LGBTQ Historical Figures
The erasure of LGBTQ figures from our history books and classrooms does a disservice to students on three fronts: 1) It introduces bias into our studies, providing an incomplete and unfair portrait of our past; 2) It strips LGBTQ students of role models and precedent, leaving them to feel disconnected from past and present, and less capable of making history; and 3) It takes away possibilities for students to envision a happy, thriving adult life for themselves. Instead, they see blankness, nonexistence, conformity or invisibility—a void of potential life purpose that can increase suicide risk.
As Emery Grant—the director of community engagement at Stonewall National Museum and Archives—says, “When those students see the full spectrum of possibilities for themselves, that affirmation helps them to take their identities more seriously. It helps them and their peers to take LGBT identities more seriously.”
For educators looking for a place to start—or looking for LGBTQ figures to plug into existing curriculum—this list offers the simplest first step. This list is not exhaustive, but highlights LGBTQ people who belong in any discussion of their respective time periods.
NOTE: There is a difficulty in discussing historical queer figures. It can be tempting to place labels on people who—depending on their era and social norms at the time—may never have used those labels on themselves. This requires nuance and care. While it may be appropriate to discuss the queer themes in an artist's work and author's words, or to discuss known queer relationships and rebellions against gender norms, it's less appropriate to put modern labels on a person posthumously or speculate beyond the evidence.
Daayiee Abdullah (1954– )
One of two openly gay Imams in the world, a gay Muslim activist who performed same-sex weddings and led prayers for victims of AIDS when few would.
Zackie Achmat (1962– )
South African activist and filmmaker who has championed access to HIV/AIDS medication, LGBTQ-inclusive policies, and economic and racial equity.
Jane Addams (1860–1935)
Founder of the Hull House—a settlement house in Chicago—and pioneering social worker and women’s suffragist.
Alvin Ailey (1931–1989)
A pioneer of modern dance who founded the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater of New York City.
Edward Albee (1928–2016)
The author of The Sandbox and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, he won two Tony Awards for Best Play and three Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.
Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.)
A king of Macedon—a Greek kingdom that stretched into parts of modern-day India and northern Africa.
Reinaldo Arenas (1943–1990)
Cuban writer who would become known as a rebel and prisoner of the Communist Cuban government led by Fidel Castro, advocating for Cubans’ freedom and other Cuban writers who had come to America until his death.
Howard Ashman (1950–1991)
Song lyricist and playwright whose best-known songs were featured in the Disney films The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.
Francis Bacon (1561–1626)
A pioneering figure of empiricism and the scientific method who also held influence as an important political figure and philosopher during the English Renaissance.
James Baldwin (1924–1987)
An author and essayist whose work often addressed racism, sexuality, class and inequities in the United States.
Tammy Baldwin (1962– )
Wisconsin senator and first out lesbian/LGBTQ community member elected to the U.S. Senate.
Natalie Clifford Barney (1876–1972)
American writer whose openly lesbian poetry represented some of the first well-known descriptions of same-sex attraction since Sappho. Her Paris salon attracted a Who’s Who of literary figures and artists. Her life inspired the novel, The Well of Loneliness.
Katharine Lee Bates (1859–1929)
American poet and songwriter famous for penning the words to “America the Beautiful.”
Joseph Beam (1954–1988)
An activist, poet and writer whose works provided an intimate portrait of what it meant to be a black gay man during the AIDS epidemic. His 1986 anthology “In the Life” collected works from black gay writers in order to promote pride and representation for people like him.
Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986)
French writer of such works as The Second Sex and a key figure in modern feminist thought.
Mel Boozer (1945–1987)
An activist for racial equity and LGBTQ rights; the first black president of the Gay Activists Alliance.
Glenn Burke (1952–1995)
Major League Baseball player who is often credited for “inventing” the high five.
Lord Byron (1788–1824)
English politician and poet known for such works as “Don Juan” and notable figure in the Romantic movement.
Italian painter of the Baroque movement known for such paintings as The Calling of Saint Matthew.
