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Celebrating Pride Month: 16 LGBTQIA+ trailblazers (and how to serve as an advocate)

June 15, 2022 - 24 min read

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16 influential LGBTQIA+ trailblazers 

When celebrating Pride, 6 things to keep in mind 

The LGBTQIA+ community is one of strength, resilience, and beauty. 

The world celebrates Pride Month in June to commemorate the Stonewall Uprising. A gay bar called Stonewall Inn in New York City was raided by police in late June 1969, targeting its patrons on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. This raid of Stonewall Inn, which was a place of refuge and a safe haven for the LGBTQIA+ community, sparked six days of protest and violent clashes that served as a catalyst for the gay rights movement

Today, as we celebrate Pride, we know that recognizing a community so beautiful, diverse, and resilient isn’t just reserved for a month of the year. Celebrating the LGBTQIA+ community isn’t reserved for a moment in time because creating an inclusive and equitable society is not reserved for a moment in time.

It’s an ongoing fight for a world where all people — regardless of gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, age, disability, economic status, and other diverse backgrounds — are valued, treated with respect, and seen for their innate humanity. 

At BetterUp, our BU-Tiful employee resource group (ERG) weighed in with a list of influential figures who have helped pave the roads to equality. We’ll start with a look back to celebrate 16 trailblazers of the LGBTQIA+ community who have helped shape today’s laws, society, politics, and business. We’ve also outlined ways you and your organization can continue to fight for equality and celebrate diversity, this month and every month.

16 influential LGBTQIA+ trailblazers 

Marsha P. Johnson

A Black trans woman, Marsha P. Johnson was on the frontlines during the Stonewall Uprising. In the 50s and 60s, it wasn’t just illegal to be transgendered. It was illegal to dance with a person of the same gender. It was illegal to simply exist as who she was. She was at the Stonewall Inn on the night of the police raid — when everything changed. 

Soon, Marsha was active in a newly formed group called the Gay Liberation Front. While she was passionate about the gay rights movement, she was also frustrated at the absence of transgender rights in the conversation. Marsha and her good friend Sylvia Rivera founded a safe place where young trans people living on the street had a home to go to called Street Transvestite Activist Revolutionaries (STAR). 

“How many years has it taken people to realize that we are all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race?”

Marsha P. Johnson

She died in 1992 in what was suspected to be an identity-based attack as trans people, particularly trans women of color, are often victims of hate crimes. 

In fact, today, trans people are four times more likely to be victims of violent crimes. In 2021, anti-trans violence and rhetoric reached record highs in America, with more than 50 trans and gender non-conforming people killed.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, 91% of the reported murders in 2019 of trans and gender non-conforming people were Black women.

Sylvia Rivera 

Sylvia Rivera, a Latinx trans woman on the frontlines of the Stonewall Uprising, was an activist and advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights alongside Marsha P. Johnson. After both her parents died, Sylvia was raised by her grandmother until she ran away from home at the age of 11. 

At only 19 years old, Sylvia and Marsha founded STAR, the organization that provided housing to transgender youth living on the streets in New York City. Sylvia is known for her advocacy for the trans rights movement, which in the early days of the gay liberation movement, was often left out of the conversation around gay rights. 

“We have to be visible. We should not be ashamed of who we are.”

 Sylvia Rivera 

Bayard Rustin 

Bayard Rustin, an openly gay Black man, first worked alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in the civil rights movement before turning his attention to LGBTQ rights. In fact, he was a key player in organizing the March on Washington. 

As with most complex societal issues, Bayard brought to light the intersectionality of economic equality within the civil rights movement and the need for social rights for LGBTQ folks. 

“Let us be enraged about injustice, but let us not be destroyed by it.”

Bayard Rustin  

Virginia Woolf 

Virginia Woolf is another key figure in LGBTQIA+ history. Born in 1895, being openly gay was punishable by death just 30 years prior. 

It’s thought that the most influential relationship Virginia had was with a woman named Vita Sackville-West, who was thought to have inspired her novel Orlando. The novel explores issues around gender and sexuality. Today, it’s thought to be both a feminist and lesbian feminist classic. 

