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Pioneers & Rebels: 7 LGBTQ+ People in History

Here are the stories of seven LGBTQ people who pioneered progressive ideas and rebelled for the benefit of future generations.

Pride of Place, our research project in association with Leeds Beckett University, asked members of the public to share information about the LGBTQ+ buildings and places special to them.

The 1,600 contributions made have uncovered fascinating stories and insights into an under-documented history.

Here are the stories of seven LGBTQ+ people who pioneered progressive ideas and rebelled for the benefit of future generations.

1. April Ashley

April Ashley in February 1970. Photo © Keystone Pictures USA/Alamy

A successful fashion model in the 1960s, April Ashley appeared in such high end publications as Vogue, and played small acting roles. She was outed as a trans woman in 1961, her story told as a scandal in the media.

April was, as she described, ‘born as a boy into a sea-going family’ in a working-class area of Liverpool in 1935. She moved to Paris in the late 50s and joined a drag cabaret alongside famous French entertainer Coccinelle. At the age of 25, Ashley was one of the first Britons to undergo sex reassignment surgery, in Casablanca, which she was advised had a 50/50 chance of being successful.

Ashley made headlines in 1971 when the annulment from her marriage to Arthur Corbett was granted on the grounds that she was legally still considered to be male. The ruling set a legal precedent for transgender people in the UK, and Ashley continued her fight to have her gender legally recognised. Things only changed with the Gender Recognition Act of 2004. Ashley was awarded an MBE for her services to transgender equality in 2012.

2. Octavia Hill

Portrait of Octavia Hill. Image via Wellcome Collection

Octavia Hill (1838-1912) was one of Victorian Britain’s most important social reformers and a co-founder of the National Trust.

She coined the term ‘The green belt’ and campaigned for more recreational, open spaces in inner-city London and preservation of the countryside. She also worked to improve social housing conditions, and established the idea of personal casework, leading to the development of modern social work.

Hill had a number of passionate intimacies with women, including Sophia Jex-Blake, one of the first female doctors. She is buried with her partner of 30 years, Harriet Yorke, in Kent.

Hill is celebrated with a blue plaque at 2 Garbutt Place, Marylebone, and a monument on the summit of Hydon Ball hill, looking out over the Surrey countryside.

3 & 4. Sir John Finch and Thomas Baines

Portrait of John Finch. Image via Fitzwilliam Museum

Both highly accomplished intellectuals, art collectors and physicians, Sir John Finch (1626–1682) and Thomas Baines (1622–1680) are remembered for their personal and professional partnership, which was somewhat open and accepted in 17th century Britain.

Finch was a pioneering professor of anatomy before becoming an ambassador of England to the Ottoman Empire. Both Finch and Baines are listed as fellows of the Royal College of Physicians, and their friendship was encouraged by Charles II who ensured that Baines could accompany Finch on his diplomatic missions.

Portrait of Thomas Baines. Image via Fitzwilliam Museum

Finch was devastated by Baines’ death of a fever in 1680, and died two years later of pleurisy in Florence. They are buried together where they first met, at Christ’s College, Cambridge, below a monument which refers to their relationship as an “animorum connubium”, a marriage of souls. The inscription explains that the men were buried together “so that they who while living had mingled their interests, fortunes, counsels, nay rather souls, might in the same manner, in death, at last mingle their sacred ashes”.

5. Edward Carpenter

Edward Carpenter in 1905. Photo © Fotografie von Alf Mattison. London, National Portrait Gallery

In a time when homosexuality was illegal, Edward Carpenter (1844- 1929) lived openly with his partner George Merrill. The house he built himself in rural Derbyshire became a refuge and place of pilgrimage for those people seeking to subvert typical Victorian customs.

Carpenter was a pioneer of LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights and environmentalism, writing and advocating for free love, vegetarianism, nudism and a simple life. He also introduced sandals to England- a radical move at the time.

Carpenter’s 1906 book The Intermediate Sex argued in favour of same-sex relationships, and along with his other works went on to inspire the wave of lesbian and gay activists of the 1970s Gay Liberation Movement.

6. Garland Wilson

Garland Wilson, between 1938 and 1948. Photo © William P. Gottlieb

The Shim Sham club opened on Wardour Street, London in the mid-1930s. It attracted London’s underground crowd: artists, writers, musicians and queer people, as well as Black and Jewish Londoners.

One of the key musicians at the Shim Sham was queer African American pianist Garland Wilson (1909- 1954). Wilson was born in West Virginia in 1909, and performed across Europe in the 30s.  Wilson performed at the Shim Sham many times, including its opening night in 1935.

Our new free app ‘Walk History‘ takes you on a walking tour through 130 years of alternative lifestyles in Soho. You can download it here. It’s part of a wider series of walks that explore the unique character of places in London that are facing huge change and makes up part of Historic England’s “Keep it London” campaign.

7. Anne Lister

Portrait of Anne Lister, by Joshua Horner, c. 1830

Anne Lister (1791-1840) was a successful entrepreneur and landowner, having inherited the estate, Shibden Hall, where she grew up in West Yorkshire. Often referred to as ‘the first modern lesbian’, Lister educated herself with classic Greek and Roman literature, took up mountain climbing, and was noted locally for dressing like a man.

Lister was a keen diarist, amassing a huge collection of hand written journals detailing her everyday life and love affairs with women. She developed a coding system, using Greek and algebraic characters to conceal the details of her relationships.

The diaries were discovered in the late 19th century by the last inhabitant of the estate, John Lister. A scandalised friend urged John to destroy the diaries but he resisted, cracking the code and hiding the diaries in the walls of Shibden Hall, keeping their secret until a time when Anne’s lifestyle could be accepted.

In 2011, Anne Lister’s diaries were added to the register UNESCO Memory of the World Programme. The citation notes that the diaries provide a valuable account of the politics and lifestyle of the time, and that it is a  ‘comprehensive and painfully honest account of lesbian life and reflections on her nature, however, which have made these diaries unique. They have shaped and continue to shape the direction of UK Gender Studies and Women’s History.’

Who are your pioneers and rebels of the LGBTQ+ community, historically and now? You can still add your contributions to the Pride of Place map here, or let us know in the comments below.

More details on the objectives of Pride of Place and guidance on terminology and language can be found here.

Top image: Chelsea Arts Ball at the Royal Albert Hall, New Year’s Eve 1946. Photo © ANL/REX/Shutterstock.

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