Adam Polaski

Who Are the Most Important LGBT People in History?

Filed By Adam Polaski | August 01, 2011 9:45 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, The Movement
Tags: California, FAIR Education Act, LGBT history, LGBT schools

RainbowBookshelf.jpgLast month, the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful Education Act was signed by California Governor Jerry Brown after being introduced by Sen. Mark Leno in December. The law requires schools to teach about the contributions of LGBT people throughout history.

The specifics of the execution of the law aren't quite clear yet, but the FAIR Act will be a positive way to ensure that the history of LGBT people isn't lost, and it will demonstrate that gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans people have always existed and contributed significant accomplishments to society. I'd love to see a lesson about the LGBT rights movement, but it would also be appropriate to learn about popular historical figures, from Michelangelo to Eleanor Roosevelt, whose non-hetero sexuality played a role in their lives.

In the last few weeks, The Capitol Resource Institute has been gearing up for a ballot referendum to overturn the FAIR Act. On July 25, they received approval to begin collecting signatures on petitions to get their proposed repeal of the non-discrimination requirements. If the law's opponents collect 504,760 signatures from registered voters by October 12, the law will be put to a vote in California.

Now, The Bilerico Project wants to develop a definitive list of historical LGBT figures and moments that California should teach about in schools. We want to show the scope of the FAIR Act's potential, and what overturning the progressive law would squander. We're asking modern LGBT names and voices their opinions, compiling nominations from Bilerico contributors, and we want your opinions, too!

Leave a comment in the comments section, or email me at adam[at]bilerico[dot]com, with your Top 5 LGBT figures! The final list will be compiled for next week!

* * *

Read All of Our LGBT History Coverage:

  • Part One: Mon., Aug. 8 - Kramer, Baldwin, Wolfson, Andre, Weiss, Rogers & Meronek
  • Part Two: Tues., Aug. 9 - Choi, Boylan, Conrad, Besen, Warren, Cheslik-DeMeyer & Lopp
  • Part Three: Wed., Aug. 10 - Duque, Sklar, Kerr, Wooledge, Heath, Chlapowski, Monroe & Browning
  • Initial Post: "Who Are the Most Important LGBT Figures in History?"

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

Harvey Milk
Rt. Rev. Eugene Robinson
Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon (does that count as one?)
Frank Kammeny
James Baldwin

Joan of Arc
Abraham Lincoln
Eleanor Roosevelt
and the Apostle Paul (reading between the lines of his writings, and sure to make the Christian right mad)

Brad Bailey | August 1, 2011 10:22 AM

Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Alexander the Great.

Harvey Milk
Bayard Rustin
Compton's Cafeteria Riot in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco (1966)(First recorded transgender riot)
Mark Bingham
Pete Smith

How about a mention for the historians who work to compile our community's history?
Allen Berube
John D'Emilio
George Chauncey
Audre Lorde
And to the many more who have already gotten their degrees in this subject and who are working on getting their degrees in order to further educate the populace about the contributions of gay Americans.

Harry Hay- Started the Mattachine Society
Oliver Sipple- Gay veteran outed by the Chronicle after stopping the attempted murder of President Ford.
Leo Laurence and Gale Whittington- Started the the Committee for Homosexual Freedom in 1969 (before the Stonewall Riots). They picketed Tower Records after a homosexual employee was fired due to their homosexuality. After their picketing, Tower Records create an anti-discrimination policy for sexual orientation.
Elliot Blackstone- SFPD Police liaison to the gay community.
Harry Britt- SF Supervisor appointed after the killing of Harvey Milk.
Jose Sarria- drag entertainer who ran for SF city supervisor in the 1960s.

Wendy Carlos
Bayard Rustin
Walt Whitman
Federico Garcia Lorca
Octavia Butler, for gender exploration and openness in her fiction
Hosteen Klah and other "Two-Spirit People"

Any anonymous figures who throughout history found ways to live true to themselves, by standing completely against their societies or by fulfilling societal roles that allowed them some expression.

