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29 LGBTQ figures from history you need to know about

In honour of LGBT History Month, we remember the queer people who left their mark on the world.

2020-02-01

The month of February sees the UK celebrating LGBT History Month, and in honour of the occasion, we’re shining light on at some of the trailblazing LGBTQ people who have come before us and left their mark on the world.

From those you know to those you don't, these are the queer people whose stories and struggles have shaped the LGBTQ culture and the community as we know it today.

There are 29 figures in total - one for each day of the month - and you can learn more about them below:

Stormé DeLarverie (1920-2014)

Dubbed the ‘Rosa Parks of the gay community’, Stormé DeLarverie is widely regarded as the woman who started the fight back against the police during the Stonewall raid of 1969, an event that helped define a change in LGBT+ rights activism.

She died in 2014 at the age of 93.

Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

The essays American writer Gore Vidal penned were in favour of sexual freedom and equality, and against prejudice.

His ‘The City and the Pillar’ published in 1948, was one of the first modern gay-themed novels.

He was a radical and a maverick, although he was no Pride marcher. He died at the age of 86 in 2012 and was buried next to his long-time companion Howard Austen.

Alexander the Great (356-323 BC)

Alexander the Great was king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon: a bisexual military genius who through the years had many partners and mistresses.

His most controversial relationship was with a young Persian eunuch named Bagoas, who Alexander kissed publicly at a festival of athletics and arts.

He died at the age of 32 in 323 BC.

James Baldwin (1924-1987)

In his teen years, American novelist James Baldwin began to feel smothered for being both African-American and gay in a racist and homophobic America.

Baldwin escaped to France where he wrote essays critiquing race, sexuality and class structures.

He brought to light the challenges and complexities black and LGBT+ people had to face at the time.

He died in 1987 at the age of 63.

David Hockney (1937-)

Born in Bradford, artist David Hockney's career flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, when he flitted between London and California, where he enjoyed an openly gay lifestyle with friends like Andy Warhol and Christopher Isherwood.

Much of his work, including the famous Pool Paintings, featured explicitly gay imagery and themes.

In 1963, he painted two men together in the painting ‘Domestic Scene, Los Angeles’, one showering while the other washes his back.

He is considered one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century.

Alan Turing (1912-1954)

Mathematician Alan Turing played a pivotal role in cracking intercepted coded messages that enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in many crucial moments and in so doing helped win World War Two.

In 1952, Turing was convicted for having a relationship with 19-year-old Arnold Murray. At the time it was illegal to engage in gay sex, and Turing underwent chemical castration.

He took his own life at the age of 41 after using cyanide to poison an apple.

Turing was eventually pardoned in 2013, which led to new legislation pardoning all gay men under historical gross indecency laws.

He was named ‘The Greatest Person of the 20th Century’ following a public vote on the BBC last year.

Colette (1873-1954)

The French author and legend Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, better known as Colette, lived openly as a bisexual woman and had relationships with many prominent queer ladies including Napoleon’s niece Mathilde ‘Missy’ de Morny.

Police were called to the Moulin Rouge back in 1907 when Colette and Missy shared a kiss on the iconic stage.

Best known for her novel ‘Gigi’, Colette also wrote the ‘Claudine’ series, which follows the titular character who ends up despising her husband and has an affair with another woman.

Colette died in 1954 at the age of 81.

Touko Laaksonen (Tom of Finland) (1920-1991)

Dubbed the 'most influential creator of gay pornographic images', Touko Laaksonen - better known by his pseudonym Tom of Finland - was a Finnish artist known for his highly masculinised homoerotic fetish art, and for his influence on late twentieth century gay culture.

Over the course of four decades, he produced some 3,500 illustrations, mostly featuring men with exaggerated primary and secondary sex traits, wearing tight or partially removed clothing.

He died in 1991 at the age of 71.

Gilbert Baker (1951-2017)

What would the world be with the iconic rainbow flag? Well, the LGBTQ community has this man to thank.

Gilbert Baker was an American artist, gay rights activist and designer of the rainbow flag which debuted back in 1978.

The flag has become widely associated with LGBT+ rights, and he refused to trademark it saying it was a symbol for everyone.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, Baker created the world’s largest flag, at the time.

In 2017, Baker died in his sleep at the age of 65 in his New York City home.

Tab Hunter (1931-2018)

Tab Hunter was Hollywood’s all-American boy and the ultimate heartthrob who made his way into the hearts of every teenage girl (and gay boy) around the world.

