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20 LGBTQ People Who Changed the World
20 LGBT People Who Changed the World
Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people have existed as long as humanity itself. We've made history and important contributions even in the face of societies that discriminate against us or pretend we do not exist.
In celebration of these lives and achievements, here are just a few of the notable LGBT figures throughout time who have changed the world for the better.
THOM SENZEE is a contributor to The Advocate. Follom him on Twitter @tsenzee.
Alexander the Great
Born Alexander III of Macedon, according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Alexander the Great came to think of himself as a demigod and a son of Zeus, the Greeks' highest-ranking Olympian god. After inheriting an already significant kingdom from his flesh-and-blood father, Philip II, Alexander conquered Persia and numerous other lands. Using skills likely gleaned from his personal tutor, none other than Aristotle, Alexander spread ancient Greece's refined culture and high-minded ethos as much by sheer attraction as by conquest, according to author Joshua J. Mark.
As Mark notes, historian Diodorus Siculus once wrote that Alexander's successes were "not the work of Fortune but of his own force of character, for this king stands out above all others for his military acumen, personal courage and intellectual brilliance."
With a profile forged as much from his own accomplishments as inherited from his royal father, and with recognition as one of ancient history's most significant conquerers, it's no wonder that Alexander is often the first queer hero young gender and sexual minorities take to claiming for their own. Although historians point out ad nauseam the so-called inappropriateness of applying modern constructs such as "gay," "bisexual," "homosexual," or "queer" to an ancient king like Alexander, no serious historian doubts that history's penultimate warrior-monarch was attracted to men.
It may not be completely accurate to refer to Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt as "transgender;" but it's certainly not wholly inaccurate. In fact, Hatshepsut called herself a king. She inscribed titles on granite monuments effectively referring to herself as, "her majesty, the king." This pivotal ruler of humanity's original great civilization further asserted her "kingship" by wearing the garb of a male monarch — even having a false beard made to fit her chin.
"As she seemed to be looking for ways to synthesize the images of queen and king, as if a visual compromise might resolve the paradox of a female sovereign," Chip Brown writes of Hatshepsut for National Geographic. "In one seated red granite statue, Hatshepsut is shown with the unmistakable body of a woman but with the striped nemes headdress and uraeus cobra, symbols of a king. In some temple reliefs, Hatshepsut is dressed in a traditional restrictive ankle-length gown but with her feet wide apart in the striding pose of the king."
Hatshepsut's nearly 20-year rule ended with her death in 1458 B.C.E. by which time she had changed the world by firmly laying new political and architectural foundations upon which her successor, stepson Thutmose III, would grow Egypt's dominance of North Africa, what we now call the Middle East, and parts of the Mediterranean. In order to secure the throne for his offspring, Thutsmose III went all out trying to erase the arguably transgender aspects of his stepmother's memory.
Yet in stark contrast to the grandeur and elegance of Hatshepsut's crowning architectural achievement, her sprawling and towering mortuary temple dedicated to the Egyptian sun god, Amon-Ra, at Deir el Bahri, the queen-king's mummy was recently rediscovered (after having been unknowingly passed over by famous Egyptologist Howard Carter in the 1920s). Her mummy had been discarded on the floor in a "pile of rags," as Chip Brown describes the scene inside a dank, tertiary tomb.
Like many important trans and LGB figures from history, the memory of Hatshepsut and her nonconforming gender expression has overcome attempts to be erased.
Leonardo da Vinci
Acknowledgment of Leonardo's gayness is almost universal. There is also exactly zero doubt that history's ultimate Renaissance man was a genius of art, science, engineering, and what we now might call futurism. He not only painted the Mona Lisa and the most celebrated rendition of the Last Supper, but he also drew sketches of helicopters and other flying machines hundreds of years before the Wright Brothers built the world's first airplane. Leonardo's sketches were among the foundations for aviation research that led the way to its realization, according to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
For whatever reason, some of history's apparently non-LGBT world-changers just cannot stomach the idea that the great Leonardo da Vinci made love to other men. Take the father of psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud, for instance. Freud somehow deduced hundreds of years after Leonardo's death that the artist was homosexual, but (ahem) celibate. In fact, there is much evidence to the contrary, not the least Leonardo's own letters.
