From Sappho to Lil Nas X: Influential LGBTQ+ Icons Throughout History

From Sappho to Lil Nas X: Influential LGBTQ+ Icons Throughout History

Honor LGBT History Month with images from the Shutterstock Editorial collection that illuminate the lives of some of 2020’s icons.

This summer, the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects gay and transgender Americans from discrimination in the workplace. The ruling coincided with the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, underscoring the victories made throughout the decades in the fight for human rights. We’re living at a critical moment for LGBTQ+ rights, and we owe victories like this one to those who have fought for their freedoms for generations.

Founded in 1994, LGBT History Month takes place in October in the United States to coincide with National Coming Out Day on the 11th. Throughout the month, the LGBTQ civil rights organization Equality Forum will highlight thirty-one icons — past and present — rolling out educational resources on one legendary individual each day of the month. To date, they’ve celebrated the lives and legacies of more than 400 groundbreaking people from around the world.

This year’s icons span the centuries, ranging from ancient poets to lifelong activists to modern celebrities. In honor of the month, we took a look through the Shutterstock Editorial collection, pulling illustrations and photographs that illuminate the lives of some of the 2020 icons. Browse the images below for a closer look at a few of this year’s diverse honorees, and be sure to head over to the LGBT History Month website for the whole list and more resources.

Sappho: Ancient Poet

Lyric Poet SapphoGreek lyric poet Sappho from Lesbos. Image via Historia/​Shutterstock.

This year’s icons lineup includes several poets, including the extraordinary voices of Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, and Ifti Nasim. However, the first of them all was Sappho, the ancient Greek lyric poet who lived from approximately 612-630 to 570 B.C.E. She resided in the town of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, from which we derive the modern word “lesbian.”

Sappho with a LyreArchaic Greek lyric poet Sappho with a lyre. Image via Glasshouse Images/​Shutterstock.

Mosaic.jpg?w=750" alt="Sappho Mosaic" class="wp-image-147605" />Sappho, Greek lyric poet, from funerary mosaic of Aurelius Aurelianus, 1st Century BC. Image via Alfredo Dagli Orti/​Shutterstock.

Little of her stunning oeuvre survived the passage of time, and Sappho’s personal life remains shrouded in mystery. In Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary, for instance, Monique Wittig and Sande Zeig dedicated a whole page to the poet, but they left it blank. Still, despite the uncertainty surrounding her life, she’s left an indelible legacy. As the leading gender theorist Judith Butler famously put it,  “As far as I knew, there was only me and a woman called Sappho.”

A Sappho WoodcutA woodcut of Sappho from Les Vrais Pourtraits et vies des Hommes Illustres by Andre Thevet (1584). Image via Glasshouse Images/​Shutterstock.

Alexander von Humboldt: Polypath

Alexander von HumboldtGerman traveler and naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859). Image via Historia/​Shutterstock.

Alexander von Humboldt isn’t the only person in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math industries) to grace this year’s lineup. Others like Megan Smith, the United States Chief Technology Officer (CTO) under President Obama, also claim their rightful spot. However, he is the earliest.

Alexander von Humboldt (ca. 1830)German scientist Alexander von Humboldt, circa 1830. Image via Historia/​Shutterstock.

Alexander von Humboldt PortraitAlexander von Humboldt portrait dated April 18, 1824. Image via Historia/​Shutterstock.

This Prussian naturalist, geographer, and explorer who lived from 1769 to 1859 is perhaps best remembered for the breakthroughs he made during a five-year expedition through South and Central America. His accomplishments include the discovery of many animals and plants, as well as the ocean current now known as the Humboldt Current. His work ultimately served as a powerful inspiration and influence on Charles Darwin and formed a foundation for further research into man-made climate change.

Aimé Bonpland and Alexander von HumboldtThe botanist Aimé Bonpland (1773-1858) and geographer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) observing the falling stars in South America (1799). Image via Cci/​Shutterstock.

According to The New York Times, Berlin in the 19th Century was home to a dynamic but underground gay scene. It wasn’t until 1920 that discriminatory laws of that time were abolished.

Humboldt is just one of several leading figures of the era believed to have been queer. And, although many feel his legacy has been straight-washed at times, this revolutionary mind has also become an enduring role model to LGBTQ+ scientists far and wide.

Baron Alexander von HumboldtBaron Alexander von Humboldt in his study. Watercolor by Hildebrandt (1845). Image via Gianni Dagli Orti/​Shutterstock.

Christopher Isherwood: Novelist

Christopher IsherwoodAuthor Christopher Isherwood (1904 – 1986). Image via Tony Weaver/​Associated Newspapers/​Shutterstock.

Author Christopher IsherwoodAuthor Christopher Isherwood having some fun with the crowd. Image via Tony Weaver/​Associated Newspapers/​Shutterstock.

This Anglo-American novelist and playwright’s oeuvre featured a number of compelling portrayals of gay men, and after coming out in the book Kathleen and Frank, the writer himself became an important figure in the Gay Liberation movement.