One of Hollywood’s most high-profile romantic leads, he was arrested in 1950 for disorderly conduct, connected to his rumoured homosexuality.

After a successful career, he wrote an autobiography in 2005 where he publicly acknowledged he was gay for the first time.

He had a long-term relationship with Psycho star Anthony Perkins and figure skater Ronnie Robertson before marrying his partner of more than 35 years, Allan Glaser.

Three days before his 87th birthday in 2018, he died of a cardiac arrest.

He will always be our Hollywood heartthrob.

Marsha P Johnson (1945-1992)

Marsha P Johnson was a gay liberation activist and an African-American transgender woman.

Known as an outspoken advocate for gay rights, Marsha was one of the prominent figures in the Stonewall uprising in 1969.

She co-founded the gay and transvestite advocacy organization S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), alongside close friend Sylvia Rivera.

Due to her mental health issues, many gay activists had been reluctant at first to credit Johnson for helping to spark the gay liberation movement of the early 1970s.

Shortly after the 1992 pride parade, Johnson's body was discovered floating in the Hudson River. Police initially ruled the death a suicide, but friends were adamant that she did not have suicidal thoughts, and it was widely believed she was the victim of a transphobic attack.

In 2012, New York police reopened the investigation into her death as a possible homocide, before eventually reclassifying her cause of death from 'suicide' to 'undetermined'.

Her ashes were released over the Hudson River by her friends following a funeral at a local church.

Mark Ashton (1960-1987)

Mark Ashton was an Irish gay rights activist who co-founded the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners Movement with close friend Mike Jackson. 

The support group collected donations at the 1984 Lesbian and Gay Pride march in London for the miners on strike, and the story was later immortalised in the 2014 film Pride, which saw Ashton played by actor Ben Schnetzer.

Ashton also served as General Secretary of the Young Communist League.

In 1987 he was admitted to Guy’s Hospital after being diagnosed with HIV/Aids.

He died 12 days later of an Aids-related illness at the age of 26.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

Oscar Wilde was one of London's most popular playwrights in the early 1890s. He is best remembered for his epigrams and plays, his novel 'The Picture of Dorian Gray', and the circumstances of his criminal conviction for homosexuality and imprisonment at the height of his fame.

Oscar was initiated into the Victorian underground of gay prostitution by Lord Alfred Douglas and he was introduced to a series of young working-class male prostitutes from 1892 onwards.

He tried to sue the father of his lover for defamatory, but his books were crucial in his conviction and were quoted in court as evidence of his ‘immorality’.

After being forced to do hard labour for two years, his health had suffered greatly from the harshness of prison. After, he had a feeling of spiritual renewal and requested a six-month Catholic retreat but it was denied.

Although Douglas had been the cause of his misfortunes, he and Wilde were reunited in 1897 and they lived together near Naples for a few months until they were separated by their families.

Oscar spent his last three years impoverished and in exile. By November 1900, Wilde had developed meningitis and died five days later at the young age of 46.

In 2017, Wilde was pardoned for homosexual acts under the Policing and Crime Act 2017. The Act is known informally as the Alan Turing law.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

Wilfred Owen was one of the leading poets of the First World War. Close friends said Owen was homosexual, and homoeroticism is a central element in much of Owen's poetry.

Through fellow soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon, Owen was introduced to a sophisticated homosexual literary circle which broadened his outlook and increased his confidence in incorporating homoerotic elements into his work including a reference to Shadwell Stair, a popular cruising spot for gay men in the early 20th Century.

Sassoon and Owen kept in touch during the war and in 1918 they spent an afternoon together.

The two never saw each other again.

Three weeks letter, Owen bid farewell to Sassoon as he was on the way back to France.

Sassoon waited for word from Owen but was told that he was killed in action on November, 4 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice which ended the war. He was only 25.

Throughout his life and for decades after, accounts of his sexuality were obscured by his brother, Harold, who had removed any discreditable passages in Owen’s letters and diaries after the death of their mother.

Owen is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery, Ors, in northern France.

Divine (1945-1988)

Divine was an American actor, singer, and drag queen. Closely associated with the independent filmmaker John Waters, Divine was a character actor, usually performing female roles in movies and theatre and adopted a female drag persona for his music career.

Divine – whose real name was Harris Glenn Milstead - considered himself to be male and was not transgender.

He identified as gay, and during the 1980s had an extended relationship with a married man named Lee, who accompanied him almost everywhere that he went.

After they split, Divine went on to have a brief affair with gay porn star Leo Ford.

