LGBTQIA+ women, particularly those who are trans and/or of color, face insurmountable systemic and interpersonal barriers when they knock on Hollywood’s door. They also have impassioned and resilient communities behind them, waiting to cheer them on, watch their stories, and follow in their footsteps.
Among the list of LGBTQIA+ trailblazers we’re celebrating for Women’s History Month are: Josephine Baker, the first Black woman to appear in a major motion picture; Lea DeLaria, the first out gay comic to appear on television; and Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, the first trans woman to win an Emmy or a Golden Globe (she won both). They are in brilliant company with the longest-running LGBTQIA+ character on television and groundbreaking performers who have used their platforms to amplify visibility and equity.
It’s also important to note that trans masculine and non-binary people have made – and continue to make – invaluable contributions to entertainment and face related barriers rooted in patriarchy and gender essentialism. While it would be inappropriate to misgender these folks by including them on a list for Women’s History month, we recognize that without people like Sara Ramírez and groundbreaking characters like Callie Torres, their stories would not exist.
From television and film to Broadway and activism, the following trans, lesbian, bisexual, and intersex women have played key roles in shaping what stories are told, and who gets to hold the mic. In doing so, they’re clearing paths for everyone who follows behind them.
(Photo by Courtesy Everett Collection)
Josephine Baker was an American-born French actress and vaudeville performer. She began performing at age 13 during the Harlem Renaissance and continued doing so for over fifty years. In 1927, with her role in Siren of the Tropics, Baker made history by becoming the first Black woman to appear in a major motion picture.
A civil rights advocate in addition to her career in entertainment, Baker had relationships with women and men throughout her life.
Freshest appearance: Paris was a Woman (1995, as herself)
(Photo by Courtesy Everett Collection)
Lorraine Hansberry was an author, activist, playwright, and the first Black woman to have a play performed on Broadway. A Raisin in the Sun debuted on Broadway in 1959, when Hansberry was just 29 years old. Two years later, it was adapted to a film starring Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. The story centers on a Black family living on the South Side of Chicago – where Hansberry grew up, and where her parents were involved in racial justice movements.
After coming out as a lesbian, Hansberry connected with LGBTQ+ activists and continued her civil rights advocacy until her death in 1965.
Freshest film: A Raisin in the Sun (1961, adapted from Hansberry’s play)
(Photo by Lea DeLaria, 1993, © Comedy Central/courtesy Everett Collection)
Lea DeLaria is an actor, comedian, and jazz musician. In 1993, she became the first out gay comic to appear on American television when she performed stand-up on The Arsenio Hall Show, where she said: “It’s the 1990s! It’s hip to be queer! I’m a big dyke.”
Much of her work reflects pride in being a butch lesbian. She is known for her role as “Big Boo” on Orange is the New Black and has also appeared in Shameless, Broad City, and Will and Grace.
Freshest appearance: Support the Girls (2018)
(Photo by ALL-AMERICAN GIRL, from left: BD Wong, Margaret Cho, 1994-95. ph: Craig T. Mathew / ©Touchstone Televison / courtesy Everett Collection)
Margaret Cho is a comedian, actor, and activist. She launched her comedy career in San Francisco before developing a sit-com in 1994 called All-American Girl, based on her stand-up. All-American Girl was the first primetime sitcom to center on an East Asian-American family.
She has cameoed in shows like Hacks and Good Trouble and had brief roles in a Golden Girls spin-off as well as Sex in the City. In 2005, she published I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight, a book of essays about racism, misogyny, and homophobia.
Cho is bisexual, having said that she’s “been with people all across the spectrum of gender and who have all kinds of different expressions of gender.”
Freshest appearance: Fire Island (2022)
(Photo by NEVER HAVE I EVER, Alexandra Billings, ‘…opened a textbook', (Season 2, ep. 203, aired July 15, 2021). photo: ©Netflix / Courtesy Everett Collection)
Alexandra Billings is a multiracial star on the stage and screen. Her career began in the early 2000s, with television appearances in Romy and Michele: In the Beginning, ER, and Grey’s Anatomy, among others – in many of which she played trans characters. In 2018, she appeared as Waxy Bush in The Nap and became the first out trans person to be cast in a trans role on Broadway.
In addition to her career as an entertainer, Billings is an advocate for LGBTQIA+ people and AIDS patients, for which she has been recognized by the HRC and GLAAD. In 2017, she and several other trans actors filmed an open letter to Hollywood, advocating for authentic trans stories: “Let us help you tell those stories. Or better yet, help us tell them ourselves, and then put us in them. And in everything else. In all kinds of parts.”
