By Peter Fox, June 12, 2017
As double minorities, LGBT Jews are small in number but have left a profound mark on the course of history.
It’s not surprising that Jews have played a monumental role in erasing bigotry in all shapes and forms. Inherent in Jewish identity is a drive for social justice, or tikkun olam, the belief in repairing the world. From the initial battle for decriminalization and workplace protections to the fight against AIDS and the pursuit for marriage equality, LGBT Jews have been at the forefront of the equality movement.
In honor of Pride Month, here are ten influential LGBT Jewish leaders you need to know:
1. Magnus Hirschfeld
Magnus Hirschfeld | [CC BY 2.0], via Wellcome Images
Born in 1868, the German physicist is widely regarded as the first advocate for LGBT rights. Dubbed the “Einstein of sex,” he supported in his research the validity of sexual diversity and transgender identity. In 1919, Hirschfeld co-founded the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin where he performed the world’s first sexual reassignment surgery. The institute and its library were later destroyed in 1933 when the Nazis took control of Germany.
2. Harvey Milk
Harvey Milk | By Daniella Nicolletta [CC By 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
As California’s first openly gay person to hold public office, Milk quickly moved to sponsor a bill outlawing discrimination against gays and lesbians in the workplace that, when signed into law, became the most progressive such measure in U.S. history. His tragic assassination coincided with the dramatic and unprecedented emergence of gay activism during the 1970s. In 2009, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
3. Renee Richards
Renee Richards | via The Reno Dispatch
An accomplished surgeon, naval officer, Yale graduate, and tennis champion, Richards made headlines in 1976 when she was banned from playing in the U.S. Open women’s singles tournament for being transgender. She appealed the decision, and after the New York Supreme Court ruled in her favor, she entered the 1977 U.S. Open women’s competition, marking the first time a post-transition trans athlete was allowed to play in a competitive sport.
4. Larry Kramer
Larry Kramer | By David Shankbone [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Launching his career as an Academy Award nominated screenwriter (Women in Love) and later a Tony Award winning playwright (The Normal Heart), Kramer would become best known as the central figure in AIDS activism. Dubbed “the angriest man in America,” he channeled his firebrand style of activism to combat anti-LGBT forces and expose bigotry during the AIDS epidemic. In 1982, he co-founded GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis), the nation’s first and largest HIV service organization. Then, in 1987, he founded ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a more radical group that pressured government agencies to focus on resolving the crisis. In 1988, he organized a protest in front of the FDA’s Wall Street office, blocking entrances from all sides. The incident garnered widespread media attention, resulting in hundreds of activists being arrested, but was ultimately successful in making government agencies change the way they test HIV medications.
5. Evan Wolfson
Evan Wolfson | By David Shankbone [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Regarded as the architect of the marriage equality movement, he founded the Freedom to Marry non-profit and is credited with driving the Supreme Court’s decision to allow same-sex marriage nationwide. As a Harvard Law student in 1983, Wolfson wrote a thesis on the legal basis for same-sex marriage well before the topic had been seriously considered anywhere around the world.
6. Martine Rothblatt
Martine Rothblatt | By Andre Chung [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
In 2013, she broke new ground when she became the first transgender woman to be ranked as the highest-paid female CEO. Her influence long precedes that, though. She is one of the co-founders of Sirius Satellite Radio and is a pioneer in artificial intelligence, striving to make technology liberate humans from the limits of their biology – including infertility, disease, and possibly death.
7. Jazz Jennings
Jazz Jennings | By Steven Pisano [CC BY 2.0], via Creative Commons
At the age of 7, her interview with Barbara Walters turned her into an overnight sensation, becoming one of the youngest people to publicly identify as transgender. Now 16, she has been the face of reality shows and documentaries and is a bestselling author. She also fought a two and a half year battle with the United States Soccer Federation and successfully won her right to play on the girls’ team, changing the USSF’s policy to allow trans students to play.
8. Barney Frank
Barney Frank | [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In 1987, the brash Harvard educated lawyer became the first congressman to come out as gay. In 2012, he would make history again as the first person to marry someone of the same sex while serving in congress. In addition to being an LGBT trailblazer, he was also a leading co-sponsor of the 2010 Dodd-Frank act, which brought the most sweeping financial regulation in U.S. history since the regulatory reform that followed the Great Depression.
9 and 10. Edie Windsor and Roberta Kaplan
Roberta Kaplan and Edie Windsor | By Judith M. Kasen-Windsor
In the last decade, no two people have had as profound an impact on LGBT rights as Edie Windsor and Roberta Kaplan. They are the fearless client-lawyer duo responsible for overturning the Defense of Marriage Act in the Supreme Court in 2013, ending the 1996 law that barred the U.S. government from recognizing gay and lesbian marriages.
Upon meeting Windsor, Kaplan instantly knew she had the perfect case to defeat DOMA. She saw Edie as the ideal plaintiff: a feminine, elegant, and outspoken octogenarian who had stood by her spouse for three decades as she was diagnosed with a severe form of multiple sclerosis in 1977, which left her paralyzed from the waist down years later.
In 2010, Windsor sued the federal government after she was forced to pay more than $360,000 in estate tax because it did not recognize her marriage to Thea Spyer, a Jewish woman whose family fled Europe during the Holocaust, despite their 44-year relationship. As Windsor said, “If Thea had been Theo, I would not have to pay a single penny of estate tax.”
Kaplan’s successful argument in U.S. v. Windsor set the precedent for what would pave the way for the marriage equality ruling in 2015. Dozens of court rulings have continued to rely on her argument to extend further rights to LGBT people.