Culture

50 Pop Culture Icons Who Revolutionized the Way We Think About Sex

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You always see the round-ups of the Sexiest People, the Hottest Stars, the Most Beautiful So-and-sos, but those can get a little repetitive. Rarely do you get a glimpse of the people who really had an impact on the bedroom — people who have changed the entire concept of sexuality through their work. Here’s a list of the 50 greatest icons who have influenced the way we think of sex. These are earth-shaking, paradigm-shifting cultural arbiters, who have reinvented, innovated, and subverted everything we’ve known about sex and gender in the last century. 

Judy Blume

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Judy Blume is one of the most banned authors in history, yet weatherworn, dog-eared copies of her young adult novels like Forever and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret have stood the test of time in bookshelves and libraries. Her crime? Rather than promoting a culture of abstinence, Blume candidly discussed teenage sexual relationships in a raw and relatable way.

Masters and Johnson

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A few years before Kinsey shattered public perception of homosexuality, there were Masters and Johnson. The former was a celebrated doctor who wished to make a name for himself in a pioneering medical discipline. The latter was his eager but uneducated female assistant. In secret, the duo took to studying the biology of intercourse and orgasm by literally observing and documenting it. Together, they published findings on sexual response, disorders, and treatments, and eventually wed.

Madonna

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From “Like a Virgin” to “Bad Girl” to “Material Girl,” Madonna cemented her status on the grounds of being totally self-indulgent and shamelessly so. Obscenity was her game, and despite having “talentless” criticism lobbed against her from all sides, she stood her ground as an icon of female debauchery. A legion of women learned the thrill of coming out a sexual being from Madge’s example.

Dan Savage

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Leader of the “It Gets Better” anti-bullying movement, journalist Dan Savage made a name for himself with his sex advice column, “Savage Love,” advocating freedom of sexual expression. The writer became a voice for the homosexual community who, in the 90s, had no public figure speaking knowledgeably (and firsthand) about the health and dating issues facing gay relationships.

Sigmund Freud

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While many of his theories have since fallen out of favor, Sigmund Freud’s writing and lectures on biological development and repression brought about a new way of viewing human sexuality in his time. The father of psychoanalysis claimed that due to repression as toddlers, humans carried latent sexual desires deep within themselves for basically everyone around them. Perhaps the most memorable theory he left behind was that of the Oedipus complex, in which males secretly want to kill their father out of envy and sleep with their mother. Incidentally, Freud treated the women in his life pretty badly.

Janet Mock

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The T got tacked onto the end of LGBT in the 90s, yet the public perception of transexual individuals remained largely negative through the next two decades. In a 2011 Marie Claire article entitled, “I Was Born a Boy,” Janet Mock’s story of growing up male until her sexual reassignment surgery at age 18 was told. The piece, which Mock later criticized for inaccurate portrayal of the transgender experience, outed her in the heteronormative journalism circles she was a part of. Instead of shunning the attention, the writer leveraged this press to build a visible community of advocates fighting the stigma of transgender individuals. Girl’s got great hair and a hunky boyfriend to boot.

Kathleen Hanna

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From her beginnings in the slam poetry community of the late ’80s, Kathleen Hanna positioned herself as the rebel girl role model of punk scene. As the frontwoman and founder of Bikini Kill, she ushered in a new set of rules for rock and roll: female performers (and fans) were welcome to flaunt their bodies without threat of male violence. At any stage show featuring Kathleen Hanna, ladies stood at the front to mosh at their leisure.

Simone de Beauvoir

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While often linked to her famous existentialist boo, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir was very much a French modernist thinker in her own right. Her 1949 account of the oppression of women, The Second Sex, is credited as a foundational feminist text. Her formulation that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” gave rise to a whole new generation of free-thinking ladies.

Margaret Cho

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A renaissance woman of Korean descent, Margaret Cho built her entertainment presence on openness. In a decade when cursing was banned from TV at any hour, the comedian joked bluntly about her bisexuality, her sexual status as an Asian woman, her hypersexuality – you name it, she threw it in your face. Cho’s uncensored, no-holds-barred performances earned her her own show and opened the door for female comedians to be autonomously successful.

