The Most Influential LGBTQ+ Figures in History
| LAST UPDATE 03/29/2023
From artists who created beautiful works to activists who worked tirelessly for the cause, there are many influential LGBTQ+ figures throughout history. Here are some of those extraordinary history-makers.
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great solidified his stance in world history as the king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia. The king and conqueror is one of the most famous and influential figures to ever live.
While the notable king had been married three times during his short lifespan, scholars have debated his sexual orientation. Many believe his close relationship with his friend and bodyguard, Hephastion, was more than friendship. Many think Hephastion's death contributed to the ruler's broken mental state and eventual death.
Leonardo da Vinci
Revered for his paintings and sculptures, Leonardo da Vinci was truly a genius and ahead of his time. He was practically the face of the Renaissance. His most famous artworks, the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, still inspire today. He was also known for his sketches of futuristic inventions, like the airplane and a parachute.
Even though he is the creator of some of the most famous pieces of work, he kept most of his private life under wraps while he was alive. The Guardian wrote, "Ever since Renaissance witnesses recorded that he [da Vinci] loved to surround himself with beautiful young men, his homosexuality has been an open secret."
History would have probably looked very different if it wasn't for this influential member of the LGBTQ+ community. Alan Turing was an extremely talented mathematician. Many consider him the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. Turing is also credited with cracking the code used by the Axis forces.
Recently, Benedict Cumberbatch played Turing in the movie The Imitation Game. However, unlike Hollywood, Turing's story does not have a happy ending. In 1952, he was found guilty of "gross indecency" since homosexuality was illegal in England. His security clearance was removed, and a devastated Turing took his life.
Considered one of the great American writers, James Baldwin defied many odds to reach this point. Growing up, Baldwin developed a strong love for reading and writing. As an adult, he worked odd jobs while writing a book on the side and lived in Paris on a fellowship. He wrote everything from poems to short stories to novels.
The themes of many of his works dealt with the complexities of being African American and gay. Baldwin became a voice of the Civil Rights Movement. His words continue to march on as they are adapted into films, and readers return to his works time and time again.
Christine Jorgensen made history when she became the first widely known person to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Jorgensen was born George Jorgensen. She was drafted into the United States Army in 1945. After finishing her service, she studied photography and heard about a new reassignment surgery done in Europe.
Jorgensen went to Denmark to have the surgery completed. Upon returning to the States, she became an instant celebrity. Jorgensen wrote a personal autobiography in 1967, and a film was made based on the book a few years later. She became an actress, singer, and spokesperson for her community. What an inspiring story!
Sally Ride has many firsts to her name. She was the first female American and the youngest American to be launched into space. Ride was also the first astronaut to be known as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. However, her sexual orientation was kept private for her entire life, only released after she passed away.
For five years, she was married to astronaut Steven Hawley. However, their marriage ended in divorce. Ride spent the rest of her life - 27 years, to be exact - with tennis player and children's author Tam O'Shaughnessy. Ride's legacy continues to inspire young people everywhere to pursue their dreams, no matter what.
Determination kept Milk going despite failure. While he is most famous for being the first openly gay man to win public office in America, it wasn't until his third try running that he was elected in 1977. While his time on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was tragically cut short, he managed to make a difference.
Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by a former city supervisor. Milk became a symbol and a hero for the LGBTQ+ community in San Francisco and all around the US and the globe. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 by President Barack Obama.
For many years, the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. It wasn't until the 1970s that that status finally changed, and much of the credit was due to Barbara Gittings. She was an activist who fought tirelessly for LGBTQ+ rights.
She was on the picket lines and editor of The Ladder, a magazine of the Daughters of Bilitis group. Gittings spent her life advocating for equal rights, and her impact was undeniable. Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said at her memorial service, "What do we owe Barbara? Everything."
Another activist who worked relentlessly for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community and beyond was Bayard Rustin. He was highly involved in the Civil Rights Movement and is most famous for organizing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his I Have A Dream speech.
Rustin was also involved in humanitarian missions to help out people all over the world. His contributions were global. Later in his career, he advocated for gay rights and was proud of his identity. Although he died in 1987, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 2013.
Perhaps one of the most famous First Ladies, Eleanor Roosevelt, was a trailblazer. As the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she was no stranger to politics. She became the first First Lady to hold press conferences, host a radio show, write a newspaper column and a magazine, and even publicly disagree with her husband!
While there has been no confirmation, many speculate that Roosevelt was involved in a romantic affair with the journalist Lorena Hickock. They exchanged many letters, and some of their correspondence was quite passionate. Roosevelt was a remarkable figure whose influence changed American politics.
