13 LGBT+ Icons from History you Should Know About 

Pride is a time for celebration and acceptance. Rainbow flags are hoisted high, droves rush to parades, and LGBTQ-identifying people and allies adorn their best Pride regalia. But it’s also a time to honor and remember the people who have paved the way for gay rights activism, like Sylvia Rivera and Harvey Milk, or become cultural icons through their work, like writer James Baldwin

In honor of Pride Month, discover some of history’s most prominent LGBTQ figures and their lasting impacts.

Sally Ride 

Sally Ride was an American astronaut and physicist, joining NASA in 1978 and became the first American woman in space in 1983. They were also the third woman in space overall, after USSR cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova (1963) and Svetlana Savitskaya (1982). Ride remains the youngest American astronaut to have travelled to space, having done so at the age of 32.

Ride was extremely private about her personal life, however after Ride’s death, her obituary revealed that her partner of 27 years was Tam O’Shaughnessy, a professor emerita of school psychology at San Diego State University and childhood friend, who met her when both were aspiring tennis players. This means that Ride was the first known lesbian astronaut.

Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson was a transgender activist, advocate, drag queen and sex worker who made fighting for LGBTQ rights in New York City her purpose after moving from New Jersey in 1963. Thanks to her roles in the Stonewall riots and as a founder of the activist organization Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), among other acts of liberation, Johnson is considered a pioneer in the LGBTQ community. She noted in a 1972 interview that her ultimate goal was “to see gay people liberated and free and to have equal rights that other people have in America”. (Netflix)

Audre Lorde

 (Robert Alexander / Getty Images)

Audre Lorde, a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, [and] poet” as she described herself, was a multi-hyphenate in the poetic and literary world known for discussing the ins and outs of homophobia, racism and sexism in her works. Lorde often discussed her lesbian identity and LGBTQ rights side-by-side with her words on political activism, Black identity and feminism; in fact, the topics went hand-in-hand. “My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds…[Senator] Jesse Helms’s objection to my work is not about obscenity… or even about sex. It is about revolution and change,” she told Charles H. Rowell in an interview for literary journal Callaloo.

Angela Davis

(Sal Veder / AP)

Activist, author and retired UC Santa Cruz professor Angela Davis has made a name for herself as one of history’s most staunch voices against war, homophobia, racism, and sexism. A former Communist and Black Panther, Davis spent much of her youth speaking out against the issues like the U.S. prison-industrial complex and in support of ideologies like socialism. Davis officially came out as a lesbian in 1997, at the age of 53, but her notable involvement in demanding LGBTQ equality predates her coming out.

Sylvia Rivera 

(New York Public Library)

Transgender activist Sylvia Rivera made fighting for the rights of the LGBTQ community her life’s work. Often outspoken because of her passion for helping minority communities during the ‘60s and ‘70s, Rivera is best remembered as one of the activists present when the Stonewall riots began, the co-founder of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Marsha P. Johnson, a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and a fierce advocate for drag queens and transgender men and women in the Gay Activists Alliance’s agenda. Rivera often spoke up against bigger LGBTQ-friendly organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay & Lesbian Community Center in New York because of what she perceived as not enough being done to help the queer, specifically trans, community.

Bayard Rustin 

(Anonymous / AP)

Activist Bayard Rustin was the man behind organizing the March on Washington. Prior to the monumental 1961 gathering, Rustin was active in organizing civil rights efforts in the Southern United States, from the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, which tackled segregation laws for interstate buses, to taking on leadership roles in groups such as the War Resisters League and the Committee to Support South African Resistance. Rustin lived his life as a gay man openly and received backlash for it in his professional circles. He was forced to leave the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, formed in part with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and received little to no recognition for booking the March on Washington’s speakers and planning the day’s itinerary.

Laverne Cox

Laverne Cox is an American actress and LGBTQ+ advocate, becoming the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in any acting category, and the first to be nominated for an Emmy Award since composer Angela Morley in 1990. In 2015, Cox won a Daytime Emmy Award in Outstanding Special Class Special as executive producer for Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word making her the first openly transgender woman to win the award.

In June 2014, Cox became the first openly transgender person to appear on the cover of Time magazine. Cox is also the first openly transgender person to appear on the cover of a Cosmopolitan magazine, with her February 2018 cover on the South African edition. She is also the first openly transgender person to have a wax figure of herself at Madame Tussauds.

Michael Sam

Michael Sam is an American former professional football player and became the first publicly gay player to be drafted in the NFL. He signed with Montreal before the 2015 season, and then subsequently became the first publicly gay player to play in the CFL. By 2014, no active NFL player had ever come out publicly. 

In April 2016 Sam spoke with LGBTQ advocacy groups at the Missouri State Capitol against a bill that would enable discrimination against LGBTQ people and personally lobbied state legislators

Morty Manford 

Activist Morty Manford dedicated his life fighting for the gay community to be seen as equals during the gay rights movement, chiefly during the 1970s. During his days as a student at Columbia University, Manford founded Gay People at Columbia in 1971. He also went on to found the Gay Activists Alliance, the National Coalition of Gay Activists, Study Group, all of which centered the gay community in the ring of politics, specifically for their rights and having the opportunity to be in positions of power, and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) along with parents Jeanne and Jules. Manford, who went on to become a Legal Aid lawyer and an Assistant Attorney General of the State of New York, continued to speak in defense of New York’s LGBTQ community at marches, support groups, rallies and in politics until he died in 1992 from an AIDS-related illness.

Harvey Milk

Politician Harvey Milk was the first gay elected official in California’s history, having served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors prior to his death in 1978. Milk worked to provide the community, both gay and straight, with services it needed, like affordable housing, assisting working mothers by opening more daycare centers and keeping neighborhoods safe. Milk promoted equality among the people, always seeking to unite those of different races and genders to come together for the good of the community. 

Alan Turing 

Heritage Images/ Getty

Alan Turing was a mathematician who is often credited with creating the foundation of artificial intelligence and computer science. He also played a major role in World War II, helping break several German codes.

In the ’50s, he told police that he had homosexual relations with a man and was arrested for gross indecency. He was then chemically castrated. In 1954, he died due to cyanide poisoning.

He was given a posthumous royal pardon in 2013. Three years later, the UK government announced it would posthumously pardon other men convicted of abolished sexual offences, in what was dubbed the “Turing law.”

James Baldwin

James Baldwin. 
Sophie Bassouls / Getty

James Baldwin grew up in Harlem, New York, and eventually published his first book, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” in 1953, which was a semi-autobiographical novel. The following year, he published his groundbreaking novel “Giovanni’s Room” — its main character is a gay man. Throughout the rest of his writing career, Baldwin continued writing books and essays with LGBTQ and African American characters. 

Gilbert Baker

Gilbert Baker. 
Spencer Platt / Getty

In 1978, Harvey Milk asked his friend Gilbert Baker to make a symbol that would represent gay pride. Using the US flag as inspiration, Baker hand-sewed a rainbow flag. He said each color on the flag represented something that was important to the community. For example, the hot pink was for sex, and the red was for life. The rainbow pride flag was first flown in San Francisco on June 25, 1978, for Gay Pride Day. 

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