Albert Cashier (1843–1915)
An Irish immigrant—born Jennie Irene Hodgers—and veteran of the American Civil War, serving in a regiment under General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee.
Dan Choi (1981– )
A former army officer who helped co-found the organization Knights Out and became a leading voice in calling for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the right of LGBTQ military personnel to serve openly.
Roy Cohn (1927–1986)
An attorney who served as Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during the Red Scare and Lavender Scare in the United States post World War II.
Tim Cook (1960– )
CEO of Apple Inc. and the first Fortune 500 chief executive to identify publicly as a gay man.
Roberta Cowell (1918–2011)
A racecar driver, World War II veteran, pilot, businessperson and transgender woman.
Laverne Cox (1972– )
LGBTQ advocate and American actress and the first transgender woman to earn a Primetime Emmy nomination.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695)
From what we now know as Mexico, a nun, playwright and famous poet of the Latin American colonial era.
Countee Cullen (1903–1946)
American poet and key figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors (1984– )
Queer activist and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Chevalier d’Éon (1728–1810)
French soldier and spy who fought in the Seven Years’ War.
Angela Davis (1944– )
Scholar, author and famous activist with ties to the Black Panther Party and former member of the Communist Party USA. Known for her work combating racial inequality and the prison-industrial complex.
Marie Equi (1872–1952)
Doctor and activist who served poor patients in the early American West. Advocated for women’s suffrage and labor rights, among other human rights causes.
Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)
An iconic American poet who lived in Massachusetts.
Lili Elbe (1882–1931)
A transgender woman and painter whose life inspired the novel (and film), The Danish Girl.
Laura Esquivel (1950– )
Considered “La Madre” of the Latinx LGBTQ movement, she co-founded the Latino(a) Lesbian and Gay Organization (LLEGÓ), marched alongside César Chávez, and advocates for labor and immigration rights.
Barney Frank (1940– )
Represented Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1981 to 2013, championing many civil rights initiatives and chairing the House Financial Services Committee.
Frederick the Great (1712–1786)
King of Prussia during the Seven Years’ War and Prussia’s Enlightenment.
Alicia Garza (1981– )
Activist, writer and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Barbara Gittings (1932–2007)
An LGBTQ activist who, among many good works, helped lead the charge to remove the stigma of classifying homosexuality as a mental illness.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy (1940– )
The executive director for the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, Griffin-Gracy is a transgender activist, Stonewall Riots participant and advocate for prison reform.
Angelina Weld Grimké (1880–1958)
Playwright, journalist and poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Her play, "Rachel," was written for the NAACP in response to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and served to raise awareness of racial violence perpetrated against black people.
Steve Gunderson (1951– )
Outed on the House floor, Gunderson was the first openly gay representative to represent the Republican party and famously stood alone among his party in voting against the Defense of Marriage Act.
Mabel Hampton (1902–1989)
A dancer during the Harlem Renaissance and openly lesbian LGBTQ rights activist.
Lorraine Hansberry (1930–1965)
Author of A Raisin in the Sun and the first black woman to have a play she wrote performed on Broadway, Hansberry also advocated for human rights as a journalist.
Harry Hay (1912–2002)
A gay rights pioneer—and controversial figure due to his communist views—who founded the Mattachine Society to liberate gay people from persecution and discrimination.
Langston Hughes (1902–1967)
A poet, social activist and prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
King James VI and I (1566–1625)
Served as King of Scotland and King of England in the 16th and 17th centuries; the namesake of the King James Bible.
Marsha P. Johnson (1945–1992)
A trans woman and activist who was on the frontlines of the Stonewall Riots in 1969.
Barbara Jordan (1936–1996)
The first black woman from a southern state elected to Congress, as well as the first black person (and woman) to serve as a keynote speaker for the Democratic National Convention.
Christine Jorgensen (1926–1989)
A singer and actress who became one of the first known people to undergo surgical sex reassignment.