Wendy Carlos has never been "true to herself."

Hi Adam,

Focusing on the B in LGBT here, I would say:

Lani Ka'ahumanu and Loraine Hutchins, who are the co-editors (and Lambda Awardees) of the ground-breaking Bi Any Other Name.

Robyn Ochs of Harvard, who is a bi activist and community organizer.

Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize winning author -- and Californian -- who is an out bi woman of color, an environmentalist, and the author of The Color Purple

Lady Gaga, out bi musician and LGBT rights activist, particularly focused on DADT.

Angelina Jolie, out bi UN ambassador, Oscar winning actress, and human rights activist. Jolie is mostly known for her acting career, and has not focused her human rights activism on (what are often thought of as) LGBT issues so much as focusing on poverty, global health, and the needs of refugees. However, these _are_ LGBT issues, too. And she's been out of the closet for almost her entire career. The same cannot be said of many other out actors.

Alan Turing

"Turing is widely considered to be the father of computer science and artificial intelligence.

During the Second World War, Turing worked for the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, Britain's codebreaking centre. For a time he was head of Hut 8, the section responsible for German naval cryptanalysis. He devised a number of techniques for breaking German ciphers, including the method of the bombe, an electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine.

Turing's homosexuality resulted in a criminal prosecution in 1952, when homosexual acts were still illegal in the United Kingdom. He accepted treatment with female hormones (chemical castration) as an alternative to prison. He died in 1954, just over two weeks before his 42nd birthday, from cyanide poisoning. An inquest determined it was suicide; his mother and some others believed his death was accidental. On 10 September 2009, following an Internet campaign, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for the way in which Turing was treated after the war"

Quite possibly the single most influential man in the 20th century, largely responsible for winning WWII, as well as founding the science of computing.

Thank you so much, Zoe, for this excellently composed comment. I love it when anyone keeps the memory of Alan Turing alive. You are so correct -- The Allies may not have won WWII, and the world might be a very different place without him, yet he was persecuted for his sexuality.

For the 'B's, try IVLIVS CAESAR - "Every man's woman and every woman's man", having had affairs with both KLEOPATRA of Egypt, and NIKOMEDES IV of Bythnia.

For the 'T's, try Professor Lynn Conway - "Conway is notable for a number of pioneering achievements, including the Mead & Conway revolution in VLSI design, which incubated an emerging electronic design automation industry." What George Washington Carver is to the Peanut industry, she is to modern chip design.

For that matter... "Carver never married and there is little documented information about his private life. He was included in the 2007 encyclopedia glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture, based on assertions by his biographers Linda O. McMurry (2002) and Rackham Holt (1943)"

Harvey Milk
Ruth c. Ellis
Alexander the Great
Sylvia Rivera
Alan Turing
Bayard Rustin
Ernst Rohm (Before anyone asks, I am including him here because of influence, not because I think he was great in a positive sense)
Virginia Woolf
Harry Hay
Friedrich Wilhelm Von Steuben
Glen Burke
Susan B Anthony
Abraham Lincoln
George Washington Carver
William Shakespeare
James Buchanan

Harvey Milk (Clear Winner)
Matthew Shepard (when the nation wept for one of ours)
Del Martin/Phyllis Lyon (What did they NOT do?)
Evelyn Hooker (An ally that fought the APA diagnosis on Homosexuality)
Ellen Degeneres (when we can be open and still have a career)

Edward II of England (gay or Bisexual)
Alexander the Great (bisexual)
Roman Emperor Hadrian (gay or bisexual)
Oscar Wilde (gay)
Lord Byron (bisexual)

Ned Flaherty | August 1, 2011 3:45 PM

Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, U.S. Air Force (won, settled 1980)
Sergeant 1st Class Perry Watkins, U.S. Army (won, re-enlisted 1989)
Radioman Third Class Alan Scindler, U.S. Navy (murdered 1992)
Private First Class Barry Winchell, U.S. Army (murdered 1999)
Petty Officer First Class Keith Meinhold, U.S. Navy (first re-instated gay, 1994)

As per Calpernia Addams, Winchell's girlfriend at the time, Berry didn't consider himself "gay." To say so is also disrespecting Calpernia.

