LGBT+ History Month: Historic Figures

As part of celebrating LGBT+ History Month, your LGBT+ Rep Kate wanted to showcase some prominent LGBT+ figures and their stories. For some of the people below, being LGBT+ during their life was illegal, and the stories remind us that we must always continue fighting for LGBT+ rights today.

Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha ‘pay it no mind’ Johnson, was an African-American transgender woman and outspoken advocate for LGBT+ rights. She was a prominent figure in the Stonewall riots of 1969, an uprising against police harassment and brutality and a watershed moment in American queer history. Later she joined the Gay Liberation Front, worked to combat transgender youth homelessness, and participated in the first Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally on the first anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion in June 1970.

Bayard Rustin

The godfather of civil rights and orchestrator of the 1963 March on Washington. His career as a civil rights activist started as early as 1941 and he was a key collaborator on the 1947 Freedom Rides project, as well as working alongside Martin Luther King Jr. A gay man himself, he campaigned for gay rights in the 1980s, encouraged by his life partner Walter Neagle. Davis Platt, Rustin’s partner during the 1940s said of him: "I never had any sense at all that Bayard felt any shame or guilt about his homosexuality. That was rare in those days. Rare.".

Eleanor Roosevelt

It wasn’t until 1978 when, at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, archivists found 18 boxes of letters between Civil Rights Advocate, Feminist and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena ‘Hick’ Hickok, her Associated Press reporter. Their previously deemed friendship was now reevaluated as something much more. Over 30 years they wrote each other over 4000 letters, expressing their longing and affection for each other. Despite this, some historians still argue their relationship could have been a very close friendship. A one-line letter from Eleanor to Hick written on 9 April 1934 simply states: ‘This is just a note to tell you I love you’.

Marlene Dietrich

German actress and singer Marlene Dietrich is not only known for her roles in Dishonoured (1931) and Shanghai Express (1932), she also led a wild life in Germany as a performing cabaret artist. Her personal life was strategically kept from the public, so as not to ruin her carefully crafted celebrity. She is widely believed to be bisexual, and quietly enjoyed the thriving gay scene of the time and drag balls of 1920s Berlin. She also defied conventional gender roles through her boxing at Turkish trainer and prizefighter Sabri Mahir’s boxing studio in Berlin, which opened to women in the late 1920s.

Malcolm X

African American minister and human rights activist, Malcolm X is known for his more violent methods of campaigning for civil rights, and his participation in the group Nation of Islam. His disillusion with the group by 1964 led to his murder in February 1965. However it is a little known fact that one of the most influential figures of the civil rights movement was also believed to be bisexual. Malcolm's complex, changing sexuality was never part of the narrative of his life until the publication of Bruce Perry's acclaimed biography, ‘Malcolm – The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America’, where he documents Malcolm’s many same-sex encounters during his youth, and his activities as a male sex worker during his mid-teens to his 20s.

Lili Elbe

This Danish transgender woman was one of the first to undergo gender reassignment surgery. She married her wife Gerda Gottlieb in 1904, when Gottlieb was 19 and Elbe was 22. They worked as illustrators, and traveled through Italy and France, eventually settling in Paris in 1912, where Elbe could live openly as a woman, and Gottlieb identified as lesbian. Lili died in 1931 of a cardiac arrest stemming from an infection brought on by a uterus transplant which had been carried out three months earlier.

Alan Turing

 English computer scientist, mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, and theoretical biologist, the genius that solved the enigma code, and also a gay man. In 1953 he was prosecuted for homosexual acts and accepted chemical castration treatment as an alternative to prison. Turing died in 1954, 16 days before his 42nd birthday, from cyanide poisoning. In 2009, following an Internet campaign, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for "the appalling way he was treated." Queen Elizabeth II granted him a posthumous pardon in 2013.

James Barry

A military surgeon in the British Army, who obtained a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh Medical School, then served in Cape Town, South Africa. Before retirement, Barry had risen to the rank of Inspector General in charge of military hospitals. Barry not only improved conditions for wounded soldiers, but also the conditions of the native inhabitants, performing the first caesarean section in Africa by an Irish surgeon in which both the mother and child survived the operation. Although his entire adult life was lived as a man, Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley and was assigned female at birth. Barry chose to live as a man in both public and private life, the truth only becoming known to the public and to military colleagues after death.