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The pop culture milestones that helped shape LGBTQ+ history

LGBTQ+ people are continuing to make history every day.

pride flags being waved at a Pride celebration

2023 marks the 51st anniversary of a Pride march in the UK. (Image: Teddy O/Unsplash)

Ever since it was established in 2005 as part of a project to ensure schools are safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people, February marks LGBT History Month.

Each year, organisations, publications, and businesses promote and celebrate LGBTQ+ history and the steps made towards equality.

More and more people are taking part in learning about this history and what it took to get to where we are today when it comes to widespread support and acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people, while understanding that the UK still has some ways to go when it comes to supporting the LGBTQ+ community as a whole.

Many of those milestones, such as marriage equality, were achieved through active campaigning, protest, and legislation but it’s important to note that the many momentous achievements of the LGBTQ+ community happened within pop culture rather than in parliament.

Literature, music, sport, TV, and movies are all avenues for LGBTQ+ to express themselves and have historically paved the way for another year of celebration for the community.

By no means an exhaustive list, here are a number of important cultural milestones within LGBTQ+ history.

1979 – Heaven opens in London to establish itself as the centre of LGBTQ+ nightlife

Heaven was opened in 1979, just 12 years after the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexuality, was passed.

As prejudice and homophobia ran rife in the UK, the club became a haven for the LGBTQ+ community and is still considered one of the best gay clubs in the UK, bringing in over 40,000 people a month.

Mark Ellicott, who has been general manager of Heaven since 2008, said it was the first club “of its size” that catered to gay and lesbian people, marking it as a pivotal part of LGBTQ+ history.

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1982 – Lesbian group opens community centre in Camden

The Camden Lesbian Centre opened in 1982 on London’s Phoenix Road, housing groups including the lesbian disability group Gemma and a Black lesbian organisation group named Zamimass.

For nearly 10 years, this was the country’s only dedicated lesbian centre but sadly it was closed in the 1990s due to funding troubles.

1989 – First same-sex kiss on a British soap

Eastenders broadcasted the first same-sex kiss between characters Colin (Lord Michael Cashman) and his boyfriend Guido (Nicholas Donovan).

At the time, the scene was not well received by the British tabloid press, with Piers Morgan describing the kiss as a “homosexual love scene between yuppie p***s” in The Sun.

Morgan apologised for these comments in 2020, writing on Twitter: “It was offensive, it was wrong, and I apologise for it.”

Cashman went on to found Stonewall along with Sir Ian McKellen later that year.

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1989 – Sir Ian McKellen helps to establish Stonewall

Sir Ian McKellen came out publicly during a debate on BBC Radio 3 in 1988 in response to Section 28, legislation that prohibited the teaching of homosexuality in schools. 

One year later, in 1989, McKellen co-founded Stonewall with 13 others aiming to create a “professional lobbying group” to prevent any attacks on lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.

The organisation has since expanded to include trans people and other members of the LGBTQ+ community and continues to lobby on their behalf to this day.

Sir Ian McKellen is best known for his acting career, which spans six decades.

1990 – Justin Fashanu becomes the first professional footballer to come out

Footballer Justin Fashanu made headlines in 1990 after coming out as gay while playing for semi-professional team Leatherhead. 

He told newspapers he was generally well accepted by fellow players but was the subject of malicious jokes about his sexuality.

Fashanu died by suicide in 1998.

Waters is best known for Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, which also has a lesbian protagonist.

1998 – Sarah Waters’ publishes queer historical novel Tipping the Velvet

Sarah Waters is considered one of the most significant queer British writers of all time, starting with her debut novel Tipping the Velvet.

It tells a coming of age story about a young woman who falls in love with a male impersonator named Kitty Butler. 

In 2002, the novel was adapted into a TV series for the BBC.

1999 – Russell T Davies’s Queer as Folk broadcast on Channel 4

Channel 4 has pushed boundaries regularly in its broadcasting, particularly when it comes with Russell T Davies’s Queer as Folk.

The show follows three gay men living in Canal Street, Manchester, and was the first of its kind within LGBTQ+ pop culture, showing both the happy and harsh moments queer people face.

2001 – Brian Dowling wins Big Brother

Over four million people voted for the openly-gay Brian Dowling to win the second series of Channel 4’s Big Brother.

Following his win, Dowling went on to win Ultimate Big Brother in 2010 and later became the first openly-gay children’s TV presenter on ITV’s SMTV Live.

Dowling said winning the show “changed my life forever”.

2004 – Nadia Almada is the first trans contestant to compete in and win Big Brother

Three years after Dowling’s win, Nadia Almada was the first-ever trans person to become a Big Brother housemate, and later went on to win the show with 74 per cent of the final vote.

Almada chose not to reveal her gender identity to her housemates at the time but the viewing public were informed.

She won £63,500 from Big Brother and presenter Davina McCall said Almada was her favourite housemate of all time.

2009 – Stephen Fry publicises Grindr on Top Gear

Actor and broadcaster Stephen Fry, who is publicly out as gay and has been married to his partner Elliott Spencer since 2010, once caused extreme controversy when he showcased gay dating app Grindr on BBC’s Top Gear.

In 2009, Fry appeared on the show as its “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” and explained the intricacies of Grindr to Jeremy Clarkson and the show’s global audience of 350 million viewers.

CEO and founder of Grindr Joel Simkhai previously told PinkNews Fry’s impact on the app was “instant”, leading to an increase of users by 50 per cent.