Mychal Judge (1933–2001)
A Catholic priest and the New York City Fire Department’s chaplain at the time of the September 11 attacks. Judge died while administering prayers and aid in the North Tower lobby.
Frida Kahlo (1907–1954)
A Mexican artist whose work explored aspects of identity, race, class and colonialism.
Frank Kameny (1925–2011)
Astronomist, activist and gay rights lobbyist who was the first openly gay man to run for a seat in U.S. Congress. He took part in the first demonstration for gay rights outside the White House.
John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946)
Influential British economist who inspired modern macroeconomics theory known as Keynesian economics.
Josef Kohout (1915–1994)
Holocaust survivor and author of The Men With the Pink Triangle—perhaps the best-known testimony of the treatment of queer people by Nazi Germany.
Lady Chablis (1957–2016)
A pioneering trans woman and performer, known for her role in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Edmonia Lewis (1844–1907)
An Oberlin College-educated, black and Native American sculptor of the Neoclassical movement who achieved international renown.
Audre Lorde (1934–1992)
A poet, civil rights activist and feminist whose philosophy on intersectional identities still influences feminist and progressive ideology today.
Phyllis Lyon (1924– ) and Del Martin (1921–2008)
A lesbian couple that founded the Daughters of Bilitis—the nation’s first political organization for lesbians—and the first to have their marriage officially recognized in California.
Monica Márquez (1969– )
The first openly gay Latina justice on the Colorado Supreme Court.
Yukio Mishima (1925–1970)
Japanese writer, filmmaker, actor and nationalist. His literary influence led to a national award named in his honor. Founded a right-wing militia that attempted a coup to restore the Emperor to the status held pre-World War II.
Harvey Milk (1930–1978)
An activist and first openly gay elected official in California history, Milk was assassinated in 1978 by a fellow San Francisco city supervisor.
Janet Mock (1983– )
Bestselling author, writer, TV host and transgender rights activist.
Pauli Murray (1910–1985)
A civil rights activist, lawyer, priest and writer, Murray fought for gender and racial equality across disciplines and set precedent that would be used by future judges to rule against school segregation and gender discrimination.
Alice Dunbar Nelson (1875–1935)
A Harlem Renaissance figure, suffragist, activist, poet and journalist who contributed to and co-edited several progressive black publications.
Jack Nichols (1938–2005)
Co-founder of the Mattachine Society of Washington (alongside Frank Kameny) and prominent gay liberation activist post-Stonewall.
Tseko Simon Nkoli (1957–1998)
An internationally celebrated South African anti-apartheid and gay rights activist.
Zazu Nova (dates unknown)
A trans woman of color in the frontlines of the resistance at the Stonewall Riots, Nova advocated for LGBTQ youth and co-founded Gay Youth to provide them a safe space.
Jean O’Leary (1948–2005)
Activist, founder of the Lesbian Feminist Liberation and co-founder of National Coming Out Day.
Ozaawindib (dates unknown)
A warrior of the Ojibwe tribe and niizh manidoowag, or two-spirited person.
“Ma” Rainey (1886–1939)
The “Mother of the Blues” and pioneering recording artist.
John Rechy (1931– )
Mexican-American writer known for the bestselling novel City of Night.
Alfred Redl (1864–1913)
A pioneer in espionage techniques and Austrian military officer whose sexuality may have been used as blackmail to coerce him into becoming a Russian spy.
Renée Richards (1934– )
Professional tennis player and transgender woman, she won the right to play in the 1976 US Open in a case that went to the New York Supreme Court. Later coached tennis legend Martina Navratilova.
Sally Ride (1951–2012)
An American astronaut and the first American woman in space.
Sylvia Rivera (1951–2002)
A founding member of the Gay Activists Alliance and Gay Liberation Front, Rivera was a gay and transgender activist on the frontlines of the Stonewall Riots.
Marty Robinson (1943–1992)
An activist and organizer who developed the “zap” protest in the immediate aftermath of the Stonewall Riots; a founding member of GLAAD.
