Firsts for American LGBTQ+ People

LGBTQ+ people smashed through barriers in politics, business, and culture

LGBTQ+ people have made strides toward equality, creating organizations that fought for human rights, winning court cases, and gaining prominent positions across the United States.

Key Takeaways

  • In the 20th century, LGBTQ+ people won prominent positions, such as holding elected offices.
  • LGBTQ+ businesspersons crossed notable cultural thresholds, including the first out billionaire.
  • In the 21st century, LGBTQ+ people have won more rights and positions of leadership in the federal government.

This list looks at firsts by American LGBTQ+ people beginning in the 20th century. It's not meant to be exhaustive.

1924, Gay Rights Group

Henry Gerber founds the Society for Human Rights, the first LGBTQ+ rights organization in America. The group received a nonprofit charter in Illinois in 1924, but its members got arrested for obscenity, with the charges bankrupting Gerber and costing him his job, according to historical notes on the group. Gerber, now celebrated as decades ahead of his time, would also publish Friendship and Freedom, the first LGBTQ+ publication in the U.S.

Relatedly, communist organizer Harry Hay would found the Mattachine Society in 1950. Hay's group is occasionally credited as the “first sustained” gay rights organization because Gerber's was so short-lived.

1952, Transgender Visibility

Christine Jorgensen leaps into history as the first prominent trans woman in American culture. Jorgensen, a former veteran of the Second World War, was reportedly the first person in the country to have a sex-reassignment operation.

1955, Lesbian Rights Group

The Daughters of Bilitis, the country's first lesbian rights group, is formed in 1955. This group also published the first lesbian periodical with national distribution in the country. They were surveilled by police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Central Intelligence Agency.

1962, Business Association

The Tavern Guild becomes the first gay business association in the nation in 1962. The guild was started in San Francisco by alcohol merchants and bar owners as clashes between police and gay people were intensifying.

1966, Transgender Rights Group

In 1966, the National Transsexual Counseling Unit is founded after the Compton's Cafeteria Riot, which breaks out in the San Francisco's Tenderloin district after police harass a transgender woman.

1970, Labor Organizing

The American Federation of Teachers labor union advocates for an end to discrimination based upon sexual orientation, making it the first labor union to do so, according to materials from the union.

1972, Psychiatry

Disguised in a garish mask and an oversized suit, the psychiatrist John Fryer comes out at the 125th Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in 1972, using the pseudonym "Dr. Henry Anonymous."

1974, Elected Office

Kathy Kozachenko is elected to the Ann Arbor City Council in Michigan in 1974, becoming the first openly LGBTQ+ person to hold political office in the country.

A few years later, in 1977, Harvey Milk is elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

1976, Transgender Marriage

In 1976, the Superior Court of New Jersey upholds a marriage between a transgender woman and a man, in M.T. v. J.T. The court cited her transition surgery and her personal identification as a woman, rejecting the idea that biological sex is fixed at birth.

1992, First Out Billionaire

The billionaire producer David Geffen, also the co-creator of DreamWorks, comes out as gay at an AIDS charity event in 1992.

1999, Chief Justice

In the American territory of Guam, Benjamin Cruz begins his tenure as chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1999. He's the first LGBTQ+ person to hold this position in an American territory.

2003, State Supreme Court

Rives Kistler becomes the first openly LGBTQ+ member of a state high court when he's named to the Oregon Supreme Court in 2003.

2014, Fortune 500 Company

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, comes out in an editorial in Bloomberg, writing, "I don't consider myself an activist, but I realize how much I've benefited from the sacrifice of others."

2015, Same-Sex Marriage

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling opens up same-sex marriage across the country in Obergefell v. Hodges based on the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

2020, Transgender Inclusion in the CRA

In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that transgender people are included in the employment protections under title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

2021, Cabinet

President Joseph Biden appoints former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as U.S. secretary of transportation in 2021. This makes him the first openly LGBTQ+ person to go through Senate confirmation to hold a cabinet-level position in the federal government. 

Just the year before, President Donald Trump had named Richard Grenell as acting national security secretary, making him the first openly LGBTQ+ person to head the intelligence sector.

Who Was the First Person to Come Out?

German writer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs is sometimes cited as the first person to officially come out. Ulrichs told his family that he was an “Urning,” his word for gay—a term which didn't exist at the time—after he was fired from a legal job because of his orientation. Ulrichs would go on to agitate against anti-homosexual laws, suffering arrests and showing great bravery.

Who Was the First LGBTQ+ Astronaut?

In 1983, flying on the Space Shuttle Challenger, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. In her memorial, written before but released after her 2012 death from pancreatic cancer, Ride came out.

When Was the First Pride March?

In June of 1970. It was the first anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, a six-day clash that erupted after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in New York City.

The Bottom Line

Though there are notable milestones still to be reached, these accomplishments speak to how LGBTQ+ people have smashed through barriers of discrimination across all parts of American society.

Article Sources
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  1. The Legacy Project. "The Society for Human Rights."

  2. San Francisco Public Library. "Radically Gay: The life of Harry Hay."

  3. Library of Congress. "The Mattachine Society."

  4. The National World War II Museum. "From GI Joe to GI Jane: Christine Jorgensen's Story."

  5. The New York Times. "Christine Jorgensen, 62, Is Dead; Was First to Have a Sex Change."

  6. The Library of Congress. "The Daughters of Bilitis."

  7. Northwestern University Library. "Tavern Guild of San Francisco."

  8. The Los Angeles Public Library. "Compton's Cafeteria Riot."

  9. American Federation of Teachers. "Creating a Positive Work Environment for LGBT Faculty: What Higher Education Unions Can Do," Page 5.

  10. The New York Times. "He Spurred a Revolution in Psychiatry. Then He ‘Disappeared’."

  11. Victory Institute. "America’s First Successful LGBTQ Candidate Wants You to Run for Office."

  12. Howard University School of Law Library. "Harvey Milk (1930 - 1978)."

  13. International Commission of Jurists. "MT v. JT, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, United States (22 March 1976)."

  14. Public Broadcasting Service. "Timeline: Year by Year, how David Geffen Invented Himself."

  15. The International Association of LGBTQ+ Judges. "History Check: Judge Benjamin J.F. Cruz."

  16. Oregon Historical Society. "Daniel Rives Kistler."

  17. Bloomberg. "Tim Cook Speaks Up."

  18. Supreme Court of the United States. "Obergefell et. al. v. Hodges, Director, Ohio Department of Health."

  19. Supreme Court of the United States. "Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia."

  20. Human Rights Campaign. "Secretary Pete Buttigieg Makes History As First Openly LGBTQ, Senate-Confirmed Person to Lead a Department."

  21. The Brookings Institution. "The Historic LGBT Trump Appointment that Got Overshadowed."

  22. The Legacy Project. "Karl Ulrichs- Nominee."

  23. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "Sally Ride--First American Woman in Space."

  24. Business Wire. "Sally Kristen Ride, Ph.D., Trailblazing First American Woman In Space, 1951 – 2012."

  25. Library of Congress. "The Stonewall Uprising of 1969."

  26. Library of Congress. "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Pride Month."