The LGBT+ people who made history and changed its course

Credit: AP

By ITV News Multimedia Producer Suzanne Elliott


February is LGBT+ History Month, 28 days of celebration, information, education and remembrance that aims to raise awareness on matters affecting the LGBT+ community, promoting equality and diversity across society.

Even today, LGBT+ people face prejudice and discrimination, but for many lives have been improved and saved by those trailblazers and pioneers that have gone before.

Here are 10 LGBT+ who have changed the lives or their community, country and the world.

Barbara Gittings

Many of us this side of the Atlantic may not know her name, but Ms Gittings is widely regarded as the mother of the LGBT+ civil rights movement, blazing a trail for future generations during a time when it was dangerous to be openly gay.

In 1958, Ms Gittings started the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first lesbian civil rights organisation in the United States originally founded in San Francisco.

Kay Tobin Lahusen, 82, an early photographer of the gay rights movement holding a portrait of her late partner Barbara Gittings, Credit: AP

She edited the first US lesbian magazine, The Ladder from 1963 to 1966, using it as a rallying cry for equality.

Together with Frank Kameny, another leading American gay rights activist, Ms Gittings helped organise the first public demonstrations for gay and lesbian equality.

The first demonstration in front of Independence Hall on July 4, 1964, attracted 40 protestors; by the time of final protest in 1969, that number had more than tripled.

Ms Gittings' successful crusades for lesbian equality included promoting gay literature and eliminating discrimination in America's libraries, and demanding the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association.

Christine Jorgensen

Christine served in the US army during the Second World War before becoming one of the first people in the United States to have gender reassignment surgery.

Her story made headlines across America after she transitioned in the 1950s, her glamour combined with her heroism a captivating mix.

On December 1, 1952, she made the front page of the New York Daily News under the headline “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty: Operations Transform Bronx Youth.”

Christine Jorgensen in 1977. Credit: AP

But she was far more than a celebrity and she used her platform to advocate for the rights of transgender people and shape a discourse, fighting hard for equality.

Ms Jorgensen influenced other transgender people to change their names on their birth certificates after she was denied a marriage licence because her birth certificate identified her as a male.



The Glamour Boys

Alan Turing was not the only member of the LBGT+ community to play a part in influencing the tide of the 20th century.

This group of like-minded MPs were among the earliest to warn the country and the world about the dangers of Hitler's rise in Germany, and faced ridicule and worse for their courage.

Labelled the Glamour Boys by then prime minister Neville Chamberlain as an insinuation of their sexuality, the five keys members, Robert Bernays, Ronald Cartland, Victor Cazalet, John Macnamara, and Anthony Muirhead had their phones tapped, were harassed, and threatened with deselection and exposure for refusing to be silenced.

As regular visitors to Berlin, these men saw first hand the persecution of Jewish people and other minority groups including homosexuals.

They refused to be silenced and were instrumental in Britain not bowing to Hitler.

When war came, they enlisted; four of them died in action.

Oscar Wilde

Flamboyant Irish dramatist, novelist, poet and wit, Wilde was a glittering star of late Victorian London society, a huge hit with those who were very often the target of his satirical eye. His comic masterpieces have ensured his legacy, including Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), were contemporary hits, and continue to be performed today, with many turned into films, but his illustrious career was cut cruelly short.

Oscar Wilde.

In 1884, Wilde married a wealthy Englishwoman, Constance Lloyd and the couple had two sons.

His homosexuality was something of an open secret upon his circles, despite it being illegal at the time.

But his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas was to prove his downfall after 'Bosie's' father the Marquis of Queensberry left a calling card at the playwright's home addressed to "Oscar Wilde: Posing Somdomite" (sic).

Wilde was so incensed by the note that he sued Queensberry for libel, a decision that would ruin his life. The libel case was thrown out after the court was presented with evidence of Wilde's homosexuality.

Instead, he was arrested on charges of "gross indecency" in 1895. He was imprisoned for two years in Reading Gaol and died in poverty three years after his release at the age of 46.

Alan TuringThere are few people who can say they literally changed the course of history, but Mr Turing's code breaking genius did just that.

Mr Turing and his fellow Bletchley Park code breakers deciphered the military 'Enigma' codes used by Germany and its allies during the Second World War, a breakthrough that is often credited for shortening the war by several years.

