblazer, Caitlyn Jenner.
Despite having a career that's subject to the whims of a public that's not quite comfortable with fluidity — both in terms of gender and sexuality — Cyrus is refusing to be anyone but herself.
“Maybe if you’re finally getting to be yourself, it’s more of a celebration,” she told Time.
— Neal Broverman
Caitlyn Jenner: A Whole New Kind of Fame
The super famous have always been able to turn a spotlight on a myriad of causes, but Caitlyn Jenner has used it to bridge the gap of understanding about transgender people that remains in the mainstream.
After months (and years) of rumors and wild speculation, Jenner went on ABC and told Diane Sawyer in April what she'd long been hiding, “I am a woman.” And with that, the Olympic hero and reality TV star stopped living a lie and came out as transgender.
She spoke candidly of enduring great pains by hiding her authentic self for decades. She also confessed having considered suicide and told ABC News she wanted to make a difference for other trans women and help people better understand the struggles facing trans people. Then she got to work doing exactly that.
Jenner reemerged on the first day of Pride Month in a glamorous Vanity Fair cover, photographed by Annie Leibovitz, accompanied by Buzz Bissinger’s in-depth interview. Her story was on every TV news program, and her photo all over the Internet. That day, Jenner broke the world record (previously held by President Obama) for getting to 1 million Twitter followers the fastest, doing it in just four hours.
The next month, Jenner premiered a docu-series on E!, fittingly titled I Am Cait. The show revealed in detail her transition and family struggles, while also raising up the stories of trans people she meets. On display were also her seemingly limitless wealth and privilege, a sharp contrast to the lives of her less uber-famous trans women friends. More than friends, they were mentors, including author and professor Jennifer Finney Boylan and actress Candis Cayne, who kept Jenner in check and provided a balance as she navigated her new world as a woman.
When honored this summer with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the ESPYs, the woman once idolized as a masculine heartthrob wowed the crowd in a stunning white gown in her first public appearance and tugged at heartstrings with an appeal to her sports peers for empathy and acceptance of all trans folk.
“Trans people deserve something vital: They deserve your respect," she told them.
I Am Cait, which was renewed for a second season by E!, has become the venue for Jenner to demonstrate to Americans what it means to be transgender. And the acceptance she's felt from so many is also felt by transgender people hopeful for a better day. — Dawn Ennis
Governor Kate Brown: Breaking the Glass Ceiling on LGBT Politics
What is an important first has gone largely unheralded, with Kate Brown becoming governor of Oregon this year, breaking a sort of glass ceiling that had remained in politics.
LGBT Americans have one out U.S. senator in Tammy Baldwin and have had more than a handful of House members over the course of history, plus numerous state lawmakers — even some who led their chambers. But before Brown at the gubernatorial level, there is only Jim McGreevey, who resigned as governor of New Jersey in 2004, in the same speech where he confessed to having an affair with another man.
The nearest Americans have come since then to an out LGBT governor was Congressman Mike Michaud, who failed to topple a Tea Party favorite for the governorship in Maine in 2014.
Now there's Kate Brown, who is bisexual and whose ascension comes with an asterisk because, as secretary of state, she took office only because of an ethics scandal that unseated the sitting governor.
"Oregon has been in the national news for all the wrong reasons. That changes starting today,"Brown said in her inaugural address in February.
Quickly, Brown began delivering on that promise. She had the rare opportunity to sign her own bill, a progressive law under which people are automatically registered to vote when they renew or obtain their driver's license.
She signed a gun control bill requiring universal background checks on private gun sales — another progressive move that was noted when her state in October becsme the site of a mass casualty shooting, this time at a community college.
What made the most direct impact on LGBT people, though, was her signature on the Youth Mental Health Protection Act, a ban on so-called conversion therapy aimed at minors. Less than a handful of states have banned the discredited, unscientific practice that tries to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.
"To the young people who question their identities, suffer from bullying, or struggle with what it means to come out, today is your day," said the governor, clearly emotional. "Your voices have been heard." — Lucas Grindley
Krzysztof Charamsa: Ousted Gay Priest Calls Out the Catholic Church
Monsignor Krzysztof Charamsa, who held a high-ranking post at the Vatican before coming out as gay and partnered, then immediately being fired in early October, has done much to publicize the situation of gay priests in the Roman Catholic Church, which he calls a homophobic institution. Charamsa was second secretary of the International Theological Commission and worked in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In a letter to Pope Francis, Charamsa slammed the church as frequently “violently homophobic” and said it makes LGBT Catholics’ lives “a hell.” He also wrote that after a “long and tormented period of discernment and prayer,” he decided to “publicly reject the violence of the Church towards homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual and intersexual people.”
He thanked Pope Francis for some of his conciliatory remarks about LGBT people but said they will be meaningful only if the church reverses some of its attitudes and policies, such as the official barring of gay men from the priesthood. Despite this policy, there are gay priests, bishops, and cardinals in the church, Charamsa has pointed out, although he would like to see them all “have the courage to abandon this insensitive, unfair and brutal Church,” he said in his letter.
In interviews, he has said there is no organized “gay lobby” within the church, as even the pope has alleged. “I met homosexual priests, often isolated like me ... but no gay lobby,” he told an Italian TV station. Some were self-hating, he said, but some were among “the best ministers in the church.” For his part, upon coming out Charamsa told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that he’s happy and proud of his identity. — Trudy Ring
The Kentucky Applicants: We Will Not Be Moved
The Kim Davis phenomenon is only a national story because of LGBT people who refused to be pushed around. Davis suggested same-sex couples just drive to some other place in Kentucky, but these applicants for marriage licenses kept coming back to her office in Rowan County.
Because of their unwillingness to settle for something less than full equality, the country debated whether "religious liberty" means government officials don't have to fulfill all their duties.
At one point, Davis actually stopped issuing licenses to all couples — even straight ones — because her lawyers hoped the tactic might win on a technicality. At that time, four couples of mixed orientations sued and then won at multiple levels.
After the Supreme Court turned back Kim Davis and her legal team, April Miller and Karen Roberts were the first couple lined up and still denied a marriage license. Then there's David Ermold and David Moore, who asked Davis where she got the authority to deny them a license. "God's authority," Davis famously declared.
Davis was sent to jail for contempt and a deputy issued the licenses instead. When Miller and Roberts finally had a formal wedding reception in October, the couple didn't want to talk about Kim Davis.