Each year in June marks Pride Month, a time dedicated to celebrating lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride. Pride Month began after the Stonewall riots in 1969 and has since grown into a celebration of love and friendship. Now, Pride Month represents the progress made for LGBTQ+ rights while also recognising how in some places, there’s still work to be done.
At A-Plan Insurance, we celebrate everyone for who they are and welcome all to our branches. To commemorate our diverse workforce and client base this Pride Month, we share some of the most influential LGBTQ+ people throughout history, who have helped change the world for the better.
Alan Turing – codebreaker
Arguably one of the most influential British figures of the 20th Century is Alan Turing. A mathematician, computer scientist, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, and theoretical biologist, he played a crucial role in breaking the code for the Nazi Enigma machine. Enigma was the ‘unbreakable’ cyphering machine sued by the German government to send coded messages across the globe – but Turing’s breakthrough enabled British Intelligence to decode the messages, therefore helping the Allies to defeat Hitler and the Axis powers.
Turing’s work was not recognised in his lifetime, initially because much of it was covered by the Official Secrets Act. However, in 1952 he was arrested and prosecuted for the “crime of homosexuality”. Soon after, Turing was chemically castrated by order of a British court as punishment for his sexuality. He died by suicide, having ingested cyanide, just two years later in 1954.
Modern reactions to Turing’s life story have led to an official public apology in 2009, and a posthumous pardon in 2013 from Queen Elizabeth II. In 2017, a law was passed in the UK to retroactively pardon the men cautioned or convicted under historical legislation against homosexual acts – now commonly known as ‘Alan Turing Law’. What’s more, the award-winning film The Imitation Game brought even more attention to his incredible work and contributions to modern computing, as well as the injustice of his persecution and death.
Billie Jean King – ‘Battle of Sexes’
With 39 major titles to her name, Billie Jean King is considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time – but it was a hard-fought fight throughout her career. In 1973, age 29, King won the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match against Bobby Riggs, which was considered a milestone in terms of public acceptance of women’s tennis and shining a light on the gender gap in tournament winnings.
Throughout her career as a both an athlete and since retiring, King has been one of the leading voices for gender equality in the sport, going on to found the Women’s Tennis Association, and the Women’s Sports Foundation.
In 1981, King was outed as a lesbian. She lost sponsors and endorsements, but also feared her homophobic parents’ reaction. Since then, however, King has been an out-and-proud athlete of icon status, fighting for LGBTQ+ equality and serving as a trailblazer for a younger generation of tennis players to compete without having to hide their sexuality.
Marsha P. Johnson – 60’s Stonewall protester
During a time in the USA when being gay was classified as a mental illness, Marsha P. Johnson was an African American transgender-rights activist, whose work made significant waves for the LGBTQ+ community.
Marsha was living and working in New York City, performing as a drag queen and modelling for the likes of Andy Warhol. In June 1969, a New York gay bar called The Stonewall Inn, where Marsha performed, was raided by police; over 200 people were forced out of the bar, into the streets where police then used excessive violence against them.
Without Marsha, who was one of the key figures who stood up to the police during the raids and resisted arrest, the series of protests and riots that took place in the following days to demand rights for gay people would not have happened. The Stonewall riots prompted similar protests across the world and are viewed as a pivotal event in LGBTQ+ history.
Tragically, Marsha went missing in 1992, and their body was found six days later. Police ruled the death a suicide, but many friends argued against this decision, saying attacks on gay and transgender people were common, and that Marsha was being harassed by a “group of thugs” just days before. Only in 2002 was Martha’s death reclassified from a suicide to ‘undetermined’ and activists continue to campaign for police to reopen the case for further investigation.
Harvey Milk – elected official
Recognised for making waves as one of the first openly gay elected officials in the USA, Harvey Milk was the standard bearer for what was known as the gay liberation movement of the mid-20th Century.
There were only a few openly gay and lesbian candidates elected before Milk, including Elaine Noble and Kathy Kozachenko in 1974. Known for his outsized personality, Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 – though it took three tries before he won a seat, even in the long-standing capital of America’s progressive movement during a comparatively liberal decade.
During his political career, he helped fend off a conservative backlash against gay people teaching in California’s public schools. Then, tragically, he was assassinated in 1978, along with San Francisco Mayor George Mascone, by former Supervisor Dan White, who was being replaced. Milk was just 48 years old.
Despite his life being cut short, his impact on politics and the collective LGBTQ+ memory is vast. His life and death have inspired a documentary, a feature film, an opera, and more, but crucially hundreds of LGBTQ+ candidates have been elected across the US.
Sally Ride – equality Challenger
America’s first female astronaut and a space shuttle robotic arm operator, Sally Ride made her historic journey onboard the shuttle Challenger in 1983. Throughout her career she broke barriers and worked to help women and girls follow in her footsteps.
Ride’s natural athletic ability was an incredible asset during her training with NASA, and she completed parachute jumping and water survival training alongside her technical and scientific work. But this didn’t stop sexist questions about ‘what make-up she was going to take into space?’ and ‘how space would affect her fertility?’
It was only after her death in 2012 that her family disclosed how Ride had been in a 27-year relationship with her partner Tam O’Shaughnessy. But this was more to do with her very private nature, according to her sister, than it did with her pride in being a lesbian.
Ride and her partner were also business partners in Sally Ride Science, at the University of California – possibly one of the most influential programmes in the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Maths) for girl’s education movement.
Oscar Wilde – legendary playwright
The oft-quoted Oscar Wilde is famous for his work as a playwright, author, lecturer and all-round wit, with notable works including The Importance of Being Earnest, Salomé, and The Picture of Dorian Gray.
But drama also marred his private life; though he was married and had two children, society’s anti-homosexuality stance during the late 1800s meant he kept his sexuality hidden. His affair with Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas led to a libel trial against Wilde, after Bosie’s father accused Wilde of being gay. Wilde lost and details of his private life were revealed, leading to his arrest and trial for gross indecency. It’s sometimes thought of as the first celebrity trial, garnering extreme attention from the press and public.
Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labour in Ready Gaol. With his health and reputation damaged beyond repair, Wilde spent the rest of his life in Europe, publishing ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ in 1898. He died two years later, but his talents and insights live on: “Be yourself – everyone else is taken.”
Sources: BBC, NASA, The Advocate, The Guardian