Since long before the days of Sappho, we’ve been here. Through millennia of forced silence, the LGBTQ community has persisted – and with more of us holding positions of power now than at any other time in history, our communal voice is louder than ever.
But our work isn’t done. Our history is still in the making, and there are eight heroes past and present who have laid the pavement that we now march forward on, together.
1. Marsha P. Johnson
There is no list of LGBTQ icons complete without Marsha “Pay it no Mind” Johnson. A cornerstone of our history, Johnson was one of the prime voices that spurred the Stonewall Uprising. When the police raided The Stonewall Inn in 1969, her queer community decided they’d had enough. It was time to fight back. The uprising spilled into the streets, lasting for several days as queer folks protested the way they’d been raided, harassed, and pushed to the corners of society for far too long. The riots weren’t quickly forgotten, and a year later, the first Pride parade was held to commemorate the good fight.
As a transgender woman of color, Johnson’s calling was to leave a road for young trans* young people that was brighter than the one she’d walked. A living burst of color in motion, she wasn’t afraid to be a memorable presence, and often clashed with the cis gay men of New York in her quest to band the community together for the collective good.
She was no stranger to pushback, and the resistance of those men only pushed her further. Working with her close friend Sylvia Riviera, Johnson founded the the first organization in the United States led by trans* women of color called Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Dedicated to the young transgender community, their mission was to help people in their community find stable housing. Now, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute carries on the spirit of her work, as they fight to protect and defend “the human rights of black transgender people.”
2. Arsham Parsi
As a gay Iranian teen in the 1990s, Arsham Parsi thought he was alone. But when he found the secret community forming online, Parsi found his spark – and he didn’t sleep on it. Keeping his work secret from family and friends, he dove into volunteering for underground queer organizations, from helping a local doctor research HIV in Shiraz to organizing a secret Yahoo chat group for Iranian queers called Voice Celebration. This small thread of fifty resilient queer people was a vital pulse that kept the community resilient in the face of laws that threatened death for the crime of loving someone else.
When Parsi learned that the Iranian police were looking for him in 2005, he fled to Turkey and eventually found his way to Canada as a refugee. Still there today, Parsi is an exile for love – but he hasn’t let that get in the way of his goals. Instead, he established the International Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR), a charity that works tirelessly to help asylum-seeking queer people find security, stability, and a place to thrive as themselves. After losing a close friend during her struggle to come to Canada from Iran, Parsi went on to start the Marjan Foundation, a nonprofit working in tandem with IRQR to raise funds for LGBTQ refugees around the world to afford the journey to Canada.
3. Edith Windsor
The Matriarch of the Gay Rights Movement, Edith Windsor never expected to be in the spotlight. If anything, she spent decades shying away from it. Born in the U.S. in 1929, she didn’t have the luxury to be out without risking her career and safety. But when she met Thea Spyer, Windsor knew she’d be worth any risk. Their first night out dancing together, they “just fit,” she said.
For the next forty years, Windsor and Spyer were inseparable, but when Spyer got ill, Windsor couldn’t visit her in the hospital, since the U.S. failed to recognize their love as binding. When told Spyer had just one year left to live, they flew to Canada and got married.
Soon after, Spyer passed, and Windsor owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes on her wife’s estate. Had they been a straight couple, she would have owed nothing. But since the U.S. didn’t recognize same-sex marriage, she didn’t stand a chance at seeing that money again – until she fought the law.
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) may have blocked her from being recognized as Spyer’s spouse, but Windsor wasn’t prepared to let it rest. In 2013, Windsor v. The United States hit the Supreme Court, and the results changed the way the U.S. viewed marriage forever. In their landmark decision, Windsor was legally declared Spyer’s widow. Through the persistence of her love, Windsor’s case tore DOMA down.
4. Michael Sam
It takes courage to be the first – and Michael Sam wasn’t afraid. His whole life, Sam wanted to be a football player. His college career was a thriving success, starting with a full ride to the University of Missouri and ending with several accolades, including SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year.
By the time he was ready for the NFL draft, Sam’s name was on everyone’s lips. Then, he did something no other NFL player had done before. Sam came out. In 2014, Edith Windsor had only just won her Supreme Court case. Being gay in public wasn’t easy, especially in such a traditionally straight environment. But he was determined to be true to himself. When he still got drafted by the Rams, he was elated.
For him, that was the only news. For the rest of the country, something else made headlines: the kiss that Sam had shared with his boyfriend on air after getting drafted was all over the place. And from there, the dream he’d worked for so long to build proved to not be what he’d hoped for. Bouncing from team to team, Sam wasn’t treated with respect or given the shot he deserved. In 2015, he permanently retired from football.
But after an ayahuasca journey revolutionized his relationship with himself, he found a new path beyond the world of sports. Now, Sam is a motivational speaker who uses his platform to share his experience coming out and inspire his listeners to be their most authentic selves. While the NFL may not have been ready for Michael Sam, the rest of the world rushed to greet him with open arms.
