Bil Browning

50 greatest gays open thread

Filed By Bil Browning | July 27, 2007 9:02 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: LGBT history, open thread

I'm working on a side project for the blog - a piece on the 50 LGBT people who have contributed the most to society. We know that our community has done a lot to help shape the world - usually while having our sexuality not-so-subtly removed from the history books. I'm working on a multi-part post to feature some of the big names from history that might just shock some of the straight folks who visit the site.

So help me out - who do you think should be on the list? Of course, you don't have to leave 50 names but if everyone throws a few out there, I should have plenty queers to choose from! How about just giving me your top 3 or 5 or so?

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Bayard Rustin, Harvey Milk, Harry Hay, Chuck Rowland, Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon, Kate Clinton, and of course Ellen DeGeneres!

Samuel R. Delany, Allen Ginsberg, Djuna Barnes, John Waters, Joanna Russ

Karen Bachman | July 27, 2007 9:50 AM

Donna Rose, Jamison Green, Mara Kessling

Truman Capote, Gertrude Stein, James Dean, Annie Liebovitz, Billy Jean King, Larry Kramer, Ursula LeGuin, David Geffen, Armistead Maupin, and Lily Tomlin

I would second both Harvey Milk and Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon (whom I had the good fortune to know when I lived in SF).....

I'd also add Cleve Jones (Founder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt) to the list as well as Jose Saria (first openly gay candidate for public office way back in 1961 -- and owned the first gay bar that had windows that opened out to the street -- and is "The Widow Norton", one of the founders of the Imperial Court System which has done so much fundraising for HIV/AIDS causes in its time)....I know both of these men and they have always been an inspiration.....

I might also add Trevor Hailey, who passed away this year.....she made it her life's work to educate folks who traveled to SF to know all about LGBT history and our contributions to society at large. She was an amazing woman -- and a fantastic story teller......

Jack Kauderer | July 27, 2007 1:30 PM

Missing so far are Frank Kameney & Barbara Gittings

melissa sklarz | July 27, 2007 2:13 PM

harvey milk, barney frank, sylvia rivera, armistead maupin, larry kramer, barbara giddings, riki anne wilchins,

With all due respect, if Ellen Degeneres (who I adore) or Truman Capote (who I esteem) makes the final list, it will be a travesty.

Aside from that, the question is about LGBT people who have "contributed to society" so we're not especially talking about LGBT society, but all society, all culture, all civilization, which is an interesting, if ill-framed, too broad question.

Surely Hay, Gittings, Kameny, Martin & Lyon all made significant contributions that were focused on LGBT people, but helped larger society to see that we exist, which is always a step in the right direction as a community that is almost constantly coming out of erasure/invisibility. Rustin is maybe the only one of the bunch I see mentioned who actually made a society-wide impact with his work (though I would think Harry Hay's framing of Gay men as a political minority and not a psychological diagnosis is significant.)

The inclusion of almost any of the entertainment personalities only shows how important this (entertainment) is in the sense that it represents American culture broadly and with huge impact. But the contributions are minimal otherwise.

And I would have to quibble with Harvey Milk...who, for all his good qualities, was a politician, and I would argue meant more to LGBT people as a symbol (and then more in his death...he wasn't so widely loved in life) than to society as a whole.

The whole argument is thrown into real contrast, for example, if you added someone like We Wha into the discussion. We Wha was a widely famous Native American berdache/Two Spirit in the 19th and into the 20th century. He was brought from his tribe in the southwest to the White House and met the President. Was this a "contribution to society"? Do most modern LGBT people even know he existed or what he (or a berdache/Two Spirit)was/is?

So, while I think it's an interesting question, I think more specifics would be helpful. Define "contribution" for starters. I think you'd have to come up with more specific areas of contribution and influence. By what measurement are we to judge? The usual suspects easily come to mind...DaVinci, Michelangelo, Gertrude Stein...they all made incredible contributions to the arts. But do they compare with Alan Turing who basically invented the first computer? While they may all have been fruits, we're still comparing apples with oranges.

Ditto above - plus:
Tom Gill, David Bohnett (GeoCities), David Mixner, Walt Whitman, Paul Monette, Michael Callen (co-"inventer" of safe sex), Rosie O'Donnell, WH Auden, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg, Tony Kushner, Marlon Riggs, Phill Wilson, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Tennessee Williams, Sir Ian McKellen, Elton John, Lillian Faderman, Betty Berzon ----
to name but a few...

Andy Harley | July 27, 2007 2:28 PM

In no particular order ...

1. Columnist Deb Price of Detroit News
2. Billy Jean King
3. Frank Kameney

1. Peter Tatchell (LGBT human rights activist and founder of the Outrage! group - Australian but living in London)
2. Alan Turing (mathemitician and breaker of the Enigma code which led to the end of World War 2, and "inventor" of the computer)
3. Jesus of Nazareth (who showed his "diversity" and acceptance of gays when he performed the miracle that cured the "servant" of the Roman centurion)

Aside from that, the question is about LGBT people who have "contributed to society" so we're not especially talking about LGBT society, but all society, all culture, all civilization, which is an interesting, if ill-framed, too broad question.

Now this is a very good point. I deliberately left the topic a little vague just to see how folks would respond. In other words, what does our community see as a "contribution to society"? Only LGBT culture? The world at large? Or only their areas of interest?

But, yes, I was thinking "the world at large." Alan Turing would qualify for inventing the computer. The obvious Michelangelo, DaVinci, Alexander the Great, etc are all too easy and I'll pick them up automatically. But I have to admit, I don't know that much LGBTQ "history" myself. That means I'll leave some folks off the list that definitely deserve a spot.