According to The Guardian's Jonathan Jones, Leonardo was also interested in androgyny. Jones writes, "Leonardo's own sexuality appears to transcend gender, to slip into godlike fantasies of androgynous liaisons between worlds. His Virgin of the Rocks includes an angel whose gender it is impossible to determine. No other Renaissance artist was as preoccupied with androgyny: from his earliest works, including an angel he painted in a work by his master Verrocchio, it was Leonardo's trademark. Perhaps in his imagination, he was such an angel, neither masculine nor feminine but both, and able to infuse the world with infinite longing."
Who was Alan Turing? To say he was a British mathematician and scientist would be like saying Leonardo was a great painter; it just doesn't go far enough. Biographer Andrew Hodges defines the man with utmost concision at the website he maintains as an education portal about all things Turing. Hodges writes that Alan Turing was the "founder of computer science, mathematician, philosopher, codebreaker, strange visionary and a gay man before his time."
As was portrayed in the critically acclaimed 2014 Morten Tyldum-directed box-office hit The Imitation Game, in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays the famous mathematician, Turing broke the code for the Nazi Enigma machine. Enigma was the supposedly unbreakable cyphering machine that the German government used to send messages to military commanders across the globe. By enabling British intelligence to decode Enigma messages, Alan Turing also enabled the Allies to defeat the Adolf Hitler in World War II.
Sadly, the British government "thanked" Turing for his wartime efforts by arresting him in 1952 for the "crime" of homosexuality. Soon after being chemically castrated by order of a British court as punishment for being gay, Turing died by suicide, ingesting cyanide, in 1954.
In addition to inventing modern computing, Turing also conceptualizied and created a scientific test for confirming artificial intelligence. We will never know what other world-changing wonders Alan Turing might have brought us had he lived past 41.
The University of Illinois at Springfield's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, and Allied Resource Office offers a frustrating, however technically accurate, assessment of the sexual ambiguity of the legendary sculptor and painter of the ceiling at the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
"Despite occasional instances of gossip and innuendo (e.g. Pietro Aretino’s suggestions of pederasty), there is no clear evidence of Michelangelo’s homosexuality or, at least, none indicating overt sexual activity," reads an entry at the university's website. "...Nonetheless, the physical beauty of many of his monumental male nudes, such as the David, the Creation of Adam and the decorative male nudes (Ignudi) on the Sistine ceiling, gives a clear indication as to where Michelangelo’s erotic interests lay."
At least a decade before Stonewall, out lesbian Barbara Gittings was fighting public battles aimed at securing rights for queer people. In 1958, Gittings founded the New York Chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, the parent organization of which was founded three years earlier in San Francisco.
Gittings is credited with leading the successful movement to change the psychiatric and psychological professions' view of homosexuality as a mental pathology. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association revoked its designation of homosexuality as a disorder.
As the website whose URL bears her name reminds us, the New York Daily News headline that announced her as the world's first out transgender woman was anything but subtle. It read, in all caps, "EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY: OPERATIONS TRANSFORM BRONX YOUTH."
While it would take decades for the cold and largely specious term "transsexual" to be replaced by "transgender," for many if not most gender-nonconforming people, Jorgensen brought a likable, relatable, intelligent, and kind face and voice — not to mention a generous portion of elegance and style — to the previously hidden reality that gender is anything but a binary issue.
If you were a kid in the 1980s, you knew the name Sally Ride. A Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree, Ride was America's first female astronaut and a space shuttle robotic arm operator. In 1983 she flew with fellow crew members aboard the shuttle Challenger, the same orbiter that tragically exploded after lift-off during a mission in 1986 that Ride was not a part of. Although she was married to a man until the mid-1980s, by the time of her death in 2012, Ride had been in a 27-year relationship with a female partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy.
Ride only came out as a lesbian posthumously. But that had more to do with her very private nature, according to her sister, Bear Ride, than it did with a lack of pride in being gay. Bear Ride is also a lesbian and, as an activist and an ordained Presbyterian minister, was very comfortable about being out. Shortly after her sister's passing, Rev. Ride explained her sister's decision to stay in the closet, to a certain degree, until her after her death this way:
"My sister was a very private person. Sally had a very fundamental sense of privacy, it was just her nature, because we're Norwegians, through and through. People did not know she had pancreatic cancer, this is bound to be a huge shock. For 17 months, nobody knew, and everyone does now. Her memorial fund is going to be in support of pancreatic cancer.
