30 LGBTQ+ Women Who Changed Sports, Culture, Politics, History
The Advocate's 2020 #LGBTQWomenMakeHistory project recognized LGBTQ+ women who have made history -- whether by being the first to break through a glass ceiling, or through achievements that forever changed the path of their causes and communities. In the categories of Sports, Politics, Arts & Entertainment, and Activism, we looked back on a diverse range of women who have opened doors for future generations.
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Megan Rapinoe is a USWNT player who commands attention and respect on and off the field. She led her team to victory at the 2019 Women's World Cup in France, her third World Cup appearance, and was awarded the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball awards as the top scorer and best player in the tournament -- all while having a very public argument with U.S. President Donald Trump after saying "I'm not going to the f---ing White House." Trump angrily tweeted that Rapinoe "should WIN before she TALKS," but it turns out she can do both.
Japanese figure skater Fumie Suguri is the first out female figure skater to have competed in world-class competition. Among her many accomplishments on the ice, Suguri is a three-time World medalist, a three-time Four Continents champion, a two-time Olympic athlete, and Japan's first ISU Grand Prix Final champion. In November 2014, after she retired from competitive skating, she came out as bisexual. In a sport where women are pressured to live up to strict standards of femininity, Suguri paved the way for more women to be true to who they are.
Fallon Fox is the first openly transgender athlete in Mixed Martial Arts history. She came out as trans in 2013 after winning her first victories in the MMA women's division, drawing pushback and transphobic remarks from people like comedian Joe Rogan and fellow fighter Ronda Rousey. Despite the sometimes-vicious controversy surrounding her, Fox has remained focused on her martial arts training and a determination to live as her authentic self, deserving of equal treatment and respect. Thanks to women like her, public awareness and education about transgender women in sports continues to make slow but steady progress.
WNBA player Seimone Augustus is an eight-time All-Star and four-time WNBA champion with the Minnesota Lynx, not to mention a three-time Olympic Gold Medalist with the U.S. women's basketball team. But we most admire her for being one of the first high-profile athletes to publicly come out, in response to a 2012 ballot initiative in Minnesota that would have banned marriage equality in the state. "Everyone thinks that the WNBA is one big lesbo party anyway," she joked at the time, but she was well aware that coming out was a risky move for her career at a time when the WNBA was wary of the stigma surrounding queer women athletes. Her decision to speak up made that choice easier for today's generation and all the generations to come.
India's Dutee Chand is a national champion in the 100 meter dash, the first Indian sprinter to win the gold medal at the Universiade, and only the third Indian woman to ever qualify for the women's 100 meter at the Summer Olympics. She is also India's first athlete to come out as queer, revealing in 2019 that she's in a same-sex relationship. Chand also showed courage and grace when she battled the Athletic Federation of India's attempt to suspend her from competition due to her high natural levels of testosterone in 2015. Since then she has spoken out in support of South African runner Caster Semenya who is facing a similar battle, saying "There is always fear but you need to overcome it."
Katie Sowers, offensive assistant for the San Francisco 49ers, became the first woman and the first openly gay person to coach at the Super Bowl in 2020. The former high school athletics director and Women's Football Alliance player and coach even got her own Super Bowl commercial with Microsoft, one of many LGBTQ-inclusive ads that played during the game. But despite all the media buzz around her gender and sexual identity, Sowers and the players she works with stay focused on her talent, her hard work, and her knowledge of the game. Thanks to her, it will be much easier for girls to watch the Super Bowl and imagine themselves on the sidelines.
American golfer Rosie Jones is the winner of 13 LPGA Tour titles, among many other accomplishments. The California native started playing at age 11 and went on to make the Ohio State University Sports Hall of Fame before launching a successful professional career in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She was the Legends Tour president from 2015-2016, was named captain of the U.S. team for the 2011 Solheim Cup, and has worked as a commentator for the Golf Channel. She now runs her own tourism business, organizing luxury vacations to championship golf resorts. Out to her family and friends since the 1970s, she publicly came out as a lesbian in 2004 when she accepted a sponsorship from Olivia Travel.
Billie Jean King
No list of groundbreaking athletes would be complete without Billie Jean King, one of the greatest women's tennis players of all time and a dedicated activist for gay rights and gender equality. The out lesbian and 39-time Grand Slam winner is best known for beating Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes" in 1973, and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987. King is also the founder of the Women's Tennis Association and the Women's Sports Foundation, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. As she's often quoted, "Champions keep playing until they get it right."
