8 LGBTQIA+ figures who changed the world

In the past few years, there has been a lot of change for the LGBTQIA+ community and social media has been a huge part of it, with LGBTQIA+ role models on social media serving as sources of pride, inspiration, and comfort for many people, especially younger generations. 

Nevertheless, there have been different types of sexual and romantic feelings and orientations for as long as humanity itself exists. It’s important to remember LGBTQIA+ figures who changed the world when times were even more constricting and people more closed-minded. May they inspire you even more. Here are 8 of them: 

1. Harvey Milk


Born in 1930, Harvey Milk served in the U.S. Navy before working at a Wall Street investment firm. Even though he realized he was gay at an early age, he kept it has a secret until much later in life. 

Milk moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s and established himself as a leading political activist for the gay community. He has then emerged as the first openly gay elected official in the United States when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. 

Milk’s revolutionary political perspective serves as inspiration for today’s activists. He advocated for gay rights at a moment when the political climate was deeply hostile towards the LGBTQIA+ community and managed to pull many LGBTQIA+ people out of the closet and into the streets. But, as many people that fought for their beliefs, he was assassinated at age 48, in 1978, by an ex-coworker. 

Knowing the risks and almost predicting this outcome, ten days before his assassination, Milk recorded himself in a tape to be played in the event of his death by assassination: “All I ask is for the movement to continue, and if a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” And over forty years after his death, Harvey Milk's legacy still lives on.


2. Bayard Rustin

On the morning of August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to about 250,000 people attending the March on Washington gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. And, while Dr. King spoke, another man stood behind the scenes - an indispensable force within the movement. It was Bayard Rustin. He was the one who encouraged Dr. King to accept pacifism as a way of life, mentored him, and organized the landmark 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Rustin was an African American leader in social movements for civil rights, socialism, nonviolence, and gay rights. He chose to be open about his sexuality while pursuing social justice work that put him in the public eye, during the crushing oppression of the pre-Stonewall era.

The fact that he remained in the background and is little known today in comparison to other leaders of the civil rights movement has everything to do with him being gay. In 2013 though, President Barack Obama awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his unyielding career in civil rights activism, saying: “For decades, this great leader, often at Dr. King’s side, was denied his rightful place in history because he was openly gay. No medal can change that. But today, we honor Bayard Rustin’s memory by taking our place in his march towards true equality, no matter who we are or who we love.”


3. Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf was born in 1882, as Adeline Virginia Stephen. She was an English novelist and essay writer and is considered today one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the twentieth century. 

Even though she married writer Leonard Woolf in 1912, many biographers have concluded that Woolf's sexuality was directed toward women. 

In 1922, Woolf met Vita Sackville-West, an English poet, starting an affair that lasted through most of the 1920s: “Much preferring my own sex, as I do,” Virginia Woolf wrote in a letter to a friend in the 1920s. 

In 1928, Woolf presented Sackville-West with Orlando, a fantastical biography in which the eponymous hero's life spans three centuries and both genders. Orlando came out of the closet as a lesbian text in the 1970s and remains out as critics continue to discover and celebrate its lesbian strategies. It mocks “compulsory heterosexuality” and challenges homophobia decades before society would come to accept same-sex love and nearly a century before the law would. 


4. Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker was a well-known performer of the Jazz Age and identified as bisexual, who sought equity for queer people, women, and people of color throughout her life.   

Born in 1906, Baker didn’t have an easy start in life. She witnessed and experienced intense racism, suffered physical and sexual abuse as a teen, and experienced periods of homelessness. So, once she made her way to the top, becoming one of the most successful African-American performers on the stages of France, Baker used her voice and position to the benefit of the Civil Rights movement. She ended up speaking at the 1963 March on Washington and was even offered a leadership role within the movement by Coretta Scott King after her husband Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.


5. James Baldwin 

James Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924 during its intellectual, social, and artistic Renaissance. He was an American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist, writing about racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western society during the mid-twentieth century. Baldwin's characters are often but not exclusively African American, and gay and bisexual men frequently feature as protagonists in his literature.

Being black and gay in America, many define him as intersectional and say he is the reason the word even exists. Through his writing, Baldwin influenced many LGBTQIA+ people, and there’s probably not a single black gay writer of literary fiction or nonfiction that has not been influenced by him on some level. 

6. David Hockney

One of the world’s greatest living artists, David Hockney has been openly gay and exploring the nature of gay love in his portraiture throughout his career. Born in 1937, became a founder of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1979. 

Hockney looked at oppression not as a threat, but as a challenge to shock, and shake up heteronormative structures and according to an article in The Guardian his art “made a splash when it mattered.” His 1966 painting entitled Peter Getting Out of Nick's Pool won the John Moores prize in 1967, the year homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain. It represents courage and a dream of love. 

Painting things and feeling as happy and guilt-free as Hockney did is not as easy as one might think, and that’s why he continues to influence many LGBTQIA+ artists and others.


7. Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde was an Irish poet and playwright born in 1854, best known for his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.  In 1884 he got married to Constance Lloyd and had two children. The only problem was that he wasn’t happy. Homosexuality was illegal back then and his own homosexuality was an open secret.

By 1893 he and Lord Alfred Douglas - described as a handsome and spoilt young man - started an affair. When the man’s father found out, however, everything went down the drain. Wilde ended up facing a criminal conviction for gross indecency for consensual homosexual acts in "one of the first celebrity trials", and imprisonment - being incarcerated from 25 May 1895 to 18 May 1897. 

Wilde’s legacy is vital in both the literary sphere and in terms of his impact on gay rights and culture.


8. Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo is another incredible woman who continues to inspire many artists, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA+ communities to this day. She is considered one of Mexico's, if not the world's, greatest painters.

In 1925, at the age of eighteen, Kahlo suffered appalling injuries in a streetcar accident, when she was impaled by an iron handrail smashing through her pelvis. It was then that Frida turned her attention away from the study of medicine to begin a full-time painting career, mostly self-portraits.  In 1929 she married the painter Diego Rivera, the love of her life, but this was no traditional marriage and each of them had affairs. 

The openly bisexual Kahlo had affairs with both men and women, including her husband’s mistresses. Her painting Two Nudes in a Forest clearly shows her attraction and love for women. 

Frida Kahlo was “rediscovered” in the 1970s feminist movement, hailed as an icon of female independence and artistry. 

If you are looking for more articles to educate yourself and celebrate Pride Month, here are a few suggestions: 10 ways to help end homophobia and transphobia; 44 Best songs to celebrate LGBTQIA+ pride and why; and 30 LGBTQIA+ terms you should know.  Remember, love is love and is never wrong. :)

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