It’s a sad fact that a lot of gay men are out of touch with lesbian history. Our sapphic sisters have always had our backs—from the earliest days of the LGBT rights movement to the height of the AIDS epidemic. From historical to contemporary, we’re celebrating 25 lesbians whose names (and stories) you ought to know.
Sappho (c. 610–c. 570 BCE)
The Ancient Greek poet lived on the island of Lesbos in the 6th century BCE, and is the inspriration for the English words “sapphic” and “lesbian.” Much of her life has been lost to history but it’s believed she ran a school where she prepared young women for marriage and initiated them into the ways of erotic love.
While only fragments of her poems remain—and scholarly debate continues about whether or not these are autobiographical—it’s certain that she wrote prolifically of love, woman’s beauty, and the exquisite pain of longing.
Queen Christina of Sweden (1626–1689)
Christina donned the crown at age 5, when her father died in battle. But she caused scandal when, at age 18, she abdicated the throne and fled the country disguised as a man. Though she had a spending problem and a penchant for executing people, she was also infamous throughout Europe for her intellect, unladylike appearance and refusal to marry.
Modern historians generally consider her to have been a lesbian, and her relationships with women were noted during her lifetime—including liaisons with Gabrielle de Rochechouart de Mortemart and the singer Angelina Giorgino.
Jane Addams (1860-1935)
A leader for the fight for women’s suffrage and the “mother” of what we know today as social work, Addams founded Chicago’s Hull House, the first settlement house in the U.S., in 1889 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
She had significant romantic relationships with several women, including Mary Rozet Smith, with whom she lived, and Ellen Starr, with whom she cofounded Hull House. “Mary Smith became and always remained the highest and clearest note in the music that was Jane Addams’ personal life,” wrote historian Lilian Faderman, who says the two saw themselves as a married couple. “There is reason in the habit of married folks keeping together,” Addams wrote to Smith.
S. Josephine Baker (1873-1945)
In a time when people still used the phrase “woman doctor,” S. Josephine Baker was a physician and celebrated public health advocate credited for saving the lives of 90,000 children world-wide through her research and advocacy.
In 1908, Baker was appointed director of the New York City Health Department’s Division of Child Hygiene—the first governmental body devoted to children’s health. Under her leadership, New York City achieved the lowest infant death rate of any American or European city.
Baker’s lover was also a scientist: Rockefeller Institute researcher Louise Pearce, who worked to develop the first treatment for African sleeping sickness.
Gertrude Stein (1874–1946)
BFF of Picasso and a major figure in modernist literature, writer Gertrude Stein might have been best known in her lifetime for the legendary salons she would host at her Paris home during the 1920s and 30s.
Attracting the likes of Picasso, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Matisse, 27 Rue de Fleurus was the place to be on a Saturday night (see: Midnight in Paris). There, Stein lived with her longtime companion Alice B. Toklas (referred to by Hemingway as Stein’s “wife”), who was charged with entertaining the wives and lovers of Stein’s male friends.
Among Stein’s most famous books are Tender Buttons, a titillatingly-titled work of “verbal cubism,” and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which told the story of their life in Paris (and Stein’s genius) from Toklas’s point-of-view.
Patricia Highsmith (January 19, 1921 – February 4, 1995)Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Though a respected novelist in her day, Highsmith has become even more famous in recent years, as her books have been transformed into acclaimed films like Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Carol, which was based on her book The Price of Salt. (In all, more than two dozen movies have been made of her work.)
Though she was briefly engaged to British novelist Marc Brandel, it was ultimately a loveless and frustrating relationship. Failing in efforts to “cure” her homosexuality, Highsmith had numerous female paramours including painter Ann Smith, psychoanalyst Kathryn Hamill Cohen, sociologist Ellen Blumenthal Hill and writer Marijane Meaker.
Lorraine Hansberry (1930–1965)
The inspiration behind Nina Simone’s song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” Lorraine Hansberry was a writer, playwright, and the first black woman to write a play performed on Broadway.
Her debut, A Raisin in the Sun premiered to critical acclaim in 1959 when Hansberry was only 29-years-old, before going on to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play that year. (And no, Macklemore, it wasn’t written by Langston Hughes.)
Tragically, Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer at 34, and it was only posthumously, through her personal and unpublished writings, that she came to be recognized as queer. But in a 1957 letter published in a lesbian magazine and signed simply with her married initials, she described herself as a “heterosexually married lesbian” and offered a searing feminist critique of the institution of marriage.
Barbara Gittings (1932-2007)
Gittings was one of the most prominent gay activists in America, leading the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis and, with Frank Kameny, she organized the first public demonstration for gay rights in America, four years before Stonewall.
Her efforts helped get the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality as a mental illness in 1972, and the American Library Association to add LGBT titles. At her memorial service, Matt Foreman, the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said, “What do we owe Barbara? Everything.”
Audre Lorde (1934–1992)
Writer and activist Audre Lorde described herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” and devoted her life to queer, feminist and anti-racist politics through the power of the written and spoken word.
Known for her many collections of poetry, a novel, and nonfiction like The Cancer Journals, Lorde is also considered a foundational figure in intersectional feminism.