Mick Jagger

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Mick Jagger was front man of The Rolling Stones at a time when rock and roll was still figuring out what it was and what the masses might find seductive. A straight man up against tough costuming competition from David Bowie, Jagger decked himself out with glitter, layers of silk scarves, and pink patent leather shoes. In 1985, he and Bowie filmed the music video for “Dancing in the Street,” which was rife with homoerotic tension. An emblem of debauchery, Mick Jagger proved that celebrity now trumped a pretty face when it came to sex appeal.

Hugh Hefner

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Love him or hate him, Hugh Hefner set the stage for pretty girls blessed with big tits to (legally) use their assets to earn some cash. Playboy Magazine and its accompanying Bunnies outraged right wingers and staunch feminists alike, offending the former for okaying guileless sex and the latter for treating women’s bodies as carnal objects. Regardless, Hugh Hefner developed a standard for sexual female value, and we probably have him to thank for the mass production of “Sexy Ewok” and “Sexy Budweiser Can” costumes.

Janet Jackson

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Growing up as the youngest of the ten Jackson siblings, Janet’s earliest performances were youthful, sweet, and family-friendly. But as she came into her own as a recording artist – and adult – something changed. By the time Rhythm Nation dropped, Janet Jackson was a socially conscious, raw force to be reckoned with. Not only did her lyrics fly in the face of the rated G pop hits of the time, but her overall presence asserted black women as independent sexual beings. Let’s not forget the storm that ensued after her Super Bowl half-time show.

Bettie Page

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The antithesis of the light-haired damsel in distress type lauded in the 50s, Bettie Page was a total freak, and she owned it. With her short, choppy bangs and full figure, she set the precedent for pinup girls with her hands-behind-the-head nude poses and remains a poster child for the “alternative” set. From her relatively tame prints shipped overseas for sex-starved WWII soldiers to her girl-on-girl dominatrix photo set, Bettie Page relished shock value and turned it into a viable career.

Dr. Ruth

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Hitting the stride of her career in the 80s, Dr. Ruth was the first woman to publicly address the issue of female pleasure – from a medical perspective. Her show, Sexually Speaking, aired on Lifetime for decades and became a resource for women struggling with very common and very real problems in the bedroom department. Dr. Ruth walked the fine line between filling a grandmotherly role and being blunt about ladies’ naughty bits with grace.

Ellen DeGeneres

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Every stay-at-home mom’s favorite talk show host, Ellen DeGeneres first broke down barriers as an impressive female stand-up comedian and sitcom star, then won America’s heart with her compassion and dry but accessible sense of humor on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. When she came out as a lesbian in 1997, her largely middle-age audience was stunned. Then in 2008, she married her longtime girlfriend Portia de Rossi. Ellen’s trademark sincerity triumphed, and her show now has more viewers than ever, complete with tidbits about her day-to-day with (now Mrs.) de Rossi.

Linda Lovelace

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What did we learn from 1972’s Deep Throat? For one, we discovered that Linda Lovelace, who later claimed to have been coerced into the scene, had an impressive BJ skill set. We also saw that America’s cinematic palette was ready for displays of graphic sex acts as a part of their standard programming. Lovelace’s performance, which at the time she said to have thoroughly enjoyed, laid the groundwork for a more permissive film and television landscape.

E.L. James

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Ah, 50 Shades of Grey. The trilogy of erotica novels jumped to numbers 1, 2, and 3 on the bestseller list, and the movie adaptation of the paperback that flew off the shelves is being treated with kid gloves. While romance novels have included elements of BDSM for years and the E.L. James version is relatively tame, its 2011 publication marked the first time the topic was acknowledged by the female readership as, well, pretty exciting.

The Snapchat Guys

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Recently Kappa Sigma frat bros, Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy are now worth several million dollars as the founders of the disappearing text app, Snapchat. Amidst political sexting scandals and leaked celeb sex tapes, the app quickly found a target audience in teens and adults looking for a way to send dick pics without the fear that they would show up on Instagram the next day. While the system isn’t flawless (screenshots, anyone?), Snapchat symbolized a wave of informality and immediacy in explicit photo sharing and naughty messaging.