Oscar Wilde was an exemplary author, known for his wit and extraordinary literary talent. He wrote classic masterpieces like The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest. However, times were different back in the late 1800s, and Wilde's sexuality was considered illegal then.
Brought to trial by his lover's father, Wilde was found guilty of sodomy and sentenced to two years of hard labor. After his release, Wilde relocated to France and died three years later. Ironically, it was Wilde who wrote, "Life is never fair…And perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not."
Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson was a transgender-rights activist who became a figurehead of the movement. At a time when it was illegal to be gay in America, Johnson stood up for what she believed in. She was at the famous Stonewall riots and led protests and riots afterward, fighting for gay rights.
She helped form S.T.A.R., an abbreviation of Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries, with activist Sylvia Rivera. In addition to her activism, Johnson performed with the drag group Hot Peaches. Another fun fact about the legendary activist is that the P in her name stands for "pay it no mind."
Dietrich was a famous movie star when they were still commonly known as the pictures! The German American starred in many films throughout her career. During the Second World War, Dietrich became involved in humanitarian efforts and created a fund to help Jewish people escape Germany. She also performed for the Allied troops.
While Dietrich had gotten married to Rudolf Sieber and had a child with him, she had an active love life. Dietrich was bisexual and had several affairs with men and women throughout her marriage. She was unafraid to be her true herself, even if it brought criticism.
Singer Frank Sinatra once said, "It is Billie Holiday who was, and remains, the greatest single musical influence on me." So it makes sense that she earned herself a spot on this list of influential LGBTQ+ figures. The jazz singer was openly bisexual and dated prominent figures like socialite Louise Crane.
Her fearlessness made her a role model for those in the community. Holiday's vocals and lyrics changed the music industry forever. While she struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, her powerful legacy remains as one of jazz's greatest and most influential singers.
His words have inspired generations, and he became the voice of a nation. Walt Whitman is most well-known for his work as a poet, writing famous works like O Captain! My Captain! and I Hear America Singing. His contributions to the American literary canon are incomparable, and people continue to study his works to this day.
Although this is not what he is most famous for, numerous historians believe that Whitman was part of the LGBTQ+ community. Many cite his inseparable bond with bus conductor Peter Doyle as evidence that Doyle was the love of the poet's life. Whitman's words have inspired millions.
Born Roy Harold Scherer Jr., Rock Hudson was one of the original Hollywood heartthrobs. His career spanned the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1950s and 60s. However, he had to hide his sexual orientation from the public so he could work. However, in the 1980s, things changed.
Hudson was diagnosed with AIDs in 1984. A year later, he became one of the first celebrities to share the news of his diagnosis. It came as a shock to many who had no idea the actor was gay. Sadly, he became the first well-known figure to pass away due to the disease.
The famous writer Gertrude Stein was one of the most influential figures in artisan Paris. Although born in America, Stein relocated to Paris, France, in 1903 and spent the rest of her life in the city of lights. There was where Stein met the love of her life, Alice B. Toklas.
The two women ran a literary salon that hosted artists, including Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. Many of Stein's works dealt with her sexuality. She even wrote a memoir in the voice of her partner, Toklas. Gertrude is just one of many influential LGBTQ+ writers.
Another influential writer who infused her works with her sexual identity was Virginia Woolf. In fact, her dad was the one who encouraged her to write! Woolf's most famous works include the novels Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and To the Lighthouse. Although she married Leonard Woolf, the writer also had another love affair.
While Woolf was involved with many women, her affair with writer Vita Sackville-West was her most famous. Many scholars believe that her novel Orlando is a love letter to Sackville-West. Although Woolf tragically ended her life, her works have continued influencing and inspiring generations of writers and readers.
Frida Kahlo was an artist well-renowned for her colorful self-portraits and portrayals of her native Mexico. The painter used her artwork to show themes of sexuality, pain, and femininity. Although she was married to artist Diego Rivera, Kahlo was open about her bisexuality. Her fearlessness has made her an icon.
During a time when being bisexual or homosexual was not widely accepted, Kahlo was honest about her sexual orientation. She had multiple affairs, including with artist Georgia O'Keeffe. Kahlo's surrealist works of art are still displayed worldwide
Yet another influential LGBTQ+ figure is the Jazz Age singer Josephine Baker. Not only was she one of the most popular performers, but she used her popularity to advocate for the Civil Rights Movement. She refused to perform for segregated audiences and spoke at the March on Washington.
Baker also served as a spy during the Second World War, listening in on German soldiers' conversations as she performed. Through it all, the singer openly identified as bisexual. Some speculate that she had a relationship with painter Frida Kahlo. Her influence on civil rights only matches her impact on music.
