Pillars of the Community: LGBT Figures in History

In our retelling of human history, certain groups of individuals have been deliberately cut out of the picture. Their contributions and their identities have been erased to make way for the narratives of people who are typically straight, white, cis and male.

The very reason that months like LGBT History Month and Black History Month exist is to carve out some much needed space for those individuals who would otherwise be forgotten. That’s why we’ve chosen four LGBT people to talk about today, all of whom have changed history.

Audre Lorde

Black lesbian feminist and poet Audre Lorde was a crucial figure in 20th century literature and criticism. Her poetry and prose focussed on marginalised communities, and dealt strongly with issues of race, police brutality, sexuality, and her 1980 work The Cancer Journals is often regarded as a foundational text in illness narratives. The passion and ferocity of her work was key to the social movements of the time, from second wave feminism, to the civil rights movement.



Alan Turing

Few people are unfamiliar with Alan Turing’s story. A renowned mathematician and cryptographer, Turing’s fame began during the Second World War, as he went about successfully breaking the Axis’ 'Enigma Code', contributing to an Allied victory during the war, before going on to devise what is now known as the 'Turing Test', designed to tell the difference between a human and artificial intelligence. In 1952, it was discovered that Turing was gay – a criminal act at this time. He was convicted of gross indecency, and faced the choice between a prison sentence and chemical castration, of which he opted for the latter. Turing’s treatment was symbolic of attitudes towards the LGBT community at the time – successes were ignored, and their identities criminalised.



Simon Nkoli

Born in Soweto, South Africa, Simon Nkoli was a staunch anti-apartheid, LGBT rights, and AIDS campaigner. He vigorously campaigned against apartheid, and was fundamental in establishing the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand, the first multi-racial gay rights organisation in South Africa. Nkoli was imprisoned for four years as a consequence of his anti-apartheid activism, during which time he was diagnosed with HIV, before publicly declaring his positive status. Doing so in a decade where HIV was heavily stigmatised was an act of immense bravery, and his legacy saw the birth of the Treatment Action Campaign.



Sylvia Rivera

One of the best known trans activists of the 20th century, Sylvia Rivera had a difficult childhood and adolescence, fleeing her family home aged ten before living with groups of sex workers, drag queens, and members of the gay community in New York. She frequented many of the local gay bars, some of the few safe places for queer people during this time. Rivera was heavily involved in the Stonewall Riots of 1969 following a police raid on the Stonewall Inn. She continued her activism following this, establishing STAR alongside Marsha P. Johnson as an organisation designed to support homeless trans youth and children.



Further considerations

When we remember the history of marginalised groups and social justice movements, we tend to fixate on standout figures. What we often fail to remember is that little is truly changed by the actions of individuals, rather history is swayed by masses of people gathered under one banner, for one cause. We remember those who stand out, but it’s equally as important to acknowledge that none of their successes would be possible without a cultural shift driven by ordinary people, who history may have forgotten, but who we will not.