Helen Gurley Brown

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Sheryl Sandberg might have started this whole Lean In movement, but Helen Gurley Brown put a whole different spin on women leaning into their careers in the 1960s. Not one to keep her personal life under wraps, Brown encouraged women to do whatever they had to to get ahead in the office, including embracing the “free love” movement with open legs – er, arms. It worked – she went on to be the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan Magazine and built its empire into a source of sex and grooming tips for hot chicks who doubled as working women.

Josephine Baker

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Hailing from the short-skirted flapper era of the 1920s, dancer Josephine Baker took the underground entertainment world by storm with her sensual swaying and wild ways. While the Bronze Venus dazzled French audiences from the get-go, it took a lengthy media battle to overcome racial barriers and perform in the U.S. Buds with Grace Kelly and owner of a pet cheetah named Chiquita, the jazzy performer refused to be silenced and now has a day, May 20, named after her by the NAACP.

Woody Allen

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A polarizing figure, Woody Allen managed to keep his directorial legacy relatively distinct from his personal life – until recently. From heavy hitters like Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Vicky Christina Barcelona to lesser-known gems like Mighty Aphrodite and Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Too Afraid To Ask, the filmmaker dragged us through the trenches of sexual experience. Allen has a knack for presenting the viewer with an unconventional scenario – prostitution, throuples, bestiality, huge age gaps – then adding an endearing thread of awkward and neurotic romance. Even in his own marriage to his adopted stepdaughter, his unapologetic acceptance of questionably moral relations rings true.

Jennifer Lopez

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The Puerto Rican songstress made a name for herself as the girlfriend of P. Diddy (then Puff Daddy) while working on her first pop album. By the time the relationship ended, she had established herself as a successful mainstream recording artist who, unlike many of her Latin predecessors, flaunted her bronze curves and bodacious backside (do people still say bodacious?). Ben Affleck could dig it, and so could the rest of America. Rather than fading into the limelight and keeping her laundry list of ex-hubbies under wraps, J.Lo spun her personal brand into a multi-million dollar acting, production, and merchandise empire.

Morrissey

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As lead singer of UK band The Smiths, one of the first bands of the indie music scene, Morrissey taught a generation of 80s teens and twenty-somethings a thing or two about love and heartbreak. In his personal life, however, there didn’t seem to be much going on for the self-proclaimed asexual. In a 1984 interview, the performer refused “to recognise the terms hetero-, bi-, and homo-sexual” since “everybody has exactly the same sexual needs,” whatever that means. Morrissey managed to break ground as a rock legend in spite of, or perhaps in part because of, his very personal sex life.

Jule Campbell

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The $1 billion industry that is the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue brings the world’s most coveted female bodies to the centerfold of a glossy magazine for adoration and career clout. The first photographer on this beat? A woman, Jule Campbell, wife and mother to a five-year-old boy. Campbell took the reigns in the 60s and never looked back in 31 years.

Margaret Sanger

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In an age where contraceptives were not only hard to come by but actually illegal, activist (and mother) Margaret Sanger dedicated her life to the development of the birth control pill. She founded the American Birth Control League, which is now better known as Planned Parenthood.

Erica Jong

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The thing about Erica Jong’s 1973 novel, Fear of Flying, is that it’s not about sex. Yet she weaves her thoughts on frivolous and experimental “fucking” so seamlessly into the narrative that the book is at once shocking and just right. In the midst of the sexual revolution, Erica Jong took lovemaking lightly – and thereby took a stand for women.

Bill Clinton

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Oh, Bill. Perhaps it’s in the country’s continued respect for this former president that the crux of his sex scandal now lies. After denying, then confirming, his “relations” with political colleague Monica Lewinsky, the U.S. booed and jeered for like, a second. Yet the ultimate decision not to impeach the president indicated a new respect for the private lives of public figures – and a shift in moral judgment.

