Visible Women

10 queer female icons we should remember this LGBT History Month

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Moya Crockett and Sarah Shaffi
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From Audre Lorde to Vita Sackville-West and Marsha P Johnson, these women owned their identities in the face of discrimination.

History is full of trailblazing women whose stories were forgotten or ignored – and those who are part of the LGBTQ+ community are often even more sidelined.

Because even when the stories of LGBTQ+ people are told, the focus is usually on men. Many of us will recognise names like Harvey Milk and Oscar Wilde thanks to films about their lives, or be familiar with the work of writers like Alan Hollinghurst and Armistead Maupin. But how many of us can say that we know lots about lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer women from history?

Perhaps the general lack of recognition for history’s pioneering LGBTQ+ women isn’t a surprise. For millennia, history was predominantly written by and about men, who were resoundingly uninterested in women’s relationships with one another – or simply oblivious to the fact that women could be anything other than cisgender and straight.

Even today, LGBTQ+ history is rarely covered in mainstream education. Research for Stonewall in 2017 found that two in five LGBTQ+ pupils are never taught anything about their sexuality and/or gender in school or college, with the vast majority never experiencing discussions about LGBTQ+ issues during classes such as English, geography and history.

But it’s vital that we educate ourselves about queer history. Not only so we can recognise the accomplishments of LGBTQ+ people, but also so we’re able to challenge the prejudice – or worse – that still persists in society. Nearly half of LGBTQ+ young people are bullied at school because of their sexuality, and more than two in five trans pupils have tried to take their own lives. Highlighting the historical achievements of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is just one important way of championing the LGBTQ+ community.

LGBT History Month, which runs every February, aims to increase the visibility of LGBTQ+ people and their history, lives and experiences. Here, we’ve selected 10 pioneering LGBTQ+ heroes from history who everyone should know.

Audre Lorde 

Audre Lorde photographed in 1983

Born in New York City to Caribbean immigrant parents, Audre Lorde – who died in 1992 at the age of 58 – was one of the most significant feminist thinkers of the 20th century. As a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”, she approached the women’s liberation movement with a different history and perspective to that of her white, straight, middle-class peers, and her writings were hugely influential in shaping ideas about intersectional feminism.

Lorde said that while others suspected she was “queer” in her teens, she wasn’t sure of her sexuality until she was 20. Despite this, she married a man, lawyer Edwin Rollins, with whom she had two children before they divorced. She would go on to have relationships with several women, notably the author and activist Dr Gloria Joseph.

“There’s always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself – whether it’s black, woman, mother, dyke, teacher, etc. – because that’s the piece that they need to key in to,” she said in 1981. “They want to dismiss everything else. But once you do that, then you’ve lost… Only by learning to live in harmony with your contradictions can you keep it all afloat.”

Anne Lister 

A portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner, c 1830

Several TV period dramas have been made about the life of Anne Lister, with another – starring Suranne Jones and written by Sally Wainwright – currently in the works at the BBC and HBO. It’s not surprising, because her story is a cracking yarn. Born into a wealthy military family in Yorkshire in 1791, Lister defied the norms of her class and time: a fierce and often snobbish intellectual, she also owned her own land, renovated the family seat of Shibden Hall, ran a colliery and became the first woman to climb several mountains in the Pyrenees.

Lister’s meticulously-kept diaries, written in a secret code that wasn’t cracked until the late 19th century, reveal that she was a lesbian, but her sexuality is unlikely to have come as a shock to those who knew her. She walked like a man, dressed entirely in black and famously went by the names of “Fred” and “Gentleman Jack”, while her affairs with local women were common knowledge in Shibden and the nearby town of Halifax.

She eventually ‘married’ a rich woman named Ann Walker, giving her a wedding ring and even having their union blessed in church. Walker moved into Shibden Hall, and the couple lived together until Lister’s death in 1840. 

Alice Dunbar-Nelson 

A portrait of Alice Dunbar-Nelson 

From James Baldwin to Langston Hughes, many prominent male writers and poets of the Harlem Renaissance – an African-American literary and cultural movement that took place in the Twenties – were gay or bisexual. Less attention has historically been paid to the queer women of the Harlem Renaissance, and that’s to all of our detriment.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson – a mixed-race, bisexual woman born in 1875 in New Orleans – is believed to be the first African-American woman ever to publish a collection of short stories (Violets and Other Tales, published in 1895). She was also a proud activist on a number of social issues, including women’s suffrage, anti-lynching and peace advocacy.

