15 lesbian icons everyone needs to know

lesbian flag
Photo: Shutterstock

There are certain lesbian icons that pretty much anyone can identify: Edie Windsor, Melissa Ethridge, k.d. lang, Audre Lourde, and (for better or worse) Ellen.

But there are so many other truly iconic lesbians across the worlds of entertainment, politics, and literature, going back centuries alongside those who are just emerging as public figures. To celebrate Lesbian Visibility Week, we’re spotlighting just a few of these incredible women, giving them the recognition and, well, the visibility they deserve. Check them out below, seek out their work, and make sure you raise a toast to salute them this week.

Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack
Jay Brooks/HBO Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack

Anne Lister

Widely considered “the first modern lesbian,” Anne Lister was ahead of her time, to say the least. The 19th-century landowner, entrepreneur, and diarist lived unapologetically as a butch-presenting woman, earning her the snide nickname “Gentleman Jack” from her neighbors. She even went so far as to “marry” another woman. The exploits she recorded in meticulous code in her diaries—including numerous affairs with other women—have been immortalized in the BBC Two film The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister and more recently in the BBC-HBO coproduction Gentleman Jack.  

Stormé DeLarverie
Homo History Stormé DeLarverie at the Chelsea Hotel

Stormé DeLarverie

Whether or not she was the one to throw the first punch during the Stonewall uprising on June 27, 1969—as she claimed to be—Stormé DeLarverie is remembered as a fearless defender of queer women and an icon of butch style who caught the attention of such luminaries as Diane Arbus, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington. As Rebecca Batley wrote in her profile of DeLarverie earlier this year, “She dressed androgynously and carried a gun, stalking the streets of lower Seventh and Eighth Avenues to protect lesbians from violence or discrimination.” To this day, Batley writes, “‘What would Stormé do?’ remains the standard by which lesbians in the Village judge any situation.”

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry (May 19, 1930 – January 12, 1965), African American playwright and author
via Wikipedia Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry

As Carmen Borca-Carrillo wrote for LGBTQ Nation in 2021, playwright Lorraine Hansberry made history in countless ways. Her best-known work, A Raisin in the Sun, is an undeniable classic and was the first Broadway play written by a Black woman, and she inspired the Nina Simone song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Though she remained closeted her whole life, she wrote lesbian-themed short stories under a pen name for various magazines in the 1950s, and her diaries and letters, some of which were only made available in 2013, reveal her lesbian desire.

Cheryl Dunye
Shutterstock Cheryl Dunye

Cheryl Dunye

Filmmaker Cheryl Dunye cemented her place in film history with her 1996 debut feature, The Watermelon Woman. The film is so many things: possibly the first feature film directed by an out Black lesbian; a queer romantic comedy; a revealing look at the way Hollywood treated Black and queer women in its so-called Golden Age; a radical queer work that blurs the line between narrative film and documentary; an influential example of the early-90s New Queer Cinema movement. There’s a reason why The Watermelon Woman was number 1 on LGBTQ Nation’s 2018 list of films that celebrate the Black LGBTQ+ experience and why the film was recently included in the Criterion Collection, with a restored special edition release due out this summer.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel
Dana Nessel for MI AG Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel

Dana Nessel

This 2022 LGBTQ Nation Heroes nominee recently won a second term as Michigan’s attorney general, defeating an extreme MAGA Republican opponent who slandered her with the nickname “General Groomer.” A tireless fighter for LGBTQ+ rights, as the state’s first openly gay attorney general she argued a case before Michigan’s Supreme Court that established that employers, landlords, and others in the state can’t discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. More recently, she’s stood firm in her opposition to hateful, baseless attacks on drag performers, telling The Detroit News she’d like to see “a drag queen for every school.”

Britney Griner, WNBA, lesbian, arrest, cannabis. Russia, lesbian, drug charges
Shutterstock Brittney Griner playing for Phoenix Mercury

Brittney Griner

The WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist recently returned to the court, practicing with the Phoenix Mercury ahead of her first game since being detained for nearly ten months in a Russian prison camp on trumped-up charges of possessing less than a gram of hash oil while traveling to the country last year. That’s no small feat, considering Griner endured not only rampant racism and homophobia in Russia’s IK-2 women’s penal colony but also became a lightning rod for racist and homophobic attacks from the American right. Still, Griner, along with her wife Cherelle, have recently used the increased media attention they’ve gotten over the past year to advocate for the release of other Americans wrongfully detained in Russian, most recently calling on their supporters to put pressure on the Biden administration to negotiate the release of journalist Evan Gershkovich.

Victoria Alonso
Shutterstock Victoria Alonso on June 23, 2022

Victoria Alonso

Disney may have controversially terminated Marvel Studios’ former President of Physical, Post-Production, VFX, and Animation recently, but Victoria Alonso has undeniably left her mark on contemporary movie making. Described by some as Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige’s “primary right hand,” the Argentina-born, openly gay film exec was a major force behind bringing the massively successful Marvel Cinematic Universe to the screen going all the way back to 2008’s Iron Man. The MCU has essentially changed the movie business as we know it—for better or worse, depending on who you ask—and Alonso was a huge part of that. She has also been a fearless voice speaking out against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, going so far as to call out then Disney CEO Bob Chapek at the 2022 GLAAD Media Awards for being slow to criticize Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Sarah Waters
Annie_C_2/via Wikipedia Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters

Welsh author Sarah Waters’s novels center on lesbian characters in Victorian England and have been showered with awards. Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet are basically required reading for queer women—for everyone really! But Waters is hardly a one-trick pony; she’s branched out to broader queer narratives set during the Second World War in 2006’s The Night Watch and a chilling ghost story bound up in class anxiety in The Little Stranger. Her work has been the basis for several film and television series, including South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s acclaimed 2016 film The Handmaiden, and earned her an OBE.

