Until last year, federal law in the U.S. did not protect employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity—that means just over half (52%) of LGBTQIA+ people in the U.S. lived in states where they could be fired, refused a promotion or training, and harassed at their jobs based on their gender identity and sexual orientation.
It’s little wonder that LGBTQIA+ workers experience high rates of discrimination when looking for work and on the job. In fact, 25% of LGBTQIA+ people reported discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity—half of whom said it negatively impacted their work environment, according to the 2018 MAP report—and 27% of transgender workers reported being fired, not hired, or denied a promotion in 2016 to 2017.
Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court took a long-overdue step in ending these discriminatory practices by ruling that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, and sex, also applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. And though we are seeing some progress on state-level legislation, there is plenty that needs to change.
LGBTQIA+ voices are still underrepresented in the workplace and in the media. Last year, Fast Company partnered with Lesbians Who Tech & Allies to compile the Queer 50—the first-ever list of LGBTQ women and non-binary innovators—recognizing the need now more than ever to highlight queer trailblazers and advocates across the tech, finance, venture capital, media, and entertainment industries. For their inaugural Pride issue, The Hollywood Reporter honored 50 of the most powerful LGBTQ people in the industry who are making global culture more inclusive.
It’s as Billy Porter so poignantly put, “We as a nation are at our tipping point, the tipping point. One that has been heating towards boiling over for hundreds of years.”
So, we’re using our platform to celebrate and amplify powerful LGBTQIA+ leaders, innovators, and change-makers to support and follow today and every day. This list is ongoing and we plan to continue updating it with more voices who inspire us with their story and their mission.
Ashlee Marie Preston
Cultural Commentator, Social Impact Strategist, Political Analyst, and Civil Rights Activist
As the first trans woman to become editor in chief of a national publication and the first openly trans person to run for state office in California, Ashlee Marie Preston has become a powerful voice for the LGBTQIA+ community on intersectionality, representation, and humanization. “As a black trans woman, I never experience discrimination on a single axis,” she said at our STARZ Summer Speaker Series. “I experience everything at the intersection of race, gender, socio-economic disparity so I felt like all the cards were stacked against me… I got really sick and tired of people presenting us as these hyper-sexualized characters that existed to satisfy a man’s libido. We’re so much more than that.” Preston encourages all of us to be just who we are. “Don’t be afraid to take up space,” she went on. “You should never have to shrink your fatness, your blackness, your brownness, your transness, your queerness.” We couldn’t agree more.
Actor, Model, and Writer
Indya Moore skyrocketed onto our screens as the aspiring model, Angel Evangelista on the hit FX series, Pose (which features more transgender actors than any scripted television series in history) but the model and actor is also highly regarded as a thought leader and activist and was honored on the Time 100 list as one of the most influential people of 2019. They use their social influence to create awareness and opportunity for marginalized communities, particularly Black trans women. Their work and message have both garnered the attention of fashion brands including Nicolas Ghesquière of Louis Vuitton who featured Moore in the luxury brand’s pre-fall 2019 look book, alongside Michelle Williams and Jennifer Connelly and made them the host of Vuitton’s Paris fashion show. Prabal Gurung sat Moore front row at his fashion show while Joseph Altuzarra took them to the Tony Awards as his date.
Speaker, Teacher, and Author
In her book, Worth It, Barron shares her story of growing up in an Evangelical megachurch in the ’90s where she eventually became a pastor at 26. She eventually met Sami, left the church, came out, and got married. Since then, she has pursued her passion while encouraging others to turn their fears into courage and live a fuller, more vibrant life. As she writes on her website, “choosing freedom is always worth it no matter the cost.” With 10+ years of experience in diversity and inclusion work, Barron recently created a 65-page digital guide Understanding Racism 101 to start educating yourself and for those around you who are asking where to start.
It was during her first year as a practicing doula that Erica Chidi had an epiphany and the seeds were planted for what would later become an inclusive wellness space, LOOM. “I looked at the pregnancy, parenting and reproductive health education industry and looked around and realized there was inertia,” she told us in her CC100 2018 interview. “There had been very little innovation and didn’t reflect what myself or other people like me would want. It still felt hyper-feminine, dogmatic, essentialist, and polarizing. There wasn’t a fresh, moderate, evidenced-based, and inclusive brand that brought together a lot more untraditional modalities and yet worked side-by-side with the medical community to give people better overall outcomes in their pregnancy, their parenting, their reproductive health experience.” Now her vision is a reality. With a focus on sexual and reproductive health, LOOM provides health education to empower everyone. “When people have body literacy and can advocate for themselves, they have better health outcomes. That’s what women and people of color need,” she told Kinfolk.
