LGBT+ people have had a hard time over the last… well, pretty much since history began. Many have had to hide their true selves, or have been punished for who they are. There are many people we now identify as LGBT+ to whom we owe a great deal, becuase they have invented, entertained, ruled, campaigned and educated us, so to celebrate LGBT+ History Month I’ve put together a list of 10 of these badasses. Some of them you may never have heard of (as I hadn’t), while others are famous people you may not have known were gay. They are bright and brilliant people who changed the world in various ways, and they deserve recognition.
1. Alexander the Great
Arguably the finest leader in all of history, Alexander of Macedonia was married to three women in his lifetime and is believed to have had affairs with several others. It was his relationship with childhood friend and cavalry commander Hephaestion, however, that Aristotle described as ‘one soul abiding two bodies’. After his lover’s death, the king didn’t eat for days and a few months later he died aged 32. Alexander is still regarded as one of the most influential people of all time, having created one of the largest empires of the ancient world.
2. Eleanor Roosevelt
The First Lady of the USA and her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, both had affairs during their marriage. Eleanor’s most passionate relationship was with hugely successful journalist Lorena Hickok – for a while she wrote the reporter 10-15 page love letters every day. Aside from her extramarital activities, Eleanor was the longest-serving First Lady and campaigned for World War 2 refugees, civil rights of African- and Asian-Americans and workplace opportunities for women.
3. Laurence Michael Dillon
Born Laura Maud, Dillon was the first trans man to be given phalloplasty, a practice previously reserved for intersex people and injured soldiers. Dillon was a physician with a degree from Oxford who, despite being president of the Oxford University Women’s Boat Club, felt more comfortable in men’s clothing and didn’t truly feel like a woman. In 1939 he approached a local doctor who had been experimenting with testosterone –Dr Foss supplied hormones and introduced Dillon to a plastic surgeon who went on to perform 12 surgeries on him between 1946-1949. With a new name and a changed birth certificate, Laurence Dillon studied medicine at Trinity College, Dublin where he became a successful rower on the men’s team. Dillon was wary of forming relationships with women in case he was exposed, and he developed a misogynistic image in order to prevent anyone becoming attached to him. In later life he moved to India and became a Buddhist monk.
4. Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday was a troubled soul, but undoubtedly one of the greatest jazz voices to grace the planet. She came from a difficult childhood to become famous for her captivating performance. Billie was bisexual and during a prison sentence for drug possession, Holiday had several relationships with other female prisoners. Billie Holiday’s is one of the most tragic stories on this list as, despite huge success and public admiration, her alcohol and drug abuse lead to liver cirrhosis and heart failure at the age of 44, and her addictions, lifestyle and exposure to the swindling of others meant that she died with 70 cents to her name shortly after being arrested again for drug possession. For all the sadness of her life, Billie Holiday is remembered for her presence and voice, and her famous recording of the song Strange Fruit turned the public’s attention to the horror of the racist lynchings which were happening at the time.
5. Oscar Wilde
Playwright, poet, novelist and famous wit Oscar Wilde is probably one of the best known gay historical figures, but it’s perhaps not as widely known that he was sentenced to 2 years of hard labour for the crime of ‘gross indecency’ (read: homosexuality). This punishment ruined his health and contributed to his death aged just 46. During his too-short life he produced beautiful and well-loved works and, had the world been more accepting in the 19th Century, the literary world would have been a richer place.
6. Christine Jorgensen
Christine Jorgensen was an American transgender woman who became a celebrity after returning from sex reassignment surgery in Europe – she is the first American to be widely known for undergoing the procedure. Jorgensen grew up in the Bronx and was drafted into service during the Second World War. After leaving the army, the husband of a classmate at medical school supplied her with estrogen and helped her research the surgery. She was given special permission to undergo treatment in Copenhagen and on her return was on front page of the New York Daily News with the headline “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Bombshell”. She used her status as celebrity to advocate for other transgender people, taking her characteristic wit on a tour of universities and other public events. Christine Jorgensen challenged the ‘binary’ view of gender and led to the realisation that someone may not psychologically relate to their biological sex, and used her reassigned body to enjoy a new career as a dancer and performer. What a woman.
7. Alan Turing
Alan Turing, a 20th Century mathematician, played a huge but unrecognised part in the success of Britain in the Second World War. Along with others working in secret at Bletchley Park, Turing cracked the ‘impossible’ Enigma code used by the Nazis. This genius allowed British intelligence to intercept plans and messages, shortened the war by 2-4 years and is estimated to have saved up to 21 million lives. The code-breakers were forbidden to tell anyone about their work for security, and after the war Turing was prosecuted for homosexual acts and chose chemical castration over imprisonment, later dying of self inflicted cyanide poisoning. In 2009 Gordon Brown made a public apology for Turing’s treatment, and in 2013 the Queen granted a posthumous pardon. More recently, Turing’s story was brought to public attention in the 2014 film The Imitation Game, which is beautiful and heart-breaking and definitely worth watching.
8. Queen Christina of Sweden
Several kings are known or thought to have been gay, including James I and Hadrian (he of the wall), but fewer people are aware of the love life of Christina, 17th Century Swedish queen. One of the most educated women of her time, she liked maths, books, alchemy… and ladies. Her sexuality is debated but there are several reports of relationships with women. Christina dressed in men’s clothes and some historians believe she may have been intersex. She caused scandal by deciding to never marry, and abdicated the throne after ruling for 22 years.
9. Bayard Rustin
Born in 1912 to a family involved in civil rights, Bayard Rustin was a leading strategist of the Civil Rights Movement in the 50s and 60s. Despite criticism and being arrested for homosexual activity, Rustin spent his career trying to improve life for others, promoting non-violence, advocating for gay and lesbian people, aiding refugees and bringing attention to the economic struggles of unemployed and working-class African Americans. He also organised the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in 1963 where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the “I have a dream” speech. After his death, Rustin was praised by President Reagan for his political and civil rights work, and President Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 – the highest civilian award in the US. There isn’t room for me to cover everything this remarkable man did during his life, so check out his Wikipedia page if you want to know more!
10. Sally Ride
Sally Ride was a hella smart woman – she was a physicist and the first American woman in space, despite questions from the media such as “will the flight affect your reproductive organs?” and “do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” Not only that, she remains the youngest American astronaut to go to space, making the voyage aged 32. After leaving NASA with 343 space hours under her belt, she became a physics professor and also investigated the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters. Ride is acknowledged at the first LGBT astronaut, but her sexuality was not known until after her death. She was married to a man for 5 years, but her 27-year (!!!) same-sex relationship with psychology professor and science writer Tam O’Shaughnessy was kept a secret as Ride was incredibly private about her personal life.
My initial list for this article was much longer than the final 10 because the more research I did, the more amazing LGBT+ people I found, but sadly my dissertation calls. February is LGBT+ History Month so if this post has got you interested, have a search for some of the others who have defied the closed-minded and done awesome things. For a starting point, check out these women who lived their lives and didn’t give a damn what anyone thought, and if you’re interest in joining the FXU LGBTQ+ Society on campus check out their page here.