LGBTQ+ Activists & Individuals Who Shaped History
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
When you walk down the street and see a same-sex couple holding hands, go to a bar and see someone rocking a gender defying outfit, or open social media and see people sharing their coming out stories: do you ever wonder who made all that possible?
How much blood, sweat and tears went into obtaining these rights? And how much more is there to fight for?
Hopefully, this article will give you the answers. We’ve compiled a list of nine individuals who helped change attitudes as well as legislation regarding members of the LGTBQ+ community.
1. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was a pioneer of the gay rights movement and is thought to be one of the first gay people to publicly speak out for homosexuality. Just so you can understand how ahead of his times he was, this was all before the word ‘homosexuality’ even existed.
In 1854 he was forced out of his post as a civil servant and began his journey of what we would now call activism.
He published twelve volumes of work on sexuality, arguing that homosexuality is an inborn condition and those who experience it should be treated equally. In 1867, in front of 500 lawyers, officials and academics, he argued that sodomy laws should be abolished.
2. Magnus Hirschfeld
Magnus Hirschfeld contributed immensely to transgender and gay rights. An openly gay man himself, he researched the nature of homosexuality in an attempt to break the taboo and raise awareness.
He coined the term ‘transvestitism’ and helped raise awareness and fight prejudice against transgender people.
In 1919, he established the world’s first gender identity clinic, the Institute for Sexual Science. Here he conducted one of the first gender reassignment surgeries on Einar Wegner (ring a bell? Her life story was the basis of The Danish Girl).
The institute also provided advice for gay and transgender people, treatment and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.
His beliefs, and the bravery with which he expressed them, later made him a target of right-wing supporters. The rise of Nazism in Germany soon forced him into exile.
3. Christine Jorgensen
Christine Jorgensen was an American WWII veteran who was the subject of great controversy for her gender reassignment surgery in 1952.
The fact that she was both transgender and a veteran triggered national discussions about gender identity. She was the first American transgender person to attain such fame, and as such helped to promote awareness and acceptance.
In 1953, she was named Woman of the Year by the Scandinavian Society in New York.
4. Barbara Gittings
Barbara Gittings and her partner Kay Lahusen led the New York branch of the Daughter of Bilitis, the first female organisation fighting for lesbian rights. She is known as the ‘mother of the LGBT civil rights movement’ helping to start the fight for equal rights.
In the 1970s, with the help of Frank Kameny, Gittings headed the fight to get homosexuality removed from the list of psychiatric disorders. In 1973 they succeeded, and homosexuality was no longer classified as a mental illness.
In 2006, the American Psychiatric Association recognized her work by awarding her its first annual civil rights award.
5. Frank Kameny
Kameny’s fight for gay rights began after he was fired from his position as a government astronomer for being gay.
Thereafter, he became a prominent gay rights activist, remembered for coining the radical chant “Gay is Good” which helped change perceptions towards LGBTQ+ individuals.
Kameny refused to accept the blatant discrimination which cost him his job and decided to go to court. His case was the first ever civil rights claim filed in a US court based on sexual orientation, and he was able to argue his case up to the US Supreme Court. Even though he did not win the case, he set an example for LGBTQ+ activists to come.
In 2009, 50 years later, he received a formal apology from the US government.
6. Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson gave herself the middle name P. which stood for Pay It No Mind, a phrase she used when people commented negatively on her appearance or life choices.
And with that motto in mind, she went on to become one of the most influential black transgender rights activists.
Johnson and her close friend Sylvia Rivera, a Latina trans-rights activist, founded the Street Transvestite Actions Revolutionaries. This was the first organisation to be led by trans women of colour and the first to provide shelter for LGBTQ+ individuals.
In addition to her transgender activism, she also helped de-stigmatise and raise awareness for individuals suffering from AIDS.
She was honoured posthumously as a grand marshal of New York City Pride Month.
7. Harvey Milk
Harvey Milk was a gay rights activist born in New York who rose to fame in 1977 when he became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office, winning a seat on the San Francisco City Council Board.
During this time, he spearheaded a bill to ban discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation.
Milk was murdered by fellow council member in 1978, who received a sentence of less than eight years. He became a martyr in the gay community and his death was a political awakening for many other LGBTQ+ activists.
8. Michael Sam
Michael Sam was the first openly gay American football player to be drafted. He served as a symbol of hope for LGBTQ+ individuals around the world, defying prejudice and discrimination.
Sam was selected by the St. Louis Rams in the NFL Draft in 2014, during which he kissed his boyfriend live on ESPN. This image caused widespread controversy and was the first of its kind.
Ultimately, it paved the way for other LGBTQ+ athletes and helped to raise awareness in a field where stereotyping and discrimination persists even today.
Since the end of his football career, he has gone on to be an LGBTQ+ activist. In fact, in 2019 he went on a college speaking tour where he shared his story with the hope of inspiring others.
9. Malgorzata Szutowicz
Nonbinary activist Malgorzata Szutowicz has been raising awareness and fighting for LGBTQ+ rights in Poland, where the current president, Andrzej Duda, runs an anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric.
In August the young activist was placed in pre-trial detention for two months, which sparked outrage in the LGTBQ+ community. Thousands of protestors gathered in Warsaw to defend Szutowicz’s freedom and to denounce police aggression against LGBTQ+ individuals.
Szutowicz’s fight for LGBTQ+ rights in Poland points to a wider problem of discrimination in Eastern Europe, and serves to show that the world still has a long way to go until equal rights are established for all members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Want to find out more?
This was merely a short list of individuals who changed the course of LGBTQ+ history.
Now that you have the basics, you can go out and discover thousands of more individuals paving the way for future generations.
We suggest taking a look at Making Gay History, a podcast which is “bringing the voices of LGBTQ history to life through intimate conversations with champions, heroes and witnesses to history.”
Remember to check out A News Education's dedicated LGBTQ+ section for more articles and resources.