In the 54 years since Marsha P. Johnson threw the first brick in the Stonewall Inn uprisings, some things have changed for queer and trans people in America — but nowhere near enough. With anti-trans bills sweeping the nation, the threat to reproductive rights boding ill for national LGBTQIA+ protections, and police brutality against trans people of color still of particular concern — to say nothing of corporations that proudly sport rainbow branding on main while sponsoring anti-gay legislation and politicians on the low causing the usual whiplash — Pride Month is more a time for action than ever before.
Luckily, there are tons of folks in the community who have been working toward liberation for years, whether through activism or simply by living their lives in public. So allow us to celebrate a few of those queer leaders and visionaries whose work toward LGBTQIA+ liberation continues to inspire us.
Yin Chang and Moonlynn Tsai
Chang and Tsai became a lifeline for the Asian community in New York’s Chinatown when they launched Heart of Dinner in 2020. Hate crimes against Asian people had skyrocketed in the early days of the pandemic, and the queer couple wanted to keep their community safe and fed; Heart of Dinner delivers hot, high-quality meals to their elder neighbors. The pair’s efforts were honored at Glamour’s Women of the Year event.
“Together, we are able to shine light on the good in the world, as we see that people are innately drawn toward acts of love.” — Yin Chang
By day, Chen is a (brilliant) reporter and editor; she’s covered technology for publications like The Verge, the Wall Street Journal, the MIT Technology Review, and most recently at Wired. But she’s more widely known now as the author of Ace: What Asexuality Reveals about Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex, a refreshing and informative look at asexuality through a combination of interviews, science, and Chen’s own personal journey. It’s a must-read.
“One thing I want is ace discourse to be part of the culture, part of the language in a way that so many other things have become part of the language.” — Angela Chen
Lovingly dubbed “the Rosa Parks of the gay community,” DeLarverie is perhaps most famous for her role as a central participant in the Stonewall Uprising in 1969. While Marsha P. Johnson may have thrown the first brick, in the intervening years eyewitnesses recalled that DeLarverie — a Black, biracial lesbian who performed as an MC at the Apollo’s drag king shows when she wasn’t busy organizing or volunteering as a bouncer in the NYC queer community — threw the first punch. (She also reportedly shouted at the crowd to “do something” after being hit in the head and cuffed by police, which, respect.) She died to little fanfare in 2014; since then, lesbians — particularly lesbians of color — have rallied passionately for her inclusion in the history books as an activist and instigator.
“It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience — it wasn’t no damn riot.” — Stormé DeLarverie
Maebe A. Girl
Back in 2020, Adam Schiff — one of California’s representatives in the House of Representatives and a major figure in various Trump investigations — was reelected to his post. His main rival was a Republican, but the candidate who came in third place — with a tiny margin of just over 1,100 votes — was a bit more unexpected. Since then, as a transfeminine person, drag queen, and neighborhood councilmember, Maebe A. Girl has become a prominent voice in the Los Angeles progressive political arena, advocating for universal health care and housing justice, in particular. She’s planning to run for Schiff’s seat again in 2024 on an “intersectional, humanitarian platform of economic equity and human rights.” Should she win, she would be the first-ever trans representative in Congress.
“Drag is what I do, trans is who I am. And I’m not running to be a drag queen in Congress. I’m running to be a trans representative.” — Maebe A. Girl
Hamilton is the founder and managing partner of Backstage Capital, a VC fund that became the first venture firm to raise funds via crowdfunding (known as “regulation crowdfunding”) last year, collecting over $1 million in just nine hours. Since Hamilton founded Backstage with virtually no investing experience — and while being unhoused — back in 2015, the firm has invested in over 200 companies, focusing primarily on those with founders who are non-male, non-white, and / or part of the LGBTQIA+ community. At Ellevest, you know we love to see it.
“Investing in us — people of color, LGBT people, and women — is good business, good sense. And you are foolish if you think otherwise.” — Arlan Hamilton
In 2018, Andrea Jenkins became the first Black trans woman to be elected to public office — specifically, as a member of the Minneapolis City Council. She held office during the George Floyd demonstrations in the summer of 2020, during which she was a vocal supporter of the protesters. She made history again earlier this year when she was unanimously voted by her councilmember peers to serve as City Council President.
“I think my time has come up to make sure that Black LGBTQ people are a part of the arc toward human progress.” — Andrea Jenkins
Marsha P. Johnson
Let’s level for a second: Marsha may be remembered today (no thanks to Roland Emmerich) as the one who “threw the first brick” at the event commemorated by Pride, but that doesn’t mean she was a fan of Pride itself. She’s famously quoted as having said, “As long as gay people don’t have their rights all across America, there’s no reason for celebration.”
In the years following the uprising, she campaigned with ACT UP, co-founded STAR, and otherwise spoke up loudly and often for things like decriminalization and revolution; she was also known for being one of Andy Warhol’s subjects. Tragically, she was found dead in 1992 shortly after disclosing that she’d been HIV-positive for two years. (A documentary about her life and somewhat mysterious death was released back in 2017.)
“You never completely have your rights, one person, until you all have your rights.” — Marsha P. Johnson
In an era where books that even suggest queer people exist are banned from schools, Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer is at the top of the list: the 2019 graphic memoir about Kobabe’s gender identity journey was called the most banned book in America, often for being deemed too “explicit” for exploring their questions of sexuality. (For high schoolers. Who, as we know, are a famously chaste group in general — and a group that would never form banned book clubs and read those books anyway.) Kobabe has pushed back against the bans repeatedly since, insisting that queer kids need to see queer stories.