V. Gene Robinson (1947– )
The only openly gay man to become a bishop in the Episcopal Church.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962)
A human rights activist, former United Nations official and former First Lady of the United States.
Bayard Rustin (1912–1987)
An integral figure of the civil rights movement and one of the fiercest advocates for nonviolent protest and resistance, and later in life, an openly gay advocate for LGBTQ rights.
Deborah Sampson (1760–1827)
An early Massachusetts citizen who posed as a man to fight in the American Revolutionary War.
Sappho (~630–580 BC)
A celebrated Greek lyric poet from the island of Lesbos, whose work famously depicted same-sex love.
José Julio Sarria (1922–2013)
The founder of the Imperial Court System—a large, grassroots LGBTQ rights organization—and the first openly gay man to run for public office in the United States.
Pierre Seel (1923–2005)
A gay survivor of the Holocaust who bravely testified to the horrific treatment of gay people in the concentration camps.
Barbara Smith (1946– )
An activist, leading black feminist, author and co-founder of the Combahee River Collective, an organization who pioneered use of the term “intersectionality.”
Bessie Smith (1894–1937)
Influential music artist known as the “Empress of the Blues.”
Stephen Sondheim (1930– )
An American composer whose work has majorly influenced the musical theater scene; he has won eight Tony Awards spanning five decades.
Gertrude Stein (1874–1946)
A bestselling American writer and art collector whose Paris salon became a social hotspot for modernist writers and artists.
Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (1730–1794)
A Prussian-born American military officer, serving during the Revolutionary War as a major general of the Continental Army. Known for implementing drills and order into the Continental Army, he would later become General George Washington’s chief of staff.
Mark Takano (1960– )
Representing California’s 41st congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives, Takano is the first openly gay person of color to serve in congress.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Russian composer of "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker."
James Tinney (1942–1988)
A scholar, minister, speechwriter and Howard University professor, Tinney founded Faith Temple, a church for black queer people, as well as the Pentecostal Coalition for Human Rights.
Alan Turing (1912–1954)
A British mathematician and pioneering computer scientist whose codebreaking saved countless lives during World War II.
Jose Antonio Vargas (1981– )
An immigration rights activist, award-winning journalist and founder of the nonprofit, Define American. Born in the Philippines, Vargas is undocumented, but identifies as American.
Adela Vázquez (1958– )
A transgender activist, writer and performer from Cuba who sought asylum during a time of political uprising in 1980.
Bruce Voeller (1934–1994)
A biologist and gay rights activist who originated the term “acquired immune deficiency syndrome” (AIDS) to counter homophobic names for the disease. Co-founded and served as director for the National Gay Task Force, which organized the first meeting between openly LGBTQ leaders and the White House.
Stanisława Walasiewicz (1911–1980)
An intersex woman and track icon sometimes known as Stella Walsh, she was an Olympic gold medalist in the 100m dash.
Lillian Wald (1867–1940)
A nurse and founder of the Henry Street Settlement house in New York City, Wald was involved in the founding of the NAACP, a suffragist, and among the first to advocate for nurses in public schools.
Alice Walker (1944– )
The first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her book The Color Purple, Walker is also an activist who has taken on anti-war and voter registration causes.
Andy Warhol (1928–1987)
An American artist and filmmaker known for being the preeminent figure of pop art.
A Zuni lhamana, or two-spirited person, and accomplished artist who served as an ambassador of her tribe in a visit to Washington, D.C.
Oscar Wilde (1854–1900)
Irish poet and playwright.
Walt Whitman (1819–1892)
An American poet, essayist and humanist known for such works as Leaves Of Grass and Drum Taps.
Tennessee Williams (1911–1983)
A 20th century American playwright and writer of such classic works as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951)
A prominent 20th century philosopher whose work influenced future theories on the philosophy of mind and language.
Virginia Woolf (1882–1941)
A modernist English writer known for feminist themes and stream of consciousness writing in works such as Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando.
Mary Yu (1957– )
The Washington Supreme Court’s first Latina, first Asian-American and first openly gay justice.