To begin, here are some of history’s lesser-known queer people:
: Anne Lister (1791-1840) rebelled against the class norms of her time. She was a wealthy landowner and ran a mine. Throughout her life, Anne kept a coded diary using a combination of algebra and Ancient Greek to disguise its content. The diary’s code wasn’t cracked until the late 19th century, revealing her romantic and sexual relationships with women. To learn more about Anne, you can watch the drama series Gentleman Jack, depicting her as ‘the first modern lesbian’.
: Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895) was a German lawyer, journalist and author who is regarded as a pioneer in the gay rights movement. Before the term homosexuality existed, Ulrichs defined the concept of sexual identity as an innate human characteristic and came out to his family and friends as an ‘urning’ – the term he used to describe a man who desires men. He wrote a series of essays and books on what he called the Riddle of Man-Manly Love, in which he explained such love as natural and biologically determined, and coined various terms to describe different sexual orientations. You can read more about Ulrichs here.
: Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) spent his life fighting for the rights of others. He was an advisor to Dr Martin Luther King Jr and an important figure in the Civil Rights movement. Bayard refused to hide his sexual orientation during a time when it wasn’t safe to be out. White supremacists used the colour of his skin and his sexual orientation to try and destroy him. You can hear an interview with Rustin from 1986 here.
: James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an African-American novelist who moved to France to escape the racist and homophobic behaviours he was witnessing in America, and his work highlighted the issues and challenges that came with being both black and gay. You can watch Baldwin in a 1968 episode of the Dick Cavett Show, where he talks about the racism he endured here. A trailer for his film I Am Not Your Negro can be viewed here.
: Alan Turing (1912-1954) was a mathematician who was highly influential in the development of computer science and early computing. He created the Enigma machine during WW2, which helped to crack the ciphers of intercepted German messages, cutting the war short by several years. Historians believe that Turing’s work saved millions of lives across Europe. Despite his contribution to the war effort, which was little known due to the Official Secrets Act, he was charged with ‘gross indecency’ for being gay and punished with chemical castration. It is believed that this led to Turing taking his own life two years later.
: Marsha P Johnson (1945-1992) was an African-American transgender and gay liberation activist who played a prominent role in the 1969 Stonewall uprising. Despite issues with mental health and homelessness, she become a key figure in the LGBTQ civil rights movement, cofounding the gay and trans advocacy organisation Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). She featured in Andy Warhol’s 1975 Polaroid series Ladies and Gentlemen. You can hear Johnson talk about the night the Stonewall riots began here.
This article is part of our D&I series at The Future Laboratory. Explore the full series on our blog and discover what steps we are taking to make a better tomorrow happen.
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