She has recently appeared in Never Have I Ever and The Peripheral.
Freshest appearance: Disclosure (2020)
(Photo by Photo By: Priscilla Grant/Everett Collection)
Ilene Chaiken is a Jewish American producer, director, and writer. She is the co-creator of The L Word, which began airing in 2004 and is largely inspired by her and the other writers’ lived experiences. It’s the first television series to feature an ensemble lesbian and bisexual characters, and the first to be creatively driven by queer women. Its sequel, The L Word: Generation Q, began airing in 2019 and bolstered the original’s goal of telling underrepresented queer stories with additional characters of color, as well as transmasculine, transfeminine, and nonbinary characters, all of which are also reflected in the show’s cast.
Prior to The L Word, Chaiken was a coordinating producer for The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and won a Golden Globe for the TV movie she wrote, Dirty Pictures, in 2000. She has recently executive produced The Handmaid’s Tale and Empire.
Freshest work: The Handmaid’s Tale season 1.
(Photo by GREY'S ANATOMY, Jessica Capshaw, Sara Ramirez, 'These Arms of Mine', (Season 7, episode 6, aired October 28, 2010), 2005-, photo: Danny Feld / © ABC / courtesy Everett Collection)
Sara Ramírez began appearing as Callie Torres on Grey’s Anatomy during the show’s second season. At Ramírez’s suggestion, Callie discovered her bisexuality through several relationships with characters of various genders. After 11 seasons on Grey’s, Callie remains not just the longest-running bisexual character in TV history, but the longest-running LGBTQ+ character, period.
Callie paved the way for characters like Rosa Diaz from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Ramírez paved the way for fellow queer actors of color like Stephanie Beatriz to have their experiences reflected in their characters. (Ramírez is nonbinary, queer, and bisexual, and they’ve continued trailblazing with queer roles like Che Diaz on the Sex and the City revival and Kat Sandoval on Madam Secretary.)
Watch Callie Torres on seasons 2 through 12 of Grey’s Anatomy.
(Photo by LOVING, Eden Atwood, 1983-95. Photo: Gina Uhlmann / ©Dramatic Creations Inc./courtesy Everett Collection)
Eden Atwood is a jazz musician and actor. She performed in over 50 episodes of the soap opera Loving and appeared in the sitcom The Good Life and the crime drama The Commish.
In 2012, Atwood co-founded The Interface Project, which spotlights the lived experiences of people born with intersex traits, like herself.
(Photo by DISCLOSURE, Laverne Cox, 2020. ph: Ava Benjamin Shorr / © Netflix / Courtesy Everett Collection)
Laverne Cox rose to prominence for her role as Sophia Burset on Orange is the New Black in 2013, but she began working in entertainment more than a decade earlier. She has appeared in movies like Promising Young Woman, The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, and most recently Jolt.
In 2013, her performance as Sophia made her the first out trans person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy in an acting category. She has since used her platform to advocate safety and visibility for the trans community. Cox continues to appear on daytime television, at activist events, and in documentaries such as Disclosure to speak to gender equity and elevate trans experiences.
Freshest appearance: Disclosure (2020)
(Photo by POSE, from left: Billy Porter, Mj Rodriguez, 'Something Old, Something New', (Season 3, ep. 306, aired May 30, 2021). photo: Eric Liebowitz / ©FX / Courtesy Everett Collection)
Best known as Blanca Evangelista in Pose, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez began her career in 2011 with a theater production of Rent. She was featured in several television series, films, and theater shows – including Luke Cage, Adam, and Runaways – for the next few years, before being cast as Blanca in 2017. Between seasons of Pose, she also performed as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors.
Pose itself made history for casting five trans actresses in leading roles. The series aired for three seasons and reflected New York ball culture in the 1980s and 1990s, centering queer and trans characters of color. As Blanca, mother of the House of Evangelista, Rodriguez showcased trans joy and queer family-making, as well as impressive vocal chops.
In 2021, Rodriguez became the first out trans woman to receive an Emmy. The following year, she became the first out trans actor of any gender to win a Golden Globe. She dedicated her win to “the LGBTQAI, Black, Latina, Asian, the many multi beautiful colors of the rainbow around the freaking world.”
Freshest appearance: Pose season 3