Sen. Tammy Baldwin from Wisconsin is the first openly LGBT woman elected to Congress. The openly gay Democrat served three terms in the Wisconsin State Assembly before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1999. She achieved the same milestone for the Senate in 2012, and was reelected in the 2018 midterms. She challenged the Trump administration on its rollbacks of LGBTQ rights, and voted to convict President Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress during his impeachment trial.
Rep. Sharice Davids from Kansas is an up-and-coming politician with many firsts to her name. She is the first openly LGBT Native American elected to the U.S. Congress, the first of only two Native American women elected to Congress, and the first Democrat to represent Kansas in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2011. Before her political career, she was a lawyer and a professional MMA fighter, and spent years living on Native American reservations across the U.S. to work on community development programs.
Danica Roem is the first openly transgender person to be elected to the Virginia General Assembly, challenging and defeating 13-term incumbent and self-described "chief homophobe" Bob Marshall in the 2017 special election. She was re-elected in 2019, making her the first openly trans state legislator to be re-elected. At a time when "bathroom bills" and military bans have threatened the privacy and safety of transgender people, Roem continues to be an inspiring leader and activist for the LGBTQ community.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is the first openly bisexual person to be elected to Congress. She served in the House of Representatives from 2013 before being elected Senator in the 2018 midterms, defeating Republican nominee Martha McSally to replace Senator Jeff Flake after his retirement. She is only the second openly LGBTQ woman to serve in Congress, after Sen. Tammy Baldwin, and the first woman to represent Arizona in the Senate.
Lori Lightfoot is the current mayor of Chicago. She is the first Black woman, the first openly gay person, and only the second woman to be elected mayor of the city, making Chicago the largest U.S. city to be led by a woman. Before that, she worked as a lawyer, as president of the Chicago Police Board, chair of the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force, and board member of local chapters of NARAL and the ACLU.
Johanna Sigurdardottir is the former Prime Minister of Iceland. Elected in February 2009, she was Iceland's first woman Prime Minister and the world's first openly LGBTQ head of government. A former activist in the trade union movement and an MP since 1978, she was named by Forbes as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world. In 1987 she entered into a civil union with author and playwright Jonina Leosdottir, and they changed their civil union into a marriage when same-sex marriage was legalized, becoming one of the first same-sex married couples in Iceland.
Lupe Valdez is the former Dallas County Sheriff and Democratic nominee for Governor of Texas in 2018. An out lesbian and the youngest of eight children of Mexican-American parents, she served in the U.S. Army Reserve before moving into law enforcement and becoming a senior agent in the Department of Homeland Security. She was the first Latina and the first openly gay person nominated for governor by a major party in Texas, but ultimately lost to Republican Governor Greg Abbott.
Actor, producer and screenwriter Lena Waithe is an out lesbian from Chicago, and the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for her work on Master of None in 2017. She went on to produce diverse, cutting-edge shows like The Chi and Boomerang, as well as last year's crime film Queen and Slim. Recently, she voiced the first openly queer animated Disney character in Onward. Throughout her career, she has pushed for more queer people and people of color to be involved in her film and TV projects, and acted as a mentor for up-and-coming artists.
Passionately bisexual painter Frida Kahlo captured Mexican identity with her surrealist work, combining self portraits with folk culture and artifacts. She became the first Mexican artist to be featured in the Louvre in 1939, was a founding member of the Seminario de Cultura Mexicana, and is now recognized as an icon of feminism, the Mexican-American civil rights movement, and the LGBTQ+ community.
Gladys Bentley was an American blues singer, pianist and entertainer, and a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance. She rose to fame as a Black lesbian cross-dressing performer in the 1920s, starting her career in one of New York's most notorious gay speakeasies. Dressed in a tuxedo and top hat and backed up by a chorus line of drag queens, she pushed gender boundaries and became an icon of Black female masculinity.
Award-winning filmmaker and television director Donna Deitch is best known for her 1985 movie Desert Hearts, which was the first feature film with a mainstream lesbian love story, told in a positive and respectful way. The film was a hit at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival, and it inspired Oprah Winfrey to hire Deitch to direct Emmy-nominated mini-series The Women of Brewster Place. She went on to direct episodes in TV dramas like NYPD Blue, ER, Law and Order: SVU and others, and directed docu-series for HBO and Showtime.
Few people have been more influential in the world of comedy than Lily Tomlin. Recently honored on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Grace & Frankie star began as a stand-up comedian and Off-Broadway actor before her breakout role in Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. You may also know her from her Tony Award winning show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, and films like Nashville, 9 to 5, Big Business, and Flirting with Disaster. She and her partner Jane Wagner first met in 1971 and officially got married in 2013, after 42 years together.
