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31 amazing AAPI LGBTQ+ pioneers you should know

Celebrate Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month with these influential and history-making trailblazers.

By Daniel Villarreal Wednesday, May 8, 2024

LGBTQ+ Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have long enriched the nation’s diverse cultural history as pioneers who challenge societal norms, break down barriers, and pave pathways for acceptance.

For AAPI Heritage Month, here are 20 history-making AAPI LGBTQ+ artists, advocates, and trailblazers who continue to inspire.


Kevin Lionga Aipopo

Aipopo is a nonbinary Black-American, Samoan storyteller in the 350 Pacific Movement, a Pacific Islander-led international environmental justice initiative. As an AAPI LGBTQ+ leader for indigenous and queer climate liberationists, Aipopo interrogates systems of power and helps younger generations understand their identities.

Rosalie “Rose” Bamberger

An image of the Daughters of Bilitis’ publication, The Ladder

Bamberger was a Filipina lesbian who founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first U.S. lesbian organization. Started in 1955 as a secret society for lesbians to meet and support each other, Bamberger was only a member for about six months due to disagreements over the group’s direction. However, the group’s push to decriminalize homosexuality makes her an important AAPI LGBTQ+ leader in the early queer rights movement.

Joel Kim Booster

Booster is a Korean-born AAPI LGBTQ+ artist who wrote, produced, and starred in the 2022 award-nominated film Fire Island, a modern gay adaptation of Pride and Prejudice with an all-Asian American cast. Booster has written for popular TV shows like Big Mouth and The Other Two. In 2018, he released Model Minority, his debut stand-up album about Asian American stereotypes in gay and white communities.

Margaret Cho

Cho, a bisexual Korean American, is one of the first commercially successful Asian American female comedians. She gained notoriety through the 1994 ABC sitcom All American Girl, which was loosely based on her young experiences in San Francisco. Her 2021 memoir and one-woman show, I’m the One That I Want, discussed racism and misogyny in the entertainment industry that fueled her body image issues and drug addictions.

She has performed in 43 films, 56 TV shows, eight solo comedy specials, and is a steadfast AAPI LGBTQ+ activist who has fundraised for the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Human Rights Campaign, and PFLAG.

Cecilia Chung

Chung, a Hong Kong-born AAPI LGBTQ+ activist, is the first trans woman and Asian person to lead the San Francisco Pride Celebration Committee and chair the city’s Human Rights Commission. She founded the annual Trans March and launched the Positively Trans network for HIV-positive transgender people, combining her personal story of resilience (as a former homeless sex worker) with her intersectional approach to social justice.

Manvendra Singh Gohil

AAPI LGBTQ+ activist Manvendra Singh Gohil is the first out gay prince in India. He publicly came out in 2006 and founded the Lakshya Trust to focus on regional gay sexual health issues. In 2018, he announced plans to convert part of his ancestral palace into an LGBTQ+ community center.

Gia Gunn

Gunn is Japanese American and one of the first out trans contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race. She has documented her transition and advocated for trans rights on social media.

Stephanie Hsu

Hsu is an AAPI LGBTQ+ actor who played the lead role in the Broadway musical Be More Chill and received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar award nomination for playing an emotionally conflicted lesbian daughter in the absurdist-comedic film Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Lyris Hung

Hung is an AAPI LGBTQ+ artist who has composed music for films, TV shows, dance performances, and video games. She has played with other music greats, like Bono, Quincy Jones, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and the Indigo Girls. She founded the progressive death metal band HUNG, and co-founded the trip-hop comedy/music duo Slanty Eyed Mama.

Kim Coco Iwamoto

In 2006, Iwamoto became the first out trans person elected to a statewide office after winning a Hawaii Board of Education seat. She served on the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission and the Hawaii Teacher Standards Board. As an AAPI LGBTQ+ politician, she has fought to protect trans students.

Sasha Kekauoha

Known by her stage name Sasha Colby, Kekauoha is a pioneering drag performer who won the 2012 Miss Continental beauty pageant competition. In 2023, she became the first Native Hawaiian and first trans woman to win RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Hayley Kiyoko

Kiyoko is a Japanese American musician whose breakout single “Girls Like Girls” and debut album Expectations have been praised for unapologetically centering LGBTQ+ narratives, challenging heteronormativity in the music industry, and promoting messages of inclusivity and self-love. 

Angel Lama

Lama was the first trans Miss Universe Nepal pageant contestant. Her advocacy in events like the United Nations Climate Change Conference has championed intersectional causes like LGBTQ+ equality, environmental justice, and women’s empowerment. 

Bai Ling

This bisexual Chinese-American actress gained international fame by acting in the 1994 action film The Crow. She won the prestigious “Asian Oscar” for her performance in the 2004 Hong Kong film Three… Extremes. She has worked with directors such as Oliver Stone, George Lucas, and Luc Besson and spoken openly about her alcoholism and mental health struggles.

Chella Man

Chella Man is a deaf, genderqueer, Chinese Jewish actor who began a YouTube channel in 2017 to share his experiences with gender dysphoria and American Sign Language translations to popular songs. He has modeled for Calvin Klein, Gap, and American Eagle and played the mute superhero Jericho in the DC Universe series Titans.