World War Two codebreaker Alan Turing was given a posthumous royal pardon in 2013. Credit: PA

In 1945, Turing was awarded an OBE for his wartime work and went on to work on what would be a precursor to computers, the Turing Machine. But in 1952, Mr Turing was arrested for homosexuality – then illegal in Britain.

He was found guilty of ‘gross indecency’ and was chemically castrated. In 1954, he was found dead from cyanide poisoning. An inquest ruled that it was suicide.

Mr Turing's crucial role in cracking the enigma code remained a secret until the 1970s and his story only came to light in the 1990s.

His conviction was overturned in 2013 and he is now a recognised national hero and the face of the £50 note.

Martina Navratilova and Julia Lemigova Credit: Reuters

Martina NavratilovaCzech-born Navratilova is considered one of the best tennis players of all time, her immaculate grass court game helping her win a record nine Wimbledon titles. Throughout her career she won an unprecedented 59 Grand Slam titles.

But it was not just her skills on the court that changed the woman's game and tennis, her courage to live her life on her own terms made her a champion away from tennis.

She was the first openly gay athlete, coming out in 1981 to a world where institutional homophobia, especially in the rarefied corridors of tennis, was the norm.

Ms Navratilova would spend much of her career overcoming prejudices and stereotypes - refusing to be anything other than her true self meant losing millions of dollars in endorsement deals.

She continues to fight for equal rights and a strong supporter of many charities which directly benefit the LGBT+ community. James Baldwin

The African American writer was a bold, brave voice in a time before the American Civil Rights movement.

One of the foremost writers on the 20th century, his plays, novels and essays, including Notes of a Native Son, explore race and sexuality in segregated and homophobic America.

He became active in the civil rights struggle on his return to the US in 1957 after several years in Paris.

James Baldwin at his home, June 3, 1963, New York. Credit: AP

Shortly after his arrival in Paris, Baldwin met seventeen-year-old Swiss artist Lucien Happersberger. “In Paris,” Baldwin said, “I didn’t feel socially attacked, but relaxed, and that allowed me to be loved.” Ellen DeGeneres

The comedian and actor turned chat show host was, for many middle Americans, the first lesbian they had heard of - and embraced.

Ms DeGeneres faced intense tabloid scrutiny after she came out in 1997 -  in a now famous episode of the ABC sitcom Ellen - that derailed her career and left her depressed.

Ellen DeGeneres presenting an MTV Music Award. Credit: AP

It wasn’t until 2003 and the beginning of the Ellen DeGeneres Show that she made a comeback - and what a comeback.

Chat show host Ellen DeGeneres has become a pioneer in the fight for LGBT+ equal rights and visibility. 

Frida Kahlo

Mexican painter Kahlo was open about her bisexuality at time when it could have signalled the end of her career.

She married painter Diego Rivera in 1929, but their marriage was never a conventional one, her lovers rumoured to include the singer Josephine Baker and artist Georgia O'Keefe.

Painter and surrealist Frida Kahlo at home in 1939. Credit: AP

Despite a life changing accident at the age of 18, Kahlo painted right up until the end of her life. Frequently bed bound, she had a mirror built on the ceiling in order to be able to study herself for her now iconic self-portraits.

The constant pain she lived in influenced her painting, but as her work evolved she brought in iconography from Mexican and indigenous culture.

While her colourful life sometimes eclipses her talent as an artist, the symbolism, courage and creativity of her paintings ensure that her reputation as one of the 20th century's great artists continues.

Harvey Milk

Milk was first openly gay elected official in the history of California when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977.

Even before he took public office he was a vocal gay rights advocate. An engaging speaker, one of his most famous speeches called for people to come out as a time when it took great courage.

Harvey Milk pictured taking part in a gay freedom parade in 1978. Credit: AP

“Gay people, we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets...

"We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions.

"We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I’m going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out.”

He was assassinated nearly a year after taking office aged 48, a fate he had always expected given the oppression and hatred directed at gay people at the time.

He recorded several versions of his will, “to be read in the event of my assassination.”

One of his tapes contained the statement: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” 

His life was the subject of the 2008 film, Milk.


ITV News is showcasing the lives, legacies and stories of individuals throughout LGBT+ History Month, read more in the series here.