6 LGBTQ+ Activists Whose Names You Should Know

6 LGBTQ+ Activists Whose Names You Should Know

By London Alexander

The celebration of Pride in the LGBTQ+ community could not be achieved without the advocacy, organization, courage, support, and defiance of those who have paved the way for queer rights and recognition. Despite being on the frontlines of a revolution, many trailblazing members of the community go unrecognized due to the erasure of queer history, the lack of LGBTQ+ education in schools, and inadequate media coverage. Thanks to organizations dedicated to preserving history, such as ONE archives and the GLBT Historical Society, these icons can now be recognized for their integral contributions to the LGBTQ+ liberation movement. Here are six queer activists whose names everyone should know. 

1. Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera was one of the activists who kickstarted the modern LGBTQ+ movement by participating in the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, where a group of queer people fought back against police who raided, arrested, and harassed patrons of a gay bar. She referred to herself as a drag queen since the term “transgender” was not yet commonplace. In 1973, Rivera was banned from speaking at a Pride Parade despite her advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community. She wouldn’t allow herself to be silenced, so she snatched a microphone and shouted, “If it wasn’t for the drag queens, there would be no gay liberation movement. We’re the front-liners. Gay leaders often disregarded trans and people of color, so alongside Marsha P. Johnson, Rivera founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to provide housing for transgender people and advocate for the vulnerable community. Her legacy continues through the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, an organization that works to improve access to social, health, and legal services founded on the idea that “all people are free to self-determine their gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination, or violence.

2. Marsha P. Johnson

One of the most prominent figures of the Gay Rights Movement, Marsha P. Johnson, stood on the frontlines with Sylvia Rivera, fighting against police harassment during the Stonewall Uprising. Two gay rights groups emerged from the resistance, the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance, which Johnson was involved in until she recognized that they were excluding trans and people of color. This inspired Johnson to co-found STAR to assist homeless transgender youth with feeling safe and secure by finding housing. She expressed in an interview that “as long as gay people don’t have their rights all across America…there is no reason for celebration.” Johnson’s charisma and charm were well known throughout the community, and she was often referred to as “Saint Marsha.” Her impact on the world can still be seen through the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, an organization that defends the human rights of Black transgender people by organizing community, advocacy, developing transformative leadership, and promoting collective power. In 2019, a statue of Johnson was erected in New York across from the Stonewall Inn to commemorate the Black transgender woman who devoted her life to the LGBTQ+ movement. 

3. Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin visits Freedom House with Dr. Eugene Reed in 1964 (via Library of Congress).

Bayard Rustin was a human rights activist who guided Martin Luther King Jr. in a nonviolent approach to the Civil Rights Movement. Rustin was a follower of Gandhism and created chapters of Black activists throughout the United States, engaging in nonviolent demonstrations and civil disobedience long before he met King. Rustin is often not given the credit he deserves due to his sexuality and the oppression of Black queer history. However, it is imperative to understand that Rustin not only introduced King to labor leaders and social justice organizations but also drafted and edited King’s powerful speeches. Bayard and A. Philip Randolph devised the idea of a mass demonstration march. Bayard was outed as a gay man just before the March on Washington. The directors of the civil rights coalition feared that this press would take away attention from their demonstration. Bayard decided to resign from the position to allow the March to continue, becoming an unrecognized orchestrator of the movement he dedicated his life to. Rustin is one of the most prolific yet minimally recognized Civil Rights leaders but has since been commemorated in a 2023 Netflix biopic, Rustin; a Stonewall Award-winning biography, Lost Prophet; and the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. 

4. & 5. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon

Pioneers of the lesbian civil rights movement, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, the first lesbian rights organization in the United States. A year later, they founded The Ladder magazine, the first nationally distributed lesbian publication. “It all began; when eight women gathered together looking for a social outlet and some answers to a few of the problems which Lesbians face,” reads the 1-year anniversary edition of the publication. Later, they formed the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, an organization that connected clergy with the queer community in order to expand social justice; the National Sex and Drug Forum; and the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, which acted as a library, archive, and educational training about human sexuality. Through the National Organization for Women in the 1970s, Martin and Lyon defeated the initiative to ban queer teachers from California schools and participated in the campaign that made the American Psychiatric Association declare that homosexuality was not a mental illness. In 2008, Martin and Lyon got married in California’s first legal same-sex union.

6. Monica Helms

Monica Helms, trans female Navy veteran, and Transgender pride flag designer, speaks at the Trans March in San Francisco, June 26, 2015. Wikimedia Commons.

Monica Helms is another activist who has had a major impact on the LGBTQ+ movement who most people may not be familiar with. She’s an advocate for trans rights, a veteran of the United States Navy, and the creator of the Trans Pride flag. She designed the flag in 1999 as a symbol for diversity and trans rights and used “pink and blue stripes to represent colors that have traditionally been associated with girls and boys, with white for people who are intersex, transitioning, or who don’t have a defined gender.” The symbol has become so significant to the LGBTQ+ movement that its legacy is honored at the Smithsonian Institute to preserve its heritage. In 2003, Helms co-founded the Transgender American Veterans Association, an organization that advocated for transgender rights and inclusion in the military. A year later, she led the first Transgender Veterans March to the Wall, an event honoring fallen veterans while also creating visibility for trans people in the military. In 2019, she debuted her memoir, More Than Just A Flag, and was recognized by Queerty as a “trailblazing individual who actively ensured society remains moving towards equality, acceptance, and dignity for all queer people.

Without these pioneers, queer people would not have many of the rights they experience today. It’s thanks to the courage and dedication of these individuals, as well as many others, that the queer community has the privilege of celebrating Pride year-round. There is still a long journey to eliminate discrimination and achieve full equality, but these leaders have paved the way, building a strong foundation for the next generation of LGBTQ+ activists. Very rarely is history made by being silent, so use your voice to support the queer community and speak out about the need for equality while also celebrating Pride!

Join the conversation

or to participate.