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Reader’s Poll: The 25 Most Important LGBT Public Figures

Reader's Poll: The 25 Most Important LGBT Public Figures

June is Pride Month, commemorating the 1969 Stonewall riots and asking all of us to remember how we got where we are today. So we thought it might be fun to start up an annual Pride Month poll here at /bent, asking our readers to tell us the films, television shows, songs and people (both fictional and real) that have been important to them in the past 45 years. 

Check out all the results for every poll here.

Seventy-two people responded, and here’s our eighth and final poll: The most important LGBT public figures of the last 45 years. 

Now, before we get to the results: We do realize doing this kind of thing is highly subjective, which is why we’re going with “most important” and not “best.” We hoped that what resulted was eclectic mix of people that have helped shape the queer cultural landscape. And we think it really is, more or less. But here are some interesting things to note before you go through the list: 

  • The “points” listed next to each film refers to the way we tabulated things. People voted in top 10 lists, so if the person was #1, it got 10 points, #2 got 9 points, etc. 
  • Of the 24 people on the list (one was a group), 13 are still alive, while 11 have passed away.
  • As expected, men made up for the vast majority with 17, while 7 were women. 
  • Fourteen of the 24 identify as gay, while 4 are lesbians, 2 bisexuals and 4 trans folk.
  • Most were Americans, with 18, alongside 4 from the UK and 1 Czech.
  • Most were born in the 1930s and 1940s (5 each), though every decade was represented from the 1900s to the 1980s (Quentin Crisp was first born, Lady Gaga last).
  • And in case you’re curious, the 10 runner-ups, in order of votes, were: Dustin Lance Black; Edith Windsor; Tammy Baldwin; Neil Patrick Harris; Janet Mock; Rachel Maddow; Stephen Fry; Andy Warhol; Dan Choi and John Waters

So without further ado, we present the 25 most important LGBT public figures, according to you. Definitely use the comments section to discuss your thoughts and/or your own choices, but remember – these were your picks – do don’t blame us if your offended about their quality or lack of diversity through the LGBT spectrum. And watch the clips! They were heavily curated ;)

25. Derek Jarman – 39

Born: 1942 in London, UK
Died: 1994 in London, UK
Profession: A filmmaker, activist and artist who was extraordinarily influential in a career that was cut way too short. 

24. George Takei – 42
Born: 1937 in Los Angeles, California
Legacy: Actor and author best known as Sulu from “Star Trek,” Takei has become a visible and vocal advocate for LGBT rights, particularly on social media. 
23. James Baldwin – 44
Born: 1924 in New York, New York
Died: 1987 in Saint-Paul de Vence, France
Legacy: Though a lot of his work came before Stonewall (like 1956’s explicitly gay book “Giovanni’s Room”), novelist, poet, playwright and activist Baldwin remained an extraordinarily important figure through the 1970s and and 1980s for his exploration of racial, sexual and class distinctions in the US.

21 (tie). Quentin Crisp – 47
Born: 1908 in Sutton, England
Died: 1999 in Manchester, England
Legacy: A writer, actor and raconteur who was publicly gay at a time when it was downright dangerous to be so.

21 (tie). Harry Hay – 47
Born: 1912 in Sussex, England
Died: 2002 in San Francisco, California
Legacy: Founder of the Mattachine Society in 1950 (the first sustained gay rights group in the US) and the Radical Faeries, Hays was a gay rights activism pioneer if there ever was one — and continued to be post-Stonewall.

20. ACT UP – 52
Born: 1987 in New York, New York
Legacy: The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, ACT UP is a direct action advocacy group that did remarkable AIDS activism work (watch “How To Survive a Plague” and “United in Anger”!)

19. Divine – 55

Born: 1945 in Baltimore, Maryland
Died: 1988 in Los Angeles, California
Legacy: The drag persona of Harris Glenn Milstead, he was a singer, actor, and the muse to director John Waters.

18. Rosie O’Donnell – 59

Born: 1962 in Commack, New York
Legacy: Actress, talk show host and activist who since coming out in 2002 has been a vocal advocate for gay adoption, among many other things.