Christopher Isherwood and W.H. AudenChristopher Isherwood, novelist, and W.H. Auden, poet, circa 1930s. Image via Everett Collection/​Shutterstock.

Today he’s well-remembered for his contributions to the movement and the history of literature and theater. The musical Cabaret, for example, is based on his work from Berlin Stories. In the 1930s, he famously collaborated with his friend, poet W.H. Auden (pictured above).

According to the editors of The American Isherwood, the writer and his partner, artist Don Bachardy, were likely the most photographed gay couple in the world during the 1970s. They were together for thirty-three years until Isherwood’s passing at the age of 81. As the novelist himself once put it, “Heterosexuality wouldn’t have suited Christopher. It would have fatally cramped his style.”

Novelist Christopher Isherwood (1952)American novelist Christopher Isherwood at his typewriter. Image via Associated Newspapers/​Shutterstock.

Emile Griffith: Boxer

American Boxer Emile GriffithAmerican boxer Emile Griffith in 1964. Image via Associated Newspapers/​Shutterstock.

This American prizefighter won five world championships throughout his career and fought more than any other in the history of the sport. He was also a bisexual man in the 1960s, during the years when homosexual sex was outlawed in almost all states in the nation.

Emile Griffith InterviewWorld welterweight champion Emile Griffith being interviewed by sportscaster Dun Dunphy (1961). Image via Everett Collection/​Shutterstock.

Griffith had relationships with both men and women, and he faced adversity and discrimination, including when he lost his job due to his relationship with Luis Rodrigo. When leaving a gay bar in 1992, he was violently beaten. Although he spent four months in the hospital, ultimately he survived the attack.

Boxer Emile Griffith and Coach Gil ClancyEmile Griffith beams in dressing room next to his coach, Gil Clancy, after regaining the Welterweight World Championship at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Griffith fought a 15-round title bout with Luis Rodriguez. Image via Anonymous/​AP/​Shutterstock.

Griffith passed away in 2013, but not before two prominent athletes of the new generation came out: the basketball player Jason Collins and the boxer Orlando Cruz, the latter of whom tried to set up a meeting with Griffith during his final months. Although the 1960s denied him the freedom to live openly, the legendary boxer helped pave the way for others to come.

Harris Glenn Milstead (a.k.a. “Divine”): Drag Performer

Harris Glenn Milstead (1972)Harris Glenn Milstead, stage name Divine, in 1972. Image via Dreamland Prods/​Kobal/​Shutterstock.

This character actor, singer, and drag performer, best known by the stage name Divine, was the muse of the filmmaker John Waters, who famously dubbed him “the most beautiful woman in the world, almost.” In a 1988 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, just two weeks before his untimely death, Milstead would recall, “It’s ironic that he would say the most beautiful woman in the world turns out to be a man.”

Actor Divine (1974)Actor and drag performer Divine in 1974. Image via Dreamland/​Kobal/​Shutterstock.

Scene from HairsprayDivine and Jerry Stiller in the 1988 production of Hairspray. Image via New Line/​Kobal/​Shutterstock.

In 2015, Waters remembered his longtime collaborator in a conversation with Baltimore magazine, explaining that Divine laid the groundwork for the future of drag, helping to inspire RuPaul’s Drag Race and mainstream drag artists today. In his words, Milstead made drag cool and cutting-edge. He broke all the established rules, and then he made rules of his own. 

Hairspray (1988)Colleen Fitzpatrick, Debbie Harry, Divine, and Ricki Lake in the 1988 production of Hairspray. Image via New Line/​Kobal/​Shutterstock.

Lori Lightfoot: Mayor

Mayoral Election Night PartyLori Lightfoot (left) kisses her spouse, Amy Eshleman, at the 2019 Mayoral Election Night party, in Chicago. Image via Nam Y Huh/​AP/​Shutterstock.

Many of the icons on this year’s list have been hugely influential in the world of law and politics, including the Russian activist Nikolay Alexeyev, the American activists David Mixner and Laura Ricketts, Judge Deborah Batts, Jess O’Connell (formerly of the DNC), and politicians Angie Craig, Claudia López, and more.

Lori Lightfoot Waves at SupportersLori Lightfoot waves to supporters as she speaks at her election night party, making her the first African-American woman to lead the city. Image via Nam Y Huh/​AP/​Shutterstock.

Among them is the former prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, who in 2019 became the first Black woman and the first openly gay mayor of Chicago. She won all fifty wards and seventy-three percent of the vote. Lightfoot was also the first in a string of three LGBTQ candidates to claim mayoral races around the country within a span of mere weeks.

Mayor Lori LightfootMayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, waves after being sworn in during her inauguration ceremony. Image via Jim Young/​AP/​Shutterstock.