Divine regularly engaged in sexual activities with young men that he would meet while on tour, sometimes becoming infatuated with them.

He initially avoided informing the media about his sexuality and would sometimes hint that he was bisexual, but in the latter part of the 1980s, he changed this attitude and began being open about his homosexuality.

On advice from his manager, he avoided discussing gay rights believing it would have had a negative effect on his career.

In 1988, he died in his sleep, at age 42, of an enlarged heart.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

Andy Warhol was an American artist, director and producer who was a leading figure in the visual art movement known as pop art.

He lived openly as a gay man before the gay liberation movement. In an interview in 1980, he indicated that he was still a virgin but in 1960 he received hospital treatment for condylomata, a sexually transmitted disease.

Throughout his career, Warhol produced erotic photography and drawings of male nudes. Many of his most famous works draw from gay underground culture or openly explore the complexity of sexuality and desire.

The first works that Warhol submitted to a fine art gallery, homoerotic drawings of male nudes, were rejected for being too openly gay.

After gallbladder surgery, Warhol died of cardiac arrhythmia in February 1987 at the age of 58.

Derek Jarman (1942-1994)

Derek Jarman was an English film director, stage designer, diarist, artist, gardener, and author.

For a generation he was a hugely influential, high-profile figure at a time when there very few famous out gay men.

His art was an extension of his social and personal life and he used his platform as a campaigner and created a unique body of inspiring work.

He founded the organisation at the London Lesbian and Gay Centre at Cowcross Street, attending meetings and making contributions.

Jarman participated in some of the most best-known protests including the march on Parliament in 1992.

In 1986, he was diagnosed as HIV-positive and discussed his condition in public. In 1994, he died of an Aids-related illness in London, aged 52.

He died the day before a key vote on the age of consent in the House of Commons, which campaigned for an equal age for both gay and straight sex.

The Commons reduced the age to 18 rather than 16. The LGBTQ community had to wait until the year 2000 for full equality in relation to same-sex consent.

Barbara Gittings (1932-2007)

Barbara Gittings was a prominent American LGBT+ activist and was involved in promoting positive literature about homosexuality in libraries.

She was part of the movement to get the American Psychiatric Association to drop homosexuality as a mental illness in 1972.

She met her lifelong partner Kay Tobin in 1961 and were together for 46 years.

She died on February 18 in 2007 after a long battle with breast cancer.

Freddie Mercury (1946-1991)

Freddie Mercury is regarded as one of the greatest singers in the history of popular music and was known for his flamboyant stage persona as the frontman of Queen and his four-octave vocal range.

After growing up in Zanzibar, Mercury and his family moved to Middlesex and in 1970, the iconic singer formed the legendary band with Brian May and Roger Taylor.

In the early 1970s, Mercury had a long-term relationship with Mary Austin, whom he lived with for several years. By the mid-1970s, he had begun an affair with a male American record executive at Elektra Records, and in 1976, Mercury told Austin of his sexuality, which ended their relationship.

While some claimed he hid his sexual orientation from the public, others claimed he was ‘openly gay’. Some have said he identified as bisexual.

Freddie met Jim Hutton in 1984 and was hired as Mercury’s hairdresser and ended up moving in with him at his Garden Lodge home about two years later.

Hutton, who died in 2010, said Freddie was diagnosed with HIV in April 1987, with Queen guitarist Brian May having said members of the band were only told “shortly before he died.”

Mercury confirmed he had contracted the virus in 1991, the day before he died at the age of 45.

Hutton reportedly was at his side when he took his last breath.

Freddie’s legacy was immortalised in the Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, with Rami Malek portraying the music legend.

Harvey Milk (1930-1978)

Harvey Milk was an American politician and the first openly gay elected official in the history of California, where he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Although he was the most pro-LGBT politician in the United States at the time, politics and activism were not his early interests; he was neither open about his sexuality nor civically active until he was 40, after his experiences in the counterculture movement of the 1960s.

Milk's political career centred on making government responsive to individuals, gay liberation, and the importance of neighbourhoods to the city.

On November 27, 1978, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, who was another city supervisor. Milk was 48 at the time of his death.

His remains were cremated, and his ashes were split. Most of the ashes were scattered in San Francisco Bay.

Other ashes were encapsulated and buried beneath the sidewalk in front of 575 Castro Street, where Castro Camera had been located.

There is a memorial to Milk at the Neptune Society Columbarium, ground floor, San Francisco, California.