Anti-Bias, Antiracist (ABAR) Educator, and TED Talker
We’re often told that religion and politics (and money or consent) are strictly off the table and not open for discussion, but anti-bias anti-racist educator-in-progress Liz Kleinrock strongly believes that we should be discussing these topics often and from an early age. As she explained on the TED stage, “deliberate avoidance of these conversations speaks volumes to our students because kids notice when their teachers—when their textbooks—leave out the voices and experiences of people like women or people of color. Silence speaks volumes.” The key is to break it down into a format that is accessible for young learners.
And if you think kids are too young to learn about issues of equity then hear it from them, in their own words: “We’re big enough to know about these things because these problems are happening where we live. And we have the right to talk about them because it will be our life in the future.” Hear, hear.
Through her initiative, Black Trans Circles (BTC). Willis is developing the leadership of Black trans women in the South and Midwest through the creation of healing justice spaces to help heal oppression-based trauma and incubate community organizing efforts to address anti-trans murder and violence. In an excerpt for the NY Times she wrote: “As a writer and a media creator, I want to liberate others and help elevate voices that are often the target of ridicule and erasure. So many of my Black trans sisters have been denied the chance to share their stories and it is my duty to them to help expand that master narrative while also expanding the narrative of queer and trans folks in general.” Here’s to more progress and narrative shifting.
Ashley C. Ford
If you aren’t familiar with Ashley C. Ford’s work, then we suggest you read this powerful profile she wrote on Serena Williams, or this one with Anne Hathaway, and start following her on Twitter, ASAP. Her work, which has been featured in almost every publication both physical and digital from The Guardian to ELLE and The New York Times, doesn’t shy away from traditionally taboo topics in her work from race to sexuality, and body image. She is also the host of the Brooklyn-based news and culture TV show (and podcast!) 112BK and is in the process of writing her memoir, Somebody’s Daughter.
Writer and Author
“As a black woman, as a black queer woman, specificity is incredibly important, because diverse experiences are rarely seen in literature,” she tells The Guardian. It’s racial honesty like this that has positioned Roxane Gay firmly on our must-read list ever since she landed on the literary scene with her The New York Times best-seller, Bad Feminist—a collection of essays spanning politics, criticism, and feminism. She has written several best-sellers since then including Difficult Women, Hunger, and Not That Bad, among more. And while some of her books about her experiences are hard to read, Gay encourages us to read the stories of other lives, of difficult lives, of different lives to engender empathy and understanding. “I read everything. The No 1 thing I tell my students is read diversely,” she explains. “And I’m not talking about demographics, though that’s part of it. Aesthetic diversity, genre diversity. It matters because it just makes us better informed, and it protects us from our worst instincts.”
Writer, Director, Author, and Advocate
As a writer, director, author, and advocate Mock has brought the stories of other trans and gender-nonconforming people to life, including her own. In her memoirs, New York Times best-seller, Redefining Realness and Surpassing Certainty, Mock shares her struggles with identity, recognition, and purpose and in a world without a roadmap to guide her forward. Now she is bringing the power of representation from the pages of her books to our screens with the hit FX series, Pose. “The fact that I get to go on set and supervise production, write scripts, direct … it’s astounding,” Mock tells NPR. “I watch the monitors sometimes … with tears in my eyes, realizing that these were the sort of stories that I was craving as a young person. There’s no over-explaining of our experiences. … It’s just: ‘Welcome to our world.’“
Actor, Singer, Writer, and Director
He is renowned for his showstopping red-carpet outfits (who could ever forget this Met Gala moment) but Billy Porter’s influence reaches much further than his fashion style. The singer, writer, director, and actor (he stars on the FX series, Pose) is a passionate advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community. In a recent video on his Instagram page, Porter shared his message for America, calling for action and advocacy for Black non-gender conforming and trans people. “As Black people, we risk our lives every time we leave our homes. As queer people of color that risk is doubled,” Porter said. “We move about our days sucking it up, hiding our pain and terror from the world, trying to make ourselves small, so white people and straight people feel comfortable. Our parents try to prepare us for the realities of this world: the fact that the playing field is not leveled, the laws that protect white people do not do the same for us, and that we have to be at least 10 times better at anything we choose to do in life to simply get in the rooms where things happen.”