His parents named him Farrokh Bulsara, but the world would come to know him as Freddie Mercury. The frontman of Queen became one of the most influential LGBTQ+ icons in music and beyond. Despite his flamboyant on-stage persona, Mercury was quite shy and reserved.
He had a string of love affairs, but he never shared his sexuality with the world while he was alive. Two days before he passed away, Mercury told the world he was battling HIV and AIDS. Since his untimely death in 1991, Mercury has been immortalized as one of the greatest performers ever to live.
In 1976, singer Elton John told Rolling Stone that he was bisexual. Almost two decades later, he announced he was gay. Elton John is one of the most influential musicians alive today. He's sold over 300 million records and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1998.
He has been a strong activist for HIV/AIDS, raising millions with his foundation. When same-sex marriage was legalized in England and Wales, John and his partner, David Furnish, were married. This Rocket Man has become a true superstar and one of the most influential LGBTQ+ members today.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Practically everyone in the world has heard of Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, or they have been living under a rock. Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is the man behind these famous concert pieces, making him one of the most influential composers ever.
However, the composer's personal life was marked by tragedy. He lost his mom and a close friend at an early age, his marriage failed, and he kept his homosexuality a secret while alive. Today scholars have generally accepted that Tchaikovsky was gay. Details of a love affair were discovered in letters he left behind.
Although many people may not know her name, Edith Windsor was one of the most influential LGBTQ+ figures. The computer programmer worked at IBM for 16 years, but she would make history elsewhere. She married the love of her life, Thea Spyer, in Canada in 2007. Only a year later, Spyer passed away.
After her wife's passing, the US government required Windsor to pay over $300,000 in taxes because the spousal tax exemption only applied to heterosexual marriages. She sued the government and eventually won. Her case became a landmark in LGBTQ+ rights, as it was the first time same-sex marriage was recognized legally in the US.
Sylvia Rivera lived a hard life. It wasn't an easy road for Rivera, between losing her mother when she was only ten to struggling with addiction and homelessness. However, despite hardships, the Latina activist fiercely advocated for the LGBTQ+ movement.
With her close friend Marsha P. Johnson, she co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. They would work to provide shelter and support for queer and homeless teens. She was a champion of those who didn't fit into the mainstream, and her influence is still felt today.
Hansberry was a history-maker in many ways. Lorraine Hansberry was the first African-American female author to have one of her works performed on Broadway. Her most famous work, A Raisin in the Sun, was probably required reading at your school. She was also the youngest playwright to win the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.
Hansberry was not vocal about her sexual identity while she was alive. She married and had children with songwriter Robert Nemiroff. However, Hansberry's diaries were unlocked decades after her death, and her sexual identity was revealed. Her iconic work continues to make an impact.
Nowadays, she may be known for her dancing and hilarious antics on her talk show, but Ellen DeGeneres has long been an influential advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. The comedian had a self-titled sitcom, Ellen, for four years. Then her character came out of the closet on the show in what would become one of the highest-rated episodes.
Ellen went on to have a hugely successful career as a talk show host. She has her own production company, has written four books, and has a lifestyle brand. She has won countless awards and has been happily married to Portia de Rossi since 2008. DeGeneres is one of the most influential LGBTQ+ figures in Hollywood.
The CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, was the first CEO of a major company to come out as gay. It was a huge step for people to see someone in a position of power come out, and that's precisely why he did it. Cook told CNN, "I was public because I started to receive stories from kids who read online that I was gay."
He continued, "I needed to do something for them." Cook wanted these kids to see they "can be gay and still go on and do some big jobs in life." In addition to his job, Cook serves on the board of Nike, is a trustee of Duke University, and earned a spot on Time's list of 100 most influential people in the world in 2021.
You may not recognize his name, but you undoubtedly have seen his most famous design in parades, on walls, and on T-shirts. Gilbert Baker was an activist and designer who lived in San Francisco. He designed the now iconic pride flag in 1978. The colors represented the diversity of the community.
The flag made its debut at the San Francisco Pride parade, and Baker refused to trademark his design. He felt that the flag symbolized the entire community, and that's exactly what it's internationally recognized as today. Although he passed in 2017, Baker remains one of the many influential figures in this community.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs
His name may not be familiar to most, but Karl Heinrich Ulrichs is one of the most influential LGBTQ+ figures, recognized by some scholars as a pioneer of the gay rights movement. Ulrichs was a judge, but once a colleague discovered he was gay, he was forced to resign.
However, he did not let that deter him. In the 1860s, Ulrichs traveled around Germany and advocated for gay rights. He wrote and spoke about being gay. Professor Robert Beachy said, "I think it is reasonable to describe him as the first gay person to publicly out himself." That is quite a legacy.