Schemel (center) performing with mid-1990s Hole lineup, 2012
A Horse with No Name (Flickr)/via Wikipedia Schemel (center) performing with mid-1990s Hole lineup, 2012

Patty Schemel

If Courtney Love was Hole’s raging soul, Patty Schemel was its thunderous heartbeat. Alongside Love and guitarist Eric Erlandson, the out drummer was a founding member of one of the most influential female-fronted bands in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. She played on Hole’s debut Pretty on the Inside as well as the band’s landmark second album Live Through This before being replaced on 1998’s Celebrity Skin and leaving the band. Her 2011 documentary Hit So Hard chronicles her tumultuous time in one of the greatest bands of the grunge era and her ultimate triumph over addiction.

Kitty Tsui
Screenshot/Outwords Kitty Tsui

Kitty Tsui

An activist, writer, actor, poet, artist, bodybuilder, and leather woman, it’s no wonder Kitty Tsui has been called a “quintessential Renaissance woman.” Her 1983 book Words of a Woman Who Breathes Fire is considered to be the first book published by a Chinese American lesbian, and her work has earned her recognition by Lambda Literary and San Francisco-based nonprofit the Asian Pacific Islander Queer Women and Transgender Community.

A David Henry Friston illustration from Carmilla
Public Domain A David Henry Friston illustration from Carmilla


From Daughters of Darkness to The Hunger to Anne Rice’s moody immortals, queer vampires are everywhere. And they can all trace their bloodlines back to Carmilla. A precursor to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 gothic novella about a sheltered girl who falls under the sway of a mysterious young woman with a taste for blood set the tone for pretty much all modern vampire tales.

A still of Sally Gearhart from the 2018 documentary, “A Great Ride."
Silvia Turchin A still of Sally Gearhart from the 2018 documentary, “A Great Ride.”

Sally Gearhart

A key figure in both the LGBTQ+ and feminist movements of the 1970s and 1980s, Sally Gearhart is an underacknowledged lesbian icon. As LGBTQ Nation’s Molly Sprayregen wrote in her 2021 preview of filmmaker Deborah Craig’s documentary about her, Gearhart fought a historic battle alongside Harvey Milk to defeat homophobic legislation in California, established one of the country’s first women and gender studies programs at San Francisco State University, and also wrote feminist science-fiction novels.

Journalist Sue Kerr
Popscreenshot/Wikipedia Commons Journalist Sue Kerr

Sue Kerr

After earning a reputation as Pittsburgh’s “unofficial lesbian correspondent” in the early 2000s, award-winning journalist Sue Kerr took the title and ran with it. For nearly two decades, she’s covered LGBTQ+ issues via her blog Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents, earning multiple GLAAD Media Awards and, as she writes on the site, “carving out a space for a queer disabled woman to speak her mind.”

Alice Wu
Netflix / KC Bailey Alice Wu

Alice Wu

Writer-director Alice Wu’s second feature The Half of It was a major hit for Netflix in 2020. The teen rom-com based on Cyrano de Bergerac won critical praise and several awards nods. It also introduced a much wider audience to a refreshing new voice in Hollywood. Speaking to LGBTQ Nation sister site Queerty about the film in 2020, Wu said she hoped “that some kid or adult would watch this movie and say ‘Oh, that’s just like the town I live in’ or ‘the one I grew up in.’ And it might make them think about that one immigrant family, or that one POC family, or that one kid who is different and coming out as queer or trans or different in some way. I thought it was my best shot at affecting the cultural conversation.”

Rep. Sharice Davids
Provided Rep. Sharice Davids

Rep. Sharice Davids

Last year, out Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS) won a major victory, overcoming Republican redistricting efforts to win reelection and retain her seat as the only Democrat representing Kansas in the U.S. House. Long before that, she made history in 2018 as the first out LGBTQ+ person elected to Congress from Kansas, and as one of the first Native American women elected to Congress. As a member of Congress, she has made health care and equality for oppressed people central issues, campaigning against a state ballot measure that would have banned abortion in Kansas, which was ultimately defeated.

Inspiring the next generation of lesbian icons

From the legendary Anne Lister, hailed as the “first modern lesbian,” to the trailblazing Sharice Davids, the first out lesbian Native American elected to Congress, these women have made remarkable contributions and serve as role models for all lesbians worldwide. These fifteen iconic lesbians have left indelible marks on society in a variety of fields, including literature, activism, sports, and entertainment.

While their achievements are diverse, they all share one thing in common: the courage to be themselves in a world that wasn’t always accepting. These women fought for visibility and representation for themselves and for future generations of lesbians, and their legacy lives on.

As society becomes increasingly diverse and accepting of all identities, it’s our job to celebrate these lesbian icons and ensure that their voices and stories are never forgotten.

This week is Lesbian Visibility Week, which raises awareness about the issues facing lesbians and celebrates their achievements. We’ll be publishing articles throughout the week to bring more attention to the people who put the “L” in LGBTQ Nation.

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