Artist and Producer
Exploring themes such as intersectionality, identity and play, Shantelle Martin is a cultural facilitator. Her work has garnered the attention of major brands that resulted in collaborations with Nike, Vitra, Max Mara, Tiffany & Co., and in 2018, Puma launched a global capsule collection featuring her drawings. Her live art performances are visually arresting and take you into her signature stream-of-consciousness and meditative process—watch this monologue and you’ll see why. Her work is a powerful exploration of intention, purpose, and exploration of humanity.
She explained this process in her CC100 2019 interview: “Intention is a very powerful aspect of existence. Essentially, and I think many people whether “artists” or not, can relate to being fueled by a purpose or the search for purpose. This purpose is like the internal line which for me becomes something external with the lines of my art. I have a purpose which is very much tied to exploring the essence of humanity and the world… it comes from a place of pure curiosity and empathy and I feel that intention to connect with the deepest part of myself and YOU is a universal feeling.”
Educator, Historian, Author, and Influencer
After she realized that the history many of us have been taught was seriously flawed, historian Blair Imani dedicated her career to educating folks and opening people’s eyes to the systematic oppression that endangers marginalized individuals today. She has authored the books “Modern HERstory: Stories of Women and Nonbinary People Rewriting History” and “Making Our Way Home: The Great Migration and The Black American Dream” all while educating the public on institutionalized bigotry via Patreon.
Ingrid Nilsen came onto the scene with her first video in 2009, now the California native has over three million subscribers on YouTube and is basically a household name when it comes to beauty and wellness advice. But in June 2015, Nilsen released a coming-out video that went viral (it now has over 17 million views) and she has been a vocal advocate online for the LGBTQIA+ community ever since with videos that cover the best LGBTQIA+ places in New York to the 3 LGBTQ people who inspire me. She has also helped call attention to efforts to repeal the tampon tax and voting, and she’s the host of @onesteppodcast.
Brand Strategist, Creative Consultant, and Contributing Fashion Writer
Nicolette Mason has always amplified marginalized voices and been a true ally and advocate for the diversity and inclusivity movement as it relates to size diversity, LGBTQIA+ inclusion, racial diversity, and more. In addition to her work as writer, she is also a creative consultant and brand strategist working with brands like Target, Dove, and Barbie on diversity and inclusion initiatives. After nearly a decade of working in the fashion industry, she launched Premme, a body-positive plus-size fashion destination, with her friend and business partner Gabi Gregg in July 2017 which has since shut down but as they’re Instagram states, “the premmories will last a lifetime.”
Angelica Ross made her debut as Candy Ferocity on Pose, but she’s been a leading figure in the movement for trans and racial equality. When you consider the statistics—72% of trans homicide victims between 2010 and 2016 were black trans women and femmes—it’s easy to see why Ross wants to ensure that these women aren’t reduced to a statistic. “In a situation where black trans women are being killed, who am I to think that I’m so special, that I would make it out alive?” she told ELLE. “It’s usually the dark-skinned, black, trans women that are being murdered, and out of that group, that would be me. That would be Candy.”
As the founder of TransTech Social Enterprises, Ross is working to empower trans and gender-nonconforming people through on-the-job training in leadership and workplace skills. As a powerful speaker, she tours nationally to share her mission with business leaders, educators, and the President of the United States.
Co-Captain of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team
Ever since she co-captained the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team to win their fourth World Cup title, the outspoken Megan Rapinoe has emerged as a new kind of activist athlete who’s unapologetic approach has inspired millions of fans around the world. In addition to gender equality, Rapinoe has spoken out on social injustice (she took a knee to protest racial inequality and spoke openly against mass incarceration), and along with her team, took the U.S. Soccer Federation to court over pay equity. Now, that’s someone who uses their social influence for good.
