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15 Queer Women Who Changed History

15 Queer Women Who Changed History

Frida Kahlo, Laverne Cox, Josephine Baker

The world wouldn't be the same without these amazing women! 

It’s impossible to contain the entirety of important queer women from history in one article on the internet, but we’ve selected the top 15 to go into detail on below. From bisexual Roaring Twenties music icons who moonlighted as spies to the first American woman in space, they represent the very meaning of aspirational — and transformational.

1. Josephine Baker

One of the most important figures of the early 20th century, Josephine Baker had a huge impact in matters involving race and gender — and looked fantastic doing it; so much, in fact, that she became an icon of the Roaring Twenties with her fashion. But beyond being an eye-catching, multi-talented entertainer, Baker was someone who stood up for others and took decisive action when it came to protecting them. Case in point: She aided the French resistance during World War II and continually put her life on the line to help liberate her adopted country. Later, Baker became deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement, speaking at Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s side and later being approached to lead the movement after King’s assassination. Although she was married four times, each to a man, Baker was bisexual and her liaisons with other women are rumored to have included the likes of French author Colette and Frida Kahlo.

2. Sally K. Ride

When it comes to breaking barriers, there are few more impressive than escaping Earth’s atmosphere as the first American woman in space. That’s what Sally Ride did, in addition to being the youngest U.S. astronaut to enter orbit. A physicist by profession, Ride was 32 when she rode into space aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger mission STS-7 in 1983. She participated in further missions and research during her remaining time at NASA. After her death from pancreatic cancer in 2012, it was learned that Ride had been in a relationship with a woman, Tam O’Shaughnessy, for 27 years.

3. Stormé DeLarverie

Storm\u00e9 DeLarverie

Public domain

Biracial butch lesbian drag king Stormé DeLarverie was much more than just a fantastic entertainer. DeLarverie is believed to have been central to the Stonewall riots, as she was identified by multiple witnesses as the woman who NYPD officers struck in the head with a police baton and threw violently into the back of a police wagon. She fought back and the crowd who’d been watching had finally had enough. DeLarverie remained active in the Gay Liberation movement after Stonewall, in addition to helping battered women and children in need while working as a bouncer in the city’s gay clubs, reportedly well into her eighties.

4. Bessie Smith

Known as the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith was the most revered woman vocalist creating blues music during the 1930s. Bisexual, she married her husband in 1923 but was involved with several women during the course of her career, which was cut short in 1937 when she was killed in a car crash at the age of 43. Smith’s legacy has been honored in many ways over the years, including her induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

5. Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale

Public domain

A hugely important individual in medical history, Florence Nightingale came to be renowned during and following the Crimean war for establishing the basis of modern nursing, such as the importance of sterile environments and keeping wounds clean. Nightingale was born into a well off lifestyle, but preferred to help those in need while involving herself in social reform around sex work and the roles of women in the workplace. She never married, although several men courted her, and is self identified as lesbian from her personal correspondence. As if her medical proficiency weren’t enough, Nightingale was also an adept statistician who is credited for the invention of the infographic.

6. Audre Lorde

An amazing example of intersecting identities, Audre Lorde was an American writer and poet who identified strongly as a Black feminist lesbian, referring to herself as a “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Lorde blazed a trail of Black female empowerment before passing away from breast cancer far too early in 1992. She must be remembered as a resilient civil rights activist who immortalized herself in her poetry.

7. Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P Johnson

Gay rights activist and drag artist Marsha P. Johnson holds a legendary place in queer history. When the police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York on June 28, 1969, it's Johnson who's credited with throwing the first brick (though there is some debate about that, see below) at the police that would lead to the now legendary Stonewall Riots. This event would become the first domino falling in the gay rights movement. We literally wouldn't be where we are today without the bravery and justified rage of this queen.

8. Sylvia Rivera


Sylvia Rivera, a transgender activist, was one of the first women to throw a bottle at the Stonewall Inn raid in 1969. Rivera was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance. A pioneer of transgender rights, she was once quoted saying “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned.”

9. Ellen DeGeneres

Ellen DeGeneres used her platform as a popular talk show host to be unapologetically out and proud. She continues to stand for LGBT rights next to her beautiful wife, Portia de Rossi, whom she wedded in California in 2008.

10. bell hooks


bell hooks (a stylized pen name for Gloria Jean Watkins) is the author of a multitude of books and articles on feminism, including Feminism Is for Everybody and Ain’t I a woman?: Black Women and Feminism. In her feminist theory work, bell hooks addresses race, class, and gender and has contributed greatly to the expansion of the ideas of intersectionality, queerness, and social activism.

11. Laverne Cox


Another entertainer, Laverne Cox has been one of the most prominent transgender actresses perhaps to this day. After gaining popularity for playing a transgender woman on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, she began to use her voice to speak out for the transgender community.

12. Edie Windsor

When Edie Windsor’s wife died (they were married in Canada), she sued the federal government for the over $360,000 she was made to pay in estate taxes. This led to one of the most significant marriage equality supreme court cases—the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act. When the Supreme Court justices ruled 5-4, Windsor’s case was the first time a same-sex marriage was recognized in the United States.

13. Frida Kahlo

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is an extremely important feminist figure. Though she was born in the early 1900’s, she was openly radical, spoke out about being disabled after a bus accident, and took both male and female lovers. Her many self-portraits comment on the female form and utilize traditional Mexican themes and colors.

14. Eve Sedgwick

Eve Sedgwick


Well-known by any Women’s Studies major, Sedgwick is a matriarch of queer theory. She is perhaps best known for her work, the Epistemology of the Closet in which she explores the meaning of hetero and homosexuality and how queerness exists as a separate, less restricting entity.

15. Ani DiFranco

With more than 20 albums, Ani DiFranco is a feminist music legend. DiFranco has been political and justice-oriented since the start of her career (she started her own record label at age 18). She has addressed social inequalities such as homophobia, racism, and reproductive rights in her music as well as in activism and political support.

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Stuart Mcdonald

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Rachel Shatto

EIC of PRIDE.com

Rachel Shatto, Editor in Chief of PRIDE.com, is an SF Bay Area-based writer, podcaster, and former editor of Curve magazine, where she honed her passion for writing about social justice and sex (and their frequent intersection). Her work has appeared on Elite Daily, Tecca, and Joystiq, and she podcasts regularly about horror on the Zombie Grrlz Horror Podcast Network. She can’t live without cats, vintage style, video games, drag queens, or the Oxford comma.

Rachel Shatto, Editor in Chief of PRIDE.com, is an SF Bay Area-based writer, podcaster, and former editor of Curve magazine, where she honed her passion for writing about social justice and sex (and their frequent intersection). Her work has appeared on Elite Daily, Tecca, and Joystiq, and she podcasts regularly about horror on the Zombie Grrlz Horror Podcast Network. She can’t live without cats, vintage style, video games, drag queens, or the Oxford comma.