LGBTQI+ people: Making history throughout history

LGBTQI+ history makers include, clockwise from top left: Harvey Milk, Jennifer Higdon, Edith Windsor and Frank Kameny. (© Bettmann/Getty Images; © Sabina Louise Pierce/The New York Times/Redux; © Richard Drew/AP Images; © Jacquelyn Martin/AP Images)

Members of the LGBTQI+ community in the United States and around the world have established an impressive legacy in art, history, literature, math, science and politics.

Over the years, LGBTQI+ figures took significant risks to enter and succeed in competitive fields, knowing their identities could jeopardize their own careers or those of others. Despite discrimination and harassment, LGBTQI+ people have made vital contributions to societies throughout history.


From left, Bogota Mayor Claudia López, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong (© Camilo Erasso/Long Visual Press/Universal Images Group/Getty Images; © Niall Carson/PA Images/Getty Images; Sarah Friend/Department of Foreign Affairs/D/AFP/Getty Images

Today LGBTQI+ individuals are leaders in several nations. Among them:

  • Leo Varadkar became Ireland’s first gay prime minister and the nation’s youngest in 2017.
  • Penny Wong this year became the first Asian-born Australian government Cabinet member and in 2020 was the first female openly lesbian federal parliamentarian.
  • Claudia López Hernández made history in 2019 as the first woman and first LGBTQI+ person elected as mayor of Bogotá, Colombia.
  • Shabnam “Mausi” Bano was the first transgender Indian to be elected to public office. She served in the Madhya Pradesh state Legislative Assembly from 1998 to 2003.

In the United States, Harvey Milk was the first openly gay politician to hold elective office in California. He was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978. He was murdered the following year by a rival politician but remains a symbol of courage. In 2016, the U.S. Navy named a ship after Milk.

As of June 2021, LGBTQI+ elected officials in the United States numbered nearly 1,000.

The Biden administration includes the highest number of LGBTQI+ officials in the nation’s history. Among them:

  • Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, is the first openly gay man to serve in the U.S. Cabinet.
  • Admiral Rachel Levine, the assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the first transgender person to serve in a Senate-confirmed position.
  • Ned Price is the State Department’s first openly gay spokesperson.
  • Karine Jean-Pierre in May became the first Black and openly gay White House press secretary.

The arts

Among prominent literary LGBTQI+ figures are French novelist Colette (left) known for her 1944 novella “Gigi”; Audre Lorde, who described herself as an American “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”; and Irish writer Oscar Wilde, who wrote “The Picture of Dorian Gray” in 1891. (© Fox Photos/Hulton

Some leading arts and literary figures had to be discreet about their sexual orientations or gender identities, while others were outspoken (see photos above).

Other notable writers include Americans Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855, and James Baldwin, known for Notes of a Native Son in 1955 and other works.

In music, notable community figures include:

  • George Frideric Handel, a German British opera composer whose 1741 work, Messiah, is the most widely performed oratorio.
  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a Russian composer whose work in the late 1800s includes Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.
  • Leonard Bernstein, an American composer and conductor who in 1957 wrote the music for West Side Story.
  • Jennifer Higdon, an American three-time Grammy winner who in 2010 won a Pulitzer Prize for her Violin Concerto.

Visual artists include Americans Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Hollywood made the 2014 Oscar-winning film called The Imitation Game, which introduced many people to Alan Turing, a prominent English mathematician who broke Nazi German codes during World War II. He is considered a founder of today’s computer science field.

Workers’ rights

Americans Frank Kameny (left) and Aimee Stephens (left, seated) with her wife, Donna Stephens, fought for workers’ rights for the LGBTQI+ community. (© Jacquelyn Martin/AP Images; © Susan Walsh/AP Images)

In the United States, Frank Kameny is considered a gay rights pioneer. The U.S. Army Map Service had fired Kameny at a time when the federal and state governments prohibited gay people from serving in government. While Kameny lost his 1961 employment case, it was the first that the Supreme Court considered on sexual orientation.

Others in the LGBTQI+ community who fought for U.S. workers’ rights:

  • Joni Christian fought for transgender rights as an assembly worker at General Motors.
  • Irene Soloway founded United Tradeswomen in 1979 at a time when few women worked in the building trades.
  • Aimee Stephens was fired from a funeral home for identifying as a transgender woman. She was part of a 2020 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that discrimination in employment on the bases of sexual orientation and gender identity is illegal.

Marriage equality

U.S. advocates for same-sex couples include Edith Windsor (left) and Jim Obergefell. (© Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; © Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group/Tribune News Service/Getty Images)

In 2009, Edith Windsor successfully challenged the U.S. government’s denial of benefits to married same-sex couples.

Jim Obergefell was the lead plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 landmark decision recognizing same-sex-marriage. When Obergefell’s partner died in 2013, Obergefell sued to be designated as a legal spouse.