Andy Marra

Marra is a Korean American AAPI LGBTQ+ activist who has served as executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund. There, she has provided legal support for racial justice and trans people navigating discrimination.

Geena Rocero

Rocero, a Filipina American, was the first out trans Miss Universe pageant contestant, appeared in Playboy, and spoke at the TED Conference main stage. Her production company, Gender Proud, has produced award-winning documentaries about authentic trans experiences. She’s a board member of the New York LGBT Center and ambassador for The Stonewall Visitor Center.

Bretman Rock

Rock, a Filipino American, is one of the first out gay male beauty influencers to achieve mainstream success, amassing over 19 million followers on Instagram alone. In 2021, he became the first out gay man on the cover of Playboy magazine.

Nico Santos

Nico Santos is a Filipino American comedian. Though his family refused to continue paying for his theatre education after he came out, this AAPI LGBTQ+ artist is now famous for appearing on the hit sitcom Superstore and the groundbreaking film Crazy Rich Asians. He married his partner, Zeke Smith, in 2023.

Vikram Seth

Seth is an Indian author of poetry, novels, travel writing, and children’s books. His 1,349-page 1993 masterpiece A Suitable Boy is the longest single-volume English language novel. His writing explores identity, family, and social change in post-independence India.

Lilly Singh

Singh, a bisexual Canadian comedian, has 14.7 million social media subscribers and over three billion video views. She was one of the first out bisexual women of color to host a late-night talk show on a major network, A Little Late with Lilly Singh. She released an autobiographical film, A Trip to Unicorn Island, in 2016 and her first book, How to Be a Bawse: A Guide to Conquering Life, in 2017. Her work covers issues like depression and female empowerment.

Mark Takano

George Takei

Best known for playing Hikaru Sulu on the original Star Trek TV series, Takei came out as gay at age 68, and won multiple awards for his outspoken LGBTQ+ advocacy. He incorporated his experience living with his parents in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II into his 2012 “legacy project” Allegiance (a stage musical) and his 2019 graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy. He and his husband, Brad Altman, appeared in the 2014 documentary To Be Takei.

Adrian Tam

The son of Hong Kongese and Taiwanese immigrants, Tam’s 2020 election victory over a Proud Boys leader made him the first out gay Hawaii legislature member. This young AAPI LGBTQ+ leader has introduced legislation to ban conversion therapy for minors and diversify Hawaii’s economy to be less tourism-dependent. 

Robin Tran

A lesbian Vietnamese-American stand-up comedian who came out as trans in 2015, this AAPI LGBTQ+ artist released a self-funded 2016 comedy special entitled Santa Doesn’t Like Every Kid and has appeared in numerous comedy specials and festivals. Tran has spoken about bipolar II disorder, agoraphobia, autism, and ADHD. She is engaged to her nonbinary partner, Siege Gary.

Kitty Tsui

Born in Hong Kong, Tsui is credited as the first-known Asian American lesbian to publish a book, her 1983 tome Words of a Woman Who Breathes Fire. She co-founded the first Asian American women’s performance group, Unbound Feet, and was a leader in San Francisco’s Asian Pacific Islander queer movement. She won a bronze competitive bodybuilding medal at the 1986 Gay Games and a gold in 1990, challenging traditional notions of beauty and gender.

Esera Tuaolo

In 2002, Tuaolo became the third former NFL player to come out. This AAPI LGBTQ+ star played for five different NFL teams, competed in the 1999 Super Bowl, wrote his 2007 memoir Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL, founded the anti-bullying non-profit Hate is Wrong in 2017, and competed in the reality TV singing competition The Voice.

Urvashi Vaid

Called “the most prolific LGBTQ organizer in history,” Vaid was an Indian American who became the first woman of color to lead a national LGBTQ+ organization, serving as the National LGBTQ Task Force’s executive director from 1989 to 1992 during the AIDS crisis. Her 1995 book Virtual Equality and 2012 book Irresistible Revolution challenged the mainstream LGBTQ+ movement to embrace intersectional racial, gender, and economic disparities. She is an aunt of Alok Vaid-Menon, a gender non-conforming artist/activist. Vaid died in 2022.

BD Wong

Wong won a Tony Award for his 1988 Broadway debut as a gender-bending Chinese spy in gay playwright David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly. He voiced the ambiguously bisexual Captain Li Shang in Disney’s 1998 animated film Mulan. This AAPI LGBTQ+ artist has since performed in 32 films, 36 TV programs, six plays, and video games. He wrote a 2003 memoir about surrogacy entitled Following Foo: The Electronic Adventures of the Chestnut Man.

Eugene Lee Yang

A founding member of the viral YouTube group The Try Guys, this Korean-descended performer publicly came out in a 2019 dramatic music video entitled “I’m gay.” He has since used his platform to promote the Trevor Project and the Human Rights Campaign. In 2021, he and the Try Guys published the video “We Need To Talk About Anti-Asian Hate”—they subsequently raised over $140,000 for the AAPI Community Fund.

Bowen Yang

Yang was the first out gay and first Chinese-American cast member on Saturday Night Live. His flamboyant performances earned him a 2022 Emmy nomination and recognition as one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2021. Yang co-hosted the podcast Las Culturistas, appeared in the 2022 gay romantic comedies Fire Island and Bros, and has spoken about his experiences with ex-gay conversion therapy.


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