Happy lgbt history month 2017
It’s officially February and with the change in the month, I’m excited to be celebrating LGBT History Month here in the UK. Many of you readers will know that despite my physical presence here on this island and my ridiculous spelling (call it a survival technique 🙂 ), I am American and spent the first half of my life in Illinois.
Consequently, my cultural touchstone for LGBT heroes always veers toward progressive campaigners and activists Stateside. So writing this article has been a wonderful way to learn more about the campaigners and heroes who moved Equality forward here in the UK.
It goes without saying, though I will say it, that no single article could do justice to the sheer number of people who campaigned for equality and LGBT rights both in the public eye and quietly but with grace and strength. Choosing 5 people felt next to impossible and who am I to decide whether Sir Ian McKellan is more worthy than Dr Rupert Whitaker (well known patient advocate and co-founder of the Terrence Higgins Trust).
Consider that my disclaimer. My list is not exhaustive. In celebration of LGBT History Month 2017, I am highlighting 5 people who took risks to be who themselves without apology. These people contribute(d) to our world in tangible ways that need to be celebrated and remembered. And yes…a few of my choices may reflect my own personal bias toward the importance of family a little bit. But I hope that everyone reading this might learn a little bit more about the giants whose shoulders we stand on today. Read on for UK Yankee’s LGBT History Month Heroes…!
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Vita Sackville West
Anyone living in Kent, will undoubtedly associate Vita Sackville-West with Knole House and the beautiful gardens at Sissinghurst Castle. However, her achievements in literature are notable and she famously inspired the character for Orlando in Virginia Woolf’s famous novel of the same name. Vita Sackville-West defied social conventions of the day by following her heart into relationships with women. Her son later said of her: “She fought for the right to love, men and women, rejecting the conventions that marriage demands exclusive love, and that women should love only men, and men only women. For this she was prepared to give up everything…”
Most of us know about the Enigma Machine that helped Great Britain crack the codes used by the Germans in World War 2. Alan Turing played a key role in devising the methods to crack these codes and is widely viewed as the father of artificial intelligence. In a nutshell…this guy was a genius. And yeah, he was gay. As if one has any bearing on the other. His work, with others, is credited with shortening WW2 by two years and saving over 14 million lives.
This genius was later repaid with charges, under an 1885 law, of ‘gross indecency’ for homosexual acts which were still illegal in the 1950’s. The ‘punishment’, chemical castration, caused a number of side-effects including the loss of his concentration. Nearly 60 years after his suicide, Parliament granted an official apology and a posthumous pardon. His family also circulated a petition to pardon everyone charged for ‘gross indecency’ which was euphemistic for gay sex.
Pink News published an article in 2015 highlighting some letters that had recently come to light through Turing’s nephew, Sir Dermot Turing. They highlighted the turmoil he faced following the procedure and described his mother’s response to his homosexuality:
“Mother has been staying here, and we seem to be getting on a good deal better. I have been subjecting her to a good deal of sexual enlightenment and she seems to have stood up to it very well.”
Moving into more modern times. Oh.My.Word! Have you heard this woman’s voice? Vicky Beeching is a Christian Country singer/song-writer and was hugely popular in the US Bible Belt (not the centre of tolerance for gay people). Imagine living in the middle of a world that doesn’t accept you for who you are for 8 years, but knowing that your livelihood depends on that world. Vicky Beeching rose above years of shame and denial, and came out as a gay woman, risking the intolerance of her largely Evangelical Christian fanbase. In an interview with the Independent Newspaper in the UK, Beeching speaks of coming out to her parents in 2014:
“I was terrified but they reacted really well. They said, ‘We’re so sorry that you had to go through this alone.'”
Beeching and her parents have agreed to disagree on the theology around homosexuality. “It’s a picture of what is possible, even when you don’t agree, that love can supersede everything.” She hopes the Church of England can one day follow suit.
Beeching’s life now
Beeching now works in broadcasting, journalism & in Christian ministry to promote equality and inclusivity within the church. She also helps to increase diversity-awareness within other workplaces. She’s smart (BA & MA from Oxford), she’s talented, she’s articulate. She is amazing. For a little ear-wig of her music go here:
One of the things that I love about Linda Bellos is her unashamed approach to Feminism. Born and raised in Brixton (south London) & of mixed Jewish and Nigerian heritage, she is heralded for her participation and leadership in the second wave of feminism. This wave had a slightly grittier, angrier edge. In the 1970’s, she famously said that she felt ‘played’ by the ‘white middle-class women who owned the women’s movement’.
Bloody women from Oxford had universalised their experience, defined it as feminism and wondered why it didn’t mean anything to the rest of us,’ said Bellos. ‘When we started asserting our equal right to define what feminism was, they didn’t like it.
(*Thank you Gay Star News for these quotes)
let’s not worship power for power’s sake
Bellos married a man early in her life before coming out as a lesbian (a fact unsurprising to her supportive mother). She is a beloved mother and grandmother. She is political, serving her community of Lambeth (London) as a borough councillor from the Labour party in the 1980’s. In a interview with the Guardian back in 2006, she made her feelings on power, and one powerful woman in particular, pretty clear:
“I wondered if she thought that the great hate figure of that period, Margaret Thatcher, had in some ways also represented a triumph for feminism. “Bollocks, no!” she shouts, and I almost instinctively duck. “Absolutely not.” She launches into a long tirade, and I try to explain that I merely meant that Thatcher showed that women could rival men for power. “Let’s not worship power for power’s sake. There are many people who do good by being quiet, loving, helpful, generous. I happen to think that is more important than powerful and loud,” she says, powerfully and loudly.”
She is credited with originating Black History Month in the UK. And she has worked with many British public bodies, including the Metropolitan Police and the British Army, to help them bring equality into the mainstream practices of their organisations.
Here is a little audio clip of Linda Bellos talking about her African, Jewish, Lesbian Feminist Identity. (Thank you to www.rainbowjews.com for this sound-clip)
Caroline ‘Tula’ Cossey
Caroline Cossey, born Barry Kenneth Cossey, was raised as a male. However, during puberty, Cossey bore a feminine appearance due to an inter-sex condition and was bullied by classmates. Identifying as female, Cossey left school and moved to London at the age of 16. She started transitioning by the age of 17 when she began to receive hormone therapy. Working hard, she saved her money to eventually undergo gender-confirmation surgery in 1974. Despite initial surprise, her family eventually supported her decision. Of her sister Pam, she says
“What a beautiful loving supportive sister and best friend she has been throughout the years. I love her dearly.” (from Caroline’s Facebook page)
Life as a woman
Cossey then began a career as a high-profile model going by the name of Tula. She appeared in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and even Playboy. After appearing as an extra in James Bond For Your Eyes Only, a tabloid journalist callously threatened to out her. This led to intense psychological trauma. But eventually Cossey wrote of her experiences in an autobiography called I Am Woman. And along with others, she began to lobby the British government for changes to trans-gender law. Cossey took this case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. She achieved her aim when the court legally recognised her as a woman (though this legal case bounced back and forth). In 2004 the Gender Recognition Act finally passed, giving transgender people in the United Kingdom a legal means to change their legal gender.
Cossey is now a model, actress and activist- supporting trans-rights. I think her caption on the Instagram photo I’ve posted here says it all. I am in awe of a person who knew themselves that well at the tender age of 16. And of the incredible strength of character she showed in challenging intolerant laws all the way to the highest courts.
Obviously, I’m only scratching the surface here with my UK LGBT Heroes. These 5 people captured my imagination with their talents and strength of character. What about you? Who are your LGBT heroes?
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