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17 Famous LGBTQ+ Activists Who Inspired Change (2023)

3 Famous LGTBTQ+ Activist: Silvia Rivera, Miley Cyrus & RuPaul

The LGBTQ+ community has a rich and inspiring history of activism, resilience, and courage. From the Stonewall Riots to the fight for marriage equality, LGBTQ+ folks and their allies have worked tirelessly to secure the rights and dignity of queer people around the world. 

While there’s still so much work to be done, it’s important to recognize the incredible progress that has been made and honor the individuals who have dedicated their lives to providing safe, inclusive spaces for every human being — regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Their tireless efforts have shown us what’s possible when we come together in pursuit of a more just and equitable world.

But this isn’t just about celebrating the achievements of the past. 

It is also about recognizing the work that still needs to be done and how we can all contribute to the ongoing issues facing LGBTQ+ folks everywhere. 

Whether we choose to volunteer, donate, or simply educate ourselves and others, we all have a role to play in building a world where everyone is free to be their most authentic selves.

We’ve gathered some of the most recognizable activists who have used their platforms as a way to create visibility and take action. 

From Harvey Milk to Marsha P. Johnson, these individuals have profoundly impacted the world and paved the way for future generations to one day reach equality for all.

Famous People Who Fought and Are Fighting for LGBTQ+ Rights

Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk was a civil and human rights leader who, in 1977, became the first openly gay politician to be elected to public office in the United States when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. 

As he engaged in activism, community organizing, and politics, Milk quickly became known as a champion for the LGBTQ+ community, minorities, immigrants, women, and children.

Milk’s unprecedented public authenticity gave hope to queer people everywhere at a time when the community was facing widespread hostility and discrimination. Unfortunately, he was assassinated in November 1978 — just 11 months after taking office. 

Despite his short tenure, he made a lasting impact and legacy of activism on the LGBTQ+ community by sponsoring a bill that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation in public accommodations, housing, and employment.

He inspired thousands of people worldwide — politicians, activists, and individuals — who have taken steps to fight discrimination against marginalized groups.

He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, and his words continue to resonate with activists and advocates around the world today. 

Related: Read the best quotes from Harvey Milk

Elliot Page

A Photo of Elliot Page
Photo by Shawn Miller / Photo courtesy of Library of Congress (CC0 1.0 DEED)

Elliot Page is an Oscar-nominated actor (for his role in “Juno”), a producer, director, and LGBTQ+ activist. He first came out as gay in 2014 at a Human Rights Campaign conference and became a vocal advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. In 2020, Page came out as transgender and became the first openly transgender man to appear on the cover of TIME magazine in March 2021, which was shot by trans photographer Wynne Neilly.

He’s since spoken out against bills targeting trans youth in Florida, Alabama, Texas, and North Dakota and encouraged people to educate themselves about bills in their own states. 

Elliot also regularly raises money for LGBTQ+ charities, speaks up about LGBTQ+ issues, and uses his platform to challenge queerphobia.

Despite facing harassment, abuse, and threats of violence, Page continues to be a vocal and inspiring advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, championing the rights and visibility of trans people everywhere.

Marsha P. Johnson 

A Photo Of Marsha P. Johnson Smiling At the Camera
Photo courtesy of Petcor80 on Flickr (PDM 1.0 DEED)

Marsha P. Johnson — the “P” stood for “Pay It No Mind,” a phrase that became her motto — was a prominent figure of the gay rights movement in New York City during the 1960s and 1970s. 

Holding intersecting identities as a Black trans woman, she was a tireless advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, particularly for homeless LGBTQ+ youth, those affected by HIV and AIDS, and transgender people. 

She became an outspoken critic of the early gay rights movement, speaking out against the transphobia her community experienced. 

Marsha and her friend Sylvia Rivera (more on her later!) co-founded the group Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R), which later opened the STAR House in 1972 — a shelter for gay and trans homeless youth that provided food, clothing, emotional support, and a sense of family.

Marsha’s life was tragically cut short when her body was found in the Hudson River in 1992. She was only 46. 

Today, Johnson’s efforts are at the center of numerous documentaries and even inspired New York City to commission its first transgender monument honoring Johnson. Decades after her passing, she is still one of the most influential figures in the gay liberation movement and remains one of the most recognized and admired LGBTQ+ advocates.