Married to three different men over the course of her life, Dunbar-Nelson had many affairs with women, including Edwina B Kruse (a head teacher 27 years her senior), journalist Fay Jackson Robinson and artist Helene Ricks London. Historian Lillian Faderman has described her journals as revealing “the existence of an active black bisexual network among prominent ‘club women’ who had husbands but managed to enjoy lesbian liaisons as well as a camaraderie with one another over their shared secrets.”

Lili Elbe

Lili Elbe, first transgender woman to undergo sex reassignment surgery

Lili Elbe, who died in 1931

If you’ve seen The Danish Girl, you’ll already be familiar with Lili Elbe’s story. Born Einar Wegener in Vejle, Denmark in 1882, the landscape painter became one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgery in 1930.

Before her surgeries, Elbe had spent almost two decades living partially as a woman. From around 1912, she would often accompany her wife Gerda to balls and parties wearing gowns and make-up, disguised as “Einar’s sister” or “Gerda’s sister”. Indeed, she credited Gerda – an artist with whom she shared a loving and supportive marriage for many years – with helping her discover her true gender identity, after Gerda asked her to stand in for a female life model who hadn’t turned up.

Over the years, Elbe – presenting as Wegener – went to various doctors to seek help. Many dismissed her as gay or hysterical until she met Magnus Hirschfeld, a German physician who also founded the world’s first gay rights organisation. He put her in touch with a clinic in Dresden where she underwent several surgeries, including a womb transplant that would prove fatal.

Elbe died in 1931 of cardiac arrest, after developing an infection as a result of the botched transplant. Today, the LBGT film festival MIX Copenhagen gives out Lili awards in honour of Elbe. 

Vita Sackville-West 

A portrait of Sackville-West taken around 1925, the year she began a relationship with Virginia Woolf 

Today, the writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West is arguably most remembered for her relationship with Virginia Woolf, who she met at a dinner party in 1922. In the first half of the 20th century, however, she was a famous author and poet in her own right, writing bestsellers such as The Edwardians and All Passion Spent.

When Sackville-West met Woolf, she was almost a decade into an open marriage with diplomat Harold Wilson, and was well-known for having affairs with high-society women. The two women hit it off at once – Sackville-West was impressed by Woolf’s literary skill, while Woolf admired Sackville-West’s free spirit and sexual liberation – but didn’t begin a romantic relationship until three years later. 

They went on to be lovers for a decade, during which time Sackville-West served as the inspiration for the androgynous gender-swapping hero of Woolf’s novel Orlando, a book now celebrated as a pioneering example of queer literature. Their relationship will soon be immortalised in a film starring Elizabeth Debicki and Gemma Arterton. 

One of Sackville-West’s own books, Portrait of a Marriage (published by her son in 1973), tackled the subject of her bisexuality. She wrote of her hope that in the future, people wouldn’t have to hide their true sexualities: “It will be recognised that many more people of my type do exist than under the present-day system of hypocrisy is currently admitted.”

Marsha P Johnson 

Trans pioneer Marsha P Johnson was one of the most courageous and influential LGBTQ+ rights activists of the 20th century. She started working as a drag queen in New York in the early Sixties, adopting “Marsha P Johnson” as her stage name: the P, she famously said, stood for “pay it no mind”, her response when people asked her about her gender or sexuality.

In the early hours of 28 June, 1969, Johnson was celebrating her 25th birthday at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village when it was raided by police. They began arresting, harassing and assaulting the gay bar’s patrons – frisking lesbians, dragging women to the bathroom to check their genitals and arresting any ‘crossdressers’. Two nights of riots and marches ensued, forming the genesis of the original gay pride marches.

There is some debate about whether Johnson was among the first to fight back against the police at Stonewall. Although many of her biographers say she led the resistance, she herself claimed that the riots had already started when she arrived at the bar. What is certain is that she was a leading light in the gay and trans rights movement that followed, co-founding the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) organisation, defiantly leading the gay pride parade in 1973 despite drag queens being banned from the event, and getting involved in AIDS activism in the Eighties and Nineties.

Johnson’s life wasn’t easy. She suffered from mental health issues, and died tragically at the age of 46, her body having been found floating in the Hudson River. She is the subject of an extraordinary Netflix documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson: if you haven’t watched already, do so at once.

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker in Amsterdam, Bestanddeelnr

Josephine Baker photographed in Amsterdam.

Bisexual icon Josephine Baker may be best known for being an entertainer, but she did many remarkable things in her life – from being a spy to standing up for civil rights.

Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St Louis, Missouri, Baker grew up cleaning houses for wealthy white families before becoming a waitress. She started her entertainment career with dance troupes in the US, before heading to Broadway. Aged 19 she was recruited to join a troupe travelling to Paris, where she became the most successful American entertainer working in France.

Although she briefly returned to America in the Thirties to try to replicate her success, she found that American audiences rejected her because they were used to seeing black entertainers in more stereotypical roles. She moved back to Europe and gave up her American citizenship in favour of French citizenship.

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During the Second World War, Baker performed for the troops, worked for the French resistance smuggling messages in sheet music, and was a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She returned to America in the Fifties and Sixties to fight racism, famously boycotting segregated venues, and was the only woman to address the crowd at the March on Washington in 1963.

Baker met her first husband at the age of 13, and would marry four times in total. However, she also had several relationships with women – notably the blues singer Clara Smith. Baker also adopted 12 children of different ethnicities, referring to her family as The Rainbow Nation.

After Baker died on 12 April 1975, her funeral procession was watched by 20,000 people on the streets of Paris – and she made history as the first American woman to be buried in France with military honours.

Jane Addams

A portrait of Jane Addams from 1906 by George de Forest Brush.

Not only is Jane Addams recognised by many as the founder of social work in the US, she was also a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The eighth of nine children, Addams grew up in Illinois, and originally studied medicine. Aged 27, she visited a settlement house – a type of community centre – in London, and was inspired to open a similar house in an underprivileged area of Chicago.

She did so with the help of Ellen Starr, her first romantic partner. Addams and Starr opened their settlement house in 1889, and by its second year it was supporting 2,000 people a week. The house hosted classes for children, clubs for adults, and expanded to include an art gallery, public kitchen, book bindery, music school and more.

Addams’ other achievements were numerous: she was appointed to Chicago’s Board of Education, helped found the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, and in 1910 became the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Yale University.

An ardent feminist, Addams was publicly opposed to the US’ entry to the First World War, causing her to be expelled from the Daughters of the American Revolution and attacked in the media. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, but was admitted to hospital on the day she was meant to be given the award in Oslo.

As well as Starr, Addams also had a relationship with Mary Rozet Smith, who supported her work at the settlement centre. They were together for 40 years, until Rozet Smith’s death from pneumonia.

Ruth Ellis

Before her death in 2000, Detroit-born Ruth Ellis was widely regarded as the world’s oldest surviving open lesbian. Born in Illinois in 1899, Ellis came out in 1915 – a time when the vast majority of lesbians were required to hide their sexuality. She met her long-term partner Ceciline “Babe” Franklin in the Twenties, and in 1937 became the first woman to own a printing company in Detroit.

A lifelong advocate for the rights of gay and lesbian people and African-Americans, Ellis was renowned for welcoming African-American LGBTQ+ people into the home she shared with Franklin in Detroit, and providing shelter and support for those in need.

The Ruth Ellis Centre was opened in Detroit in 1999, to provide advice and support to runaway, homeless and at-risk LGBTQ+ children and teenagers. A documentary about Ellis – Living with Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @ 100 – was made in 1999, and she died a year later at the age of 101.

Radclyffe Hall

Author Radclyffe Hall, left, and Lady Una Troubridge with their daschunds at Crufts dog show, February 1923

Radclyffe Hall, left, with Una Troubridge and their daschunds at Crufts in February 1923.

Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness is now hailed as a seminal work of LGBTQ+ literature. Sadly, however, the writer never lived to see her groundbreaking book widely read and appreciated.

Born Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall in 1880, she experienced moderate success in her lifetime, writing poetry and a number of comic and dramatic novels. She also enjoyed a number of complicated relationships with women, including the singer Mabel Batten, who was married with an adult daughter and grandchildren when they met. Hall would later fall in love with Batten’s cousin Una Troubridge; Batten died in 1916, and Hall and Troubridge moved in together the following year..

In 1928, The Well of Loneliness was published, and transformed Hall’s modest literary fame into notoriety. The book tells the story of Stephen, a tomboy who comes to realise she is attracted to women. Although it is a love story with no explicit content, it still provoked ire for its overt lesbian themes: it was deemed to be an “obscene libel” at an obscenity trial, with the male magistrate ordering that all copies of it should be destroyed. A decree by a US court disagreed, but it was not until Hall’s death that the British ban on the book was overturned.

Hall and Troubridge were together until her death, although she had a number of affairs with other women – including a lengthy relationship with Russian nurse Evguenia Souline. Hall died in 1943, and is buried in Highgate Cemetery in London.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising the profiles of inspiring women past and present, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.

Images: Getty Images / Wikimedia Commons