Last month we celebrated LGBTQ+ History Month in the UK, but LGBTQ+ history is so vast it should be acknowledged and appreciated throughout the whole year. Queer history is vital in understanding how we got to the present day: with homosexuality being legalised in 1967, and gay marriage being legalised in 2013 in the UK. Recognising LGBTQ+ history means realising how far we’ve come in terms of acceptance and normalising the livelihoods of queer people, but also shows how far we are yet to go.
Work still needs to be done to prevent the mistreatment and isolation of LGBTQ+ youths, for gay people to hold hands and display affection towards each other publicly without fear of being harassed or assaulted, and to diminish the social expectation of ‘coming out’ (imagine not having to openly/actively admit that you’re diverting from the heterosexual and cis expectations?)
We must continue to fight against heteronormativity (the world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation) and homophobia. Despite all we celebrate, we are not accepted and equal until every LGBTQ+ person is.
Which is why I dedicate this post to the LGBTQ+ figures and icons of the past and present. It’s important to remember those that have fought for us and just as importantly continue to fight for us – and they do it all year round and deserve to be celebrated at any time!
Alan Turing is an admired role model within the LGBTQ+ community. He was alive when it was illegal to be gay in the UK and yet despite this, he was openly gay within his social and professional circles which was incredibly brave and makes his achievements, persona and fame even more remarkable. In perpetuation of this, the “Alan Turing law” was created in the UK in 2017 to retroactively pardon men that were cautioned or convicted under historical legislation that outlawed homosexual acts. His legacy lives on.
Alice Nkom is a human rights lawyer and LGBTQ+ activist from Cameroon (where homosexuality is still criminalised). Her bravery transcends as she fights for rights on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community and although she identifies as heterosexual, she has devoted her life to continuing this fight against homophobia and the incrimination of gay people. In 2003 she founded the Association for the Defence of Homosexuality. She is someone to be celebrated and praised as she and her colleagues endanger themselves for the livelihoods and wellbeing of Cameroonian LGBTQ+ people. Her work sets the global precedent and expectation of well-needed change.
Alok Vaid-Menon is a non-binary, internationally acclaimed writer, performer and public speaker. Their work explores themes of trauma, belonging and the human experience. Alok’s authorial works include Femme in Public (2017), Beyond the Gender Binary (2020) and Your Wound/My Garden (2021). They are also the creator of #DeGenderFashion which is a movement devised to de-gender the beauty and fashion industries. They have achieved brilliant things for the LGBTQ+ community and especially non-binary and trans people. Their achievements are never-ending: from being recognised as one of HuffPo’s Culture Shifters to headlining the 2021 New York Comedy Festival. Please think about one of their most famous quotes: “gender is not what people look like to other people; it is what we know ourselves to be”.
Bayard Rustin was a highly influential gay man. He was a leading activist of the early 1947-1955 civil-rights movement and in the 1970s, he became a public advocate on behalf of gay and lesbian causes. Unfortunately, he was arrested for a homosexual act in 1953 and Bayard’s sexuality was criticised by some fellow pacifists and civil-rights leaders. He spoke at some events as an activist and supporter of human rights, but rarely due to controversy within the black community. Barack Obama posthumously awarded Bayard the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
Dua Saleh is a non-binary person who uses their platform to promote non-binary identities and raise awareness about the challenges that come with being a non-binary person. LGBTQ+ representation within the media is so limited and is illegal, incriminating and punishable by death in some countries. They hit the ground running in Netflix’s Sex Education, playing the show’s first non-binary character- Cal Bowman: breaking boundaries and providing well-needed representation for non-binary viewers. There is a lot of work to be done in terms of debunking the gender binary and Dua is one of the amazing people spearheading this. The magazine them said Cal’s journey in season three of the show “explored the multiplicity of non-binary identity and the importance the role of storytelling in the fight for social change has”.
Elton John is a very significant advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and is one of the most famous openly gay musicians of all time (if you haven’t watched Rocketman yet, I highly recommend that you do). Elton came out as gay to Rolling Stone magazine in 1992, although he had many gay relationships before this. His queerness and openness provided much needed representation for other struggling LGBTQ+ people who were coming to grips with their sexuality. He now has a song called It’s a sin with Olly Alexander (the lead singer of Years & Years who is also the lead actor in the television show It’s a Sin on Channel 4) which expresses his relevance and importance to younger LGBTQ+ generations and audiences.
Laverne Cox is one of the stars of Orange is the New Black and is the first trans woman to be nominated for an Emmy. She is an enormous inspiration to trans people and especially trans people of colour and is a proud advocate for LGBTQ+ rights who has spoken out with particular emphasis on access to healthcare for LGBTQ+ communities. She famously stated in a Tumblr post in 2015: “we must lift up the stories of those most at risk, statistically trans people of colour who are poor and working class”.
Lil Nas X
Lil Nas X is an American rapper and singer and is considered a revolutionary for the LGBTQ+ community. He continues to disrupt homophobic rhetoric in the Black community. His music videos are incredibly sexual and queer and have caused major controversy within the media, and despite backlash, he persists in creating incredible representation for black and LGBTQ+ communities. Lil Nas X “prayed that being gay was just a phase” which accentuates how harmful internalised homophobia can be and shows that him feeling this way is merely an extension of societal homophobia and heteronormativity.
Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson was a trans woman and American gay liberation activist. She struggled with mental illness, homelessness and experienced dozens of arrests. Marsha was one of the first women to go to the Stonewall Inn once they allowed women and drag queens inside (it was previously just a bar for gay men). I urge you all to watch The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson on Netflix. She was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and co-founded the radical activist group Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), alongside close friend Sylvia Rivera who was as equally ground-breaking, and remains an icon to LGBTQ+ people.
Sandi Toksvig is a very famous television personality and lesbian. She has spoken out about the microaggressions she has faced and has emphasised the differences in how LGBTQ+ people are treated in comparison to heterosexuals within the media. She was vilified and said “I came out and the press thought I was Cruella De Vil”. She has fought back against said microaggressions when being asked ridiculous questions such as “when did you know you were a lesbian?” in an interview and replying that she bet they didn’t ask their straight interviewees such questions. Her retaliation highlights heteronormativity and simply points out that queer people are treated differently throughout their lives and this is only worsened by the media. Sandi’s existence and success allows us to see clearly why LGBTQ+ history month is so essential as ignorance and homophobia are still very rife within society and this boils down from incrimination to smaller cases of homophobia such as microaggressions.