In her victory speech, Lightfoot declared, “A lot of little girls and boys are watching. They are seeing a city reborn. A city where it doesn’t matter what color you are. Where it doesn’t matter who you love, just as long as you love.” This year, she was named one of The Advocate‘s Women of the Year.

Lori Lightfoot with Daughter Vivian and Spouse Amy EshlemanMayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot (right), kisses her daughter Vivian as her spouse Amy Eshleman (left) looks on during her inauguration ceremony in Chicago. Image via Jim Young/​AP/​Shutterstock.

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: Activist

Laxmi Narayan TripathiLaxmi Narayan Tripathi is a dancer, activist, and part of the Hijra community of transgender people in India. Image via Majority World/​Shutterstock.

Hailing from Mumbai, India, this transgender rights activist became the first trans person to represent Asia-Pacific at the UN in 2008. As a member of the Hijra community, she’s advocated for equal rights for more than two decades, speaking out against prejudice and mistreatment of India’s third gender, who are often disowned and cast out by family members.

7th Edition of the Hijra HabbaLaxmi Narayan Tripathi at the 7th edition of Hijra Habba in New Delhi, India (2018). Image via Sarang Gupta/​Hindustan Times/​Shutterstock.

“My role is the bridge, I believe, between my community and the government,” she told The Guardian in 2015. “My responsibility is to take [their] voices to the people who will make changes.” A year earlier, she was one of the activists who successfully fought for the Supreme Court to recognize a third gender.

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi at the Kimbh Mela FestivalLaxmi Narayan Tripathi, leader of the Kinnar Akhara, a monastic order of the transgender community, meets with followers at the Kumbh Mela festival in Pragraj, India (2019). Image via Channi Anand/​AP/​Shutterstock.

Angelica Ross: CEO

Angelica Ross at the 71st Primetime Emmy AwardsAngelica Ross at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards after party in Los Angeles (2019). Image via CraSH/​imageSPACE/​Shutterstock.

This American businesswoman, actor, and trans rights advocate is the founder and CEO of TransTech Social Enterprises, an organization that supports trans people seeking employment. You might also know her as a star of popular television shows like Pose and American Horror Story. This year, she’s risen as a powerful voice for Black trans lives.

Angelica Ross in the Series PoseAngelica Ross as Candy on the TV show Pose (2019). Image via  Eric Liebowitz/​FX/​Kobal/​Shutterstock.

Angelica Ross at the NYC Pride ParadeGrand Marshal Angelica Ross at the NYC Pride Parade (2019). Image via William Volcov/​Shutterstock.

“I know that since I was born, my path has been laced with […] challenges that have been preparing me for 2020, which have been preparing me to stand up in this moment,” she told Interview magazine this summer. “I was born to show yet another example: a dark-skinned, Black trans woman can show you how she can raise the vibrational frequency of her life to do something great for this world.”

Angelica Ross at the Charlie's Angels Film PremiereAngelica Ross at the Charlie’s Angels film premiere in Los Angeles (2019). Image via Rob Latour/​Shutterstock.

Lil Nas X: Rapper

Lil Nas X at the 62nd Annual Grammy AwardsLil Nas X at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles (2020). Image via David Fisher/​Shutterstock.

At just twenty-one years old, this rapper, singer, and songwriter rose to meteoric stardom last year, when his song “Old Town Road” held the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for nineteen weeks — the longest run in history. A mix of hip-hop and country, the unprecedented song was written by the artist himself, using a $30 beat downloaded from the web. In 2018, he was sleeping on his sister’s floor. Twelve months later, he was an international superstar.

Lil Nas X at the 47th Annual American Music AwardsLil Nas X at the 47th Annual American Music Awards in Los Angeles (2019). Image via Chelsea Lauren/​Shutterstock.

Lil Nas X at the iHeartRadio Music FestivalLil Nas X at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas (2019). Image via Chelsea Lauren/​Shutterstock.

Montero Lamar Hill made history again during Pride Month (2019), when he became the first artist to come out while at the top of the Hot 100 (via an iconic Tweet, no less).

While he initially didn’t plan on coming out publicly, that changed when he — in his own words — “became Lil Nas X.” As he told The Guardian earlier this year, “I 100% want to represent the LGBT community.”

It’s fitting that he takes the final day of Equality Forum’s LGBT History Month October 31, 2020, as he came out on the last day of Pride last year.

Lil Nas X at the CMA Fest Lil Nas X at the CMA Fest in Nashville (2019). Image via AFF-USA/​Shutterstock.

Cover image via Eric Liebowitz/​FX/​Kobal/​Shutterstock.

Learn more about LGBTQA+ history and how diversity builds a better future:

Ways to Better Support LGBTQ+ Artists in Creative IndustriesLGBTQ+ Rights Movement: Take a Walk Through HistoryHow Photographers Can Better Represent Asexuality in ImagesDocumenting LGBTQ Rights with Kay Tobin Lahusen and Barbara GittingsWhat the Fight for LGBTQ+ Rights Looks Like Around the World

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