She delivered her 1984 essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” as a lecture at a feminist academic conference, charging the predominantly white, heterosexual movement with neglecting the needs of women of color, lesbians and the working class.
Susan Sontag (1933–2004)
Susan Sontag was a lot of things: prodigy, scholar, novelist, essayist, short-story writer, filmmaker and public intellectual. Though she married young and had a child, she was also a great lover of women—her published journals detail her early distress over her “lesbian tendencies,” as well as her joyful sexual awakening.
These journals were also where she began to gather observations about the queer subcultures she found herself suddenly immersed in, material that would eventually become her famous 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” one of the earliest pieces of cultural criticism to focus explicitly on gay culture.
Sontag was the partner of photographer Annie Liebowitz, though the two never publicly disclosed the nature of their relationship during Sontag’s lifetime.
Lily Tomlin (b. 1939)
The comedian has been with her wife, writer and collaborator Jane Wagner, since 1971—and though she turned down a chance to come out on the cover of Time in 1975, claims she was never really in the closet either.
Diana Nyad (b. 1949)
Out long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad has been captivating sports fans around the world since 1975, when she swam around the island of Manhattan (on her second try, after contracting a virus from the contaminated water during her first attempt). She was an overnight celebrity.
Her next big swim, in 1978—the 111 miles from Cuba to Florida—turned out to be the biggest disappointment of her career: Nyad was attacked by jellyfish, pushed off course by a storm, and had to quit. But 35 years later in 2013, at age 64 and on her fifth try, Nyad became the first person ever to swim from Havana to Key West without a shark cage, in an astonishing 53 hours.
Annise Parker (b. 1956)
In 2010, the city of Houston, TX surprised everyone by electing Annise Parker mayor—becoming the most populous American city ever to elect an openly gay candidate.
Though Parker’s been strictly business in her five years in office (winning 2 re-elections in the meantime), she’s described herself as “a gay and lesbian activist in my college days” and fought hard (but ultimately unsuccessfully) for a provision in a city ordinance meant to protect the right of trans people to use the public restrooms that align with their gender identities.
Now that her third and final term as mayor is coming to a close, political watchers are eagerly awaiting her next move.
Ilene Chaiken (b. 1957)
Though some queer viewers still might not have forgiven her for unleashing the insufferable Jenny Schecter onto our screens, writer/director/producer Ilene Chaiken remains one of the most powerful lesbians working in TV today.
Best known as the co-creator, writer and executive producer of The L Word, she’s most recently teamed up with Lee Daniels to keep primetime gay: as executive producer and showrunner of the FOX hit Empire, she’s doing more than her fair share.
Tammy Baldwin (b. 1962)
In 2012, this Wisconsin Democrat became the first openly gay senator in U.S. history, after serving as a Representative for Wisconsin’s 2nd congressional district. It was rumored she was on Hillary Clinton’s short-list as a vice presidential candidate.
That didn’t materialize but, in 2017, she was tapped to join the Senate Democratic leadership team, where she’s shaping policy and setting priorities.
Masha Gessen (b. 1967)KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
Russian journalist and activist Masha Gessen is among Putin’s fiercest critics and arguably the most famous Russian lesbian alive today.
The author of the books The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin and Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, she also writes regularly on Russian politics and international LGBT rights for a number of major American publications.
She and her family have lived in the US since 2013, after Gessen was attacked outside the Russian Parliament and fearful that social services would take away her children.
Tig Notaro (b. 1971)
From that set, an album and a book deal were born, and this summer Netflix released the documentary Tig, which chronicles Notaro’s treatment, recovery and budding romance.
Dee Rees (b. 1976)
This writer-director won accolades for her 2011 feature debut Pariah, about a young black lesbian in Brooklyn who struggles with her identity and her family’s homophobia.
Rees also directed Bessie, HBO’s biopic of queer blues singer Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah), and Mudbound a period drama about a family that relocats to rural Mississippi after WWII. (Adapted from Hillary Jordan’s novel, the film stars Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke and Mary J. Blige).
JD Samson (b. 1978)
Best known for her work in the bands Le Tigre and MEN (not to mention her signature mustache), JD Samson is something of a jill-of-all-trades in the queer music scene: DJ, producer, projectionist, Peaches’ keyboard player, etc.
She also makes an appearance in John Cameron Mitchell’s queer cult classic Shortbus, and is an occasional writer (check out her 2013 piece for the Huffington Post on her financial struggles as a queer woman working in music.)
Kate McKinnon (b. 1984)
Since joining Saturday Night Live in 2012 as the show’s first lesbian cast member, she’s also become one of the show’s most beloved. Her impersonations of Hillary and Justin Bieber helped score her an Emmy award, and propelled her into a film career in movies like the Ghostbusters reboot and Office Christmas Party.
Ruby Rose (b. 1986)Getty Images
While the gorgeous Australian first drew U.S. attention for her role on OITNB, she’s been an out lesbian since age 12, when she faced verbal and physical harassment from her peers. In 2014, Rose came out as gender-fluid with the release of the short autobiographical film Break Free.
In 2017, she’s appearing in Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, xXx: Return of Xander Cage and John Wick: Chapter 2 and has wrapped production on the sci-fi thriller Meg, due out in 2018.