6 influential LGBTQ+ figures from British history 

Alan Turing
Alan Turing whose work at Bletchley Park helped shorten WW2 by two years had his career curtailed by his conviction for homosexual acts. Image: Passport photo of Alan Turing at age 16 | Wikimedia | Public Domain

Living through times of naked and systematic prejudice against LGBTQ+ people, these figures had a huge impact on their own eras and left lasting legacies which we salute today.

Alan Turing

Made internationally famous by the biopic The Imitation Game, Alan Turing will always be venerated for the role he played in breaking German ciphers during World War Two. Yet, while his work at Bletchley Park is thought to have helped shorten the war by at least two years, it was just one of the immense contributions to science, society and culture he made during his life.

His invention of the theoretical 'Turing machine' in the 1930s was a foundational moment in computer science, and he also made strides in AI and theoretical biology. Tragically, his career was curtailed by his conviction for homosexual acts, which were outlawed in his time, and he was subjected to chemical castration. His death from cyanide poisoning in 1954 is generally thought to have been suicide.

Oscar Wilde

Though he was Irish, Oscar Wilde destiny lay in the drawing rooms, clubs and theatres of London, where he held sway as one of the most celebrated wits and writers of the late Victorian age. Many of his works, including The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest, have been revered for generations, but Wilde poured his genius into his life as much as his writing.

Cultivating the persona of a decadent, flamboyant aesthete, and dropping one-liners that have been constantly quoted ever since ('I can resist everything except temptation'), Wilde’s sparkling career was destroyed when he fell foul of laws against homosexuality and was sentenced to two years’ hard labour. He would die in self-imposed exile in France, yet remains a much-loved literary giant whose works continue to delight and inspire.

Justin Fashanu

When Justin Fashanu signed for Nottingham Forest in 1981, he became the first Black footballer in Britain to achieve a £1 million transfer fee. Nine years later came an even more seminal milestone, when Fashanu became the first professional footballer to come out as gay. This was a shockingly brave thing to do, in a time of casually open homophobia. As his niece Amal Fashanu would later recall, 'he was picked on because of it, made to feel inferior, different, wrong. He was a lost soul.'

Tragically, Justin Fashanu took his own life in 1998, leaving a heartbreaking note that spoke of the 'embarrassment' he felt his family had endured because of him. He is now celebrated as someone who fearlessly expressed his true sexual orientation in an industry where so few do, even today.

Radclyffe Hall

More than merely influential, the author Radclyffe Hall arguably did more than any other person to make Western society acknowledge the reality of same-sex love and attraction between women. Her 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness chronicled the life and romances of Stephen Gordon, a woman who accepts that she’s a lesbian and proceeds accordingly, despite the mores and restrictions of society.

Ending with the words 'Give us also the right to our existence', the book was expressly written to establish lesbianism as a fact of life but scandalised critics who warned of its 'depravity' and 'moral danger' Despite being banned, the book became a totemic inspiration to many who’d been afraid to express their sexuality. 'It has made me want to live and to go on,' one grateful reader wrote to Radclyffe Hall, while another thanked her for expressing 'many of the terrors' of living in a time of oppressive homophobia.

Chevalier d’Eon

Widely considered to have been the first openly transgender person in modern European history, the Chevalier d’Eon was French, but lived much of their remarkable life in London. An 18th Century soldier, diplomat and spy, the Chevalier was embroiled in complex intrigues of the age, including tentative French plans to invade Britain.

Even in their own day, the Chevalier’s gender was a matter of intense fascination and speculation – there even a betting pool at the London Stock Exchange, with people putting money on the Chevalier’s 'true' sex. They would eventually live for decades as a woman, becoming something of a celebrity and putting on displays of fencing prowess. A contemporary journalist called them 'the most extraordinary person of the age', and their story was celebrated by early feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf was one of the key figures in Modernism, her dreamy, stream-of-consciousness prose helping transform literature in the 20th Century. As well as writing classics like To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway, she penned the key feminist text A Room of One’s Own. Her personal life was also boundary-breaking – she had a now-famous affair with fellow writer Vita Sackville-West. Their letters convey the turbulent passion of the romance, with Virginia once writing to Vita 'Yes yes yes I do like you. I am afraid to write the stronger word'.

Vita Sackville-West inspired Woolf’s novel Orlando, whose hero magically changes sex and lives for centuries. It’s one of the first great tales of gender fluidity in the English canon, inspiring generations of writers and artists such as cartoonist Alison Bechdel, author of the landmark Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip, who mused 'it’s hard to fathom how Virginia could play so freely with sexual identity in that much more conservative era.'