Despite his short career in politics, Milk became an icon in San Francisco and a martyr in the gay community.

In 2002, Milk was called "the most famous and most significantly open LGBT official ever elected in the United States".

In 2008, Gus Van Sant directed a biopic called Milk written by Dustin Lance Black which went on to win Best Original Screenplay at the 2009 Academy Awards.

Lili Elbe (1882-1931)

Lili Elbe was a Danish transgender woman and among the early recipients of gender reassignment surgery.

She was born Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener, and was a successful painter under that name. During this time, she also presented as Lili and was introduced publicly as Einar's sister.

In 1930, Elbe went to Germany for gender reassignment surgery, which was highly experimental at the time. A series of four operations were carried out over a period of two years.

After successfully transitioning, she changed her legal name to Lili Ilse Elvenes and stopped painting altogether. The name Lili Elbe was given to her by Copenhagen journalist Louise Lassen.

Elbe began a relationship with French art dealer Claude Lejeune, whom she wanted to marry and with whom she wanted to have children. She was looking forward to her final surgery involving a uterus transplant.

However, her immune system rejected the transplanted uterus, however, and she developed an infection. She died in 1931, three months after the surgery, of cardiac arrest brought on by the infection at the age of 48.

Lili’s life was brought to the big screen in the 2015 movie The Danish Girl with Eddie Redmayne starring as her.

Keith Haring (1958-1990)

Keith Haring was an American artist whose pop art and graffiti-like work grew out of the New York City street culture of the 1980s.

After public recognition he created larger scale works such as colourful murals.

His later work often addressed political and societal themes – especially homosexuality and Aids – through his own iconography.

Haring was openly gay and was a strong advocate of safe sex, however, in 1988, he was diagnosed with Aids.

From 1982 to 1989, he was featured in more than 100 solo and group exhibitions as well as produced more than 50 public artworks in dozens of charities, hospitals, day care centres, and orphanages.

He used his imagery during the last years of his life to speak about his illness and to generate activism and awareness about Aids.

In 1989, he established the Keith Haring Foundation to provide funding and imagery to Aids organisations and children's programs, and to expand the audience for his work through exhibitions, publications and the licensing of his images.

Haring died on February 16, 1990, of Aids-related illness at the age of 31. He is commemorated in the Aids Memorial Quilt.

Madonna declared that the first New York date of her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour would be a benefit concert for Haring's memory and donated all proceeds from her ticket sales to Aids charities.

Larry Kramer (1935-)

Larry Kramer is an American playwright, author, film producer, public health advocate, and LGBT rights activist.

Kramer grew frustrated with bureaucratic paralysis and the apathy of gay men to the Aids crisis and he co-founded GMHC (originally called Gay Men’s Health Crisis) and ACT UP (the Aids coalition to Unleash Power), two of the leading organisations that responded to the Aids epidemic.

In 1988, stress over the closing of his play ‘Just Say No’, only a few weeks after its opening, forced Kramer into the hospital after it aggravated a congenital hernia. While in surgery, doctors discovered liver damage due to Hepatitis B, prompting Kramer to learn that he was HIV-positive.

People living with HIV were routinely considered inappropriate candidates for organ transplants because of complications from HIV and perceived short lifespans. Out of the 4,954 liver transplants performed in the United States, only 11 were for HIV-positive people.

Kramer became a symbol for infected people who had new leases on life due to advances in medicine.

Kramer and his partner, architectural designer David Webster, have been together since 1991 and in 2013, they married.

Rock Hudson (1925-1985)

Rock Hudson was an American actor, generally known for his turns as a leading man during the 1950s and 1960s and was viewed as a prominent "heartthrob" of the Hollywood Golden Age.

Although Hudson was discreet about his privacy throughout his life, the fact that he was gay was reportedly known in the film industry.

In 1955, Confidential magazine threatened to publish an exposé about Hudson's secret homosexuality.

Soon after the Confidential incident, Hudson married his argent Henry Willson's secretary Phyllis Gates. She filed for divorce after three years in April 1958, citing mental cruelty.

Unknown to the public, Hudson was diagnosed with HIV in 1984, just three years after the emergence of the first cluster of symptomatic patients in the US, and only one year after the initial identification by scientists of the HIV virus that causes Aids.

Over the next several months, Hudson kept his illness a secret and continued to work while, at the same time, traveling to France and other countries seeking a cure—or at least treatment to slow the progress of the virus.

