In honour of LGBTQ+ history month, here are some British LGBTQ+ icons from the past, who helped blaze the trail for the LGBTQ+ community, and from the present that are making great strides in LGBTQ+ activism.
Alan Turing was an exceptional computer scientist and mathematician who was fundamental in breaking the German ‘Enigma’ code during World War Two. Turing developed a machine that succeeded in decoding the encrypted messages by German armed forces, leading to Allied victory over Nazi Germany.
Turing’s work in cracking the ‘Enigma’ code has been estimated to have shortened the Second World War by two years and saved over fourteen million lives. Unfortunately, Turing became a victim of the UK’s anti-homosexuality laws and was prosecuted in 1952, avoiding prison by instead choosing chemical castration. Tragically, Turing died two years later from cyanide poisoning.
In 2009, Gordon Brown made an official apology on behalf of the British government and he was posthumously pardoned in 2013. Turing’s legacy is more widely recognised following the 2014 film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightly.
Ashley became a successful fashion model and appeared in Vogue before she was outed to the media as a transgender woman in 1961
April Ashley was one of the first British people to have gender reassignment surgery, after travelling to Morocco to complete the surgery in 1960. April Ashley became a successful fashion model and appeared in Vogue before she was outed to the media as a transgender woman in 1961.
Ashley showed resilience in the face of the awful social stigma she faced, saying in a 2010 interview with the Telegraph: “Someone asked me the other day if I used to cry when that happened. No, I went away and got a newspaper to find another job. I didn’t have time to cry”.
She received an MBE in 2012 for services for trans equality and has said that she has been writing to LGBTQ+ people to help them through difficult circumstances for over fifty years: “I’ve written thousands and thousands of letters… To me it was just a normal thing to do – I never thought I was doing anything special, quite frankly”.
Colquhoun was a proud feminist and outspoken
Labour Politician, Maureen Colquhoun, was elected to the House of Commons in 1974 and became the first openly lesbian MP after her relationship with Barbara Todd (publisher of lesbian magazine Sappho) became public knowledge in 1976. Colquhoun was a proud feminist and outspoken in “challenging misogyny and discriminatory practices which prevented women from having an active participation in public life”.
She successfully fought efforts from her constituency party to stop her running for the 1979 general election, although she eventually lost her seat to Conservative MP Tony Marlow. She continued in politics and her relationship with Todd lasted until the latter died in February 2020. Sadly, Maureen Colquhoun passed away with this month at 92 years old, with many politicians, such as former Labour MP Sally Keeble and Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner, paying tribute to her life and legacy.
Lesbian activist, Phyll Opuku-Gyimah (known more widely as Lady Phyll), is the Co-Founder and Executive Producer of Director of UK Black Pride, a pride event that began in 2005. UK Black Pride has grown significantly since 2005, from 200 members to 10,000 at the most recent UK Black Pride event in 2019. Stonewall, an LGBTQ+ rights charity, announced their partnership with UK Black Pride in 2019 with the intention of bridging a stronger connection between LGBTQ+ and BAME communities.
Bergdorf was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Brighton in recognition of her campaigning for transgender rights
Munroe Bergdorf is a model and LGBT+ activist. Bergdorf has walked catwalks at London and New York Fashion Weeks and was the first transgender model for L’Oréal in the UK but was later dropped from their campaign for a Facebook post expressing her frustration and outrage about the 2017, “Unite the Right”, white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
In 2019, Bergdorf was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Brighton in recognition of her campaigning for transgender rights and joined UN Women UK in their #DrawALine campaign that aimed to stop FGM (female genital mutilation).
Following the death of George Floyd, Bergdorf publicly criticised L’Oréal for the posts they made claiming to stand in support of the black community, highlighting that they still had not apologised to her in the three years since they dropped her for speaking out against racial violence. Bergdorf uses her large social media platform to advocate for LGBTQ+ issues and the Black Lives Matter movement within the UK and worldwide.
Olly Alexander is a musician, actor, and advocate, best known as the lead singer of pop-synth trio, Years & Years. Within his LGBTQ+ and mental health advocacy, Alexander has participated in charity campaigns, promoted safer sex and HIV screening, and supported anti-LGBTQ+ bullying initiatives.
In June 2020, in commemoration of fifty years since the first LGBTQ+ pride parade, online magazine Queerty named Alexander among 50 heroes “leading the nation toward equality, acceptance, and dignity for all people”. In January 2021, Alexander starred as Ritchie Tozer in an exciting five-part drama from Channel Four called It’s a Sin, which follows the lives of four gay men as they navigate love, friendship and loss during the height of the AIDS epidemic. The success of It’s a Sin enabled Alexander to raise awareness about the importance of HIV testing, as he urged fans to get tested in light of National HIV Testing week.
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