Mikaela Straus, King Princess
Singer, Songwriter, Instrumentalist, and Producer
Twenty-one-year-old singer, songwriter, and producer, Mikaela Straus aka King Princess is bringing a young queer perspective to pop. Her song 1950 has clearly struck a chord with fans with 124 million plays on Spotify. As Rolling Stone describes King Princess as “a young woman supremely confident of both her sexual identity and singing ability” and the self-assuredness isn’t an act. “I want to get to a place where the story is less about me and my face and more about what the fuck’s going on in this world. How I can be an active voice for gay people but also the music industry,” she tells Rolling Stone. “This is the art we need right now. This is what we need right now. We’re in a renaissance, and we need people to rebel, come forth, and bring messages into art.”
We all know Jonathan Van Ness (JVN) as the grooming expert on the hit Netflix series, Queer Eye but it’s his positive outlook and ability to help people see the beauty in themselves that made us all fall in love with him. And that bright outlook and larger than life personality still shine when the camera’s turned off. In real life, JVN is even more wonderful but beyond that, it’s his acceptance of people for who they are and a yearning to know more about the world and his place in it that has amassed millions of fans from around the world. Now he shares those stories on his Getting Curious podcast including his own in the best-selling memoir, Over the Top which details his HIV-positive status and history of addiction.
“In the last three years, there has been a steady rise in hate crimes every single year and we have an administration that is targeting asylum seekers, immigrants, LGBTQ people, HIV-positive people, women, and families,” he told Allure. “I think your approach to beauty can be political protest all the time… I think that knowledge is power and knowing the importance of the decisions you make with the money that you spend is literally a political protest. Everything, really, can be when you think about it.”
Actress, Documentary Film Producer, and Prominent Equal Rights Advocate
We all know and love Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset in the critically acclaimed Netflix original series, Orange is The New Black, but what you might not know is how groundbreaking her casting was, not just for the show but for trans women in Hollywood as the first trans woman of color to have a leading role on a mainstream scripted television show. Since then, Laverne has continued her work and advocacy with her empowering message of “moving beyond gender expectations to live more authentically.” And she continues her string of “firsts” from being featured on the cover of TIME Magazine to an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series to a SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series.
Here are some startling stats: Only 12% of venture capital funds are invested in companies with at least one female founder, according to All Raise. Additionally, of the $425 billion raised in VC funding since 2009, a mere 0.32% went to Latinx female founders and .0006% to startups led by Black women. Arlan Hamilton, the founder and managing partner of the venture capital firm Backstage Capital, is on a mission to tip these statistics in the right direction. Since launching in 2015, Backstage Capital has invested over $7M in 130 companies led by underrepresented founders, according to the company’s website. It’s no wonder we included her on our 2018 Create & Cultivate 100 list.
In 2012, Leanne Pittsford organized a series of happy hour networking events for lesbians in technology. Fast-forward to 2020 and what started as a small gathering of just 30 people has grown into Lesbians Who Tech & Allies, a veritable tech community of 40,000 members with chapters in 40 cities. Since then, the 2019 Create & Cultivate 100 honoree has founded two more companies to help underrepresented people in tech land their dream jobs: Include.io, a mentoring and recruiting platform, and Tech Jobs Tour, a series of networking events across the country to bridge the gap between tech companies and prospective job candidates.
Producer, Writer, and Actor
In an industry where diversity and inclusion are seriously lacking, Lena Waithe is paving a way for Black and queer women on and off-screen. She started her career as a production assistant for Ava DuVernay’s I Will Follow, went on to be a writer for Fox’s Bones, and was a producer on Justin Simien’s 2014 film Dear White People. She’s gone on to found her own production company, Hillman Grad Productions, and produce films such as The Forty-Year Old Version and Queen & Slim as well as television shows The Chi and Boomerang. And notably, in 2017, she became the first Black woman to win an Emmy for best writing for a comedy series for her work on the Netflix series Master of None, which returns May 23 and will follow Lena Waithe’s character Denise and her partner Alicia, who is played by Naomi Ackie.
We will be continually updating this list of powerful LGBTQIA+ leaders to continue supporting and amplifying the voices of the LGBTQIA+ community. Please share your suggestions with us in the comments below!
This story was originally published on June 10, 2020, and has since been updated.