Marilyn Monroe

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With a megawatt smile, tousled waves, and a full figure, Marilyn Monroe set the precedent for what we know today as the standard blonde bombshell (hello, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes!). Daddy issues, drug addiction, and a premature death only serve to heighten her allure of vulnerability. In a time when sex appeal was harshly condemned, Marilyn unabashedly crooned happy birthday to Mr. President on live television. Yet she was just tragic enough that America opened their arms to embrace her.

James Deen

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Nope, it’s not a typo. Porn star James Deen, better know on RedTube than YouTube, graced the silver screen with Lindsay Lohan in 2013’s The Canyons. While the film was more softcore than serious drama, Deen’s big screen debut opposite an A-list actress makes us wonder – could “adult” stars become the new celebs? His large contingent of teen girl fans certainly seem to think so.

Lena Dunham

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The most stunning thing about Lena Dunham’s classification as a sex icon in the mid-2010s is that for all of our sexual liberation, nude “real girl” bodies on premium cable still cause a stir. Yet Dunham’s M.O. is honesty, and her hit HBO series strives to be authentic about the twenty-something female experience. As it turns out, much of that boils down to awkward, in-your-face, and often unsexy sex. In the words of Hannah gay ex-boyfriend Andrew, “I’m so glad this is all out in the open.”

Michael Jackson

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Despite the King of Pop’s ill-fated marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, the rumors surrounding Michael Jackson’s sexual preferences never failed to raise eyebrows. In theory, the jury is still out, but judging from the sweat and passion imbued in his choreography, his ambiguous orientation wasn’t due to lack of desire. Child abuse scandal aside, MJ taught us that Elvis’ hip-gyrating was a thing of the past and stepped the game up with skillful, sensual rhythm.

Sir Mix-A-Lot

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The late 20th century was a weird time as far as sex is concerned. Post-AIDS scare but pre-gay rights movement; the music of the era got stuck in some sort of heteronormative limbo. Hip-hop and gangster rap played by one rule: raunchy. Sir Mix-A-Lot embodies this rule with his one hit wonder “Baby Got Back,” proving that thin was no longer in and sumptuous curves were about to make a comeback.

Michael Patrick King

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Over the six seasons of HBO’s Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw nightly pondered rhetorical questions about love, diaphragms, and whether women could have meaningless one night stands like men. Every sex and dating question that arose for a new era of single ladies, unwed moms, and divorcees was dealt with frankly and often explicitly on the show, run by writer Michael Patrick King.

D.H. Lawrence

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For a guy writing in the 1910s and ’20s, getting each of your works on the banned books list is kind of a lot. The man behind the now classic Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Sons and Lovers didn’t shy away from the latent sexual desire caged in the pastoral marriages of the early twentieth century. D.H. Lawrence addressed domestic abuse and affairs with the gardeners with a raw tenderness such topics are no longer afforded, all while alluding to the possibility that women might have impure thoughts, too.

Bob Guccione

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Playboy didn’t have much competition in the early 60s, so Bob Guccione set out to give Hugh Hefner a run for his money. The founder and publisher of Penthouse, Guccione strove to publish a magazine with both tantalizing pictures and hard-hitting journalistic articles about national corruption and scandals. He reigned over the successful nudie mag until his resignation in 2003.

Billie Jean King

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For five years, Billie Jean King was ranked the #1 tennis player in the world with six Wimbledon championships under her belt. After spending the next several decades advocating for women to pursue their passions rather than settle into marriage and childbearing, King challenged 55-year-old Bobby Riggs to a Battle of the Sexes ultimate tennis match in 1973. She won.

Vladimir Nabokov

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At the time of its 1955 publication, Lolita‘s theme of pedophilia – a relationship between a lecherous man and a 12-year-old girl – sparked an outrage. If anything, the topic of the now celebrated writer’s magnum opus has only become more taboo.

David Bowie

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A music superstar who kept his actual sexual orientation out of the press, David Bowie didn’t shy away from flamboyant artistic expression. From orange lightning bolt stage makeup to super-tight bellbottoms to the entirety of The Labyrinth, Bowie helped make way for a decade of disco and boys who dressed like girls.

