Activism

9 LGBTQ+ trailblazers who defined and redefined modern Britain 

We put the spotlight on nine LGBTQ+ pioneers who have shaped modern Britain – often against unimaginable odds

Some of British history's LGBT+ trailblazers. Left to right: Lady Phyll, Mark Ashton, and Sophia Jex-Blake Credit: Wikimedia commons, Wikimedia commons, and the Southbank Centre / Flickr (https://flic.kr/p/kRMNKT)

When it comes to LGBTQ+ trailblazers throughout history and up to present day, the United Kingdom is hardly lacking. Sportspeople like Tom Daley and Dame Kelly Holmes, activists like Peter Tatchell and Munroe Bergdorf and entertainment juggernauts like Sir Ian McKellen, The Vivienne and the late, great Paul O’Grady are all household names – and for good reason.

But beyond the names often strung up in lights, there exists an entire world of changemakers whose careers and impact are lesser known, whether due to the course of history, the nature of their work or the times that they lived in.

In honour of LGBT+ History Month, we put the spotlight on nine figures – which is in no way meant to be exhaustive – who have made lasting, impactful changes to life in Britain for the queer community and beyond, whose names you might not know. 

Sophia Jex-Blake (1840-1912) – Scotland’s first female doctor

Sophia Jex-Blake (1840-1912); Royal Free Hospital. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Born in Sussex in 1840, Sophia Jex–Blake was the first practising female doctor in Scotland – and one of the first in the UK.

As a victim of her time, Jex-Blake was blocked from attending a university to study medicine as a woman, eventually travelling to the US to do so. On her return, she and six other women successfully lobbied the University of Edinburgh to admit them as the Edinburgh Seven, setting a precedent for women studying in fields to which they were not previously permitted. The admission of women into other British universities by 1877 was largely attributed to Jex-Blake. 

She also helped found two medical schools for women – the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women in 1886 and the London School of Medicine in 1874 – introducing generations of women to the study of the field. 

It was at one of these schools that she met her partner, the doctor and medical writer Dr Margaret Todd. The pair lived together in Windedyne until Jex-Blake’s death in 1912.

Patrick Trevor-Roper (1916-2004) – eye surgeon and activist who helped decriminalise homosexuality in the UK

Patrick Trevor-Roper. Image: The Ophthalmologist

Patrick Trevor-Roper was one of only three witnesses that could be convinced to appear before the Wolfenden Committee – a 1957 government appointed group that was appointed to investigate whether male homosexuality should remain a crime. 

Trevor-Roper, an openly gay eye British eye surgeon, brought before the committee a bevy of evidence that suggested gay men across Britain were able to live fulfilled lives, were not mentally ill and posed no threat to children or public life – views that were highly controversial in the ’50s.

He also argued that the age of consent should be lowered to 16 and brought attention to the fact that many queer men attempted to die by suicide due to blackmail attempts. As a result, the committee recommended that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence”. Homosexuality was fully decriminalised in 1967.

He was also one of the co-founders of The Terrence Higgins Trust in 1982, which remains the UK’s leading HIV and sexual health charities. 

Maureen Colquhoun (1928-2021) – Britain’s first openly lesbian MP

Maureen Colquhoun was a member of parliament for Northampton North as part of the Labour Party – and was Britain’s first openly lesbian MP. Knowledge of her sexuality became public in 1976, when it was reported that she left her husband, with whom she shared three children, for the editor of queer magazine Sappho, Barbara Todd. The pair remained together until Todd’s death in 2020. 

After she was deselected from parliament due to her sexuality, she appealed the decision and remained an MP until losing her seat in the 1979 election.

Aside from the innate inspiring effects left by being Britain’s first lesbian MP, Colquhoun was instrumental in campaigning for LGBTQ+ and women’s rights. Before leaving parliament, Colquhoun introduced a bill designed to protect sex workers, even bringing 50 female workers to the committee room for its first reading. She also campaigned for access to abortion for women during a time where this was unheard of.

April Ashley (1935-2021) – trans trailblazer, model, dancer, socialite and pioneer

April Ashley. Image: Wikimedia Commons

April Ashley was one of the earliest British people known to have had sex reassignment surgery, making her an absolute pioneer and a trailblazer to trans people even today.

Ashley joined the Merchant Navy in 2016, but was given a dishonourable discharge after attempting to die bye suicide. After leaving hospital following a second suicide attempt, she moved to London, then Paris, where she saved £3,000 by performing in a drag cabaret at Le Carrousel de Paris – enough to pay for sex reassignment surgery in Morocco.

When Ashley returned to London, she began working as a successful model, even landing film roles and featuring in British Vogue, before she was publicly outed in 1961. In 2012, she was honoured for her work with an MBE for her services to transgender equality, marking her lasting impact on lives of transgender individuals to this day.

