October is LGBTQ+ History Month, a yearly event that officially launched in 1994 to celebrate the achievements of icons in the community. 2020 marks the event’s 15th anniversary, and it’s the perfect time to expose your children to some of the most influential LGBTQ+ figures, historical and contemporary, if they are not familiar already. The official site has put together a list of 31 LGBTQ+ heroes to celebrate this year, and they’re all folks that kids should be talking about in school and at home.
The site credits Rodney Wilson, a Missouri high school teacher, as the founding father of LGBTQ+ history month. Wilson “believed a month should be dedicated to the celebration and teaching of gay and lesbian history, and gathered other teachers and community leaders,” to bring his vision to life. Past icons include Pete Buttigieg and Ellen Page. The people on the list are nominated by the public (you can nominate here for the 2021 list), then reviewed by LGBT History Month co-chairs (this year, the chairs are Anne Balay and Ken Lustbader) who make recommendations for the 31 icons they believe deserve a spotlight. Some of this year’s names will likely be familiar to you already (like Kate McKinnon or Lil Nas X), but all of them should be familiar to everyone.
The nominees may be either dead or living, but they are all “selected for achievements in their field of endeavor; for their status as a national hero; or for their significant contribution to LGBT civil rights,” per the LGBTQ+ History Month website.
“The LGBT community is the only community worldwide that is not taught its history at home, in public schools or in religious institutions,” states the site. “LGBT History Month provides role models, builds community and makes the civil rights statement about our extraordinary national and international contributions.” It’s an unfortunate surprise that only four states (California, Colorado, New Jersey, and Illinois) mandate gay and lesbian history as part of a public school classroom’s syllabus, per U.S. News, so it’s up to parents and educators to work together to advocate for a more inclusive curriculum.
“Teaching about LGBTQ+ history has continuously shown to decrease bullying and stigma, and increase empathy for LGBTQ+ students,” Armonté Butler, Senior Program Manager for LGBTQ Health & Rights at Advocates for Youth tells Romper. “By teaching LGBTQ+ history, schools are able to provide a comprehensive teaching of history that also creates a more safe and supportive environment for all students. When the positive contributions of LGBTQ+ people and key historical events are highlighted, students are equipped with more knowledge and resources that work to enhance the school’s climate.”
If you and your child want to learn even more about this year’s 31 icons (and those from years past) or you’re a teacher adding some meaningful updates to your curriculum, nonprofit LGBTQ+ civil rights organization, Equality Forum, is posting bios of this year’s icons on their Instagram and the LGBT History Month website will reveal videos and additional resources about these important figures one day at a time as well. This list is just one avenue to explore to educate yourself and the next generation about all things LGBTQ+ — picture books, documentaries, shows (including kid-friendly ones), and social media accounts are other resources — but it’s a great place to start.
1. Nikolay Alexeyev
Russian LGBTQ+ activist, Nikolay Alexeyev (sometimes spelled Alekseev), is a lawyer and a journalist who is the head of both the human rights project known as GayRussia and the Moscow Pride Organizing Committee. In 2010, he won the first ever case on human rights violations against LGBTQ+ people in Russia, when the court ruled unanimously that the country’s decision to ban three Moscow Prides breached the European Convention On Human Rights.
2. Deborah Batts
Deborah Batts was the first openly gay, Black federal judge in America, and she was unanimously confirmed by the senate. In 1994, she became the United States District Judge for Manhattan, and later she was seminal in bringing justice to The Central Park Five. She died in February of this year from complications of a knee surgery, her wife, Dr. Gwen Zornberg told The New York Times.
3. Angie Craig
In 2018, Angie Craig was the first openly gay women from Minnesota elected to the U.S. House Of Representatives (Tammy Baldwin was the first ever openly lesbian person in Congress). Craig is a vocal champion of marriage equality in her home state, where she lives with her wife and four sons.
4. Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson has one of the most recognizable and influential voices in poetry, though she was not critically acclaimed until after her passing; in fact, she was hardly published until after her death when her sister Lavinia found Dickinson’s poems. While the poet lived a reclusive life, scholars have theorized that Dickinson may have been a lesbian because of the romantic nature of the letters sent to her long-time best friend, Susan Gilbert, who later became her sister-in-law when she married Dickinson’s brother, Austin, per Vox.
5. Felicia Elizondo
Activist, historian, entertainer, and more Felicia Elizondo (who also goes by the nickname ‘Flames’ per Vice) is a transgender woman, a Mexican-American, a Vietnam War veteran (she was discharged during wartime because she came out as gay), and is living with HIV. She is an LGBT and AIDS-activist, living in San Francisco where she works to fundraise for crucial organizations including Project Open Hand and the San Francisco LGBT Community Center.
6. Rob Epstein
Rob Epstein is a gay film producer and director best known for his documentaries. He’s won two Academy Awards in the “Best Documentary Feature” category for The Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. The latter tells the story of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, which is an enormous handcrafted quilt that commemorates the lives of more than 105,000 people who died of AIDS or related illnesses (per NPR). Weighing approximately 54 tons, it’s the largest piece of community folk art in the world.
7. Emile Griffith
Emile Griffith was a world champion boxer from the U.S. Virgin Islands who also worked as a professional hat designer. He was openly bisexual in the ’50s and ’60s, at a time when being gay was largely unacceptable. He’s perhaps best-known for his 1962 match against Benny Paret, who called Griffith a homosexual slur; Griffith knocked him out, and Paret, who was also recovering from previous injuries, died ten days later. Griffith’s life was much more than this incident though (he died in 2013), and there’s a great documentary about him called Ring Of Fire.
8. Menaka Guruswamy & Arundhati Katju
Public-interest litigators Arundhati Katju and Menaka Guruswamy are fighting for equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community in India. They spearheaded the overturning of an 157 year old rule which stated that homosexual sex was “against the order of nature,” an historic win for equality in India which landed this duo on Time’s list of 100 Most Influential People 2019.
9. Alexander von Humboldt
Alexander von Humboldt was a geographer, nationalist, and explorer in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He’s credited with being the “first person to map areas of equal air temperature and pressure, a technique now used in every weather forecast around the world,” per Encyclopedia.
He was also one of the first people to notice similarities between plants across the world, and he’s considered a champion of early environmentalism. Author of The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, Andrea Wulf, said in an interview, “Personally, I am 99.9% sure that Humboldt was gay. But what nobody knows for sure, as there is no supporting documentary evidence, is whether Humboldt was a practicing homosexual.”
10. Christopher Isherwood
Memoirist, novelist, and playwright, Christopher Isherwood is well-known for his autobiographical novel, Goodbye to Berlin, which inspired the musical, Cabaret. Because in the ’70s, Isherwood could not legally marry his partner, artist Don Bachardy, and therefore could not leave him his house and his royalties after his death, he skirted the system by actually adopting Bachardy, per HuffPost. Despite the couple’s 30 year age difference, they still spent 33 years in a relationship.
11. Moisés Kaufman
Born to Orthodox Jewish parents (one was a Holocaust survivor), Moisés Kaufman is a Venezuelan playwright and director whose work often covers sexuality. Venezuela is a largely Roman Catholic country, and his religion coupled with his sexuality caused him to constantly feel like an outsider.
“I remember very vividly the first time I found the word ‘homosexual’ in the dictionary and being delighted, because I thought there must be one other person in the world who is homosexual because there is a word for it,” Kaufman said in an interview with NBC News.
12. Lori Lightfoot
Lori Lightfoot is the mayor of Chicago, and before holding the government position she worked as an attorney. When she was elected in 2019, she became the first openly gay Black woman to ever be elected mayor of a major U.S. city. She won 74% of the vote, making Chicago the “largest city in U.S. history with an openly LGBTQ+ mayor and the largest city led by a woman,” per Equality Forum.
