While our annual Power List ranks the most powerful LGBT people in America at this moment, that influence upon the national and international conversation was built upon the backs of giants. We have selected 15 personages from the past 100 years who have also had a broad reach—both for positive change as well as negative results—and one who may just change the lives for 21st Americans in unknown ways.
The post-AIDS gay rights movement would be nowhere without this writer and rabble-rouser's steadily angry beat on the drum. Kramer co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982. Then, when that didn’t seem sufficient, he went on to create ACT UP in 1987. But it was his play The Normal Heart, first produced in April 1985 at the Public Theater, for which most will remember him. It was revived on Broadway in 2011, and connected with a completely new audience and generations. He's currently working on a voluminous historical account of President Abraham Lincoln, whom Kramer purports was gay. He was honored in Out100 2011.
This English-born American was one of the earliest leaders of the gay rights movement. He founded the Mattachine Society but then left it to pursue his more spiritual side, eventually creating the group that today calls itself the Radical Faeries. He always expressed public support of anti-assimilationist causes—even openly criticizing more mainstream LGBT groups and organizations like ACT UP—which has caused him to be misunderstood by some looking to shirk controversy. He died in 2002. On June 1, 2011, the Silver Lake, Los Angeles Neighborhood Council voted unanimously to rename the Cove Avenue Stairway in Silver Lake in honor of Hay.
A British mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist, Turing is perhaps the greatest gay hero of the 20th century—and is credited as the father of computer science. During WWII his work focused on decrypting German naval codes helped the Ally troops in innumerable ways. Unfortunately Turing's homosexuality resulted in a criminal prosecution in 1952, when homosexual acts were still illegal in the UK. He accepted treatment with female hormones (chemical castration) as an alternative to prison. Turing died in 1954, just over two weeks before his 42nd birthday, from cyanide poisoning.
The legend of Harvey Milk, the San Francisco activist who became California's first openly gay elected official and who was assassinated in 1978 alongside San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, will be told to LGBT and straight Americans for years to come, as it should be.
Photo by Gavin Bond
Cutting his teeth during the anti-war furor of the Vietnam Era, this legendary activist later proved instrumental in building gay support for President Bill Clinton in 1992 and later in arguing, unsuccessfully, for the passage of "don't ask, don't tell." He also lobbied against a hateful California state initiative that would have prohibited out and proud people from becoming teachers, another that would have quarantined AIDS patience and help shame Michael Dukakis when the failed presidential candidate refused gay donors' money. He was honored in Out100 2011
Power isn't always wielded for good. Closet case Roy Cohn used his position as a federal prosecutor to first persecute accused communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, both of whom were executed, and later to rout out alleged communists during the Second Red Scare. After that, he used his powers to fight for the rich and famous, including Donald Trump, mafia leader John Gotti and Studio 54 owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. The super lawyer's tenacity in staying closeted doesn't diminish his status as a legend. His is just a cautionary tale.
There may be no final, decisive word on the recently deceased former New York City Mayor's sexual proclivities, but his homosexuality remains one of politic's biggest open secrets. His 12-year tenure as mayor of the United States' largest municipality was wracked with controversy and for many his ability to remain in the closet makes his inaction during the early days of the AIDS crisis an even bigger waste of power.
Shilts may not be remembered by name by everyone these days, but he was the reporter who covered the AIDS crisis for The Advocate and the San Francisco Chronicle, and who proved the power of the press as he spread the truth in the face of outrageous right wing lies. He's a legend to journalists and activists and deserves to be so among the general public, too. His first book, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, was the definitive biography of his friend, who was assassinated. His second book, And the Band Played On, remains a must-read to understand the AIDS crisis and in 1993 made into a popular movie that premiered on HBO. His last book, Conduct Unbecoming, examined discrimination against lesbians and gays in the military and was published in 1993.
The founder and first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Hoover is credited with many modern forensic lab procedues, including fingerprinting. A highly controversial figure due to his wielding of power (possibly making the FBI a sort of quasi-secret police) and influencing national politics, he was closeted and hunted down anyone who made reference to his sexuality and kept secret files on thousands of private citizens to use as blackmail and was involved in McCarthy's Lavender Scare of the 1950s that persecuted homosexuals.
Kameny was fighting the law long before it was the norm. An astronomer fired by the government for being gay in the '60s, Kameny took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. His argument was denied, but became the first time the Justices had heard such a case and would help inaugurate a new era in assertive attacks on discriminatory anti-gay laws.
Another person whose power is felt in all activist corners, feminist and former Communist Party leader came out as a lesbian in 1997, long after she established her legend as a maligned freedom fighter who used her own experience of being wrongly tried for murder to work toward prison reform.
Jorgensen became a tabloid sensation in 1952, when she went public with her sex change operation, the world's first American person to do so. She was an instant legend then — she even appeared on The Dick Cavett Show — and remains one now: actor Bradford Louryk portrayed her in the popular show Christine Jorgensen Reveals, audio of which is an actual interview with Jorgensen.
While most may remember her for her poetry, books (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas), and Paris salon—a guru to many—she also amassed an unrivaled collection of 20th century masters—including Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Renoir—that has become the foundation for many museum's modern art collections. She may have written "a rose is a rose is a rose," but it's Stein's unwavering originality, creativity, and commitment to friends and multitudes of misfits that makes her a true legend.
Having been born male and transitioning to female, Bornstein has authored books (and co-edited Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation), written plays, is recognized as an excellent performance artist, and her influence in gender theory is an essential backbone of many academic programs. She identifies as a lesbian and has also taken on Scientology, having grown up in the religion.
Already a living legend, Edie Windsor, one-half of the couple (read the full story of how Edie met Thea here) that launched the case against DOMA that's currently being heard at the Supreme Court, lived most of her life in the 20th century, but it is her bravery and tenacity in the face of seemingly insurmountable hurdles in the 21st that will no doubt transform her into an icon, earning her (and her legal case) a place in international history to inspire generations to come.