Related: Read the best quotes from Marsha P. Johnson

Halsey

A Photo of Halsey Performing On Stage
Photo by Justin Higuchi (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Halsey is known around the world for her killer voice and music, however, her commitment to fighting for LGBTQ+ rights is what’s quickly cemented her as a role model for many — showing us that it’s possible to use one’s fame and influence to make a positive impact.

As a bisexual musician, Halsey often uses her platform to raise awareness and promote acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community. In the past, she’s been vocal about the challenges of being bisexual, including the erasure and misconceptions surrounding bisexuality. 

She often uses her music as a tool to interweave her sexuality into her lyrics, hoping to break down barriers and challenge common stereotypes. In doing so, Halsey has become a beacon of hope and inspiration for many young people struggling to come to terms with their own sexuality.

While she’s known to be a vocal advocate for mental health and suicide prevention awareness, transgender rights, and support for sexual assault victims, she’s determined to do more to help. 

In a recent announcement, Halsey shared she’s partnering with Hard Rock Live to perform reimagined versions of her songs, adding that donations and proceeds for the shows will benefit two LGBTQ+ organizations (Outright International and Human Rights Campaign).

Barbara Gittings

A Black and White Photo of Barbara Gittings Speaking
Photo by Blaise Freeman (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)

Barbara Gittings was a prominent LGBTQ+ rights activist known for her advocacy work in the 1950s and ’60s — a time when homosexuality was considered a mental illness and criminalized in many states.

Gittings was a founding member of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the U.S. She also edited the organization’s magazine, The Ladder, which served as a vital resource for the LGBTQ+ community at the time.

Gittings is best known for her activism in the American Library Association (ALA), where she successfully lobbied for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ literature in libraries across the country. 

She organized the first gay and lesbian participation in a public library conference in 1971 and later established the Gay Task Force of the American Library Association. Gittings’ activism in the ALA helped pave the way for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ literature and resources in libraries today.

Audre Lorde

A Black and White Photograph of Audre Lorde
Photo by K. Kendall (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Audre Lorde was an American writer, feminist, and civil rights activist who played a significant role in advancing social justice and equality. As one of the leading figures in the Black feminist and lesbian and gay rights movements, Lorde used her voice to communicate the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality to a broad audience. 

She often celebrated the beauty and strength of Black and lesbian identities while speaking out against oppression and inequality. 

In addition to her literary contributions, Lorde co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, one of the first publishers dedicated to amplifying women of color. 

She later became a founding member of the Combahee River Collective, a Black feminist lesbian organization that was formed in response to the lack of representation in both feminist and civil rights movements. 

Lorde’s activism also played a significant role in the 1980s Afro-German movement — a term she coined — where she lent her support to fight intersectional racism and inspire German Black women to use their voices. 

In 1985, Lorde was invited to Cuba along with a group of Black women writers to discuss the status of lesbian and gay individuals in Cuba. Lorde’s legacy as an activist, writer, and feminist is one of courage and unwavering commitment to global social justice and equality.

Related: Read the best quotes from Audre Lorde

Sylvia Rivera

A Photo of Sylvia Rivera Speaking Into a Microphone
Photo by Tania Victoria / Photo courtesy of Secretaría de Cultura CDMX (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Sylvia Rivera was a transgender rights activist and drag performer. A key figure in the 1969 Stonewall Inn uprising, Rivera was a tireless advocate for those silenced and disregarded by larger movements — particularly the larger gay rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s, which often excluded transgender people and people of color.

Rivera later co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.) with fellow activist Marsha P. Johnson, which helped provide support for transgender youth and sex workers. 

Throughout her lifetime, Rivera was a tireless advocate for the most marginalized members of the LGBTQ+ community, including homeless youth and transgender people of color.

Related: Read the best quotes from Sylvia Rivera

Lisa Power

A Photo of Lisa Power Smiling
Photo by Ross Burgess (CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED)

Lisa Power is a British HIV and queer rights activist and campaigner. She became secretary general of the International Lesbian and Gay Association in 1988 and helped launch the Pink Paper, a UK-based publication focused on gay and lesbian issues. 

The following year, she co-founded Stonewall to expand access to queer-friendly support in her community. She later became the policy director of the Terrence Higgins Trust, which continues to provide UK residents with essential sexual health resources such as helplines, HIV testing, and counseling. 