“As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” 

Virginia Woolf 

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Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States. Known for his unapologetic authenticity as a gay man, Harvey Milk was a member of the budding Castro District, a vibrant gay community in San Francisco. 

He and a few other business owners founded the Castro Village Association after other merchants tried to prevent two gay men from opening a store. The association, with Harvey as president, became the first in the nation to organize predominantly LGBTQ businesses. 

During his service as a San Francisco City-County Supervisor, he worked to protect gay rights through an anti-discrimination bill. Harvey Milk was assassinated in 1978 after serving in office for less than a year, a murder in response to Harvey’s work to positively change the systems that worked against marginalized communities.

“All young people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential.”

Harvey Milk  

Barbara Gittings 

In the 1950s, very few people came out to their private circles, let alone publicly. But Barbara Gittings was different—she was vocal, focused, and hellbent on advancing LGBTQIA+ rights. 

In the 50s, she founded the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first national organization for lesbians. The DOB provided support and education to lesbians who were afraid to come out, providing education and resources around their rights.

The organization also worked with psychologists, sociologists, and other mental health professionals to conduct clinical research to debunk stereotypes that being gay was synonymous with being mentally ill. 

“Equality means more than passing laws. The struggle is really won in the hearts and minds of the community, where it really counts.”

Barbara Gittings  

In the 60s, she was an activist in early gay rights demonstrations. Barbara helped lobby the American Psychiatric Association to change its stance on sexuality. In 1973, they rescinded its definition as a mental disorder.

Audre Lorde 

Audre Lorde, a prominent poet and writer, was a member of the LGBTQ rights movement. A Black lesbian, Audre’s work touches on social and racial justice issues as well as what it means to be queer, queer sexuality, and the queer experience. 

Audre was a speaker at the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights; she was a founding member of Sisterhood in Support of Sisters; and she served as an advocate for the LGBTQ community, especially for women and women of color. 

"The love expressed between women is particular and powerful because we have had to love in order to live; love has been our survival."

Audre Lorde 

Christine Jorgensen 

A transgender pop culture icon, Christine Jorgensen became a celebrity because of her gender-affirming surgery in the 1950s. Christine, who had served in the US Army, made national and international headlines as the “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty.” 

Upon her return from Denmark to the US following her transition, media coverage of Christine and her story exploded, where she faced much discrimination.

Christine used the newfound celebrity to advocate for the acceptance of transgender people, stating that no one had to be 100% male or 100% female. In her words, it was acceptable and normal to be a little bit of both.  

“What people still don’t understand is that the important thing is identity. You don’t [transition] for sexual reasons, you do it because of who you are.”

Christine Jorgensen  

Frank Mugisha 

Frank Mugisha is one of the very few openly gay LGBTQIA+ activists in Uganda, a country that passed a law in 2013 that criminalized homosexuality. The statute carried penalties up to and including life in prison.

While Frank was in college, he started an organization called Icebreakers Uganda to help guide LGBTQIA+ folks to come out to their families. The organization provided housing, offering advice, resources, and educational materials to help alleviate stress and alienation. 

After David Kato (a friend of Frank’s and founder of Sexual Minorities Uganda) was murdered in his own home, Frank stepped up to serve as executive director of SMUG. Frank was able to launch an international campaign to bring awareness to Uganda’s human rights violations against the LGBTQIA+ community and helped to overturn the 2013 law that criminalized homosexuality. Because of Frank’s work, he regularly faces death threats and intimidation. 

“As a gay Ugandan, I know I am one of thousands. But as someone who has chosen to be out and is still living in Uganda, I am in a minority of fewer than 20 people.”

Frank Mugisha  

Billie Jean King 

A tennis champion and elite athlete, Billie Jean King was an advocate for gender equality in sports. Billie Jean King has spent her career fighting for women’s equality in sports, especially for the LGBTQ community.

While she wasn’t outed on her own terms, Billie Jean King has been a strong voice for the lesbian community and has used her platform to drive positive change. 

