It’s come to our attention that America is doing some redecorating: Monuments and statues honoring Confederate leaders are being taken down with a swiftness—which is terrific. But it’s leaving unsightly empty spaces outside city halls, parks, and schoolgrounds across the country.
Below, we humbly nominate seven LGBT heroes perfectly suited for public admiration.
Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben
Yep, a gay man was one of George Washington’s closest allies and trusted military advisors: A captain in the Prussian army, Steuben fled Europe in 1777 to avoid prosecution for homosexuality. But his expertise in tactics earned him an invitation to train the fledgling Continental Army.
Steuben arrived at Valley Forge in February 1778 and began educating recruits on basics like drills, standing at attention, wielding a bayonet, and reloading a musket quickly. (Troops also reportedly appreciated his frequent use of profanity.) It was also Valley Forge that Steuben met one of his great loves, Benjamin Walker.
“If I had seen an angel from Heaven,” he remarked of the young aide-de-camp, “I should not have more rejoiced.”
In the final years of the Revolutionary War, Steuben served as Washington’s chief of staff. The future president’s last act as general, in fact, was to thank Steuben for all his efforts in a letter. Steuben eventually settled down on an estate his longtime companion William North.
An ocean liner, a warship, and a submarine have all been named for Steuben, as have several counties and cities. Statues in his honor can already be found in both Valley Forge and D.C.’s Lafayette Square, just north of the White House.
Rivera started her activism at Stonewall and never stopped: One year after the riots, in 1970, she walked in the original Christopher Street Liberation Day March and worked to get a gay rights bill passed in New York. Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a fledgling group fighting for the rights of disenfranchised queers.
Called the conscience of the LGBT community, Rivera was arrested countless times demonstrating with groups like Soul Force, the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, and the NYC Homeless Coalition. She fought tirelessly to ensure that trans men and women, drag queens, and other non-gender-conforming people wouldn’t be cast aside by assimilationists.
In her later years, Rivera became an active in the Metropolitan Community Church, directing its food-service and trans-outreach programs. She received lifetime achievement awards from numerous groups and, in 2000, was invited to speak at World Pride in Rome.Wiki Commons
Even on her deathbed in 2002, Rivera met with members of the Empire State Pride Agenda to push for trans rights as part of the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination bill then before the New York Legislature. Her legacy is carried on by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which protects the trans community from discrimination and violence.
Windsor’s efforts to have her marriage recognized led to the collapse of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, paving the way for marriage equality across the United States just a few years later.
It was the death of her wife, Thea Spyer, that catapulted Windsor into a leading activist for the freedom to marry: As a lesbian couple, Windsor was had to pay a hefty $363,053 penalty to inherit her wife’s estate, something a straight couple would’ve been exempted from.
“When my beautiful, sparkling Thea died four years ago I was overcome with grief,” she said in 2013. “Within a month I was hospitalized with a heart attack, and that’s kind of common, it’s usually looked at as broken heart syndrome. In the midst of my grief I realized that the federal government was treating us as strangers.”
She and Thea had been activists since the early 1970s—Windsor had volunteered with the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), the East End Gay Organization, the LGBT Community Center, SAGE and even the Gay Games. Now in her her 80s, she found new strength and took on DOMA in the Supreme Court.
With the help of attorney Roberta Kaplan, she won.JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
“Many people ask me why get married. I was 77, Thea was 75,” she remarked. “It turns out marriage is different. It’s a magic word. For anybody who doesn’t understand why we want it, and why we need it, it is magic.”
The father of the modern gay rights movement began his lifelong crusade in 1957, when he was fired as an Army astronomer for being a homosexual.
Kameny appealed his termination, arguing that calling homosexuals a security risk was “no less odious than discrimination based upon religious or racial grounds.” He took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. And though the high court refused to hear his appeal, it invigorated him to keep fighting.
In 1965, Kameny worked with Barbara Gittings on the first public demonstration for gay rights in America, a demonstration held in Philadelphia a full four years before Stonewall. In 1971, he became the first openly gay candidate for the Congress. He lost, but continued his fight for equality for the remainder of his life.
Two years before his death in 2011, Kameny was on hand when President Obama signed an order repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
Born to a Quaker family in 1912, Rustin pursued human rights in all forms: He spent three years in prison during WWII as a conscientious objector and traveled to India to learn civil disobedience from Mahatma Gandhi.
Once back in the States, Rustin became a pivotal figure in the growing civil rights movement, pioneering the earliest Freedom Rides and mentoring a young Martin Luther King Jr.
Rustin guided MLK in directing the Montgomery bus boycotts, and was the architect the 1963 March on Washington, but an arrest for solicitation in 1953 meant he had to work behind the scenes. Strom Thurmond read Rustin’s arrest record into the Congressional record, and an FBI file listed him as a “suspected communist and known homosexual subversive.” Even other civil rights leaders tried to oust him from the movement.
In his later years, Rustin directed his energy toward the nascent gay rights movement, declaring, “the new n*ggers are gays.” A year before his death in 1987, he declared “We cannot fight for the rights of gays unless we are ready to fight for a new mood in the United States, unless we are ready to fight for a radicalization of this society.”
In 2013, President Obama awarded Bayard Rustin a posthumous Medal Of Freedom.
Harvey MilkWikipedia Commons
Harvey Milk’s life was dedicated to the idea that gay people were just as entitled as anyone else to love, liberty and political representation.
Elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, he sponsored a bill that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation and helped defeat the Briggs Initiative, which would’ve barred gay people from serving as teachers in California.
Even his assassination the following year galvanized the LGBT community: After Dan White was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter instead of first-degree murder, thousands rioted in the streets, smashing windows and setting police cruisers on fire. The next day, gay leaders called for peace, but refused to apologize.
“Harvey Milk’s people do not have anything to apologize for,” declared Supervisor Harry Britt, who was appointed to Milk’s seat. “Now society is going to have to deal with us not as nice little fairies who have hairdressing salons, but as people capable of violence. We’re not going to put up with Dan Whites anymore.”Creative Commons/Son of Groucho
Milk’s legacy has been memorialized in plaques and statues already, as well as a U.S. postage stamp and a Navy ship named in his honor.
“What set Harvey apart from you or me was that he was a visionary,” said his onetime campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg. “He imagined a righteous world inside his head and then he set about to create it for real, for all of us.”
Kathy Kozachenko’s name might not be as well known as some of the other people on this list, but her successful campaign for the Ann Arbor, Michigan, city council in 1974 made her the first openly gay person to win political office in the United States.
Ann Arbor was one of only a handful of American cities with a gay-rights law in the 1970s, but the local LGBT community complained it was mostly ignored. When the city refused to prosecute a restaurant manager for separating two women who were dancing together, Kozachenko insisted, “It is clear that [the council members] don’t ever plan to enforce complaints under sexual preference.”
Running on the Human Rights Party as an out lesbian, she narrowly beat her Democratic opponent by 43 votes. Even more astounding, she was barely 20 years old at the time.
“Kathy was this calm young woman who was managed to be personable and she had this capacity to cut through the thick air,” says Human Rights Party founder Steve Burghardt. “She established herself as one of the few young leaders. She had a lot of authority at a very young age.”
It wasn’t until three years later that Harvey Milk won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, but his higher profile led to Kozachenko’s accomplishment being eclipsed.