Pride Palace has previously collected a list of 10 LGBTQ Women Who Made History, and we are back with our next round-up! This time, we have assembled a list of LGBTQ icons that you need to know. While an icon is a person who is considered worthy of great reverence, an LGBTQ icon, in particular, is highly regarded by the LGBTQ community. This is often for their support of LGBTQ rights and activism or being a member of the community themselves.
1. Marsha P. Johnson
Although the “P” in Marsha P. Johnson’s name stands for “Pay It No Mind,” when it comes to her gender and sexuality identity labels, she has cemented her label in history as an LGBTQ icon as an outspoken transgender rights activist. Johnson was known for being a “drag mother” by helping homeless and struggling LGBTQ youth in New York City, particularly in the Greenwich Village drag scene.
She is regarded as the person who threw the first shot glass in the Stonewall Riots of 1969, making it the shot glass heard ‘round the world that started the gay liberation movement. After the riots, Johnson co-founded the Gay Liberation Front with her friend and fellow LGBTQ icon Sylvia Rivera.
2. Sylvia Rivera
Sylvia Rivera was a Latina-American drag queen known for being one of the most radical gay and transgender activists in the 1960s and 1970s. An adept community organizer, Sylvia was a co-founder of the Gay Liberation Front. She famously participated in the Stonewall Riots of 1969 alongside a fellow friend, activist, and legendary icon Marsha P. Johnson.
Rivera is remembered for allegedly throwing the second molotov cocktail in protest of the police raid at the Stonewall Inn. Rivera was a person of color, a former sex worker, struggled in poverty, a drag queen, transgender, and also experienced homelessness, incarceration, and drug addiction in her lifetime. The intersection of all of these identities fueled Sylvia Rivera to fight for LGBTQ rights and racial, economic, and criminal justice.
3. Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King is a famous U.S. professional tennis player known for being the former number one player in the world. Billie Jean King won 39 Grand Slam titles throughout her career, 12 in singles, 16 in women’s doubles, and 11 in mixed doubles. In 1981, she was outed as a lesbian and found herself at a crossroads when her publicists advised her to deny her sexuality. Instead, she publicly confirmed that she identified as a lesbian, cementing her place in history as the first openly gay athlete.
4. Harvey Milk
Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected government official in California history. Milk served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. An out and proud gay man, Milk was an influential LGBTQ icon who passed important legislation for gay rights before being assassinated less than a year into his term.
Milk was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
5. Freddy Mercury
Freddy Mercury was a prolific singer/songwriter and the frontman of the band Queen. Mercury was the writer of the operatic masterpiece “Bohemian Rhapsody” and sports anthems “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions.” Mercury was a skilled showman who entertained the world with his unique fashion sense (often including spandex) and his four-octave vocal range.
Although private about his relationships, Mercury was a member of the LGBTQ community. He passed away from AIDS in 1991.
RuPaul Andre Charles got his start in the ’90s in the music industry, making waves with his first hit single, “Supermodel (You Better Work).” In 2009, he started the television series “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which has become a cultural touchstone known for introducing the art of drag to mainstream audiences. Combining camp, satire, sequins, and business synergy, RuPaul used his platform to uplift and support the next generations of drag superstars. His cultural impact has further legitimized drag as an art form worthy of respect, admiration, and the world’s attention.
7. Ryan O’Connell
Ryan O’Connell is an American writer, director, actor, comedian, LGBTQ activist, and disability advocate. Born with a mild form of cerebral palsy that affects the right side of his body, O’Connell spent much of his childhood in the hospital, going through multiple surgeries and arduous physical therapy. O’Connell created the hit autobiographical Netflix series Special, which chronicles his life as a gay man with cerebral palsy.
By pushing boundaries of disability and LGBTQ representation through his book and television show and unique on the silver screen, O’Connell is an icon for creating his own narrative about going after the life he wants.
8. Rachel Maddow
Rachel Maddow is an American television commentator, news program host, and proud gay woman. Maddow is also an LGBT activist and AIDS activist. She joined the Act Up and AIDS Legal Referral Panel in San Francisco after graduating college. Maddow was the first openly gay woman to become a Rhodes Scholar and studied AIDS in prison systems. She currently hosts “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC.
9. Larry Kramer
Larry Kramer (1935 - 2020) was an American playwright, journalist, author, film producer, public health advocate, and influential LGBTQ activist. Kramer is known for being on the frontline of the AIDS crisis, where he used his writing to bring attention to the severity of the epidemic.
He created the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization in 1981, which was the only group devoted to helping those affected by HIV/AIDS at the time. He later created the organization Act Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which successfully held high-profile demonstrations. Kramer also wrote the play “The Normal Heart,” which is about his experience in AIDS activism, which ended up being performed on Broadway and adapted into an HBO movie.
10. Randy Burns
Randy Burns is known for co-founding the Gay American Indians (GAI), the first organization dedicated to addressing and ending discrimination LGBTQ Native Americans face across the U.S. Burns was a strong believer that being a member of the LGBTQ community represents tradition, continuing the visibility and representation of gay ancestors of generations past. He helped create a safe place for those who identify as Two-Spirit, which is now a widely used umbrella term for the diverse gender and sexual identities within the North American Native cultures.
11. Anderson Cooper
Anderson Cooper is an acclaimed journalist, political pundit, and LGBTQ icon. Cooper began as a correspondent for ABC news. He later got his own CNN show, “Anderson Cooper 360,” where he brought viewers to the frontlines of war-torn regions around the world. His on-the-ground coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake earned him a National Order of Honour and Merit, the highest honor from the Haitian government. He is one of the most prominent openly gay journalists and the first openly gay person to moderate a presidential debate.
12. Ronan Farrow
Satchel Ronan O’Sullivan Farrow is an American journalist whose investigative journalism exposed the sexual harassment and abuse of film producer Harvey Weinstein. Farrow’s subsequent reporting led to the public decrying of powerful and abusive men such as politician Eric Schneiderman, former CBS executive Les Moonves, Bill Cosby, and Brett Kavanaugh. A committed public servant, Farrow served as a UNICEF Spokesperson for Youth, where he advocated for women and children caught in the ongoing Darfur crisis in Sudan, along with helping the Obama administration as a Special Advisor.
13. Hannah Gadsby
Hannah Gadsby is a Tasmanian comic who subverted the expectation of what defines a stand-up comedy special with her show “Nanette,” which became an instantaneous hit on Netflix. Her writing and performance art explores topics such as homophobia, gender violence, xenophobia, and sexism. Gadsby was diagnosed with ADHD and autism in 2017. Since then, she has used her platform to spread LGBTQ advocacy and the message that being neurodivergent is a normal experience of the human condition.
These LGBTQ icons are trailblazers who have used their voices to leave a lasting positive impact on the world. Their shared triumphs and struggles have shaped the LGBTQ culture and community as we know it today. These leaders have incorporated the message of self-love and acceptance of their gender and sexual identities into their work, which then radiates hope and visibility for the generations that come after them.
By creating and promoting art, literature, visibility, and political activism in support of the rights of the LGBTQ community, these individuals earned their status in history not only as icons but as game-changing legends.