"Most people did not know that Sally had a wonderfully loving relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy for 27 years. Sally never hid her relationship with Tam. They were partners, business partners in Sally Ride Science, they wrote books together, and Sally's very close friends, of course, knew of their love for each other. We consider Tam a member of our family."
Sally Ride Science at the University of California, San Diego, is quite possibly the most influential mover and shaker in the STEAM-for-girls science education movement in the nation.
Harvey Milk's name is synonymous with fighting for change from within the American political system. Being one of the nation's first openly gay elected officials, Milk was the standard-bearer of what during his time was called the gay liberation movement. Before he was assassinated in 1978, along with San Francisco Mayor George Mascone, Milk helped stave off a conservative backlash against LGBT equality in the form of the so-called Briggs Initiative, which would have barred gay people from teaching in California's public schools.
Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Even in the comparatively liberal decade of the 1970s, even inside the long-standing capital of America's progressive movement, it took Milk three tries before he won a seat at the table of power for himself and, at least symbolically, for untold millions of other LGBT folks. Since Milk's victory, hundreds of LGBT candidates have been elected across the nation.
There were a few out gay and lesbian candidates elected before Milk, including Elaine Noble to the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Kathy Kozachenko to the Ann Arbor, Mich., City Council, both in 1974. And Minnesota State Sen. Allan Spear, already in office, came out shortly after Noble's groundbreaking win, then was reelected in 1976 and several times thereafter. But Milk's outsize personality and the circumstances of his death have inspired a documentary, a feature film, an opera, and more, and given him a special place in the collective LGBT memory.
Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin is the first lesbian and first out member of the LGBT community to be elected to the U.S. Senate. As her state's junior senator, Baldwin has fast become one the most vocal advocates for sensible gun control in the upper chamber of Congress. Recently, Sen. Baldwin has called for a national LGBT Equality Day.
Lily and Lana Wachowski
Sisters Lily and Lana Wachowski have both come as transgender, just a few years apart. They are among Hollywood's genuine-article elite moviemakers, with directing, writing and production credits under their belts that read like a roll call of Academy Award nominees and winners. Imaginative Wachowski films and screenplays ranging from the Matrix franchise to Cloud Atlas have not only changed the way we think about film as an art form, but also the way the world thinks about life and living.
Actor, producer, talk-show host, and comedian Ellen DeGeneres is known for her wholesome, winsome, and easy-breezy personality. But beneath her sweetness lies a lioness fully capable of protecting and fighting for what she believes in. For weeks in 1997, America wondered and ABC's publicity department fueled speculation about whether or not DeGeneres's character would follow the lead of the real-life lesbian who played her by coming out.
Packed with clever humor including a gag about receiving a free kitchen appliance for exiting the closet (an obvious reference to the age-old homophobic notion that the LGBT community "recruits" members), the widely viewed coming-out episode of Ellen made television history — and made a laughing nation measurably more comfortable with and accepting of gay people in general.
DeGeneres's later success as a talk-show host and voice of Disney's Dory would only cement her iconic status.
Barney Frank has been a longtime fighter for LGBT rights. As a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, the first bill he introduced, in 1973, was to ban antigay discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations. It didn't pass then, but his state eventually adopted such protections. After being elected to the U.S. House in 1980, he championed the yet-to-be-realized dream of an Employment Non-Discrimination Act (although he did disappoint some supporters by backing a trans-exclusionary ENDA at one point).
By the time of his retirement from Congress in 2013, Frank had been serving as the first voluntarily out member for more than 20 years and was well established as an elder statesman of financial regulation and, perhaps to a lesser extent, foreign policy. Along with former Sen. Christopher Dodd, he is an author-namesake of the Dodd-Frank Act, the foundation of 21st-century financial-sector regulation.