Jennifer Finney Boylan
Jennifer Finney Boylan is an American author and transgender activist who writes op-eds for The New York Times. Her autobiography She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders was the first book published by an openly trans author to become a bestseller. She is also a reality TV personality, regularly appearing on Caitlyn Jenner's show I Am Cait, and was chosen as the first openly trans co-chair of GLAAD's National Board of Directors.
Playwright and activist Lorraine Hansberry, the author of the 1959 play "A Raisin in the Sun," was the first African-American female author to have a play performed on Broadway. She was also the first African-American dramatist and the youngest playwright, at age 29, to win the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. She was married to Robert Nemiroff but had affairs with women, and contributed to early queer publications including the lesbian-oriented The Ladder and the gay magazine One.
Television would not be the same without Ellen DeGeneres, the comedian, talk show host and producer who famously risked her career to come out as a lesbian in 1997. This led to her sitcom Ellen being canceled, but she went on to launch the hugely successful The Ellen Show, star in movies like Pixar's Finding Nemo, and host events like the Emmys and the Oscars, among numerous other projects. She married her wife Portia De Rossi in 2008, providing an important example of a mainstream gay marriage at the height of the Proposition 8 debate.
Audre Lorde is a celebrated poet, essayist, feminist and civil rights activist. A proud lesbian and the daughter of Caribbean immigrants, her poetry and writing dealt with the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality, as with her crucial essay "The Master's Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master's House." Other notable works include "From a Land Where Other People Live" (1972), nominated for a National Book Award, and "The Cancer Journals" from her own struggle with breast cancer. Lorde was also co-founder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, a founding member of Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa, and poet laureate of New York State in 1991.
Our celebration of LGBTQ social activists starts with Angela Davis. A feminist and revolutionary of the 1960s and 70s, she became a prominent figure in movements like second-wave feminism, Marxism, the Black Panther Party, the anti-Vietnam War movement and the abolition of prisons. She taught philosophy at UCLA until she was fired for her political beliefs, and was professor of ethnic studies at San Francisco State University in the 1980s. She is now a professor emerita at the University of California in Santa Cruz. Davis discussed being a lesbian in an Out Magazine interview in 1997.
Blair Imani is a queer African-American Muslim activist and writer. The former executive director of Equality For HER and a member of the Black Lives Matter movement, she gained recognition for being arrested while peacefully protesting the shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La. She's worked closely with young people on college campuses and at progressive conferences, and is the official ambassador of Muslims for Progressive Values. Blair continues to speak and write about the intersection of Black and Muslim identity, including praising The Bold Type for its representation of LGBTQ Muslims.
Sara Ramirez has combined entertainment and activism throughout her career. Best known for her groundbreaking role as bisexual character Callie on Grey's Anatomy and a Tony Award-winning Broadway career, the Mexican-American actor is also a vocal advocate for Latinx culture and LGBTQ rights, which has included sitting on the board of directors of True Colors United and the LGBTQ Task Force, and supporting groups like the Bisexual Organizing Project and Mujeres de Maiz. She came out as bisexual in 2016 and has been a committed activist for the bi-plus community.
Queer activism owes a lot to Ivy Bottini. Born in 1926, she was involved in the early days of the modern feminist movement, helping found the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women and becoming president of that chapter the same year she came out as a lesbian. She founded AIDS Network LA in 1971, APLA in 1983, and Gay & Lesbian Elder Housing in 1993, among many other achievements.
Edith "Edie" Windsor was one of the original leaders in the fight for marriage equality. She fell in love with Thea Spyer in Greenwich Village in 1965, and they married in Canada in 2007 near the end of a long, happy life together. But when Spyer died two years later and the American government refused to recognize their marriage because of the Defense of Marriage Act, Windsor owed estate taxes totaling more than $300,000, which she would not have owed had she been married to a man. Windsor sued, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 2013 overturned the main section of DOMA. That decision paved the way for the court's ruling for nationwide marriage equality two years later.
Community leader Miss Major Griffin-Gracy was a prominent figure in the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and a survivor of the Attica Prison Riots, and has been fighting for LGBTQ rights and social justice for more than 50 years, particularly when it comes to police brutality and the prison system. She was the original executive director for the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, and worked with a number of HIV/AIDS organizations in San Francisco in the 1990s. A "Mama" to the community, particularly trans women of color, her legacy project is House of GG, a home in Arkansas where trans and gender nonconforming people can heal from trauma and build a support network. She continues to raise awareness for the intersectionality of poverty, race, and gender, and advocates for transgender people to be included in leadership positions in the LGBTQ movement.