Keep 'em coming. I've never even heard of some of these people, so it'll be a lot of fun researching them.

Zach Adamson | July 27, 2007 4:23 PM

Obviously Harvey Milk, Barney Frank, (although not really a "gay") Alfred Kinsey, Martina Navratilova, Paulette Goodman- Founder of PFLAG, Locally- Chris Gonzalez (and partner Jeff Werner)- Because of them thousands of gay kids around the world grew up with a shred of self respect. And My all time favorite gay Harvey Firestein. In the 80's, his contribution to theater and motion pictures helped me come out in a small town in Indiana. From Torch Song Trilogy- "I have taught my self to sew, to cook, to clean, to fix pluming. I can even pat myself on the back when necessary. All so I dont have to ask anyone for anything. All I need from anyone is Love and Respect. And anyone who cant give me those things has no place in my life.." ( or something like that.) That's some powerful shit to a kid coming to terms with his own identity in a world that would rather he didn't.
Theres lots of people but that's on the top of the top of my head. None who are surprising. I was confused by the question. I wasnt sure if it was supposed to be gays who added much to life on through out history or people that the non gays would be surprised to see..
I think if were looking at who gave much to the movement, we cant just limit that to gays.. we'd be no where without our straight allies

"50 LGBT people who have contributed the most to society", eh?

OK, here goes:

Alexander the Great

Jesus Christ

Genghis Kahn

Eleanor Roosevelt

Abraham Lincoln

I don't know the boundaries of this list (WOW! Our Content Editor is so on top of things), but I'm defining "contribute", obviously, as "affect". And try and beat that list, people!

Dammit, AtG was already on Bil's list. Fine! I'll replace him w/ Socrates.

Buster Smith | July 27, 2007 5:14 PM

I'm new to this blog, so I don't know the composition of your readership...

Considering the lack of context to your question I would expect that the majority of the answers will fall into a contemporary western (possibly US centric) frame. Although, frankly, I'm not certain there is a way to provide a comprehensive list. Considering that LGBT is generically a contemporary ontology, many figures prior to the medical definition of homosexuality in the late 19th century would be circumspect at best.

I'm also a bit uncomfortable with loosely throwing out the qualifier as "contributing to society." Not only for the fact that this begs the questions of what 'contributions' are and which 'society'; but also in the fear of setting up a false value system for which societies matter and which contributions count. For example, did a closeted person who accomplished great deeds globally contribute more than a radically out person who was a main force in galvanizing the contemporary civil rights movement?

I think there's another subtext at play in assuming that for the names mentioned, the publicness around their own sexual/gender subjectivity has a significant role in their contribution. Even if it's only for the fact that the person was out. That is, if we can all agree that being "out" is significant.

With all of that being said I'd like to suggest: Urvashi Vaid, Tim Gill, Michele Foucault, Rock Hudson, Susan Stryker, and Judith Butler.

Plato, Janis Joplin, Virginia Woolf (and Vita) Oscar Wilde (and Bosie); King Edward (tho' I forget which one)Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare ("The master-mistress of my passion....")Andy Warhol, Harvey Fierstein, Tennessee Williams....

And of course ME (lololololololol)

Jeanette Winterson
Federico Garcia Lorca
Walt Whitman
Reinaldo Arenas
Pedro Amoldovar


Lynn David | July 28, 2007 12:57 AM

If Bayard Rustin isn't on the list, the list is incomplete, flawed.

My first 10...

Bayard Rustin

Audre Lorde

Harvey Milk

Piotr Illich Tchaikovsky

Barbara Jordan

Marlon Riggs

Leonardo Da Vinci



Benjamin Banneker

Quentin Crisp, Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing, Eleanor Roosevelt, Edward Allbee, John Maynard Keynes

Zach Adamson | July 29, 2007 7:38 AM

Can we clarify again.. is this list famous gays who contributed to the betterment of life, or just "really cool to know" people who had sex with other people of the same sex openly or in secret?

The list is for famous LGBT people who contributed to the betterment of world society.

Thanks everyone for the great tips!

1) I am heartened that Bayard Rustin has been mentioned so often. Lynn David's remark is right-on. Alan Turing is also a must. And I am glad to see Marlon Riggs named so many times, although I am not sure he makes the Top 50.

2) I have two nominations, not yet named, that made enormous contributions in religious history and the art of poetry:

a) King James I of England (a.k.a. King James VI of Scotland) --- he did nothing less than produce (in the modern sense of a movie producer) the King James Version of the Bible, the standard in the Christian English-speaking world. Not that the KJV was a great boon to LGBT people of faith --- among its most glaring mis-translations are the over-generalizing terms "sodomites" and "abusers of themselves with mankind" for Greek and Hebrew terms that had very different, and more specific, meanings. But yes, King James I himself was one such "sodomite".

b) Mevlana Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, the eleventh century Muslim mystic poet, known in the modern English-speaking world simply as Rumi. He is now regarded as one of the finest poets who ever lived. Moreover, one does not know Rumi without learning the story about how, while Rumi was giving a lecture, a man by the name of Shams-e Tabrizi raised his hand and asked a question. We do not know what the question was, but Rumi was so taken by the insightfulness of the question that he immediately became enamored with Shams. The ensuing man-crush was so intense and so ongoing that Rumi's family, embarassed by the same-sex attachment, is believed to have plotted to have Shams murdered. Much of Rumi's later poetry involves his grief over the loss of his beloved Shams.

3) Another who deserves nomination is the Serbian-American physicist Nikola Tesla, whose innovations in electrical engineering make modern power grids possible.

4) And of course, in the Top 50 we must include, without question, Alex Blaze. (Alex, I'll watch for your check in the mail.)