Missy Suicide

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Selena Mooney, better know as Missy Suicide, had a simple mission: “just to see hot punk rock girls naked.” Yet in her 2001 founding of the SuicideGirls website and brand, Mooney helped overhaul the squeaky clean 90s pop princesses by offering a tattooed, pierced, and pudgy alternative. The softcore pin-up girl site invited the male gaze, as long as they were into something a little different – and darker. Missy Suicide helped set expectation for a broader concept of beauty in the twenty-first century.

RuPaul

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The beauty of RuPaul’s Drag Race, besides RuPaul himself, is the way the show managed to turn the average American prime time TV viewer into someone not just tolerant of drag, but an active fan of it. In 1992, with his hit song “Supermodel (You Better Work),” RuPaul Charles introduced drag culture to mainstream audiences, and more than 20 years later he remains the biggest star in the field.

Elvis Presley

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In the 1950s landscape of cookie cutter families and stay-at-home moms, rock and roll was a threat and Elvis was the king. Rolling his hips to and fro in white leather and hair grease, the musician took his place as the face of the youth rebellion. In Elvis, a generation of repressed teens found reprieve and a role model for love with more appeal than their parents’ marriage.

Joan Rivers

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This protégé of Tonight Show host Johnny Carson is now better known as an 80-year-old outspoken stand-up comedian and TV personality with an affinity for plastic surgery. Blazing the trail for a legion of female comics who would outrage future audiences, Joan Rivers evolved into an even more uncensored spokeswoman for aging women with unfettered sex drives. Of her recent sex tape parody with singer Ray J, Rivers simply states, “We need more Old Porn.”

Nawal El Saadawi

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The founder of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, Egyptian activist Nawal El Sadaawi spelled out her feminist theories in her texts Women and Sex and Men and Sex that published amidst revolution in the later 1960s and early 1970s. Having undergone genital mutilation as a child, El Sadaawi publicly decried the practice and claims it as more destructive tool of the patriarchy than general disdain for women. For herself, though, El Sadaawi says, “The pleasure of writing, to me, is more than sex.”

Neil Jordan

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Neil Jordan is a straight male with five kids from three different relationships. Yet each of his films tackle tangled and unconventional love affairs, like incest (The Miracle) and sexual tension among the undead (Interview with a Vampire). From hypersexual children to transgender main characters, Jordan’s career leaves no stone unturned in his controversial exploration of the limits of sexual expression.

Anaïs Nin

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To read Anaïs Nin is to the read the journals of an individual compelled to be frank but also delicate with the female sexual experience. Considered the first woman to write true female erotica, Nin’s confessional style taught other women – and men – to be more open about their desires and all the emotions that accompanied them.

Robert Mapplethorpe

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The male and female nude forms have long been the crux of the visual arts. Robert Mapplethorpe took these forms and bound them, making noise particularly with his The Perfect Moment tour, which featured BDSM images in heavy rotation and a self-portrait with a bullwhip up his butt. The American photographer died prematurely of AIDS but left a legacy of aggressively queer art that played up the delicate balance between love and violence implicit in sex.

Bruce Lee

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Insistently dedicated to his craft, martial arts movie star Bruce Lee was an athlete first and an actor second. This only further cemented his status as the first publicly sexualized Asian man in America. The submissive female narrative of the East was already familiar to the US, yet Lee’s swagger set him apart as an effeminate-looking male who, despite his hairless torso, could set a lady’s heart on fire with his biceps and KO skills instead.

Alfred Kinsey

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Now known as the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Alfred Kinsey founded the organization in 1947 and dedicated his life to the study of sexual behavior in males and females. Largely considered the first American sexologist, his observations of intercourse and bodily response to stimuli led to his Kinsey Reports and the Kinsey scale, which asserted that most individuals fall somewhere along a spectrum of sexual orientation.

Harvey Milk

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As a young career man, Harvey Milk was an aspiring politician with no intention to fight for social equality. Yet after enduring opposition in his pursuit of public office, Milk went on to become the first openly gay person elected in California and was instrumental in passing several gay rights ordinances in the midst of the counterculture revolution. He left his mark as a genuine figure in the often-corrupt world of public service.