When it comes to bringing about social change and advocating for equal rights, the role of activists cannot be overstated. In the realm of LGBTQ+ rights, countless individuals have devoted their lives to challenging discrimination and pushing for acceptance and equality. These trailblazers have not only made a significant difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ individuals but have also enriched our society as a whole by fostering diversity and inclusiveness. Here, we present a list of the 15 most influential LGBTQ activists in history who have left an indelible impact on the world.
1. Harvey Milk
Harvey Milk was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the U.S., becoming a San Francisco City Supervisor in 1977. His bravery and determination helped inspire many others to fight for LGBTQ+ rights, both during his life and after his assassination in 1978. Harvey’s legacy continues to inspire and influence LGBTQ+ rights movements worldwide.
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2. Marsha P. Johnson
The Stonewall uprising of 1969 was a watershed moment in the LGBTQ+ rights movement thanks to Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender woman. She was also a co-founder of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), an organization that provided support to homeless queer youth. Her courage and dedication continue to inspire the fight for transgender rights.
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3. Audre Lorde
A writer, feminist, and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde addressed race, gender, and sexuality intersectionally. As a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Lorde’s contributions to intersectional feminism and LGBTQ+ rights have made her an essential figure in both movements.
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4. Sylvia Rivera
Transgender activist Sylvia Rivera, also Latina, played an important role in the Stonewall uprising. She, alongside Marsha P. Johnson, co-founded STAR, providing much-needed services to homeless transgender youth. Sylvia’s passionate advocacy for all within the LGBTQ+ community remains an inspiration.
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5. Bayard Rustin
In an age when being open about one’s homosexuality was extremely dangerous, Bayard Rustin was a civil rights organizer and activist. He was instrumental in organizing the March on Washington in 1963. Despite facing constant discrimination due to his sexuality, Rustin never ceased fighting for equal rights for all.
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6. Alan Turing
Mathematician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing contributed immensely to the end of WWII by cracking the Enigma code. However, he was prosecuted in 1952 for homosexual acts, when being gay was still a crime in the UK. His posthumous pardon in 2013 and the ensuing “Alan Turing law” helped correct historical injustices against the LGBTQ+ community.
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7. Larry Kramer
The American playwright Larry Kramer was also an HIV/AIDS activist. He co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and later started ACT UP, a direct-action advocacy group that significantly changed the landscape of HIV/AIDS research and treatment. His unwavering advocacy for people with HIV/AIDS has saved countless lives.
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8. Ellen DeGeneres
On her TV show in 1997, Ellen DeGeneres made history by coming out publicly. Her coming out brought a spotlight to LGBTQ+ issues and helped normalize homosexuality in mainstream media. Ellen continues to be a prominent figure in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.
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9. Christine Jorgensen
As one of the first Americans to undergo sex reassignment surgery, Christine Jorgensen became widely known. Her transition, reported in the New York Daily News in 1952, helped bring transgender issues to the forefront. Jorgensen’s courage in the face of public scrutiny opened doors for future transgender individuals.
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10. Edie Windsor
A Supreme Court case brought an end to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), paving the way for marriage equality in the United States. Windsor’s fight for recognition of her same-sex marriage set a monumental legal precedent and accelerated the progress of LGBTQ+ rights.
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11. Magnus Hirschfeld
One of the earliest advocates of LGBTQ+ rights was Magnus Hirschfeld, a German physician and sexologist. He founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, the world’s first gay rights organization, in 1897. Hirschfeld’s pioneering work in advocating for sexual minority rights has left a profound impact on the global LGBTQ+ movement.
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12. George Takei
Known for his role in Star Trek, George Takei has advocated for LGBTQ+ rights and raised awareness about issues affecting the community. After coming out in 2005, he has worked tirelessly for equality, using his fame to promote understanding and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community.
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13. Barbara Gittings
The American activist Barbara Gittings fought for LGBTQ+ rights for many years. She organized the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the U.S., and worked tirelessly to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders.
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14. Renée Richards
The tennis player Renée Richards fought to compete as a woman at the U.S. Open after undergoing sex reassignment surgery. Her case set a precedent for trans athletes’ rights, pushing the sports world to start confronting its policies on gender identity and inclusion.
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15. Laverne Cox
In the Netflix series, “Orange Is the New Black,” Laverne Cox gained prominence as a transgender woman. She uses her platform to advocate for trans rights and visibility, breaking barriers in the entertainment industry and beyond.
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Every individual listed above has made a significant impact on the progression of LGBTQ+ rights and acceptance. From political office to the television screen, from the Stonewall uprising to the Supreme Court, these activists have continuously proven that love, courage, and the fight for equality can bring about lasting change. We owe them a great deal of gratitude as we continue to benefit from their groundbreaking work, and as we work towards a future where everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, is accepted and cherished for who they truly are.
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