Of gay writer James Baldwin, author Michael Ondaatje famously said, "If Van Gogh was our 19th-century artist-saint, James Baldwin is our 20th-century one.” Similar praise for the writer of seminal books such a Notes of a Native Son, Giovanni's Room, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Another Country abounds.
His influence endures. In a 2013 essay titled "Gay Will Never Be the New Black: What James Baldwin Taught Me About My White Privilege," seminary student and writer Todd Clayton explained how Baldwin incomparably illuminated the experience of being both gay and black in America. Baldwin's insights on race and sexuality have also been widely quoted within the Black Lives Matter movement.
Despite efforts even within the civil rights movement itself to overshadow him because he refused to be closeted even in the LGBT-oppressive 1940s and '50s, history was never able to blot out the fact that Bayard Rustin was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, at which Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his groundbreaking "I Have a Dream" speech.
In 2013 President Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Rustin's longtime partner, Walter Naegle, accepted the medal on his behalf. The campaign to persuade the United States Postal Service to issue a postage stamp honoring Rustin for his work and his achievements continues to make progress.
For LGBT people of faith, Rev. Troy Perry is the father of modern queer religiosity and organized spirituality. Founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, which now has a global presence that grew from the first congregation in Los Angeles, Perry is also a voice for bridging generations within our community.
Famous for his quote about the need for unity among minority communities, transplanted Brit Harry Hay founded the Mattachine Society in 1950, one of the modern world's first organizations for gay men. In 1953 the Mattachine Society ousted Hay for his communist views. Ironically, the American Communist Party kicked him out because it believed his homosexuality made him a "security risk." After more than a decade away from activism, Hay returned to his work fighting for LGBT equality by founding the Los Angeles chapter of the Gay Liberation Front. He also founded with his longtime partner, John Burnside, the Radical Faeries. Hay died in 2002 with Burnside by his side. PBS produced an award-winning documentary about Hay's life, titled Hope Along the Wind: The Life of Harry Hay.
"In order to earn for ourselves any place in the sun, we must work collectively ... for the first-class citizenship of minorities everywhere."
Laurence Michael Dillon
Born to English nobility as Laura Maud Dillon, Laurence Michael Dillon courageously resolved to live life as his true self. According to Australia's Gender Centre, Dillon was the world's first transgender man to undergo gender-affirmation surgery. But doing so cost him his family, his claim to peerage (a noble title), and a career in medicine. Nevertheless, seeking truth led Dillon to become a (presumably) spiritually enlightened Buddhist monk and author of two books about spirituality.
Irish playwright, author, lecturer, and all-around wit, Oscar Wilde is as frequently quoted as the likes of Confucius, Winston Churchill, Lord Byron, Gandhi, and Ayn Rand. Despite his personal undoing following his arrest, conviction, and sentence of two years hard labor for the "crime" of homosexuality (technically, "gross indecency"), the writer of classics such a The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray remains one of the written word's most famous and celebrated artists.
Deborah Sampson's name may not be world-famous, but the life-threatening risk she took by posing as a man in order to fight the British for American independence during the Revolutionary War — arguably the most world-changing war in human history — cannot be overstated. Sampson's life was full of examples of her courage and compulsion to sacrifice, or at least risk, her own safety and well-being so that others might live and flourish. In fact, again posing as a man, she once married a colonial woman who had been captured by a Native American tribe in order to save her from being killed. According to historian Rebecca Beatrice Brooks, Sampson's decades-long battle to win the pension she had earned as a soldier in the Continental Army finally succeeded after much publicity and through the advocacy of none other than Paul Revere.
Mainstream historians have been unwilling to say Deborah Sampson, whose lineage on both her father's and her mother's side traces directly to the Mayflower, was anything but heterosexual, Keith Stern, author o Queers in History, begs to differ.
Writes Stern: "My interpretation of the early biographical material is that Deborah Sampson was a very masculine young girl, who enjoyed taking on the male role throughout her early life. She was so unwilling to get married that she chose to dress as a man and joined the army, where she found herself very attractive to other women. She reciprocated their attentions passionately, and treasured the memory of her romantic affairs with women. She participated in a marriage with a young white girl, ostensibly to liberate her from Indians, and she continued the relationship, with passionate attachment, long after it was necessary to obtain the girl’s freedom."