The battle for LGBTQ rights was being fought, slowly but surely, for decades before marriage equality became law in the United States in 2015. Generations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer activists paved the way for the progress we see today. From politicians to TV stars, here are 11 trailblazers worth knowing.
1. Edie Windsor
The overturning of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013 changed the lives of thousands of couples, and it was spurred by one woman from New York. Edith Windsor married Thea Spyer, her partner of 40 years, in Canada in 2007. Though the marriage was recognized above the border and in New York (which started recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriages in 2008), U.S. law prohibited the women from reaping the same benefits as other married couples in the United States. Windsor felt this first-hand when Spyer died in 2009, leaving her with $363,000 in estate taxes and without hope for exemption. Instead of accepting this, she sued the federal government, arguing that the section of DOMA defining marriage as a union between a man and woman was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of Windsor on June 26, 2013. Windsor remarried in September 2016; she died in 2017, just short of her first anniversary.
2. Ellen DeGeneres
Ellen DeGeneres made television history when she announced she was gay in 1997. Hours after appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show, after having come out to TIME magazine earlier in the month, DeGeneres’s fictional sitcom counterpart of the same name followed suit in a two-part special episode of Ellen. The reveal was almost as significant for Ellen the character as it was for Ellen the real-life comedian: In the mid-’90s, LGBTQ characters—especially well-rounded, relatable ones—were practically non-existent in prime-time. The “Puppy Episode” opened the door for several more television programs starring openly LGBTQ characters.
3. Bayard Rustin
Bayard Rustin was instrumental in one of the greatest civil rights demonstrations in history. In 1963, he worked with Martin Luther King Jr. to organize the March on Washington, and then in the 1980s he redirected his focus to a different cause. “Gay people are the new barometer for social change,” he said in a speech in 1986. He died the following year, but his extensive activism included fighting for the passage of New York’s gay rights bill and urging the NAACP to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic.
4. Barbara Gittings
The concept of “lesbian rights” was virtually nonexistent in buttoned-up 1950s America. But that didn’t stop Barbara Gittings from carving out a space for gay women like herself where she saw the need for one. She founded the New York chapter of America’s first lesbian organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, in 1958 when she was 26 years old, and in the 1960s she picketed to end discrimination against LGBTQ employees in the federal government. But perhaps the greatest legacy she left behind is the American Library Association’s bibliography of literature about gays and lesbians, one of the first collections of its kind.
5. Aaron Fricke
In spring 1980, Aaron Fricke looked forward to attending prom with the rest of his classmates at Cumberland High in Rhode Island. But unlike his peers, Fricke hoped to go with a date of the same sex. Once the principal caught wind of the plan he made his stance clear: No same-sex couples would be allowed into the event. Fricke challenged his school in court and won the right to attend prom with his male date—the judge even required his school to provide enough security to keep them safe from harassment. Fricke v. Lynch is now considered a landmark case in the fight for LGBTQ student rights.
6. Martina Navratilova
In 1981, Czech-American tennis star Martina Navratilova was at the top of her game—she had won Wimbledon twice already and was about to start a record-breaking string of nine Wimbledon final appearances. Then she put her career and celebrity status in jeopardy by coming out, first as bisexual and then as a lesbian. Navratilova estimates that she lost millions in endorsement deals following her revelation. Despite the financial setback, she continued to dominate the tennis court while using her star power to advocate for LGBTQ rights. In 1992, she joined other activists in a lawsuit challenging a Colorado amendment that banned extending civil rights protections to gay people.
7. Harvey Milk
Nearly 40 years after his assassination, Harvey Milk remains one of the best-known figures of the LGBTQ rights movement. He rose to prominence in the late 1970s when he became California’s first openly gay person elected to public office. As a community leader in San Francisco, Milk supported the rights of gay teachers, sponsored anti-discrimination legislation, and fostered LGBTQ-run businesses. In 2009, his nephew Stuart Milk founded the Harvey Milk Foundation to continue his fight for equality.
8. Marsha P. Johnson
The Stonewall Riots of 1969, in which a late-night police raid of a New York City gay bar evolved into a defiant protest by patrons, is largely seen as the driving event behind the modern LGBTQ rights movement. Today Stonewall is recognized as a national monument, but the names of many of the men and women who led the unrest are still missing from history books. Marsha P. Johnson, a trans woman from New Jersey, was on the front lines that night according to eyewitness accounts. After she helped spark a national resistance, Johnson continued to support LGBTQ communities during the AIDS crisis. According to Mic, she joined the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in the 1980s, which, among other things, fought to increase access to and lower the price of HIV/AIDS medications.
9. Leonard Matlovich
Leonard Matlovich wasn’t the first gay man to serve in the military, but he may have been the first to come out on such a public platform. For most of his life, including his years spent in Vietnam, Matlovich kept his true sexual identity a secret from the world. Then, in 1975, he decided to come out to his superiors. An interview with The New York Times soon followed, and then a famous appearance on the cover of TIME magazine that displayed his portrait above the words I Am a Homosexual. The story attracted plenty of backlash, but it also initiated a conversation many people were hesitant to have at the time. Matlovich’s admission eventually led to his discharge from the Air Force, where he had continued to serve as a race relations counselor after returning to the United States. He died of complications from AIDS at age 44, and his gravestone in Washington, D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery reads: “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
10. Richard Isay
Even after the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as an illness in 1973, the stigma persisted in the medical community; gay patients were often approached as sick individuals who needed to be cured. According to his obituary in The New York Times, Dr. Richard Isay was one of the first prominent psychiatrists/psychoanalysts to encourage his gay patients to accept themselves rather than deny their feelings. Isay, a gay man himself, was already an established mental health professional when he came out of the closet. He was ostracized by his colleagues, but he continued to present his then-radical notions about homosexuality at meetings and in his writings nonetheless. Attitudes shifted in 1992, when Isay teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union to threaten the American Psychoanalytic Association with a discrimination lawsuit. The APA agreed to start treating analysts the same regardless of their sexuality and to promote education on the subject within the network.
11. Laverne Cox
Laverne Cox has already made history several times throughout her career. In 2014, her role on Orange is the New Black earned her the first Emmy nomination for an openly trans actor, and in 2017 she became the first transgender series regular to play a trans character on broadcast TV with CBS’s Doubt. When she isn’t blazing trails as an actor, she’s working off-screen to bolster LGBTQ rights as a film producer and speaker.
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2023.