Mark Ashton (1960-1987) – activist and co-founder of LGSM; Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners

Mark Ashton. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Although the subject of beloved 2014 film Pride, the name Mark Ashton often flies under the radar, despite an undeniable impact on the course of the UK’s gay rights record. 

Ashton founded the LGSM – the activist group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners – after he and friend Mike Jackson collected donations for the miners on strike at the 1984 Pride march in London. The organisation formed an alliance who supported the National Union of Mineworkers as they fought against the closure of mines under Margaret Thatcher’s government.

The LGSM’s partnership with the miners marked a turning point for support by LGBTQ+ allies in the UK; Miners’ labour groups began to endorse and participate in pride events, even leading London’s Lesbian and Gay Pride parade in 1985. This led to a turning tide of wider acceptance for LGBTQ+ people in the most unlikely places.

Ashton also joined the Young Communist League from 1985 to ’86, where he served as general secretary. Ashton died from AIDS in 1987 and, in his memory, the Terrence Higgins Trust set up the Mark Ashton Trust to support those living with HIV. 

Chris Smith, Baron Smith of Finsbury – Britain’s first openly gay MP

Openly LGBTQ+ politician Chris Smith. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The first openly gay male British MP, Chris Smith was also the first MP to publicly acknowledge his status as HIV-positive.

Smith was an MP for the Labour Party for the majority of his career and came out in 1984 during a rally in Warwickshire against a possible ban on gay employees. He reportedly began his speech: “Good afternoon, I’m Chris Smith, I’m the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury and I’m gay.”

In 2005, he contacted the editor of The Sunday Times and released a story titled ‘Why This is the Time to Break my HIV Silence’, in which he revealed that he had been diagnosed as HIV-positive as long ago as 1987. His article broke boundaries for MPs who followed him.

During his tenure as a politician, he was part of the government that marked multiple turning points for the LGBTQ+ community, including the equalisation of the age of consent, the abolishment of Section 28 and the introduction of civil partnerships. Since retiring from politics, Smith has continued to campaign for multiple causes through various avenues. Most notably for queer rights, Smith became a vice-president of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality in 2009.

Dr Will Nutland founder of PrEPster and sexual health expert

Dr Will Nutland. Image: AJMC

Before PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis – a medical breakthrough that prevents the contraction of HIV by stopping the virus multiplying inside the user’s body) became available for free on the NHS in 2020, users were forced to find the drug via other means.

Alongside websites like iwantprepnow.co.uk (founded by activist Greg Owen), one of these routes was Dr Will Nutland’s PrEPster, which to this day provides information in response to a lack of clear and concise information available about PrEP, and advocates for access to the drug, for gay and bi men, Black African communities, trans people, sex workers and migrants.

Nutland is also the co-founder of non-profit The Love Tank, and was instrumental in applying pressure on the government in 2022, when he found their response to the mpox outbreak among primarily gay men unsatisfactory. Through his work in sexual health, Nutland has positively impacted countless lives.

Jayne Ozanne – founder/leader of Ban Conversion Therapy coalition 

Jayne Ozanne. Image: Ozanne foundation

The founder of both the Ozanne Foundation and the Ban Conversion Therapy coalition, Jayne Ozanne has helped campaign for LGBTQ+ people to be accepted across society, and specifically in the church.

As an activist, Ozanne’s initiatives have had multiple concrete outcomes, including helping to secure an apology to the queer community from the Archbishop of Canterbury for their treatment at the hands of the church. 

As the founder of the Ban Conversion Therapy coalition – a call to the government from many organisations to finally ban the barbaric practice after many years of delays – Ozanne is one of the most vocal figures in the UK on the matter. She was appointed the government’s LGBT Advisory Panel in 2019, from which she resigned in 2021 due to its slow progress.

Following her resignation, Ozanne convened the Ban Conversion Therapy Legal Forum, a group that produced The Cooper Report, which set out how the UK government could effectively ban conversion practices, including religious conversion practices.

Lady Phyll – co-founder and chief executive of UK Black Pride

Conceived as an event in 2005 to give a voice to the minority communities within the wider LGBTQ+ community, UK Black Pride continues to be one of the most diverse arms of the movement – and it was founded by Lady Phyll, real name Phyll Opuku-Gyimah.

A lesbian activist of Ghanaian descent, Lady Phyll has been politically active since her school days. Not only has she been critical of Pride in London with regards to race and inclusion, she has continued to strive to “promote unity and co-operation among all Black people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Latin American descent, as well as their friends and families, who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender” with her work.

She was also the executive director of charity Kaleidoscope Trust, which campaigns for LGBTQ+ rights around the world, and publicly refused an MBE in 2016.

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