“You are going to make it, but the most important thing is, I think, is first you gotta feel safe, and you need to have allies with you.”

Billie Jean King  

Today, Billie Jean King continues to serve as a role model, especially for LGBTQ youth and young athletes who are still grappling with their sexual and gender identities. 

Larry Kramer 

Larry Kramer, writer and an outspoken AIDS activist, has had a monumental impact on the LGBTQIA+ community. Larry founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1981, the first-ever organization serving HIV-positive people. 

He went on to found Act Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which demanded more investment in AIDS drug research and an end to discrimination against the LGBTQ community. He worked tirelessly to make sure the world saw the AIDS epidemic as a public health emergency. 

“We're all going to go crazy, living with this epidemic of AIDS every minute, while the rest of the world goes on out there, all around us, as if nothing is happening, going on with their own lives and not knowing what it's like, what we're going through. We're living through war, but where they're living it's peacetime, and we're all in the same country.” 

Larry Kramer 

Laverne Cox 

An actress and the first openly transgender person nominated for an Emmy, Laverne Cox continues to raise awareness and advocate for the transgender community.

For Laverne, representation (or the lack thereof) has always been top of mind for her. She’s made it a mission to be taken just as seriously as an activist as she is as an actress. After all, her goal is that the transgender community deserves the opportunity to turn on the TV and see themselves. 

“I was told many times that I wouldn’t be able to have a mainstream career as an actor because I’m trans, because I’m Black, and here I am…And it feels really good.”

Laverne Cox 

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy 

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy stood alongside activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera at the Stonewall Uprising. A trans activist, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy has spent more than 40 years devoted to fighting for equality for the queer community.

She’s fiercely committed to an intersectional approach to justice, which is what brought her to her work with people with HIV/AIDS in New York and San Francisco. She served as the director of the TGI Justice Project where she was a mentor to her “gurls” on the inside of prisons, jails, and detention centers. Currently, she runs a retreat center for trans and gender-nonconforming leaders in Little Rock, Arkansas. 

“We’re all a part of one another. I want people to understand who we are as human beings. I want us to look at the similarities more than the differences.”

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy 

Alan Turing 

A brilliant mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, physicist, and biologist, Alan Turing was unapologetic about his sexuality, which was unheard of in the 1950s. Though it was a crime to be gay until the 1960s, Alan stayed true to himself. 

Alan is credited with breaking the legendary Nazi Enigma Code, which laid the groundwork for modern computing. Though he served the government, he was arrested and punished for his sexual orientation. He was pardoned by the British government in 2013, six decades after his conviction for homosexuality is said to have driven him to die by suicide. Today, Alan is seen as an icon for the LGBTQIA+ community. 

"We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done." 

Alan Turing 

Cecilia Chung 

Cecilia Chung is known for her work as a civil and social rights leader, especially in the areas of HIV/AIDS awareness, transgender rights, and LGBTQ equality. 

In 2013, she was appointed to the position of Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS by the former president Barack Obama where she served for two terms. An immigrant from Hong Kong, Cecilia was the first female Asian to be elected to the San Francisco Board of Directors. 

Currently, Cecilia is the senior director of strategic projects at the Transgender Law Center, where she heads a project that addresses the structural inequalities causing poor health outcomes and high rates of HIV & AIDS among transgender people.

“It was my desire to survive as a trans woman, an immigrant, a person of color living with HIV, that pushed me into my advocacy work—I was fighting for my life.”

Cecilia Chung  

Lydia X. Z. Brown 

Lydia X. Z. Brown is a writer, educator, advocate, and attorney. They also founded the Fund for Community Reparations for Autistic People of Color’s Interdependence, Survival, and Empowerment in partnership with the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network. 

As a neurodiverse person, Lydia devotes their career to educating folks on what it means to be neurodiverse, especially in the sense of self-advocacy and LGBTQ rights. Their work begins at and centers on the intersections of disability, queerness, race, gender, class, nation, and migration.

