8 Queer Icons That Changed Show Biz Forever

The power lesbians, the queer trailblazers, the iconic LGBT babes that paved the way.

How many times have you uttered the word “iconic” to describe some celebrity who just came to prominence, like, five minutes ago? Five times just today? We get it. We’re also obsessed with what’s brand-spanking-new. But that doesn’t mean we can forget the queer icons: the head honchos, the power lesbians, the queer trailblazers, the goddesses, the ultimate LGBTQ babes that came before us. Those who have broken barriers, those who have changed the entertainment industry, those who are actually still doing some pretty cool things.

Check out these power babes to remind yourself of some of your favorite queer heroes, or maybe discover brand-new ones to obsess over. Behold: 8 truly iconic queers.

Chely Wright

It’s no secret that country music has been slow to accept queer people. But in 2010, Chely Wright came out as a lesbian and, as the first big-name out country singer changed the face of country music forever. She released a memoir that same year called “Like Me,” and in 2011 a documentary called “Wish Me Away.” Though most of her coming out was positive, it wasn’t easy: she received death threats. Thanks to Wright’s bravery, she has helped make it easier for other queer folks in country to come out, with artists like Ty Herndon following in her footsteps. Wright is married to Lauren Blitzer, who coauthored the immortal lesbian self-help guide “Same Sex in the City” (it’s worth a read), and they have two kids together. Wright’s last album was “I Am The Rain,” released in 2016.

Jill Soloway

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Jill Soloway’s resume includes having written for “Six Feet Under,” and producing “Grey’s Anatomy” and “United States of Tara,” but they broke out, of course, with “Transparent.” “Transparent” is the Amazon Prime show that was very personal, based on Jill’s own trans parent. As the show progressed, Soloway began exploring their sexuality and gender identity – going from identifying as a straight cis woman to a femme lesbian (entering into a relationship with poet Eileen Myles) and eventually announced that they were genderqueer and non-binary. Non-binary representation is always important, but Soloway’s is especially so because there are few examples of older, out, non-binary celebs, leading many to feel like it’s just a young person’s “thing” rather than an identity that could apply to anyone. Soloway is bringing awareness to non-binary identity. Oh, and how can we forget Soloway’s statement during the 2016 Emmys to “topple the patriarchy?” Amen. Soloway is releasing a memoir called “She Wants It” October 9, and we want it. Like now.

Ilene Chaiken

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If you’re here on this site, you don’t need us to tell you how important “The L Word” is. We can thank Ilene Chaiken, along with Kathy Greenberg, and Michele Abbott, for that. They gave us a “Sex and the City” to call our own, with characters we could admire and relate to, not to mention crush on heavily. No, “The L Word” wasn’t always perfect – Jenny Schecter made sure of that – but it reflected our lives. It even had the first regularly appearing trans male character – Max, played by Daniela Sea. There have been lesbian characters and shows since, but nothing that has had that kind of monumental impact on the community. These days, Chaiken is working on a pilot for Fox and also – wait for it – going to be executive producing an “L Word” reboot. We hope they do the godly thing and bring Dana back.

Wanda Sykes

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In addition to being incredibly funny, Wanda Sykes also has the distinction of being both the first African-American woman and the first out gay person to do stand-up at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner (under President Obama). It was a long road to that point, and Sykes, who cites Carol Burnett as an influence, certainly paid her dues. In her early twenties, Sykes performed in the Coors Light Super Talent Showcase. After that, a comedy career was inevitable. Chris Rock discovered her talent and she became an opening act for him, as well as a writer on his “Chris Rock Show.” She has appeared in films like “Nutty Professor II,” “Evan Almighty,” and “Monster-in-Law,” and joined “Seinfeld” alum Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and another “Seinfeld” alum, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, on “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” Sykes is not afraid to be real in stand-up specials like “I’ma Be Me” and “What Happened … Ms. Sykes?” (in which she talks about how bad her wife’s cooking is). Yvonne Orji of “Insecure” was moved enough by Sykes to write her a love letter recently in Glamour, saying the comic “helped me find humor in what makes me different.”

Kate Bornstein

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You may remember Kate Bornstein from the reality series “I Am Cait,” as part of Caitlyn Jenner’s friend group, but there is so much more to one of the coolest 70-year-olds in the world. The activist and pioneer was talking about gender issues years before the rest of us, years before some of us were even born, with the book “Gender Outlaw,” published in 1994, and “My New Gender Workbook.” Bornstein, who identifies as non-binary, has also written the suicide prevention book “Hello, Cruel World” and “A Queer and Pleasant Danger,” their memoir, and is currently working on a book called “Trans! Just for the Fun of It.” This summer, they are appearing in “Straight White Men” on Broadway.

Holland Taylor

How you know the incredibly talented Holland Taylor depends on who you are. Those of us who were around in the 80s might remember her from the gender-bending show “Bosom Buddies” with a very young Tom Hanks; “Two and a Half Men” fans undoubtedly know her as the wonderfully sarcastic Evelyn Harper; lesbians know her as Peggy Peabody on “The L Word;” theater fans know her for her roles in “Ann;” and gossip hounds know her as Sarah Paulson’s girlfriend. She officially came out at 72 (hey, it’s never too late) in a 2015 interview with radio station WNYC. We eventually excitedly learned that her mystery girlfriend was Sarah Paulson, some 32 years younger. “It’s the most wonderful, extraordinary thing that could have ever possibly happened in my life,” the 72-year-old said on WNYC’s Death, Sex and Money podcast. (It’s also the most wonderful, extraordinary thing to happen to those of us who are watching this romance with a box of hot, buttered popcorn in front of us, but that’s another story.)

Melissa Etheridge

About two decades before Hayley Kiyoko was telling us that “Girls Like Girls” – as if we didn’t already know — Melissa Etheridge was getting the world ready. The child prodigy began playing guitar at 8, and was discovered in her twenties and later got signed by legendary Chris Blackwell of Island Records in 1986. Two years after, she was nominated for her first Grammy for the fiery rock song “Bring Me Some Water.” She came out fairly early in her career, in 1993, during an event celebrating President Bill Clinton. “I remember walking up, and on the microphone, with thousands of people, going, ‘Well, you know, I’m proud to have been a lesbian all my life,’” she said to CNN. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, wow. I just came out.’” The same year she released one of her most successful albums “Yes I Am.” Authentic through and through, in 2004, Etheridge came out about her breast cancer diagnosis, and sang Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” with a shaved head at the 2005 Grammys. In September, she’ll be going on tour to celebrate the 25th anniversary of “Yes I Am.” (In the course of our research we also discovered she has her own marijuana brand, but, um, you didn’t hear that from us.)

Ellen DeGeneres

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Obviously queen Ellen had to be on our list. Today, there are so many queer characters on television you can’t keep them straight. However, the landscape was very different in the years before 1997, when Ellen (the character and the woman who played her) came out. Ellen played the first openly queer lead character on a prime-time TV show.  She absolutely changed television and the culture at large, especially with her willingness to talk about her personal life on “Oprah.” And yet, all that honesty didn’t come without a price in a world that was far from ready for queer folks to be authentic. She reflected on this difficult period in her life to Jerry Seinfeld recently, in the Netflix show “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee.” “I was bitter and sad and angry. How did this change everything, just by me being honest and saying I’m gay? Why is this such a shock to people? Why is it such a big deal?” But in the end, it all worked out, as Ellen is exactly where she should be – hosting a talk show that is the perfect reflection of her goofy personality. In 2008, she married Portia de Rossi, and they’ve been one of our favorite lesbian couples ever since.

Who are your favorite queer icons? Let us know in the comments!

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