While you have probably heard of Harvey Milk and the Stonewall protesters, there are many other influential people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities who have fought hard to promote LGBT rights and equality.
We’ve compiled a list of prolific LGBT activists who helped ignite change. It’s important to know just who the game-changing players were (and still are) who ultimately changed the course of history.
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Lynn Conway is notable for her pivotal engineering achievements, which she attained during her time working at IBM. However, once she expressed her desire to transition to female, IBM fired her. In 2013, Conway and a colleague successfully lobbied the Board of Directors of the Institution of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the world’s largest engineering professional society, to include protections for transgender people in their code of ethics. In January 2014, the code became fully inclusive of LGBT people. That same year, Time magazine named Conway one of the “21 Transgender People Who Influenced American Culture.”
Richard Isay was a psychoanalyst, psychiatrist, and gay activist who is credited with changing the way psychoanalysts view homosexuality. When he threatened to sue the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) over its discriminatory policies towards LGBT people, the APsaA changed its position on homosexuality and allowed gays and lesbians to become training analysts. APsaA became the first national mental health organization to support gay marriage in 1997.
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Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon
Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon met in 1950 and were the first people married in San Francisco after the California Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal in 2008. Together in 1955, they helped form the Daughters of Bilitis, the first national lesbian organization in the US.
Martin Duberman is the author of more than 20 books, including three memoirs about his experience as a politically active gay man. He is a distinguished professor Emeritus at the Graduate School of the City University of New York and Lehman College, where he founded the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies.
In 1961, José Sarria became the first openly gay candidate for office when he ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (and won). He was known for performing as a drag queen at the Black Cat Bar, which he continued to do while in office. He’s also the founder of the Imperial Court System, which is the second largest LGBT organization in the world.
Although Bayard Rustin is better known as an influential advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. and for helping to initiate the 1947 Freedom Ride, Rustin was also a gay rights activist and testified on behalf of New York State’s gay rights bills.
Sylvia Rivera was a bisexual transgender activist and trans woman who was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance. She also helped found Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries. Rivera fought for drag queens when gay rights leaders sought to remove drag culture from the gay rights agenda, wanting to make the community look more appealing to the heterosexual majority.
Leonard Matlovich was a Vietnam veteran and a Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient. In 1975, he became the first service member to out himself to the military and fight their ban on gays. He fought to stay in the United States Air Force after coming out and became a national sensation, landing on the cover of Time Magazine.
After dropping out of college at the age of 19, Chad Griffin became the youngest ever member of a presidential staff when he was appointed as a White House Press Office manager during Bill Clinton’s administration. Griffin founded the American Foundation for Equal Rights in order to overturn Proposition 8, which tried to ban same-sex marriage in California. Griffin was later appointed as the president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT rights organization in the US.
Janet Mock is a bestselling author, LGBT activist, and trans woman. Her memoir, Redefining Realness, debuted at #19 on the New York Times bestsellers list. She is now a contributing editor at Marie Claire, where she first came out as a trans woman in a 2011 article. She continues to speak about transgender issues and advocate for the rights of transgender people, especially trans women of color.
Dan Savage is an activist and journalist who writes the internationally syndicated relationship and sex advice column Savage Love and the podcast by the same name. He began the It Gets Better Project in 2010 to help prevent suicide among LGBT youths. The project went viral, resulting in thousands of videos of encouragement for teenagers, including many by prominent LGBT celebrities, with more than 50 million views to date.