Thanks, Ned, for including Leonard Matlovich, the first to purposely out himself in for a test case against the military ban. And for remembering Perry Watkins, who actually was the first reinstated in the military by court order in 1982, ten years before Keith Meinhold though Keith's contribution is to be remembered, too, as the first to purposely out himself in 1992 in the fresh attempt to end the ban. And, in the end, after being kicked out again, Perry also accepted a settlement rather than return. For an account of his incredible journey, please see: For the record, Sgt. Miriam Ben-Shalom was the first ORDERED reinstated, in 1980, but the Army simply ignored the order for 8 years. Thanks, too, for remembering the two most famous victims of military homohatred, though, as noted, Pvt. Winchell did not identify as gay.

Which brings me to an important point. The inclusion of people such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Lincoln about whom we have evidence but no PROOF were LGBT is NOT in our best interest, least of all in this context of "scholarship." Which brings me to another point. As the many worthy, documented names are all over the provebial map, I believe that the final product should organize them by category, such as "Pioneering Out Elected Officials," which, thus far, has left out FOUR important names—all predecessors of Harvey Milk:

1st – Kathy Kozachenko (Ann Arbor, Mich., City Council, January or April 1974, depending on source)
2nd – Elaine Noble (Massachusetts House of Representatives, November 1974)
3rd - Allan Spear (Minnesota State Senate, reelected November 1976 after coming out, in office, in 1974) He was also the first out gay leader of a state legislature, serving as the Senate’s President from 1992-2000. In all, he was there 28 years.
4th - Jim Yeadon (Madison, Wis., City Council, April 1977)
5th - Harvey Milk (San Francisco Board of Supervisors, November 1977)

Thank you.

Contributions to the general society, or fame within the LGBT community?

These are two very different things, sadly, still. A contribution to LGBT society may only make a significant difference in the lives of LGBT people, and therefore might not be significant enough to "count" as a contribution to society as a whole or at large.

The difference would create two very different lists. Additionally any such list should, ideally, be 20 names long. Top five for each of the four core letters (and one could argue effectively for breaking the T into further lists).

Also, are these modern era folks or historic ones, and what is the evidence we are using for historic ones, as well as the context for such -- the current concepts surrounding LGBT only really go back to the mid to late 1800's. Prior to that, any use of such will be prejudicial given the social context of the day and would essentially be colonizing history.

So, if'n you don't mind, and pardon my taking this perhaps too seriously, could you provide a tad bit of clarity to help me out in compiling my list(s)?


They're good questions, and ones that I struggled with in determining how to approach this project.

The would-be law in California is vague, and perhaps intentionally so. But it looks like the law does not require a unit on the LGBT rights movement. Rather, that LGBT people who have made significant societal contributions are identified as such where it is appropriate. For example, teachers should feel free, and be encouraged, to discuss Alexander the Great's love for Hephaestion in order to give a better picture of the historic leader (See this admittedly poorly-designed site for some documentation of the love affair: At the same time, Harvey Milk is surely significant because of his sexuality and public official role. Alexander the Great's contributions are almost entirely unrelated to the LGBT movement, whereas Harvey Milk is remembered for his contributions to the LGBT movement.

Devising two lists would be challenging and perhaps a bit silly. It's more effective when viewed as one list - these LGBT people have made contributions to society (whether they are remembered outside of "the movement" or not) and their contributions should be discussed in schools.

The final list will combine all opinions and feature the 25 most-referenced names or moments, with a brief description. Additional names will be listed as well.

