Iconic LGBT+ trailblazers from UK history

A 19th century portrait of Anne Lister
Anne Lister and Ann Walker considered themselves to be in a same-sex marriage after taking communion together at Holy Trinity Church in York.

Every February we celebrate LGBT+ History Month, and it’s a great opportunity to look back at some of the most influential spearheads from our history. Despite the stigma attached to the LGBT+ community, a stigma that is thankfully reducing all the time, there are plenty of examples of brave people who proudly remained themselves, even if it meant going against the grain or, in some cases, risking their lives.

So let’s look more closely at some of these fantastic figures and how they blazed a trail against the status quo in the name of equality.

Anne Lister

Dubbed the world’s “first modern lesbian”, Anne Lister has recently been portrayed by Suranne Jones in the popular television series Gentleman Jack, based on her rather unkind nickname. She’s one of the UK’s most famous LGBT+ figures, and when she and her partner, Ann Walker, took communion together at Holy Trinity Church in York, they openly considered themselves married.

Unheard of in the 19th century, this is widely believed to be the first gay marriage, although it was not officially recognised at the time. As her nickname suggests, Lister opted for a more masculine look openly throughout her life and single-handedly maintained her family home, Shibden Hall.

Alan Turing

An undeniable genius in his field, Alan Turing invented one of the earliest ever computers in 1936. His coding brilliance made him an essential asset of the Allied Forces in World War Two, yet despite this, he still found himself prosecuted for “gross indecency” in 1952. The act behind the prosecution? Simply having a sexual relationship with another man. Horrifyingly, Turing accepted the punishment of chemical castration rather than a prison sentence.

His name has been at the heart of future campaigns to issue pardons and apologies to those convicted of homosexuality-related crimes. Turing received his posthumous pardon from the Queen in 2012, and many others have since followed. He will also be the new face of the £50 note, proving his state as a true British icon.

April Ashley

One of the first people in Britain to undergo gender-affirming surgery, April Ashley stood for thousands and was a leading voice in the earliest days of trans rights. She suffered many cruel attacks in her lifetimes, with tabloids outing her as trans at the beginning of her modelling career.

Her divorce also led to a change in British law, as her husband wanted to separate because she was not legally identifiable as a female. The Gender Recognition Act 2004 used her case as a precedent and finally saw her recognised as female in the eyes of the law. She sadly passed away at the end of 2021, after an amazing and inspirational life.

Justin Fashanu

Justin Fashanu was the first football player ever to come out as gay. Back in 1990, this was unheard of, and even to this day, there haven’t been any more senior-level male footballers who have openly shared their LGBT+ status. He was also an icon for the Black community as the first Black footballer to command a £1 million transfer fee when he moved from Norwich City to Nottingham Forest in 1981.

Sadly, Fashanu committed suicide in 1998, but he remains a figurehead for a more open and equal approach to sexuality across global sport.

Phyll Opoku-Gyimah

Phyll Opoku-Gyimah has been a leading voice in the Black lesbian community and is a co-founder of UK Black Pride. This has become Europe’s largest celebration for LGBTQ people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Latin American, and Middle Eastern descent. Known as Lady Phyll, she has become one of the most appreciated and eloquent activists, speaking up for others who can’t.

Charlie Martin

Going about her business with little or no fanfare, especially regarding her sexuality, Charlie Martin is a genuine transgender hero. Martin consistently achieves new heights for herself and the LGBT+ community by competing in some of the hardest-fought motor racing competitions across Europe and the UK. Martin was also the first-ever transgender person to compete in the iconic Nürburgring 24-hour endurance race.

Quentin Crisp

Quentin Crisp is the inspiration behind The Police’s song Englishman in New York due to his enduring and open commitment to his sexuality, despite the dangers. He didn’t care what embracing his sexuality might mean. His effeminate nature and appearance meant he endured many homophobic attacks, yet he still persevered and never gave up on who he was to suit society’s norms.

As he became more well-known, Crisp served as an inspiration to many who previously felt unable to be themselves except behind closed doors. At the age of 90, just before his death, the writer and performer came out as transgender, stating that he was “a woman trapped in a man’s body”.

LGBT+ History Month is a chance to celebrate a part of our society that has had to struggle to survive. Yet, despite the government and law being against them for centuries, their voices have still been heard loud and proud, giving us many inspirational stories to learn from.