At around 9am on October 2, 1985, Hudson died in his sleep from Aids-related complications at his home in Beverly Hills at age 59, less than seven weeks before what would have been his 60th birthday.

He was the first major celebrity to die from an Aids-related illness.

Shortly before his death Hudson made the first direct contribution, $250,000, to amfAR, The Foundation for Aids Research, helping launch the non-profit organization dedicated to Aids/HIV research and prevention.

Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002)

Sylvia Rivera was a Latina American gay liberation and transgender rights activist significant in the LGBT history of New York City and of the US as a whole.

Rivera, who identified as a drag queen, was a founding member of both the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance.

With her close friend Marsha P. Johnson, Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group dedicated to helping homeless young drag queens, LGBTQ+ youth and trans women.

She was raised by her Venezuelan grandmother, who disapproved of her effeminate behaviour, particularly after Rivera began to wear makeup in fourth grade.

As a result, Rivera began living on the streets at the age of 11 and worked as a child prostitute. She was taken in by the local community of drag queens, who gave her the name Sylvia.

At a 1973 gay liberation rally in New York City, Rivera, representing STAR, gave a brief speech from the main stage in which she called out the heterosexual males who were preying on vulnerable members of the community.

Rivera died during the dawn hours of February 19, 2002 at St. Vincent's Hospital, of complications from liver cancer. She was 50.

In 2016 Sylvia Rivera was inducted into the Legacy Walk.

Jackie Shane (1940-2019)

Jackie Shane was an American soul and rhythm and blues singer, who was most prominent in the local music scene of Toronto in the 1960s.

Considered to be a pioneer transgender performer, she was a contributor to the Toronto Sound and is best known for the single ‘Any Other Way’.

She soon became the lead vocalist for The Motley Crew, and relocated to Toronto with them in late 1961 before having a successful music career of her own.

In 1967, the band and Jackie recorded a live LP together by which time she was often performing as a woman, not just hair and make-up, but in pantsuits and even dresses.

Throughout her active musical career and for many years thereafter, Shane was written about by nearly all sources as a man who performed in ambiguous clothing that strongly suggested femininity.

The few sources that actually sought out her own words on the matter of her own gender identification were more ambiguous but she appeared to simply dodge questions about her gender altogether.

Shane faded in prominence after 1970-71, with even her own former bandmates losing touch with her. For a while, it was reported she had committed suicide or to have been stabbed to death in the 1990s.

Shane died in her sleep, at her home in Nashville, in February 2019, her body was discovered on February 21.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent.

Basquiat first achieved fame as part of SAMO, an informal graffiti duo who wrote enigmatic epigrams in the cultural hotbed of the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the late 1970s, where hip hop, punk, and street art cultures coalesced.

By the 1980s, his neo-expressionist paintings were being exhibited in galleries and museums internationally.

Basquiat had romantic and sexual relations with both men and women. His long-term girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, specifically described his sexuality in Jennifer Clement's book, Widow Basquiat, as "not monochromatic".

She said he was attracted to people for all different reasons. They could be "boys, girls, thin, fat, pretty, ugly. It was, I think, driven by intelligence. He was attracted to intelligence more than anything and to pain."

In 1988, he died of a heroin overdose at his art studio at the age of 27. The Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective of his art in 1992.

Leslie Cheung (1956-2003)

Leslie Cheung was a Hong Kong singer and actor. He is considered "one of the founding fathers of Cantopop" for achieving huge success both in film and music.

Cheung debuted in 1977 and rose to prominence as a teen heartthrob and pop icon of Hong Kong in the 1980s, receiving numerous music awards.

He is the first foreign artist to hold 16 concerts in Japan, a record that has yet to be broken and also a record holder as the best-selling C-pop artist in Korea.

Cheung distinguished himself as a Canto-pop singer through embodying the politics, sexual and gender identity of a queer subject position.

He announced his same-sex relationship with Daffy Tong during a concert in 1997, earning him prestige in LGBTQ communities in China, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

In an interview with Time magazine in 2001, Cheung said he identified as bisexual.

Cheung was diagnosed with depression and committed suicide on April 1, 2003 by jumping off the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong. He was 46 years old.

Before his death, Cheung mentioned in interviews that he had become depressed because of negative comments about gender-crossing in his Passion Tour concert.

He had planned to retire from stage performance because of the strain of being a gay artist in Hong Kong.

On 12 September 2016, on what would have been Cheung's 60th birthday, over one thousand fans joined Florence Chan in the morning at Po Fook Hill Ancestral Hall for prayers.