It's challenging to "prove" LGBT "status" for historical figures, but in many instances documentation is available that the figure was, at the very least, not completely heterosexual. Modern and historical figures can be named. This list is very open-ended, just as the California law that's inspiring it is.

Thanks, Adam :D

I will give it some thought, then.

Margarethe Cammemeyer
Alan Turing
William S Burroughs
Pedro Zamora
Quentin Crisp
Noel Coward
Cole Porter
Harvey Milk
Phillip Johnson
Andre Gide
John Cage
John Maynard Keynes
Gertrude stein
Virginia Wolfe

Amanda Simpson
Christine Jorgenson
Renee Richards
Caroline Cossey
Chaz Bono

Already sent these names to you, Adam, in a private email, but I'll repeat them here for everyone:

Top Five LGBT Americans:
Walt Whitman
Langston Hughes
Eleanor Roosevelt
Bayard Rustin or James Baldwin
Harvey Milk

Honorable Mentions: Cole Porter, William S Burroughs, Robert Maplethorpe, and Mark Bingham.

Top Five LGBT Figures Out of All History:
Mevlana Jal?l ad-D?n Mu?ammad R?m?
King James I of England (sponsored the KJV Bible)
Alan Turing (see comment by Zoe Brain, above)

and I would add Socrates, Roman Emperor Hadrian, Alexander the Great, Leonardo da Vinci, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, and Sir Elton John as Honorable Mentions.

Website has problems with my diacritical marks. Second name in second list shd be: Mevlana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, the great Persian poet of the Middle Ages.

Note to Webmasters: It is bizarre that the Preview Page displays the esoteric diacritical marks correctly, but the main comment page does not. That means the two pages must be using different character-encoding sets. ... Hum! .. Go figure ...

Walt Whitman
Christine Jorgensen
Lou Sullivan
Oscar Wilde
Del Martin/Phyllis Lyon

Tennessee Williams and as noted above, Lynn Conway.

Yes, Tennessee Williams is a great one that we have overlooked up until now -- Thanks, Robyn!

Om Kalthoum | August 1, 2011 9:03 PM

I lol'd at Lady Gaga, among other suggestions. I'm old school. I believe that airports, schools and streets should be named after people ONLY after they have died. This allows for a more accurate estimation of the person's importance to the culture. The same basic principle should apply here.

What should be taught is the totality of historical people's lives. If people have made a contribution to whatever is being taught: literature, math, science, etc., then their sexual orientation should probably be brought up, at least in passing. I'd much rather kids (particularly the non-LGBT ones) discover how we have been everywhere and for all time among historical figures of note, than have them feel they are being force-fed information about living people of questionable historical importance. I'm all for elective courses on LGBT-only subjects, but these days in high school I fear kids are lucky to get out knowing how to read and write.

Yes, I think the most important thing is for kids to learn and appreciate how LGBT people have contributed to society and culture through the ages, just as Om says above.

I believe that airports, schools and streets should be named after people ONLY after they have died.

Generally, yes. But the most likely exception is when a wealthy person pays for the community resource entirely on his/her own. For example, Harvard University campus now has a Gates Hall, and Bill Gates probably paid for every brick and screw -- so it is proper for it to be named after him. Same for the girls' school that Oprah gave $2.5 million to build in Zimbabwe -- why would they not want to name it after Oprah Winfrey?

P.S. A bit off-topic, but someone recently tweeted this:

Oprah's estimated yearly income: $315 million/year
That breaks down to:
$26.25 million/month
$6 million/week
$36,000/hour (24 hours a day)
$600/minute (24/7)
$10/second (24/7)

So the school in Zimbabwe is about a 3-day paycheck for her. Even so, it is such a loving thing to do!

All I can say is ... Oprah! ... you go girl!

Om Kalthoum | August 1, 2011 11:14 PM

Oh for sure. Regarding private institutions or endowments (which are the examples you've given) name 'em whatever the donor wants.

