24 Black LGBTQ+ Activists Who Changed The World

Like much of history, stories about the LGBTQ+ movement have been largely whitewashed. It was Black and Latinx people, many of them transgender women, who started the fight with police at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 — a riot that's often credited as the turning point in the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement. So why was a fictional white, gay man at the heart of the 2015 movie that depicted the riot?

Black LGBTQ+ people have hardly been given their due in the stories of the LGBTQ+ community's past and present, and it's time to change that. So, in honor of Black History Month, we've collected a list of prominent Black LGBTQ+ activists throughout history. These 24 people have worked tirelessly to make their communities safer and more empowered. They deserve our recognition and praise. So, let's raise a glass to the Black LGBTQ+ activists on this list — as well as those whose names we don't know because their stories were never told.

Photo: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images.
John Amaechi

In his 2007 memoir, Man In The Middle, former basketball star John Amaechi publicly came out as a gay man, making him the first former NBA player to do so. Since then, he has become a staunch advocate for the queer community and fighting back against homophobia in sports.
Photo: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images.
James Baldwin

Despite being a Black, gay writer in the 1950s, James Baldwin didn't shy away from tough topics in his work. Novels like Giovanni’s Room and Another Country aren't only beautifully written, they're also considered classic examples of modern gay literature. Baldwin was also active in the civil rights movement, and helped to motivate his peers to fight for their rights.
Photo: Courtesy of Lambda Legal.
Simone Bell

As a representative in the Georgia House of Representatives, Simone Bell was the first out Black lesbian to serve on a state legislature. She's a proven advocate for the LGBTQ+ community through work on LGBT and HIV issues at the Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiative and Lambda Legal, where she fought for better access to healthcare, safe schools, and housing.
hoto: Courtesy of Netflix.
Marsha P. Johnson

You can't talk about the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement without talking about Marsha P. Johnson. She and other trans women like Sylvia Rivera were among the first to fight police in the infamous riot at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, which is often thought to be a turning point for the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Johnson and Rivera also co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) house in the 1970s to provide food, clothing, and housing to transgender and gender non-conforming youth in New York City.
Barbara Smith

Activist, author, and publisher Barbara Smith could be considered one of the mothers of intersectionality, which is the understanding that all of our identities impact us simultaneously in ways that are complicated and intertwined. In 1974, she co-founded the Combahee River Collective, which is credited with developing one of the earliest definitions of intersectionality. Smith also founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first publishing company run solely by women of color and served two terms on the Albany, New York Common Council.
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Audre Lorde

If Barbara Smith is one mother of intersectionality, Audre Lorde is another. A poet and feminist, Lorde co-founded Kitchen Table: Women Of Color Press with Smith. Her poetry collections like Cables To Rage and autobiographical writing like Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name explored her life as a Black, lesbian feminist and how each of those identities shaped her experience of the world.
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Wanda Sykes

Comedienne, actress, and Emmy-award winning television writer, Wanda Sykes officially came out after Prop 8 passed in California in 2008, which made it illegal for same-sex couples to marry. Since then, she's been an outspoken activist for marriage equality and against anti-LGBTQ bullying. She joined LGBTQ+ student advocate group GLSEN's Think B4 You Speak campaign that same year, and starred in a commercial reprimanding teenage boys for saying "That's so gay." Recently Sykes made waves by playing one of two gay moms in an interracial relationship on Doc McStuffins, a popular Disney show. It was the first time a Disney animated series depicted a family headed by a same-gender couple.
Photo: Tommaso Boddi/WireImage.
Janet Mock

In 2014, Janet Mock released the first biography written from the perspective of a young transgender woman. Redefining Realness became a New York Times' Bestseller and helped to fight stigma of transgender people simply by showing that trans people are people. Since coming out publicly as transgender, Mock has continued to advocate for young, trans people. She's a sought-after speaker and journalist, and addressed millions of people at the Women's March on Washington in 2017 to urge everyone to adopt a feminism that includes all women, including trans women and sex workers.
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Laverne Cox

Before she was introduced as Sophia Burset on Orange Is the New Black, Laverne Cox had already been praised for increasing positive representation of transgender people in the media. She was the first African-American transgender person to produce and star in her own television show with TRANSform Me, a makeover show that was nominated for a GLAAD media award. After becoming well-known for her role on OITNB, Cox was awarded more opportunities to speak out for transgender people. She was the first out transgender person on the cover of both Time and Cosmopolitan and the first out transgender person to have a wax figure of herself at Madame Tussauds. Cox continues her advocacy work for transgender people with public appearances, speeches, and her popular #TransIsBeautiful campaign.
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Raquel Willis

Transgender activist Raquel Willis is a longtime advocate for the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people, especially trans people of color. She's currently a National Organizer for the Transgender Law Center, the largest national trans-led advocacy organization, and previously worked on the behalf of the Solutions Not Punishments Coalition to end police profiling of transgender women of color. She also led a Trans Liberation Tuesday mobilization effort within the larger Black Lives Matter movement and was a speaker at the Women's March on Washington in 2017.
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Michael Sam

Michael Sam came out as a gay man just before the NFL draft in 2014, and became the first out gay NFL player when he was later drafted to the St. Louis Rams. He retired the following year citing mental health reasons. "When I came out to the world on Feb. 9, 2014, I got tons of emails from people telling me how they were condemned for their sexuality," he said at an University of Albany appearance in 2017. "It made me sad and angry. I spoke to one girl who told me that because I came out, she didn't commit suicide. I was speechless."
Photo: Noam Galai/WireImage.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors

Patrisse Khan-Cullors is a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter network and wrote a much-discussed essay for Esquire about what marriage meant for her as a queer Black woman. "Together, we could challenge marriage as a white, heteronormative, religious construct," she wrote about her partner, Janaya Khan, a Black transgender immigrant. "We could build a new narrative steeped in the intersections of black love." Khan-Cullors and her partner were married in 2016, and continue to fight for other rights that LGBTQ+ people, and especially LGBTQ+ people of color, are still denied.
Photo: Tasia Wells/WireImage.
Alicia Garza

Alicia Garza co-founded the Black Lives Matter network with Opal Tometi and Patrisse Khan-Cullors. Since the movement began, she's become a voice in media and has written on democracy, systematic racism, and police violence. As a queer woman, Garza is comittted to helping the world understand that it's not just cisgender Black men who are targeted by police, but also Black women, Black queer women, and Black transgender folks.
Photo: Tara Ziemba/FilmMagic.
Cece McDonald

In June of 2011, out transgender woman Cece McDonald was attacked by a group of transphobic and racist men at a bar, which led to one of the men's deaths. McDonald was arrested and convicted for the death and sent to a men's prison, despite identifying as a woman. Her arrest sparked outcry from the LGBTQ+ community, and called attention to the unjust treatment of transgender people in prisons. McDonald was released in 2014 after 19 months and has since become an outspoken activist for transgender rights.
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Phil Wilson

In 1999 Phil Wilson founded the Black AIDS Institute, the first and only national organization focused on addressing the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Black community. As the CEO of the Black AIDS Institute for 19 years, Wilson has become a prominent voice in research and advocacy for Black HIV+ people.
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Tiq Milan

Tiq Milan is the former editor-in-chief of LGBTQ+ pop culture magazine IKONS and a journalist whose work on LGBTQ+ topics has been published by BET.com, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Source, Vibe, and others. He's also a regular contributor to Huff Post Live, where he's become a leading voice on transgender equality. As a senior media strategist and national spokesperson for GLAAD, Milan helped to shape media representations of LGBTQ+ people and especially transgender people of color.

Milan and his wife, Kim Katrin Milan, often speak about love within Black, queer spaces and have been featured in multiple videos about relationships between transgender people and cisgender (not transgender) people.
Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call.
Sharron Cooks

Sharron Cooks was the only transgender woman of color to participate in the Democratic National Convention in 2016 and the first out transgender person to chair a city commission in Philadelphia. She often speaks about being a transgender woman of color in politics. "For me, to merely exist is a revolutionary act," she wrote for Pop Sugar. "And that makes most of my life's moments my proudest moments to be LGBTQ."
Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call.
Malcolm Kenyatta

It was out delegate Malcolm Kenyatta who introduced Hilary Clinton at her first rally in Philadelphia during election year, and Kenyatta has since become a voice for the LGBTQ+ community. When a video surfaced of the owner of a Philadelphia gay bar using the N-word, Kenyatta spoke out about racism within the LGBTQ+ community. "It can’t just be about saying the N-word. It has to be about what people put on their profiles on these apps and the way we talk to each other. When you say, 'No fats no fems no black no Asians,' that is the same mentality that will allow a bar owner when no one is looking to use the N-word repeatedly," he told Pride.
Photo: Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock.
Keith Boykin

Former White House aide Keith Boykin cofounded the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization dedicated to fighting racism and homophobia, and served as president of the board from 2003 to 2006. Now a political commenter on CNN, he continues to be a voice for marginalized communities.
Photo: Craig Barritt/Getty Images.
Zeke Thomas

Zeke Thomas is a musician and the son of former NBA player Isiah Thomas. In a 2017 story for The Cut, he opened up publicly for the first time about being raped by a man who he met on Grindr. His quotes in the story are raw and powerful and call attention to sexual assault in the LGBTQ+ community, an issue that's often overlooked. Since that first story, Thomas has continued to be an advocate for survivors and wrote about his own experience in a song called Dealin' with It.
Photo: Gregg DeGuire/WireImage.
Angelica Ross

Angelica Ross is the founder and CEO of TransTech Social Enterprises, a company that helps transgender people find jobs. Thanks to her work with TransTech Social Enterprises, Ross was invited to speak at the 2015 White House LGBTQ Tech and Innovation Summit. A year later, she began acting in Her Story, a web series about transgender women in Los Angeles, which was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama. Recently, Ross added her voice to Amazon's animated series Danger and Eggs, an incredibly inclusive show that's gained praise among the LGBTQ+ community.
Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images.
Deray McKesson

DeRay Mckesson has been active in the Black Lives Matter movement since it began. The former school administrator is as iconic as his blue vest — they've both attended so many BLM protests that they've become immediately recognizable. And he's not just attending the protests, but actively participating and making people think about racism. His voice is so strong, he's become a known Twitter activist and has gained more than a million followers.
Photo: Kimberly White/Getty Images.
Kat Blaque

YouTube star Kat Blaque is an "opinion vlogger, children's illustrator, and thrift store addict," according to her bio. She's made a name for herself video blogging about being a Black transgender woman and creating educational videos for people who want to know more about what that means. Currently, she posts a weekly series called True Tea, in which she answers questions that viewers submit about racism, transphobia, Black culture, and other topics.
Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.
Amandla Stenberg

Amandla Stenberg is a non-binary actress and singer. They're most well-known as Rue in The Hunger Games and Madeline Whittier in Everything, Everything. In an answer to a fan question on Tumblr in 2016, Stenberg stated that they use they/them pronouns because they don't feel like either a woman or a man. Earlier that year, Stenberg also came out as queer. They have since become a role model for young, queer and gender non-conforming people and have spoken many times on sexuality, gender, and labels.
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