13. Claudia López
The first woman ever to be elected to mayor of Bogota, Colombia’s capital, also happens to be gay. The journalist-turned-politician, Claudia López is vocal about anti-corruption and critical of far-right politicians. She said to her supporters upon her win, “This is the day of the woman. We knew that only by uniting could we win. We did that. We united, we won and we made history,” per BBC.
14. Bernárd Lynch
Openly gay Catholic priest and advocate for LGBTQ ministry in the Catholic Church, Bernárd Lynch is truly a pioneer. He created the first AIDS ministry in New York City with Dignity USA, and in the early ’90s he started a ministry to support closeted gay priests. In 2019, won the Presidential Distinguished Service Awards for the Irish Abroad in the ‘Charitable Works’ category.
15. Anne McClain
Lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, engineer, helicopter test pilot, and NASA astronaut — what does Anne McClain not do? She’s the first openly gay astronaut (though Sally Ride was also a member of the LGBTQ+ community, which was not revealed until after her death). McClain’s “call sign” (the nickname used to identify flight controllers) is ‘Annimal’ which harkens back to her rugby days (she played professionally and was an assistant coach for the U.S. Women’s All-Star Team).
16. Kate McKinnon
You probably know Kate McKinnon from her spot-on (and hilarious) impersonation of Elizabeth Warren on Saturday Night Live, where she’s the show’s first openly gay female star. When McKinnon awarded Ellen DeGeneres with the The Carol Burnett Award at the 2019 Golden Globes, she said of the daytime TV host, “[Ellen] risked her entire life and her entire career in order to tell the truth, and she suffered greatly for it. Of course, attitudes change, but only because brave people like Ellen jump into the fire to make them change,” per The New York Times. And now McKinnon is paving the road for future generations.
17. Harris Glenn Milstead “Divine”
Harris Glenn Milstead, who went by the stage name “Divine” was a drag performer and actor. He starred in many John Waters’ films, perhaps most memorably, Hairspray. Sadly, in 1988 he passed away one month before Hairspray came out, just as his dreams of becoming a well-regarded actor were finally happening, per Medium. While he was openly gay, Milstead did not consider himself transgender, but felt that persona was part of his job.
18. David Mixner
Political activist, playwright, and author, David Mixner, is best known for his work in anti-war and gay rights advocacy. He lost 300 friends during the AIDs crisis in the ’80s (including his partner, Peter Scott), and “he claims to have delivered 90 eulogies in just two years,” per Independent. Some of his most notable work centered around stopping Proposition 6, which would have made it illegal for LGBTQ+ people to be teachers, and Proposition 64, which would have forced people with AIDs into a quarantine. Neither proposition passed.
19. Lauren Morelli
Lauren Morelli was a writer on Orange Is The New Black, where she met her now-wife, actor Samira Wiley (who played Poussey Washington on the show). In 2014, Morelli wrote an article for Mic, titled, “While Writing for ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ I Realized I Am Gay” (she was previously married to a man). Since then, she cultivated an all-queer writers room while writing the limited-edition Netflix series, Tales Of The City.
20. Ifti Nasim
Pakistani American poet, Ifti Nasim, is the author of Narman, a book of Urdu poetry that’s said to be “the first direct statement of ‘gay’ longings and desires to ever appear in that language,” per The Chicago LGBT Hall Of Fame. It was a risky endeavor for the author, and while the book received backlash, it also received fierce critical acclaim which inspired other gay Pakistani poets to follow in his footsteps. Nasim died in 2011.
21. Jess O’Connell
The first openly LGBTQ+ CEO of the Democratic National Committee, Jess O’Connell is a political strategist with a progressive agenda. She worked on the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Pete Buttigieg, and she’s also the former executive director of Emily’s List, an organization that works to get democratic women elected. She lives in Maryland with her wife and son.
22. Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver, whose poem Wild Geese has been widely shared since her passing in 2019, was at her core, a nature poet who keenly observed the world around her. She lived with her partner, Molly Malone Cook, in Provincetown, Mass., for 40 years until Cook’s death in 2005, per LitHub. While subtle, she did write love poems, and Sue Russell of The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review said, “Mary Oliver will never be a balladeer of contemporary lesbian life… but the fact that she chooses not to write from a similar political or narrative stance makes her all the more valuable to our collective culture,” per Pulitzer.
23. Billy Porter
Billy Porter, an actor and singer, is a vocal champion of LGBTQ+ rights. In Feb. 2020, hours before Trump’s speech, Porter gave an LGBTQ State Of The Union on Logo TV where he said that the president “painted himself as a friend of the LGBTQ community, while revealing his true colors at every malicious turn,” per Feminist Majority Foundation. He took to his social media in June 2020 to stand up specifically for black gay and trans people where he said, “LGBTQ+ black folks are black people, too,” per Entertainment Weekly.
24. Laura Ricketts
Laura Ricketts is a co-owner of the Chicago baseball team, The Cubs, and the first openly gay owner of a sports team. She is also a lawyer, philanthropist, and businessperson (she founded Ecotravel) and “she became politically active when George W. Bush proposed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in his 2004 State of the Union speech,” per New York Magazine, which also reported that Ricketts came out in her early 30s.
25. Angelica Ross
Angelica Ross is an actor in American Horror Story, Pose, and more, a businesswoman, and a trans-advocate. She’s also the CEO of TransTech Social Enterprises, an organization that works to place transgender people in tech jobs. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) reported that 41.8% of non-binary youth surveyed reported attempting suicide at some point in their lives, a staggeringly sad fact. Ross, too, said she attempted suicide after coming out as a teen to a non-supportive mother, and now works to fight for transgender and gender-nonconforming folks and racial rights.
Ancient Greek poet Sappho, wrote in Greece in the 6th century BC. Her erotic love poems directed at other women were written in her telltale verse (which is now known as “Sapphic”) and interestingly, the word ‘lesbian’ derives from Lesbos, the Grecian island where Sappho lived.
27. Megan Smith
As chief technology officer in the Obama administration. Megan Smith was the first openly gay person to hold the position. Since then, she’s gone on to help establish Tech Jobs Tour, which promotes diversity in tech, and later she founded shift7, which uses technology for good by helping to solve systemic economic, social, and environmental challenges.
28. Baron von Steuben
Baron von Steuben was an American general and Revolutionary War hero hired by George Washington. He’s believed by historians to be openly gay in a time when it was punishable by law, per History. He fled his home country of Germany to live permanently in the United States where he adopted his two lovers (which was then a commonplace alternative to gay marriage).
29.Laxmi Narayan Tripathi
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi (who sometimes goes by Lakshmi) is a dancer, a former reality TV star, and a transgender advocate in Mumbai. She’s a beacon of hope for India’s LGBTQ+ community, especially for those who identify as hijras. Often called India’s “third gender,” hijras were once revered in Indian society but Indian law deemed them criminals in 1871. Tripathi was integral in getting government anti-AIDS programs to include hijras, per Guernica.
30. Deborah Waxman
Rabbi Deborah Waxman is the president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and she has spoken out on behalf of feminism and gender equality in Judaism and Jewish leadership. In 2015, Waxman was awarded a spot on the “Forward 50” list for her work in advocating for Jewish people who marry non-Jewish people to still be allowed to become rabbis.
31. Lil Nas X
Grammy award rapper, singer, and songwriter, Lil Nas X is one of a handful of openly gay rappers. The singer was also the first member of the LGBTQ+ community to win a Country Music Association (CMA) Award for his single, “Old Town Road,” and he was nominated for six Grammys in 2020.