As seen by these lists, accuracy is not warranted. Also, Toni's point is important, about ancient historical figures that are not necessary the same as modern (20th and 21st centuries) historical figures. Neither are the same as those from the 17th to the 20th Century. Their sexual activities, and skirting of gender boundaries means totally different things in each century and each decade of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Things change with time and we are trying to look at people with 21st Century eyes and knowledge.

Also, various commentors picked people based on their own sexual orientation, gender and gender identity. Five people? Hell, 500 is more like it, and divided into distinct time periods. Bilerico isn't equipped to do this. You need true, honest to goodness historians, like Dr. Susan Stryker to start off with. It will take years to compile.

Matthew Sheppard
Harvey Milk
Leonardo Da Vinci (the Vitruvian man is rumored to be a drawing of one of his lovers)
Cleve Jones, who worked with Harvey Milk(correct me if his last name is wrong please) started the Names Project and the AIDS Memorial Quilt

Rachel Bellum | August 2, 2011 1:13 AM

Obviously this list is not comprehensive, and if I were to make another it would probably include different people. I also recognize that some might argue over who belongs in which category, but I organized it according to already available lists. But there are plenty of good choices here:

Alexander the Great
Emperor Ai
David and Jonathan
Alan Turing (father of computer science, cracker of Enigma, inventor of Turing test, convicted homosexual sentenced to hormone treatments)
Barney Frank

Ruth and Naomi
Gertrude Stein
Rita Mae Brown
Rachel Maddow
(Kate Moennig -OK maybe not)

William Shakespeare
Julius Ceasar
Susan B. Anthony
Marlene Dietrich
Frida Kahlo

Lili Elbe
Lynn Conway
Ben Barres
Phyllis Frye

I'll add some important literary figures to the list:

Radclyffe Hall
Christopher Isherwood
W.H. Auden
Stephen Spender
Jeanette Winterson
Adrienne Rich

Jesse Monteagudo Jesse Monteagudo | August 2, 2011 11:35 AM

Alexander the Great
Hafez (14th century Persian poet)
Joan of Arc
Francis Bacon
Walt Whitman
Susan B. Anthony
Peter I. Tchaikovsky
Jane Addams
George Washington Carver
Georgia O'Keeffe
Bessie Smith
Bayard Rustin
Aaron Copland

Alan Turing. Bayard Rustin. Billy Strayhorn. Harry Hay. Billie Jean King. Magnus Hirschfeld. Paul Bowles. James L. White. Audre Lorde. Farley Granger. Wendy Carlos. A mix of people from all walks of life--there have been so many. So many more.

These should be people who, in some way, self-identified as LGBTQ, whether publicly or privately. Going with speculation hurts the cause more than it helps. Were Ruth and Naomi lesbian? No, they were mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, and Ruth would not leave her mother-in-law destitute in her time of need (no matter how the Hebrew word for "cleave" syncs up with Genesis' "leave his parents and cleave to his wife"). Were Tchaikovski and Franz Schubert gay or bi? Pretty certainly. Was Beethoven in love with his Nephew, or Cary Grant hooking up with Randolph Scott? That's speculation.

Jonathan Ned Katz has written some wonderful resources and perhaps himself would be on my list as a scholar who has worked to document our history.

Also, I once had the pleasure of meeting Joel Dorius, who was among the gay professors at Smith College who were fired in a soft-porn scandal in 1960. Dorius is worthy of our remembrance and has left an autobiography that is available online:

I'd also say that a list of all supposedly LGBTQ names is often given to try to *prove* our worth and justify our existences. That's a poor approach, in my opinion, because we simply are equal and worthy, and our existence does not need justification now or in the past. My hope is that the CA approach will be to be more honest about the lives of those who were LGBTQ as well as to include people who are important to the broader movement for visibility. The movement to become visible leads the movement to be "equal" (in the eyes of society or the law).

Jasper Johns
Robert Rauschenberg
Andy Warhol
Truman Capote
E.M. Forster