17. Lady Gaga – 63
Born: 1986 in New York, New York
Legacy: Pop singer and LGBT activist who has built her career around an LGBT fan base.

16. Vito Russo – 64
Born: 1946
Died: 1990 in New York, New York
Legacy: Gay rights activist, film historian and author best remembered for his 1981 book “The Celluloid Closet” and the TV show “In The Life.”

Check out all the results for every poll here.

15. Audre Lorde – 67
Born: 1934 in New York, New York
Died: 1992 in St. Croix, Virgin Islands
Legacy: A Caribbean-American poet, writer, feminist, civil rights activist, she was a pioneering voice for both black feminists and black lesbians.

14. Gore Vidal – 70
Born: 1925 in West Point, New York
Died: 2012 in Los Angeles, California
Legacy: An author, playwright, essayist and public intellectual, he wrote some of the first major American novels to feature unambiguous homosexuality (among many other things).


12 (tie). Harvey Fierstein – 76
Born: 1954 in Brooklyn, New York
Legacy: Tony winning actor and playwright who broke major barriers in the early 1980s by being out when few were and creating work like “Torch Song Trilogy.”

12 (tie). Sir Ian McKellan – 76

Born: 1939 in Burnley, England
Legacy: Academy Award nominated actor who has worked extensively campaigning for LGBT rights since coming out publicly in 1988.


11. Laverne Cox – 80
Born: An unknown year in Mobile, Alabama
Legacy: Though only a public figure for a year or two, she has already become an icon and a wonderfully vocal voice of the trans rights movement. 

10. Martina Navratilova – 82
Born: 1956 in Prague, Czechoslovakia
Legacy: One of the greatest tennis players who ever lived, she came out in 1981 and has been an advocate for LGBT rights ever since.

8 (tie). Sir Elton John – 88
Born: 1947 in Middlesex, England
Legacy: Singer, songwriter and activist who has won basically every award out there and has been openly LGBT since 1976.
8 (tie). RuPaul – 88
Born: 1960 in San Diego, California
Legacy: Actor, model, author, recording artist and reality TV host who is also arguably the most famous drag queen in American history (see Divine).

7. Dan Savage – 93
Born: 1954 in Chicago, Illinois
Legacy: Author, journalist, podcaster and very vocal media pundit who began the “It Gets Better” project in 2010 to prevent suicide among LGBT youth.

6. Larry Kramer – 97
Born: 1935 in Bridgeport, Connecticut
Legacy: Playwright, author and LGBT rights activist whose work includes the controversial 1978 novel “Faggots,” the 1985 play (and 2014 movie) “The Normal Heart,” as well as co-founding the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in response to the AIDS epidemic.


Check out all the results for every poll here.

5. Brandon Teena – 109
Born: 1972 in Lincoln, Nebraska
Died: 1993 in Humboldt, Nebraska
Legacy: A trans man who was raped and murdered, Teena’s tragic story was the subject of the 1999 film “Boys Don’t Cry” and led to increased lobbying for hate crimes legislation.

4. Barney Frank – 118
Born: 1940 in Bayonne, New Jersey
Legacy: Politician and first U.S. congressman to come voluntarily out as gay. Has since been an imperative, often pioneering advocate for LGBT rights within the U.S. government.

3. Matthew Shepard – 156
Born: 1976 in Casper, Wyoming
Died: 1998 in Fort Collins, Colorado
Legacy: Murdered student who became tragic symbol for hate crimes against gays in America. In 2009, the U.S. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was named after him.
2. Ellen DeGeneres – 224

Born: 1958 in Metairie, Louisiana 
Legacy: Comedienne, actress and talk show host who has brought LGBT visibility into our living rooms like no one else before her and has arguably become the most famous LGBT person in the world.


1. Harvey Milk – 262
Born: 1930 in Woodmere, New York
Died: 1978 in San Francisco, California
Profession: The first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, he became a leader and an icon of the late 1970s gay rights movement before being assassinated.

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