Top 5 LGBTQ+ Leaders to Know for Pride Month

June is Pride Month in the US, commemorating the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969.

It’s a festive occasion and in normal years, it brings out millions of people for Pride celebrations and huge parades in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Rainbow flags – and rainbow just-about-everything  – flood the cities, reinforcing the messages of equity and inclusion.

We celebrate Pride Month at ThinkFives with our list of Top 5 LGBTQ+ leaders — a list that is not meant to be definitive but just a start for teachers who want to better understand LGBTQ+ progress.

Marsha P. Johnson: Drag Queen

A gay liberation activist and self-identified drag queen, Marsha P. Johnson has been credited with throwing “the shot glass that was heard around the world.”  In 1969, as the police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York City, Marsha P. supposedly threw a shot glass at a mirror in the torched bar, screaming, “I got my civil rights.”  

Marsha P. was a “drag mother” of STAR House, providing food, clothing, emotional support and a sense of family for the young drag queens, trans women, and gender nonconformists.Martha P. struggled with mental illness later in life but was still able to join AIDS activism with ACT UP in the 80’s. She died under suspicious circumstances in 1992.

Governor Cuomo of New York announced that the East River State Park in Brooklyn will be renamed in Johnson’s honor, the first NY park named after an LGBTQ+  person.

Larry Kramer: AIDS Activist

Larry Kramer, now known as an American playwright, author, film producer and LGBTQ+ rights activist, was a lightning rod of controversy during the AIDS crisis. Experiencing the death of friends all around, Larry spoke out forcibly on the lack of priority and urgency by the government and medical community.

In response, he created the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization and later created Act Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which held high-profile demonstrations across the country, funneling anger, fury, and rage into action.

His works, like his activism, created admirers and enemies. Oscar-nominated for the screenplay, Women in Love, and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for The Destiny of Me, his works were unfiltered and provocative. Faggots, a controversial novel about New York City’s gay subculture, received praise and criticism. He chronicled his experience in AIDS activism in the play “The Normal Heart,” a Broadway play and HBO movie.

Christine Jorgensen: Transgender Ex-GI

Christine Jorgensen was an American transgender woman who was the first person to become widely known in the US for having sex reassignment surgery. Born George William Jorgensen, Christine was drafted into the Army during World War II, receiving an honorable discharge in 1946.

From her youngest days, she remembered herself feeling she “was a woman trapped inside a man’s body.” Unhappy with life after her military service, she discovered doctors in Copenhagen, Denmark who were conducting experimental sex reassignment surgery.  She  eventually obtained special permission to undergo a series of operations in 1952.

She returned to the United States and her transition was profiled on the front-pages of NYC newspapers. Becoming an instant celebrity, she was known for her directness and polished wit, and used her platform to advocate for transgender people.

She published her autobiography in 1967, saying, “The sexual revolution was going to start with or without me. We may not have started it, but we gave it a good swift kick in the pants.”

Edith Windsor: DOMA Destroyer

Edith Windsor was an American LGBTQ+ rights activist and the lead plaintiff in the 2013 landmark Supreme Court case, US v. Windsor, which overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (which defined marriage as one man and one woman).

Edith met Thea Spyer in Greenwich Village in 1963. To keep it a secret, she invented a relationship with Spyer’s fictional brother Willy to explain phone calls to the office. They entered a domestic partnership in 1993.

After Spyer died from complications from a heart condition in 2009, Edith became the executor of Spyer’s estate and was required to pay $360K in estate taxes. Had federal law recognized the validity of their marriage, she would have paid no federal estate taxes. She filed suit and in June 2013, the Supreme Court ruled  5-4 that DOMA was unconstitutional “as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment.”

Edith passed away 4 years later at the age of 88. Hillary Clinton spoke at her funeral.

Harvey Milk: Mayor of Castro Street

One of the most famous — and impactful — LBGTQ+ leaders is undoubtedly Harvey Milk.  Fondly remembered as the Mayor of Castro Street, Milk has been the focus of several documentaries and movies, including the award-winning Sean Penn film, Milk.

Harvey Milk became the first openly gay person elected to public office, winning a seat on the San Francisco City Council Board in 1977. 

He sponsored antidiscrimination bills and equity in housing in his short time on the Board. A charismatic figure in San Francisco, Milk ushered in an era of activism from his camera shop on Castro Street and galvanized thousands in support of LGBTQ+  causes.

Sadly, Harvey Milk, along with LGBTQ-friendly Mayor George Moscone, was assassinated by Dan White, a disgruntled fellow Board member. When White was found not guilty of first-degree murder because of his “twinkie defense,”  (He claimed diminished capacity as a result of his depression and a change in diet include to Twinkies), the White Night Riots ensued, a public and at times violent demonstration by the gay community unlike any ever seen in the US before.

Harvey Milk was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 by President Obama.

Honorable Mentions

Other LGBTQ+ Influencers to Share?


  1. I loved reading about this article. Reminds me of the time that Jason Collins, a former NBA player came out and became the first-ever athlete to be the first openly gay professional athlete. Was definitely a monumental moment in sports history, and one that I will always remember. A great stepping stone in the right direction.

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