5. Alice Nkom
In Cameroon, you can’t talk about LGBTQ rights without talking about Alice Nkom. A forerunner of the LGBTQ movement, Nkom is the face of the fight for equality in Cameroon. She started making waves young, when she became the country’s first female lawyer at the age of twenty-four.
When she got the credentials, Nkom immediately set to work protecting the Cameroonian queer community. Being gay is a crime there, one that can land you up to five years in prison. As a defense attorney for LGBTQ clients, she has made it her life’s work chipping away at those laws. Her most famous case was Jean-Claude Roger Mdebe, a man sentenced to three years in prison for the crime of his identity, and whose case was protested by international human rights organizations around the world.
Her work is a constant battle peppered with arrest threats and opposition from top to bottom, but Nkom keeps plowing ahead. In 2003, she founded a nonprofit called the Association for the Defense of Homosexuals (ADEFHO) to bring peace and light to the LGBTQ community of Cameroon. Through connections with various human rights groups, the nonprofit uses their voice to call for action following crimes against the LGBTQ community.
When asked why she works as hard as she does for her clients, her answer was simple. “I must help them live…I must give them the strength to say, ‘Yes, I am this way.’…I want to help people understand that being gay is OK.”
One case at a time, Alice Nkom is doing just that.
6. Harvey Milk
A career man, Harvey Milk spent years content to keep his identity private. But as he fell in love with the bustling queer scenes of New York and San Francisco, Milk slowly untangled himself from the shadows. By the time he was in his forties, Milk had embraced his true self and become a symbol of growth in the gay community.
Known for his persistence, Milk wanted to go beyond being a vocal advocate; he wanted to be part of local politics. But running for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1973 as an out, gay man wasn’t easy, and he lost. Instead of giving up, he ran again in 1975, only to lose again.
Rather than get discouraged, he worked out in the field tto build queer visibility. From convincing unions to hire more more gay employees, to founding the Castro Village Association protecting queer workers, Milk worked hard to earn the title “Mayor of Castro Street.” And in 1977, he finally won the title of Supervisor, becoming one of the first out LGBTQ members of public office in the United States. During his time in this office, he fought California’s Proposition 6, a bill that would have banned the LGBTQ community from becoming teachers.
When Milk was assassinated only eleven months after his election, the promise of this politician was cut short. Milk may be remembered now more for his death than his life, but in his years advocating for his community, he opened the channels for all the queer politicians that are in the U.S. Congress today.
7. Lena Waithe
Our foreparents paved the way so that icons like Lena Waithe could rise to the top and inspire the rest of us to move towards our dreams. An LGBTQ icon, Lena Waithe is not afraid to take up the space she deserves. Dissecting the intersections of race and sexuality with candor, humor, and grace, her work as a screenwriter and actor moves millions, whether that’s with her TV show The Chi or her 2019 movie Queen & Slim. She takes the responsibility of being in the spotlight seriously, and each event becomes an opportunity to push the dialogue – just look at the times she’s been invited to the Met Gala and turned her outfits into acts of defiance.
It’s through this belief in herself and the integrity of her actions that she climbed the steady path of her career. By 2014, Waithe had made it to Variety’s list of 10 Comedians to Watch. And by 2017, she had arrived. For her outstanding writing on Master of None’s episode “Thanksgiving,” Waithe became the first Black-American woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. When she received her award, she knew what it meant to queer people of color everywhere. “The things that make us different,” she said. “Those are our superpowers.”
If her continued journey in stardom is any indication, the more authentically we answer the call to be ourselves, the stronger that power becomes.
8. Alexya Salvador
A reverend, a teacher, and a beacon for social justice, Salvador is always on the go. Being trans* and living in Brazil, she says her body is inherently political. Instead of letting that hinder her, she has embraced her differences, making waves in 2018 as the first transgender person to run for office in Brazil.
You could say Salvador is a woman known for firsts. The first openly transgender pastor in Latin America, she later became the first trans* ordained reverend there as well. Guided by her love of making the world better, Salvador became the first transgender woman to adopt children in Brazil as well.
When she was growing up, Salvador didn’t have role models who showed her everything she could become. Now, her life’s work is to change that for everyone who comes after her. That’s why, on top of everything else she does, her primary career is in education. Every day, she works to show young people that they can flourish as their truest selves.
As a teacher, she is patient, knowing she’s not just teaching grammar; she’s teaching diversity. Salvador’s kindness and persistence have informed every step of her still-evolving political and public journey. With endless compassion and an eye for possibility, she moves forward, combining joy and advocacy to make Brazil a lusher place for her LGBTQ community – one first at a time.
Countless queer ancestors and contemporaries have marked the path before us. These eight brave icons have forged our history and are continuing to write it each and every day. In the wake of so much uncertainty, it’s easy to feel small. But remember: we’ve been here for millennia – and we aren’t going anywhere. This Pride, let’s honor those who came before us, those who are fighting for us now, and those heroes who are yet to come.