You know Rosie and Ellen, Melissa Etheridge, Rachel Maddow and Jane Lynch, but a lot of gay men are out of touch with lesbian history and icons.
Our sapphic sisters have always had our backs: At the height of the AIDS epidemic, lesbians were there to offer comfort and activism.
From the historical to the contemporary, we’re celebrating 25 lesbians whose names (and stories) you ought to know.
With a few exceptions, the women on this list self-identify as lesbians.
Sappho (c. 610–c. 570 BCE)
We’d be remiss not to begin with the Ancient Greek poet Sappho, from whose supposed proclivities we derive the English words “sapphic” and “lesbian.”
The cunning linguist and lyrist lived on the Greek isle of Lesbos in the 6th century BCE, where it’s believed she may have run 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 today—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. (Check out If Not Winter, the wonderful translation by queer-icon-and-L–Word-plot-point Anne Carson.)
Christina of Sweden (1626–1689)
Christina of Sweden was a literal queen: she wore the Swedish crown from age 5, when her father died in battle, until she scandalously abdicated the throne and fled the country disguised as a man at 18.
Though she had a spending problem and an unfortunate penchant for executing people, she was also known throughout Europe for her intellect, unladylike behavior and refusal to marry.
Noted for her masculine style and appearance, she was rumored to have had affairs with several women (as well as a certain Catholic cardinal).
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.
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.
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.
Eileen Myles (b. 1949)
A fixture of New York’s downtown literary scene, Eileen Myles is a celebrated poet known for her humor, inimitable personality and off-the-cuff style. In “American Poem,” she writes of her life choices: “I thought / Well I’ll be a poet. / What could be more / foolish and obscure. / I became a lesbian.”
In addition to her many volumes of poetry, Myles is also the author of the nonfiction book The Importance of Being Iceland and Inferno: A Poet’s Novel, a semi-autobiographical account of her early days in New York. This fall, Ecco will publish her selected poems, I Must Be Living Twice.
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.
Here’s hoping Cookie gets a lesbian storyline (with Marisa Tomei?!) next season.
Anita Lo (b. 1965)
Though you’re most likely to recognize her from Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, out chef Anita Lo’s greatest triumph is her acclaimed Greenwich Village restaurant Annisa, where Lo has created an eclectic New American menu borrowing from cuisines around the world.
Anissa derives its name from the Arabic word for “women,” and features a wine list comprising female vinters and vineyard owners.
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.
HBO will release her latest stand-up special, Boyish Girl Interrupted, on August 22, and Notaro is currently slated to star in and co-write a new Amazon series based on her life, along with producers Diablo Cody and Louis C.K.
Zanele Muholi (b. 1972)Zanele Muholi
South African photographer and “visual activist” Zanele Muholi is best known for her portraits of LGBTQ South Africans, collected in the exhibition (and accompanying book) Faces and Phases. She’s also the co-director and presenter of Difficult Love, a short film documenting the struggles (and joys) of her community.
Zanele Muholi: Isibonelo/Evidence, a show which presents 87 of the artist’s works created between 2007 and 2014, is currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum until November 1.
Jibz Cameron AKA Dynasty Handbag (b. 1975)Alex Escalante
Performance and video artist Jibz Cameron, who performs as her hilarious and abject alter-ego Dynasty Handbag, is a one-of-a-kind creative force you have to see to believe.
In the course of a Dynasty Handbag performance, you can expect to laugh, cry, cover your mouth in shock, avert your eyes uncomfortably and contemplate your own questionable life choices. (I saw her do a lip-sync rendition of Judy Garland’s “I Happen to Like New York” shortly before she relocated to LA and have never been the same).
Luckily for the internet, her performances are well documented on her website.
Dee Rees (b. 1976)
Writer-director Dee Rees won lots of worthy praise for her 2011 feature-length debut Pariah, a moving coming-of-age story about a young black lesbian in Brooklyn who struggles with her own sexual and gender identity as well as her family’s homophobia.
Since then, Rees has lent her directorial vision to Bessie, HBO’s biopic of queer blues singer Bessie Smith (portrayed by Queen Latifah), and is now at work with Shondalond Productions developing a historical drama series about the Great Migration for FX.
K8 Hardy (b. 1977)
New York-based artist K8 Hardy perfectly epitomizes a certain kind of New York cool, taking cues from the fashion world to explore how clothes make the (wo)man in photographs and video work that have garnered her more than a few comparisons to Cindy Sherman.
Though Hardy herself has no formal background in fashion, her intuitive handle on the power of appearances has landed her jobs as a stylist in addition to major museum showings, and lends her work (and personal brand) an astonishing versatility.
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—the series’ first openly lesbian cast member—she’s become one of the show’s most beloved performers, noted for her impersonations of presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton and for bringing the classic Tumblr blog Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber to life.
In 2016, she’ll appear alongside Melissa McCarthy, Kristin Wiig and Leslie Jones in the all-girl Ghostbusters reboot.
Ruby Rose (b. 1986)
When model-actress Ruby Rose arrived at Litchfield Penitentiary this past season, OITNB fans took notice—as did the rest of the Internet, quickly declaring a collective crush on the Australian bombshell.
But even more impressive than Rose’s (extremely impressive) good looks is the candor with which she has spoken about her her sexuality, gender identity and history of bullying.
Venus X (b. 1987)
MIA tour DJ and back-up vocalist, Hood by Air collaborator and founder of the hugely popular New York party GHE20GOTH1K, DJ Venus X (aka Jazmin Venus Soto) is among the most influential tastemakers in nightlife (not to mention art, music and fashion).
She is widely (if unofficially) credited with creating the “ghetto goth” aesthetic later
co-optedpopularized by Rihanna, much to X’s dismay.
Sophia Le Fraga (b. 1990)
Native New Yorker (and Convent of the Sacred Heart grad) Sophia Le Fraga is a poet and artist known for her appropriations of internet language and playful reimaginings of literary classics (like W8ING, her emoji-full iMessage take on Samuel Beckett’s absurdist masterpiece).
The author of the books I RL, U RL and literallydead, Le Fraga lives and works between Brooklyn, Berlin and Instagram, where she chronicles her adventures with her trusty chihuahua sidekick, Klaus.
Audrey Zee Whitesides (b. 1991)Ana MeiLi Carling
The youngest (and without a doubt, punkest) lesbian on our list, Audrey Zee Whitesides is the frontwoman of the queercore/transcore trio Little Waist and the bassist for Worriers, who opened for Against Me! (led by fellow trans rocker Laura Jane Grace) on their most recent tour.
Check out the infectious “(I Wanna Be A) Dyke Wife,” which perfectly captures the ambivalence of longing for domestic bliss with lines like: “spend so long protestin normies / got domestic guilt for you babe.”