“If a book is challenged, it probably means that it’s saying something honest and vulnerable and true.” — Maia Kobabe
What can we say about Audre Lorde? The “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” may have left us in 1992 — the same year as Marsha P. Johnson — but her work is as electric and raw today as when she wrote it. Nevertheless, it’s often mischaracterized and misappropriated, taken out of its deeply political context. She popularized the idea of self-care as “political warfare,” for example, a revolutionary act for Black women living in a world that continues to victimize them. She was a devout prison abolitionist and socialist who believed that, “without community, there is no liberation.”
But her words have also influenced countless contemporary voices, from Mariame Kaba to Roxane Gay. As one critic put it, “Lorde is everywhere today; we see the flowering of her most subtle ideas … she describes poetry as ‘the skeleton architecture of our lives.’” We’d say more, but we’re sure Lorde would rather you read her work yourself.
“When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.” — Audre Lorde
The Electric Lady has had a huge year thus far — or, we might say, the “Electric N.B.”? This spring, the musician-actor-model-and-now-author published The Memory Librarian, a collection of short stories co-written by known genre writers and based off the vibrant science-fiction worlds they’ve created in their music. Monáe — who came out as pansexual in 2018 — came out as non-binary on the book tour, too, proving there’s no genre, medium, orientation, nor gender binary that can confine them. A true icon in every way.
“I feel my feminine, I feel my masculine, I feel energy that I can’t really explain.” — Janelle Monáe
If you caught Max’s streaming show Our Flag Means Death, you definitely know Vico Ortiz, the non-binary actor who plays the vengeful, knife-wielding pirate Jim. Their transition, casually introduced they / them pronouns, and adorable romance plot are just one part of a whole crew’s worth of delightfully queer stories unfolding aboard the good ship Revenge.
One of the best parts, though, has been their enthusiastic engagement on TikTok and Instagram with the fandom that’s exploded around the show since it premiered — especially those non-binary and gay fans who felt seen by their story line. Ortiz stepped into the advocacy role as easily as they stepped into the acting one, advocating for trans youth in the face of various “Don’t Say Gay” bills and other anti-trans legislation being enacted all over the country.
“People normally think non-binary and they think white, skinny androgynous. … So having someone who's Latiné, who's going through this and totally able to use their language ... It was so beautiful to see that.” — Vico Ortiz
As the founder of Lesbians Who Tech, Pittsford is a huge name in the queer tech community; LWT has grown to over 50,000 queer women and non-binary people. It’s funneled serious tech money into queer and other marginalized communities via scholarships; sponsored meetups in more than 40 cities; and hosted the Lesbians Who Tech Summit, the largest LGBTQIA+ professional event in the world. Among Pittsford’s projects is include.io, a networking site to help “diverse” people in tech connect with start-ups and recruiters that she founded in 2019.
“The best way to get women, people of color, and LGBTQ people to leadership positions is just to put them in leadership positions. There will always be more white, straight, cisgender and male CEOs until there's not.” — Leanne Pittsford
Rapinoe, a member of the US Women’s National Soccer Team, is a vocal advocate for LGBTQIA+ organizations like GLSEN and Athlete Ally. Alongside other openly queer and ally team members, she has also been a prominent figure in the team’s ongoing fight for pay equality. After years of legal battles with the establishment, they finally achieved it in 2022. That sets a precedent that will hopefully be followed across the sports world, as women athletes’ pay continues to lag behind men’s by several orders of magnitude. (It also got the team named on the Time 100 list this year.)
“You don't have to change the whole world yourself — and frankly, no one is able to do that. But you can do something.” — Megan Rapinoe
Most will know her best from her career in Hollywood, as she’s starred in Ryan Murphy shows Pose (as Candy) and American Horror Story (as Donna Chambers in the 1984 season). But Angelica Ross is also the founder and CEO of TransTech Social Enterprises, an organization that connects trans and gender-nonconforming people with jobs and training in the technology sector.
“I sacrificed so much for myself to make TransTech a thing, but I did so knowing I was somebody who makes a bet knowing they’re going to win.” — Angelica Ross
Lana and Lilly Wachowski
The Wachowski sisters may not be working on the Matrix franchise together anymore — Lana wrote and directed the most recent installment, The Matrix: Resurrections, on her own — but they’re still both iconic presences in Hollywood. Since coming out in 2008 and 2016, respectively, the pair have consistently clapped back at fans of their work who refuse to acknowledge its deeply trans narratives. They’ve also continued to tell unapologetically queer stories, implicitly in films like V For Vendetta and the wacky Jupiter Ascending, and explicitly in the Showtime series Work in Progress and the woefully underrated Netflix series Sense8.
“I think in our transness and queerness, we were always … trying to visualize within a much larger, infinite scope of the imagination.” — Lilly Wachowski
Windsor is most famous for being the lead plaintiff in United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court case that overturned the section of the Defense of Marriage Act that denied gay couples the same inheritance rights as heterosexual spouses. (Her partner, Thea Spyer, had died in 2009. As the sole beneficiary, she was told to pay over $300,000 in estate taxes, while a widow or widower in a heterosexual marriage would have paid nothing in taxes.) But she was also a brilliant programmer in her own right, having worked at IBM as a systems architect for 17 years before starting her own consulting firm. For years, she was also active with multiple activist organizations and helped LGBTQIA+ groups digitize their operations.
“Marriage is a magic word. And it is magic throughout the world. It has to do with our dignity as human beings, to be who we are openly.” — Edie Windsor