We’re celebrating the best of Britain with a list of 10 inspirational LGBT icons who were British.
Alan Turing, OBE, FRS
Alan Turing was an English computer scientist and mathematician (among other specialities) and is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science.
During the Second World War, Turing worked for the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park, Britain's codebreaking centre. Turing played a key role in cracking intercepted coded messages that enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis. It has been estimated that this work shortened the war in Europe by more than two years and saved over fourteen million lives. Amazing!
Turing was prosecuted in 1952 for homosexual acts, when sex between men was illegal in the UK. He accepted chemical castration treatment as an alternative to prison. After this awful experience, he went back to his academic pursuits until his death, from cyanide poisoning in 1954. An inquest determined this was suicide but it is said that the evidence is also consistent with accidental poisoning.
In 2009, following an Internet campaign, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for "the appalling way he was treated." Queen Elizabeth II granted him a posthumous pardon in 2013.
Nicola Adams MBE
Nicola Adams is officially Great Britain’s most successful female boxer of all time. In August 2016, Nicola became the first British boxer to successfully defend their Olympic title for 92 years.
Openly bisexual, Nicola has said she hopes to use her celebrity status to inspire others. She said “I would like to do more for the LGBT community, try to help people. I can’t do as much as I would like because of the training.”
She certainly has put her stamp on the sporting world and it’s great that young people have such a successful LGBT athlete to look up to, and to inspire them.
Sir Ian McKellen CH, CBE
Award-winning actor Sir Ian McKellen has been active in the LGBT rights scene since coming out back in 1998. He came out when a controversial statute ‘Section 28’ was proposed, which would prohibit local authorities from promoting homosexuality "... as a kind of pretended family relationship". He fought against the proposed law, and, during a BBC Radio 3 programme where he debated Section 28 with a journalist he declared that he was gay.
McKellen has been very active in promoting LGBT rights ever since coming out – he is a co-founder of Stonewall and a patron of LGBT History Month, Pride London, Oxford Pride, GAY-GLOS, The Lesbian & Gay Foundation, FFLAG, and The Albert Kennedy Trust.
Sir Ian caused quite the stir in Singapore (where male same-sex sexual activity is still illegal) when he was interviewed on a TV show. He shocked the interviewer by asking if they could recommend him a gay bar; the programme immediately ended!
April Ashley MBE
April Ashley is one of the first British people known to have had gender reassignment surgery; she travelled to Morocco to have the operation in 1960. After returning to Britain, she began using the name April Ashley and became a successful fashion model.
A friend sold her story to the media in 1961 and the Sunday People outed Ashley as a trans woman. She became a centre of attention and some scandal, and she struggled to get work. She showed incredible resilience in the face of stigma, saying in an interview with the Telegraph in 2010 'Someone asked me the other day if I used to cry when that happened. No, I went away and got a newspaper to find another job. I didn't have time to cry.'
Ms Ashley was made an MBE in 2012 for services to transgender equality and said that for over half a century she had been writing to LGBT people and helping them through tough times: “I've written thousands and thousands of letters… To me it was just a normal thing to do - I never thought I was doing anything special quite frankly."
George Michael was not only a fantastic singer and music artist, but also LGBT rights campaigner and HIV/AIDS charity fundraiser. The proceeds from his 1991 single with Elton John "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me”, were divided among 10 different charities for children, AIDS and education. He was also a patron of the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
Following his death in 2016, many charities including Terrence Higgins Trust and Lifeline revealed that George had privately been a supporter of them for many years.
He had a few scandals in his time, but no-one can deny that he was a gifted musician and a very generous person who campaigned for LGBT rights.
Alan Cumming OBE
Bisexual Scottish actor Alan Cumming has promoted LGBT rights and supports a number of LGBT-focused organisations and several AIDS charities. He also took part in an Equality Network video campaign promoting the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Scotland.
He’s won a lot of awards for his work for LGBT rights, including the Vito Russo Award at the 16th Annual GLAAD Media Awards for outstanding contributions toward eliminating homophobia and the HRC's Humanitarian Award in San Francisco, also for his LGBT public stance. He was also appointed an OBE in the 2009 for services to film, theatre and the arts, and activism for LGBT rights.
Last year, he hosted the United Nation’s first LGBT gala and said of the event: “I think it’s sort of like a little chink in the armour of bigotry on a worldwide level because it is symbolic that this is happening in this institution and also kind of ridiculous at the same time that this is the first time anything like this has happened at the U.N.”
Okay so Oscar Wilde is technically Irish (he was born in Dublin) but he did spend a lot of his life in Britain, which is why we’ve added him to our list! He shaped the literary world and is known as one of the greatest playwrights in the English-speaking world. In 1891, he published The Picture of Dorian Gray, his only novel which was panned as immoral by Victorian critics, but is now considered one of his most notable works. Many of his plays were well received and he wrote many satirical comedies including his most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest.
In 1895 Wilde and his male lover were convicted of ‘gross indecency’ and sentenced to two years' hard labour. The judge described the sentence, the maximum allowed, as "totally inadequate for a case such as this," and that the case was "the worst case I have ever tried". Wilde's response "And I? May I say nothing, my Lord?" was drowned out in cries of "Shame" in the courtroom. What an awful time to be a gay man in Britain.
Wilde was released from prison on 18 May 1897 and sailed immediately for France. He never returned to Britain or to Ireland (can you blame him?) and he died in 1900 in Paris.
Dusty Springfield OBE
The ‘Son of a Preacher’ songstress was the best-selling female singer in the world back in the sixties and her career spanned all the way into the nineties. International polls have named Springfield among the best female rock artists of all time and she was hailed as Britain's "best ever pop singer" by Rolling Stone.
Back in 1970, which was still a pretty unaccepting time for LGBT people, she made the bold statement “I know I'm perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy. More and more people feel that way and I don't see why I shouldn't.” One of her exes, Norma Tanega described the industry at that time as ‘homophobic and sexist’ and added “being a lesbian was considered awful and shocking”. Dusty continued singing though and we salute her for carrying on in the face of adversity.
Also known as Laurence Michael Dillon, the British physician was the first trans man to undergo phalloplasty (meaning, basically, a doctor constructed a penis for him from scratch, and grafted it onto his body) back in 1939.
He also published a book entitled Self: A Study in Endocrinology and Ethics, which many people consider the first book about transgender identity and gender transitioning, even though transgender issues weren’t really on the map, and the term ‘transgender’ hadn’t even been coined. In this book, Dillon described transgender identification as innate and unaffected by psychotherapy, and advocated medical treatment using hormones and surgery as an alternative.
No list of iconic LGBT celebrities would be complete without Queen frontman Freddie Murcury. Speaking to the New Musical Express in 1974, Freddie Mercury responded to a question about his sexuality with: “I’m as gay as a daffodil, my dear!” This was a brave statement to make, as same-sex activity between men had only just been legalised 7 years before, and the attitude towards the LGBT community was still pretty negative.
Mercury helped to open the conversation about being a member of the LGBT community through responses like this, as well as by his refusal to feel the need to come out and justify his sexuality. On November 23, 1991, Mercury publicly revealed that he was living with HIV. How Mercury lived in his final days as someone living with HIV was quite inspirational – he continued to record with Queen. He is now remembered as one of the greatest and most influential musicians of all time.