She became the first openly queer person to speak for LGBTQ+ rights at a UN conference in New York City.

In 2020 she worked with Dan Vo and the National Museum Cardiff to create “Queer Tours,” which aim to uncover hidden LGBTQ+ histories in Cardiff. Her passion and unwavering dedication to providing crucial access and rights for her fellow LGBTQ+ community has allowed countless folks the opportunity to feel seen and heard within their communities. 

Sue Sanders

A Photo of Sue Sanders
Photo by Zefrog on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED)

Sue Sanders is an emeritus professor of the Harvey Milk Institute and LGBTQ+ and disability rights activist. Sanders was a teacher by profession and became involved in activism in the 1970s through her work with the Gay Teachers Group.

Sanders is a long-time member of Schools OUT UK, an organization that campaigns for LGBTQ+-inclusive education and support for students and teachers. She co-founded LGBT+ History Month in 2004, which has since been celebrated every February to promote the recognition and celebration of LGBTQ+ history and culture.  

In 2011 Sanders founded The Classroom, a platform with over 80 free lesson plans for teachers to use in the classroom that touch on LGBTQ+ issues, tied to the national curriculum.

For over 40 years she’s used her expertise and lived experiences to educate others on women’s studies and combating homophobia in schools, universities and other organizations.

Bayard Rustin

A Black and White Photo of Bayard Rustin
Photo by Warren K. Leffler / Photo courtesy of Library of Congress (PDM 1.0 DEED)

Bayard Rustin was an American civil rights leader and activist, best known for his work as a strategist and organizer of the Civil Rights and the LGBTQ+ rights movements. 

A close advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he played a key role in the organization of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and in 2013 was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for his activism. 

Despite his significant contributions to social justice, Rustin faced significant discrimination and marginalization due to his sexual orientation. He was an openly gay man in a time when being so was widely stigmatized and criminalized — facing significant obstacles to his activism as a result. 

Nonetheless, Rustin remained a tireless advocate for justice and equality throughout his lifetime and is remembered today as an important figure in the fight for civil and human rights.

James Baldwin

A black and White Photo of James Baldwin Smiling
Photo by Allan warren (CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED)

James Baldwin was an American novelist, essayist, and openly gay Black civil rights activist. He was born in 1924 in Harlem, New York, and grew up in poverty where, despite the challenges he faced, became a renowned writer and leading voice in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

In his works, which were controversial for their time, Baldwin often explored the intersectionality of race, class, and sexuality and highlighted the struggles faced by folks who were discriminated against based on their sexual orientation. 

His second novel, “Giovanni’s Room,” published in 1956, dealt explicitly with queer identity. It was published at a time when few other writers dared to publish queer literature.

He was an early advocate for gay rights and was one of the first public figures to speak openly about the intersection of race and homosexuality, as he did during his famous lecture titled “Race, Racism, and the Gay Community” at a meeting of the New York chapter of Black and White Men Together in 1982.

His willingness and courage to be his most authentic self created a ripple effect in American culture as a whole and within the LGBTQ+ community. 

Related: Read the best quotes from James Baldwin

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy

A Photo of Miss Major Griffin-Gracy
Photo by Quinn Dombrowski (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is a transgender rights activist and a community leader who has dedicated her life to advocating for the rights and well-being of transgender people — particularly those who are incarcerated or living in poverty. 

Born in 1940, she came out as transgender in the 1960s and faced many hurdles during her life — including homelessness and incarceration — challenges that ultimately fueled her activism. She was also a participant in the Stonewall riots, a turning point in the LGBTQ+ rights movement.

In the decades since, Miss Major has worked with a number of  organizations and initiatives dedicated to supporting incarcerated transgender people, including the San Francisco-based Transgender Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project.

Today, she spends her time working on building Griffin-Gracy Historical Retreat and Educational Center (or more commonly known as House of GG’s), a safe haven and retreat house for the transgender community.  

Her life and work have also been the subject of several documentaries, including “Major!” She continues to be an inspiring and influential queen in the ongoing fight for transgender rights and equality.

Phill Wilson

A Photo of Phil Wilson Smiling
Photo by Chris McAndrew (CC BY 3.0 DEED)

Phill Wilson is an internationally recognized HIV/AIDS activist and  founder of the Black AIDS Institute, a think tank with a mission to eliminate AIDS in Black communities. 