Lydia is also a professor, teaching as an adjunct lecturer and core faculty in the Disability Studies Program and the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Georgetown University. They also serve as an adjunct lecturer at American University’s Department of Critical Race, Gender, and Culture Studies.

"Disability justice reminds us that there is no such thing as a person who does not deserve to exist. There is no such thing as a person who is useless, or a person who is pointless, or a person who does not deserve to be."

Lydia Brown  

When celebrating Pride, 6 things to keep in mind 

We’ve compiled a short guide on ways you and your organization can serve as advocates for the LGBTQIA+ community. BU-Tiful members also provided input on how to best serve as an advocate and what they believe is meaningful to the LGBTQIA+ community, especially as we continue to strive for positive change in our world. 

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  1. Do educate yourselves on the LGBTQIA+ community. Part of being an advocate is educating yourself on the issues that the LGBTQIA+ community face. And that education and awareness shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of the LGBTQIA+ community; it’s everyone’s responsibility to educate themselves. From gaps in mental health care to LGBTQ health disparities to laws, rulings, and recent news (like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida), do your part to educate yourself.

    By staying on your edge with what’s affecting the LGBTQIA+ community, you’re better positioned to advocate for LGBTQ acceptance and equality.
  2. Do elevate and equitably represent LGBTQIA+ voices internally and externally. Representation matters. How are you elevating and making space for LGBTQIA+ voices?

    Are you sharing diverse stories, ones that are inclusive of the LGBTQIA+ community? How are you empowering your LGBTQIA+ employees to share their perspectives, like allowing the space for feedback or speaking up in a meeting? 
  3. Don’t dismiss the role discrimination plays in the workplace. While the Supreme Court made discrimination against workers based on their gender identity or sexual orientation illegal in 2020 (yes, in 2020…), that doesn’t mean it’s stopped happening.

    According to a McKinsey report, LGBTQIA+ employees report substantial barriers to advancement in the workplace. From recognition to benefits and healthcare coverage to microaggressions to legal issues, discrimination is more common than you may care to think. According to the report, only 58 percent of the LGBTQIA+ women we surveyed (compared with 80 percent of LGBTQ+ men) said that they are out with most colleagues.

    Are your policies (like paid parental leave or fertility benefits) inclusive of the LGBTQIA+ community? Does your organization regularly evaluate salaries and compensation to ensure pay parity? Systems and institutions have long worked against the LGBTQIA+ community. How do your systems work for it?

    If you see discrimination happening to a teammate or colleague, say something. If you experience or witness discrimination, report it. Allies and advocates have a role to play to help keep discrimination out of the workplace. 
  4. Do create a psychologically safe work environment. In a world where we show up as our whole selves to work, what investments have you made in psychological safety? Are your leaders leading with inclusivity and empathy at their core? Do you have a good pulse on how comfortable your employees are showing up as their whole selves to work?

    Consider ways you can invest in the psychological safety of your workforce, like with virtual coaching. Promote respect, lead by example, and listen attentively to your employees. 
  5. Don’t dismiss the importance of belonging, diversity, equity, and inclusion work. If you’re a business leader, how are you advocating for your LGBTQIA+ employees and the wider community? Are you implementing effective diversity training programs to help create an inclusive workplace? Are you empowering inclusive leadership practices?

    Are you doing simple things, like encouraging employees to put their gender pronouns on their email signatures and Slack profiles? Are you investing in your organization’s psychological safety? How are you creating a safe, inclusive workplace where all feel welcome to truly be themselves? 
  6. Don’t just use Pride as a marketing campaign. You might’ve noticed more than a few rainbow logos floating around LinkedIn starting on June 1. While it’s great that organizations show support for Pride, it’s not a marketing moment.

    Organizations should use Pride Month to celebrate the strength, resilience, and beauty of the LGBTQIA+ community with action. Pride isn’t just a one-time event or party: it’s an ongoing commitment to advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community.

    Make sure you’re “walking the walk” if you’re going to “talk the talk.” It could be a great opportunity to gather feedback from your employee resource groups (ERGs) on areas for improvement, too.

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Published June 15, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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