Adam Polaski

The Top 20 Most Important LGBT Figures in History

Filed By Adam Polaski | August 11, 2011 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, The Movement
Tags: Abraham Lincoln, ACT UP, Alan Turing, Alexander the Great, Audre Lorde, Bayard Rustin, California FAIR Education Act, Christine Jorgensen, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Gertrude Stein, Harry Hay, Harvey Milk, James Baldwin, Leonard Matlovich, leonardo da vinci, LGBT figures poll, Michelangelo, oscar wilde, Sappho, stonewall, sylvia rivera, Top 20 most important LGBT figures, Walt Whitman

LGBTEncyclopedias.jpgAt the beginning of this summer, as an aspiring journalist covering LGBT issues, I thought I understand the ins and outs of the LGBT community. Then I hung out with Bilerico Project founder Bil Browning for an hour, spent my first week interning for the blog, and realized how little I knew.

Since that first week, I've been challenged every day by the readers and contributors at The Bilerico Project and the rest of the LGBT media world, and I've learned so much in the process. I've learned about the current state of the movement, the various ideologies and philosophies surrounding activism and momentum-building, and the importance of our history. That's why I was so excited to take on the project of compiling a list of the most essential LGBT figures in history. These are figures I've been reading about all summer and seeing when, where, and how they influenced the broader LGBT movement.

Since California passed the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive & Respectful Education Act in July, which requires California schools to teach students about LGBT people and the contributions they've made to society throughout history, we've been wondering how the law will be implemented. Who, of the hundreds of important LGBT people in history, will be included? We decided to poll the readers and contributors of The Bilerico Project to get a better feel for which figures are important to today's LGBT community.

All this week, we've heard from some of the top LGBT voices in activism and media about the moments and figures that they consider most essential. The lists have been extremely varied, and that's reflective of the diversity within our community. (Check out those lists, from Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.)

We also compiled all of the votes from the readers, Facebook fans, and other Bilerico contributors to create a Top 20 list of the most-named LGBT figures. Check out the slideshow below of the Top 11, see the rest of the Top 20 listed, and look at the other names that received recognition from multiple people.

The Top 20 LGBT Figures in History

As voted on by readers and contributors of The Bilerico Project

1. Harvey Milk (1930-1978), one of the first openly gay people elected to public office, when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors

2. Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.), King of Macedon in Greece, creator of one of Ancient History's largest empires, and considered one of the most powerful commanders ever

3. Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), Civil rights leader, proponent of direct action, and activist for gay rights, pacifism, and socialism
Voter Voice: "Too often he's reduced to the "organizer of the 1963 "I Have a Dream" March on Washington which, while indeed miraculous in barely six months (in pre Internet times), pales next to his decades of important influence and example in the more militant black movement (too many are unaware/forget that the NAACP was opposed to direct action when Rustin and, later, King started out)." - Lt. Dan Choi

4. Michelangelo (1475-1564), Renaissance-era artist, architect, poet, sculptor & engineer
Voter Voice: "Anyone who can sculpt the statue David is truly a lover of the male body" - Bil Browning

5. Alan Turing (1912-1954), Computer scientists who served in World War II, broke the Germans' Engima Code, and was harassed by the British government for being gay until he committed suicide in 1954.
Voter Voice: "In a remarkable historic rarity, the British government has formally apologized for this. The Turing story is a fascinating one, including a demonstration that LGBT people can excel not only in the arts and humanities, but also the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)." - A.J. Lopp

6. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), The original "Renaissance Man," painter, poet, sculptor, engineer, architect, inventor, musician, writer, scientist & botanist

7. Walt Whitman (1819-1892), American poet, essayist, and journalist

8. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), 16th President of the United States

9. Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Irish poet, writer & playwright
Voter Voice: "Literature is an important aspect of education, and a good understanding of literature requires acknowledging the wide variety of sexualities present among authors and how it informs/informed their work. Wilde is a good example of this." - Erika Kerr

10. Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), American writer & poet, famous for writing honest and candid portrayals of lesbian relationships
Voter Voice: "Innovative and very influential force in the arts at a key time who also lived unapologetically as a lesbian long, long before it was OK. Strong is beautiful." - Scott Wooledge

11. Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002), transgender activist, Stonewall leader, founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance, and contributing member to the foundation of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries

12. The Stonewall Rioters (June 1969), The crowd comprised of drag queens, trans people and queer youth joined together in one of the first - or at least most remembered - episodes of the LGBT community fighting back against oppression, this time from the police. Sparked the formation of key activism organizations and galvanized the movement.

13. Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon (1921-2008 and 1924 - ), founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, founders of The Ladder, a lesbian and feminist magazine, and first lesbian couple to join the National Organization for Women.
Voter Voice: "What did they not do?" - Michael Maloney

14. James Baldwin (1924-1987), essayist, playwright, poet, civil rights activist, & author of Giovanni's Room

15. Harry Hay (1912-2002), labor advocate, teacher, and founder of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest and most influential gay advocacy organizations

16. Sappho (~630 BC - ~570 BC), Ancient Greek poet, born on the island of Lesbos, which many believe to be the origin of the term "lesbian."

17. The Members of ACT UP (1987), or the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, was a direct action advocacy group focused on improving the lives of people with AIDS and demanding that the government and health organizations begin paying attention.
Voter Voice: The organization provided the pressure needed to inspire real action in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In the same spirit, we should recognize every grassroots activist who spends their time, money, and energy to support our rights without any expectation of public recognition." - Rev. Emily Heath

18. Christine Jorgensen: (1926-1989), one of the first publicly known people to have sex reassignment surgery

19. Leonard Matlovich: (1943-1988), a technical sergeant and Vietnam War veteran who received the Purple Heart and was the first gay man to come out in the military when he did so while serving in the U.S. Air Force.
Voter Voice: When he appeared on the cover of Time, with the headline "I Am a Homosexual," he "brought the issue of open service for the first time to the mainstream media." - Jarrod Chlapowski

20. Audre Lorde: (1934-1992), writer, activist & poet who wrote about race, gender, and sexuality

Honorable Mentions: Names or moments suggested by multiple readers, commenters, or contributors Susan B. Anthony, Virginia M. Apuzzo, Rita Mae Brown, Wendy Carlos, George Washington Carver, Professor Lynn Conaway, Quentin Crisp, Reed Erickson, Barney Frank, Christopher Isherwood, King James I of England, Frida Kahlo, Frank Kameny, The Lawrence v. Texas case, Eleanor Roosevelt, William Shakespeare, Matthew Shepard, Socrates, Lou Sullivan, Tennessee Williams, Virginia Woolf

* * *

Read All of Our LGBT History Coverage:

  • Part One: Mon., Aug. 8 - Kramer, Baldwin, Wolfson, Andre, Weiss, Rogers & Meronek
  • Part Two: Tues., Aug. 9 - Choi, Boylan, Conrad, Besen, Warren, Cheslik-DeMeyer & Lopp
  • Part Three: Wed., Aug. 10 - Duque, Sklar, Kerr, Wooledge, Heath, Chlapowski, Monroe & Browning
  • Initial Post: "Who Are the Most Important LGBT Figures in History?"

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Wilberforce1 | August 11, 2011 6:53 PM

What a great list. It shows the crowd here have some serious larnin'. If I would add anything, it would be that it's a tad heavy on queers that are important only to our community. I'd probably replace them with King James, Baron von Steuben, Socrates, and that other Greek who helped to invent democracy. But that would be for PR reasons. Otherwise, it's filled with people we can all be proud of. Good job.

Regarding 12, the stonewall rioters... Might it be better to have a separate list of significant historic events/movements/groups/cultures in LGBTQIA history? Human history cannot be studied by only learning about individuals, a wider approach is needed.

Some examples:
Stonewall Riots
The Mattachine Society
The Compton Cafeteria Riot
Dewey's Lunch Counter Riot
Order of Chaeronea
Scientific-Humanitarian Committee
The Holocaust
Act Up
Ellen Degeneres coming out on TV
The murder of Mathew Sheppard
Greek culture
The Society for Human Rights


I know William I of England was documented to be gay. But I would be interested to know where you got the info on James I?

Amazed to see that the following pioneers didn't even make the runner-up list: Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895), the German lawyer who is the first person documented to have both publicly declared himself a homosexual and publicly argued for civil rights for homosexuals; Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), British homosexual emancipation advocate, feminist, socialist, and wide-ranging progressive social reformer; Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935), founder of the world's first homosexual rights organization, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (1897), and tireless international advocate for sexual minorities and transgender people; and José Sarria (born 1922), who ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961 as the earliest known openly gay person to stand as a candidate for elected office and who founded the Imperial Court system in 1965.