Wilson was diagnosed with HIV in 1985 and has since devoted his life to fighting against the disease, promoting HIV/AIDS awareness, and advocating for the rights of people living with it.

Wilson has also served on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, a platform he used to discuss the stigma and discrimination faced by people living with the virus — like himself. 

He has been an advocate for greater access to HIV testing, treatment, and care, as well as for policies that address the root causes of health disparities in Black communities. 

Wilson’s work has had a significant impact on the fight against HIV/AIDS in America and beyond and paved the way for many to access lifesaving healthcare.

Miley Cyrus

A Photo of Miley Cyrus Performing At A Concert
Photo by Raph_PH on Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Miley Cyrus is an American singer, songwriter, and actress. You might know and love as an entertainer, however, it’s the work as an LGBTQ+ activist that has us sending love her way!

Cyrus, who identifies as pansexual, has been a vocal advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, using her platform to speak out against discrimination and promote acceptance. 

As a result of this activism, she founded the Happy Hippie Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on supporting homeless and LGBTQ+ youth. 

Through the foundation, she helps fund programs that support homeless youth, LGBTQ+ youth, and other vulnerable populations. All Happy Hippie operational costs are funded privately, which means that 100% of its donations directly benefit youth in need. 

An outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, animal welfare, and environmental issues, Cyrus has opted to use her influence (and phenomenal voice) as a way to promote love, acceptance, and compassion toward one another — especially the queer community. 

Billie Jean King

A Photo of Billie Jean King
Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Billie Jean King is a former American tennis champion and an outspoken advocate for gender equality in sports and LGBTQ+ rights.

King won a total of 39 Grand Slam titles during her career, including 20 Wimbledon titles, and is considered one of the most successful tennis players of all time. No big deal. 

King became the first woman to defeat a former male Wimbledon Champion in “The Battle of the Sexes” and was the first tennis player — and woman no less — to be named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year in 1972.

Though her accomplishments on the court certainly set her apart, it wasn’t until she was publicly outed as a lesbian in 1981 when she began to devote her effort into creating more visibility on issues affecting LGBTQ+ individuals.  

In 2009, President Barack Obama presented King with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for championing the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community. King was the first female athlete to receive the award. 

She currently serves on the Board of the Elton John AIDS Foundation and National AIDS Fund, as well as founded the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative in 2014 — a nonprofit organization that seeks to rid workplaces of discrimination based on race, gender, and sexuality.

King’s legacy of achievement and advocacy continues to inspire female and LGBTQ+ athletes around the world. 

RuPaul

A Photo of RuPaul
Photo by DVSROSS on Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

RuPaul is a fierce and fabulous American drag performer, TV host, recording artist, and activist. He’s widely recognized as the host of the Emmy-winning reality competition show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” — a show that has transitioned the obscure subculture of drag into mainstream.

He’s an icon for the LGBTQ+ community and has been a vocal advocate for LGBTQ+ rights throughout his career.

RuPaul’s work doesn’t stop there, though, as he’s used his status and business savvy for activism, becoming the first “Viva Glam” ambassador for M.A.C. cosmetics’ AIDS fund, which helped raise millions for the cause. 

RuPaul’s impact on the world of drag and the LGBTQ+ community cannot be overstated. His career and “Drag Race” have given many other drag queens a platform to perform and, most importantly, secure financial stability for themselves through corporate sponsorships. 

RuPaul’s larger-than-life persona and charisma have helped drastically change the way millions of people view and appreciate the fabulousness of drag culture. 

Dylan Mulvaney

Dylan Mulvaney is a trans actress, comedian, and content creator who is best known for her TikTok series “Days of Girlhood,” where she highlights her transgender journey every day.

Throughout 2022, Mulvaney has delighted her over 8 million followers (including Lady Gaga) with queer joy and exciting milestones: from fun makeup routines, surgery consultations, and adding tampons to her purse to give to other women in the bathroom — to modeling in New York Fashion Week and attending the Forbes Power Women Summit

Most importantly, she’s made the internet — and the world — feel like a safer place for other trans people. 

Related: Read Dylan Mulvaney’s essay for Good Good Good about her first Pride as a trans woman

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