2010 – Channel 4’s Hollyoaks features storyline following a teenage trans character

Channel 4’s Hollyoaks was the first British soap to feature a storyline involving a transgender teen.

Actor Victoria Atkin played transgender teen Jason Costello, the first character in the soap to experience gender dysphoria. 

He was originally introduced as Jasmine but eventually revealed that he wishes to be known as Jason, with storylines including his journey through transitioning and his relationship with Bart McQueen (Jonny Clarke).

Atkin left the soap a year later, with her character leaving Chester for America.

2014 – Asifa Lahore becomes the first Muslim drag queen

In 2014, Lahore became the first Muslim drag queen and was catapulted into the spotlight after she was prevented from discussing Islam and homosexuality on the BBC discussion show Free Speech by Birmingham Central Mosque.

The subsequent uproar allowed Lahore to speak freely about the subject and later featured in the Channel 4 documentary Muslim Drag Queens, narrated by Sir Ian McKellen.

Lahore’s website states she is a “proud transgender woman” that is “pushing the boundaries of what it means to be LGBT, South Asian, and Muslim”.

2014 – Matthew Warchus’ Pride saves queer bookshop

The critically acclaimed film Pride, directed by Matthew Warchus, is based on the true story of a group of queer activists who raised funds to help those participating in the British miners’ strike of 1984.

The group, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, travelled from their hub at Gay’s The Word in London to Wales to give the miners their donations.

Gay’s The Word’s manager Jim MacSweeney said the movie helped the city’s oldest queer bookshop to achieve continued success despite previous financial difficulties.

Gay's the Word bookstore store front in Bloomsbury, London
The bookshop features a variety of LGBTQ+ books and authors. (Image: Nick Harrison/Flickr)

2015 – Trans actor Riley Carter Millington joins Eastenders

Riley Carter Millington joined Eastenders as Kyle Slater, a trans character, becoming the first trans man to play a trans character on a British soap.

At the time, writer Paris Lees wrote: “Kyle’s entrance into Eastenders is a cultural landmark on a par with the show’s first gay character in the 80s.”

Millington was on the show as Kyle for over a year before the character left to take a job in France.

2018 – Emmerdale broadcasts first asexuality storyline

Isobel Steele began playing Liv Dingle in 2018 on Emmerdale, the first asexual character to be featured in a soap opera.

Asexuality refers to people who have a lack of sexual attraction or sexual desire for others.

Steele and Emmerdale was praised by fans for the storyline, with Steele saying she received messages from viewers who said they were “grateful for that representation”.

2019 – Sam Smith comes out as non-binary

Smith has been openly queer since releasing their debut single but in 2019 came out as non-binary and asked to be referred to using they/them pronouns.

In a statement, they said: “I hope you can see me like I see myself now.”

Smith is considered one of Britain’s most successful artists and a role model for queer, trans, and non-binary people for being so open about their sexuality and identity.

Sam Smith performs on stage at iHeartRadio Q102's Jingle Ball 2022 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 12 Dec 2022. Image: Shutterstock
Smith recently released a new album titled Gloria. (Image: Shutterstock)

2020 – Strictly Come Dancing features first same-gender dance pairing

BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing featured its first same-gender pair on the show in 2020, consisting of former Olympian Nicola Adams and professional dancer Katya Jones.

Adams previously said her partnership with Jones was “a brilliant step in the right direction, especially on the diversity side of things”.

Sadly, the pair did not win that year’s Glitterball Trophy, which would have been an even more momentous occasion in LGBTQ+ history.

In 2021, Great British Bake Off winner John Whaite and professional dancer Johannes Radebe became the first all-male dance pairing and made it all the way to the final.

2021 – It’s a Sin broadcast on Channel 4

Russell T Davies, who is gay, is a powerhouse in British TV. He hit the mark once again with the Channel 4 show It’s a Sin, chronicling life during the Aids crisis of the 1980s.

The show featured Years and Years’ lead singer Olly Alexander as well as Lydia West, Omari Douglas, Neil Patrick Harris, and Stephen Fry, among others.

It’s a Sin was received very favourably by critics, with the Guardian writing that it is a “poignant masterpiece” for shedding light on such a dark part of LGBTQ+ history.

Additionally, the show only featured gay actors due to Davies’ desire for “authenticity” in television.

Olly Alexander in it's a sin
Russell T Davies’ drama, It’s A Sin, looks at the Aids epidemic. (Image: Channel 4)

2022 – Heartstopper released on Netflix

Heartstopper is an adaptation of Alice Oseman’s graphic novel of the same name, which follows Charlie Spring (Joe Locke) and Nick Nelson (Kit Connor) whose friendship turns romantic as Nick questions his sexuality.

The show is set in a British school and shows teenagers dealing with queer love, identity, friendship, bullying, and homophobia.

Oseman said her goal in making the show was to “inspire young people – especially LGBTQ+ young people – to be whoever they want to be”.

2022 – Footballer for Blackpool is the first to come out as gay since Justin Fashanu

In May 2022, Jake Daniels became the first male professional footballer to come out as gay since Justin Fashanu 32 years earlier.

His coming out was praised by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, FA president Prince William and England captain Harry Kane.

Daniels said he was massively supported by his teammates and Blackpool FC, who told Sky News they were “proud” that he felt comfortable enough to come out.

Daniels is still playing professional football to this day.

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