The act of coming out in the media has ebbed and flowed over time as the novelty and the stigma of being openly gay has gradually worn off. For as long as the idea of homosexuality has existed as a social construct—and therefore as something identifiable and as an identity in and of itself—identifying as such has carried with it a penalty. Whether leading to the loss of one's social standing, one's employment, or one's life completely, coming out has been nothing short of a revolutionary act.
It is only now when being out is so commonplace that the process can seem unnecessary, but the cost of freedom is constant vigilance. The more people come out, the more ordinary it becomes to be queer, the harder it is for anyone to take away the rights for which we've fought so hard.
In honor of today, National Coming Out Day, here are 13 people whose coming-out helped to alter the conversation on LGBTQ people in society.
Christine Jorgensen (1953)
Jorgensen became the first trans celebrity when, upon returning to the US in 1953 after undergoing gender reassignment surgery, she told her story to The American Weekly and embarked on a publicity tour advocating for transgender people.
Harold Call, Donald Lucas, and Les Fisher (1961)
The groundbreaking 1961 television doc The Rejected was the first time homosexuals were able to speak for themselves. The homosexuals doing the talking were members of early gay rights organization the Mattachine Society—president Harold Call, executive secretary Donald Lucas, and treasurer Les Fisher—eight years before the Stonewall rebellion launched the modern LGBT rights movement.
Matlovitch became the face of the still-nascent gay rights movement when he appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1975, becoming the first openly gay person to appear on the cover of a nationwide newsmagazine. A decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, Matlovitch was discharged from the Air Force for refusing to sign a pledge that he would "never practice homosexuality again." He eventually settled with the Air Force, but his life was cut short when he was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1986. He came out as HIV-positive on Good Morning America in 1987 and was dead a year later at age 44.
Martina Navratilova (1981)
One of the greatest athletes of the 20th century, male or female, Navratilova came out as bisexual in a 1981 interview with the New York Daily News. Though she had asked the paper to hold the article until she was ready to come out, as is the long tradition of the Daily News, they ignored Navratilova's wishes, making her the first professional athlete to come out while still active in her career. Navratilova, later identifying as a lesbian, would go on to snatch titles for decades to come before retiring in 2006.
Rock Hudson (1985)
In the mid-50s through the early-60s, Rock Hudson was the epitome of nonthreatening, all-American manhood, thanks to films like Giant co-starring longtime friend Elizabeth Taylor, and a series of romantic comedies with America's sweetheart Doris Day. While rumors of his sexuality swarmed for decades, when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1984, he found he couldn't hide anymore. Hudson came out via press release as HIV-positive on July 25, 1985, the first big name celebrity to go public with the disease, thus helping to change the way people saw the disease. Hudson died just three months after the announcement.
Barney Frank (1987)
The Democratic Representative from Massachusetts became the first member of Congress to voluntarily come out in 1987. Coming out didn't hamper Frank's political prospects, however, and he continued to serve in Congress until his retirement in 2013.
Greg Louganis (1995)
Photo: Roger Erickson for Out
The four-time Olympic gold medalist came out to Barbara Walters in a 1995 interview as not only gay but HIV-positive, before publishing his bestselling memoir Breaking the Surface in 1996. Earlier this year, Louganis reflected on finally receiving his own Wheaties box, after being denied the honor in the '80s: "This means so much more than it would have back then. Getting it now means people will see me as a whole person—a flawed person who is gay, HIV-positive, with all the other things I’ve been through.”
Ellen DeGeneres (1997)
Photo: Chris Pizello/Invision/AP for Out
Perhaps the most high-profile coming-out ever, DeGeneres sat down for a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey, followed by a cover of Time magazine, and culminating in a watershed episode of her eponymous sitcom, in which her character also came out. The publicity proved too much, and after her show was canceled, DeGeneres struggled with anger and depression, as well as restarting her career. 13 Emmys and a couple hundred million dollars later, the new Queen of Daytime is one of the most powerful people in Hollywood, as well as one of its most ardent advocates for the rights of LGBT people.
Jason Collins (2013)
Photo: JUCO for Out
Collins came out in a 2013 Sports Illustrated cover story, sending waves through the world of professional sports. When he was signed to the Brooklyn Nets in 2014, Collins became the first openly gay athlete to play for any of North America's four major professional leagues—the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL have been notoriously hard to break into for out athletes—before retiring later that year.
Michael Sam (2014)
Photo: Richard Phibbs for Out
At 24, Michael Sam was saddled with the burden of being the Great Gay Hope. After coming out in an article in The New York Times, Sam was poised to become the first openly gay athlete drafted by the perennially homophobic NFL. That things didn't work out as planned is an understatement, but being the first to do anything is an unenviable task. After a series of false starts, Sam left the NFL to briefly play in Canada's CFL—the first openly gay player to do so—but announced he would be taking a break from football to focus on his mental health.
Caitlyn Jenner (2015)
Photo: Ryan Pfluger for Out
Though the age of coming out on the covers of magazines is largely over—with many opting for a more casual social media post—Caitlyn Jenner is the exception. After a much publicized televised interview with Diane Sawyer on 20/20, Jenner reintroduced herself to the world in a now iconic cover for Vanity Fair, photographed by Annie Leibovitz. Standing on the accomplishments of other public trans people like Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox, and Janet Mock, Jenner's coming-out heralded a new level of visibility, acceptance, and understanding of the transgender community—thanks to her role in the most famous family in America and her white privilege. While the latter remains a major issue whenever discussing Jenner, her coming out has facilitated a larger discussion on trans issues.