To celebrate LGBTQ+ History Month, we asked our co-workers tell us about queer icons from history who’ve inspired them. We hope that you enjoy learning about them – and feel free to share your queer icons in the comments below.

We appreciate that some historical figures or groups may have done things that aren’t acceptable by today’s standards. For this article, we want to try to focus on the positive influence they’ve had to LGBTQ+ History.

Sepia tone image of Audre Lorde reclining on grass
Images from Freie Universität Berlin, University Archive, Lorde estate". Photographer: Dagmar Schultz

Audre Lorde,

By Maya, IT Service Desk Agent

Growing up in my house, I had a lot of pressure to become a successful lawyer, so it doesn’t come to much surprise that reading poetry was an act of severe defiance for my parents. I do find it amusing though, that in the end, I didn’t end up being a successful lawyer, but a poet (sorry Mum and Dad). I don’t think I can consider myself successful as I’ve not published anything notable (yet), but I do want to show homage to a poet who empowered me to be true to myself.

Audre Lorde was a self-described “black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, mother, warrior, poet” who for all her creative expressions, dedicated her life to confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. She died the year I was born in 1992. I’m not sure if she expected a Filipino-Mexican-Turkish diaspora to be picking up her books and reading her poetry, but it happened. In some ways it’s unsurprising that I related to her work, Lorde was also mixed cultured, being Barbadian-Grenadian and born in New York City. Her poetry made me understand me more than any history lesson I took at school, and this is the reason why she’s my queer icon.

White bookshop with sign saying 'Gay's the word' set between two pink upturned triangles
Alex took this photo of the bookshop where LGSM was based. 

Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners

By Alex, Marketing Assistant

My queer heroes are the group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), who supported and campaigned for the National Union of Mineworkers during their year-long strike in the 1980s. The 2018 film Pride tells their story, it’s a very enjoyable adaptation with an important message.

Whilst support for coal mining would be a questionable practice nowadays, the mutual strength found in advocating and being vocal for other marginalised groups is something I greatly admire. There is power in taking criticism and prejudice and turning that into positive alliances for social change. The alliance formed between LGSM and the trade union movement broke a huge barrier in favour of equality for LGBTQ+ people, eventually leading to the Labour Party committing to the support of LGBTQ+ rights in Parliament and backing from the National Union in the campaign against Section 28.

In memory of Mark Ashton, founding member, a trust was created to raise money for individuals living with HIV. To date, donations in the thousands have helped to combat the stigma of HIV, and contribute to a greater quality of life for patients. Jonathan Blake, a member of LGSM, was one of the first people diagnosed with HIV in the UK, and is one of the oldest surviving people with the illness.

The remaining members of LGSM continue to educate on their history, and the importance of social change, at events across the country. I was fortunate enough to see them talk at my student union a few years ago, the impact of their activism has stuck with me ever since.

Edith (Edie) Windsor

Edie Windsor, aged 84, wearing a rainbow sash surrounded by crowds and Pride flags
Shutterstock image 2018: Edith Windsor acting as Grand Marshall of The Gay Pride Parade in New York City in 2013.

By Lucy, Deputy Corporate Secretary

When I discovered American LGBTQ+ rights activist, Edith Windsor (also known as “Edie”), I was blown away by her story. In 2013, she led the case against the US Supreme Court to overturn Section 3 of the Defence of Marriage Act. This was hailed as a landmark legal victory for the same-sex marriage movement in the US which paved the way for future change. The Obama administration and federal agencies extended rights, privileges and benefits to married same-sex couples because of the decision.

There is a great documentary film called A Very Long Engagement which tells the story of Edie and her partner Thea Spyer. They met in 1963 and got engaged in 1967 but had to wait 40 years to get legally married. Due to Thea’s ill health and prognosis, the couple had to go to Canada to get married in 2007. Same-sex marriage wasn’t legal in the US until 2015. Sadly Thea passed away in 2009.

The couple tried to keep a low profile through their relationship. Edie even proposed with a diamond pin, as a ring would have brought too much attention. But they still took part in many gay and lesbian activist movements.

Edie died in 2017 and her second wife, Kasen-Windsor, said, “I lost my beloved spouse Edie, and the world lost a tiny but tough as nails fighter for freedom, justice and equality.”

Portrait of Anne Lister who is wearing black, has a high collar and hair in short, tight curls
Portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner, ca. 1830. Photo: Calderdale MBC Museums

Anne Lister

By Alana, Marketing Communications Officer

My historic icon is Anne Lister, who you might know from the BBC series Gentleman Jack. Anne came from a prestigious, landowning family in the Regency Period (1800’s) and was dubbed “the first modern lesbian” due to her multiple lesbian relationships throughout her life.

Anne was a highly educated, widely travelled businesswoman and landowner. Such independence, drive and behaviour were uncommon among women of the day. She was also unconventional in her appearance for the time. She dressed only in black and was masculine in her appearance, thus leading to her unkindly being known as “Gentleman Jack”.

I identify a lot with Anne Lister. She lived in Halifax, West Yorkshire, not far from where I grew up. If I’d known about Ann Lister as a queer teenager, my life might have been very different. Being queer in the 2000s in Yorkshire was hard enough. And yet, here was this woman, unashamedly acting against the status quo in the early 1800s. Knowing about her sooner may to given me the courage and inspiration I needed.

Like Anne Lister, I also wrote a diary in code to keep my feelings a secret. It also allowed me to write letters to my girlfriend at the time without being found out. I’m thankful that I don’t have to live that way now. My current partner and I can be ourselves in public and have never faced comment or reprisals. My partner does occasionally get misgendered, which is something that will hopefully become a thing of the past too.

Harvey Milk

By Caroline, Organisation Development Lead

I first heard about Harvey Milk when I saw the 2008 Sean Penn film, Milk.  As a young teenager I had been horrified by the response to AIDS and the stigma directed at gay men in particular; I followed the story both in the States and here in the UK, but I'd never come across Harvey Milk until I saw the film. He was a flamboyant character, born in 1930 he was also brave and uncompromising in his identity, despite the level of prejudice at the time, and he was inclusive.

In one of his eloquent speeches, Milk spoke of the American ideal of equality, proclaiming that gay people will not win rights by staying quietly in the closet. "We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I’m going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out." How inspiring is that!?