It seems like 2015 was the year America was offended by absolutely everything. Really: you can even buy a t-shirt commemorating this unprecedented moment of political correctness. But it was also a year we had some actually important conversations about topics such as sexuality, race and rights. These 10 people are responsible for pushing distant cultural conversations to the fore in 2015.
1. Carrie Hammer
In February, New York Fashion Week had a breakthrough—the first model with Down Syndrome walked down the runway. Jamie Brewer, of American Horror Story fame, participated in designer Carrie Hammer’s “Role Models Not Runway Models” show, which focused on showcasing women who are influential in their chosen fields. Danielle Sheypuk also hit the runway during the show as the first New York Fashion Week model in a wheelchair. Hammer’s show made great strides in pushing the public eye away from stick-thin models and toward women that rule the runway in other ways, empowering females across the world — disability or not.
2. Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Justus Howell and all #BlackLivesMatter
The movement that began in 2013 is still going strong, prompting relentless and necessary conversations about race relations in America. This past year saw nine months with major protests related to Black Lives Matter. In March, protesters rallied outside Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office hoping to spur reforms in the police department, and the movement gathered in Georgia to protest Nicholas Thomas’s death at the hands of police. In April, the death of Freddie Gray sparked major protests in Baltimore. Protesters gathered after Justus Howell’s death in Zion, Ill. Americans demanded reform after the shooting of Walter Scott. In May, protests materialized in California, Wisconsin and Ohio after the deaths of Meagan Hockaday, Aiyana Jones, Yvette Smith, Rekia Boyd, Timothy Russell, Malissa Williams and Tony Robinson. In June, the Charleston church shooting prompted a march for peace and a days-long vigil. In July, protests followed the deaths of Andrew Loku and Jermaine Carby in Toronto, Sandra Bland in Texas and Samuel DeBose in Ohio. In August, the deaths of Mansur Ball-Bey and Jonathan Ferrell sparked protests and awareness rallies in D.C., Pennsylvania, and Missouri. In September, a protest followed Jeremy McDole’s shooting, and rallies were held in Toronto, Texas, Maryland and California. In October, Rise Up October brought celebrity awareness to the Black Lives Matter cause, with support from Quentin Tarantino and Cornel West. In November, the Minneapolis Police Department shot Jamar Clark, and during the rallies afterwards, two white supremacists opened fire on the protesters.
3. Mustafa Malwa
At the beginning of 2015 Mustafa Malwa kicked off the Blind Trust Project. The Muslim man stood blindfolded on a busy street in Toronto, next to two signs reading, “I am a Muslim. I am labeled as a terrorist. I trust you. Do you trust me? Give me a hug.” The project’s mission was to address Islamophobia, forcing strangers to confront potential fear and ignorance they might harbor toward Muslims and Islam. Similar experiments have popped up across the world, from Mumbai to Paris to Stockholm to New York City. All have ended in a touching display of trust, love and hugs.
4. Caitlyn Jenner
Even though she may be an imperfect representative of the diverse challenges transgender women face in America, Caitlyn Jenner opened the door to major conversations about transgender rights and being transgender in America. Jenner’s very public acknowledgement of her transition, in the form of a televised interview with Diane Sawyer, thrust discourse about trans community into the mainstream, highlighting the plight many trans women in America face — including high levels of violence, discrimination and fear.
5. Glenn Greenwald
After breaking the Edward Snowden story and surfacing documents that embarrassed the White House as well as the nation’s spy agencies — and winning a Pulitzer for it — Glenn Greenwald’s name became synonymous with dangerous investigative journalism. In 2015 he continued to bring awareness to government encroachment on privacy, the treatment of Muslims, the endless grievances against Snowden, media censorship and the truly disturbing secrets of the deep state.
In November, porn actress Stoya accused her ex-boyfriend James Deen of rape. Amid the fury of fans taking sides for their favorite star, Stoya or Deen, the larger issue of female sex worker rights has emerged. Adult film performers and sex workers are consistently denied protection of the law, are accused of “asking” to be raped because of their profession and are considered criminals in many states. In March, a group of sex workers traveled to a United Nations meeting in Switzerland to fight for their basic human rights—and as more women come out against James Deen, that concern may finally be heard.
7. Syrian Refugees
This may surprise some, but the Syrian civil war began in 2011— and the United States has been accepting refugees that entire time. But because of recent terror attacks, and the current state of American politics, policies regarding refugees have become a campaign issue and subject of much contention in the national news. Between discussions of whether to turn them away, incidents of discrimination against them and making up our minds on what to believe, we’ve been forced to take a closer look at our beliefs and predominant cultural biases.
8. Tess Holliday
America’s years of fat-shaming are finally showing signs of relenting. This was a year of plus-size power, with celebrities speaking out against Photoshopped images, designers creating clothes for larger women, and body positive models signing contracts with major modeling agencies. Tess Holliday was one of the first, signing on with UK-based MiLK Model Management in January at a size 22—and starting the wildly popular hashtag #effyourbeautystandards.
9. Jim Obergefell
When the White House lit up in rainbow colors, President Obama had one very important person to call: Jim Obergefell. As the face of the Supreme Court’s historic gay marriage ruling, Obergefell began fighting for his marital rights within the court system in 2013, when his partner of twenty years and husband of three months passed from ALS and Ohio attempted to revoke his right to be listed as the spouse on a death certificate. Obergefell became the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court battle to legalize gay marriage (a case that encompassed all other gay marriage cases as Obergefell v. Hodges) and was finally able to rejoice on June 26 — when he received a call on speakerphone from the president, broadcast across the country so everyone could hear Obama’s “congratulations.”
10. Radley Balko
In 2013 Washington Post journalist Radley Balko published the book “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” an unencumbered look at the militarization of America’s police forces. The book may have seemed a little outlandish to some at the time, but with all the police brutality cases this past year, “Rise of the Warrior Cop” now looks prophetic. Balko uses his considerable expertise in his ongoing column about police corruption and civil liberties, reporting on a raft of uncomfortable issues — like the death penalty, mass shootings and police manslaughter.