LGBTQ people who changed the world
February sees the UK celebrate the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people throughout history. To mark the occasion, Matt Elton asked a panel of experts to each nominate an individual they believe deserves to be more fully recognised
Christina, Queen of Sweden – Gender iconoclast and pioneering intellectual
Nominated by Gabrielle Storey
Christina, queen regnant of Sweden from 1632 until her abdication in 1654, was one of the most learned women of the 17th century (pictured in the lead image). Her sexual identity and orientation have been the cause of much debate due to her cross dressing and self-declared disinterest in marriage, as well as her enthusiasm for activities such as hunting and swordplay, traditionally masculine hobbies.
From Christina’s birth in December 1626, her gender identity sparked discussion, as she was mistaken for a son due to her swollen genitals and being born with a caul (the amniotic membrane covering a fetus). Perhaps hoping for a son, Christina’s father ensured that his daughter had an education fit for a prince, which may have impacted Christina’s decision to engage in traditionally masculine hobbies. These two points led to the theory that Christina was intersex. However the 20th century exhumation of her remains has nullified this point.
Indeed, the terminology we use today to describe gender and sexuality did not exist in the 1600s, and it’s therefore complex to both define her and think of how she would have defined herself. Her refusal to marry and bear children, alongside the many scandalous rumours of her relationships with both men and women, have led to some proclamations of Christina as being lesbian or bisexual. Christina’s potential relationship with a lady-in-waiting, Ebba Sparre, has also been held as evidence of her interest in women. Without conclusive evidence, her sexuality cannot be defined: and even if such evidence survived, it would not be accurate to categorise her according to modern-day terminology.
Of Christina’s rule, we know much more. She amassed paintings, manuscripts, coins and scientific instruments in Stockholm and regularly corresponded with philosophers, authors and scholars. She pushed for peace during the European Wars of Religion, and her conversion to Catholicism in 1652 was one of the reasons behind her abdication. Much of her later life was spent travelling around Europe engaged in scholarly pursuits.
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Centuries on from her death in 1689, Christina’s gender and sexuality continue to enthral historians, biographers, novelists, filmmakers and everyone in between. Although we are no closer to an answer for her sexuality and identity, she continues to be a growing source of fascination and exploration in LGBTQ history.
Dr Gabrielle Storey is a historian of monarchy and gender
Dr Cecil Belfield Clarke – Campaigning doctor and civil-rights activist
Nominated By Stephen Bourne
In 2023, a blue plaque for Cecil Belfield Clarke was erected at London South Bank University, on a library building at the site
of his former surgery. It’s a fitting testament to a man whose motivation and drive helped save, and change, lives both in London and in Britain as a whole.
Born in Barbados in 1894, Clarke won a scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge. He graduated in 1918, qualifying as a surgeon two years later and establishing a medical practice at 112 Newington Causeway, near Elephant and Castle in south-east London. He went on to work in the district for the next 45 years, serving a population mostly comprised of working-class people living in the area’s poor housing. Clarke’s innovations included inventing the formula for administering the correct dosage of medicine to children, a groundbreaking development known as the ‘Clarke Rule’.
When Elephant and Castle was heavily bombed during the Second World War Blitz, Clarke kept his practice open.
During the terrible firestorm of May 1941, in which enemy aircraft destroyed most of the area’s buildings, Clarke’s surgery miraculously survived. Writing to the BBC radio producer Una Marson to decline the offer of making a guest appearance in her series Calling the West Indies, Clarke informed her that an entire wall had been blown away, the gas and water had been disconnected, and that a tarpaulin roof had been erected – yet he carried on treating his patients regardless.
Clarke’s achievements extended beyond the realm of medicine, too. In 1931, he joined forces with London-based Jamaican Dr Harold Moody and, along with several others, co-founded the League of Coloured Peoples. The League was central to Britain’s Black civil rights movement, assisting in the fight to end discrimination and to liberate Britain’s colonies.
In his private life, Clarke shared a home, which he named ‘Belfield House’, in the London borough of Barnet with his lifelong partner, Edward ‘Pat’ Walter. Until 1967, same-sex relationships between men were outlawed, so Clarke concealed his relationship with ‘Pat’ by employing him as his ‘secretary’. Clarke retired in 1965 and died on 28 November 1970. Pat continued to live in Barnet until he died, at the age of 96, in 1999.
Stephen Bourne is a writer and social historian specialising in Black heritage and gay culture
Alan – A symbol of the human toll – and stigma – of HIV/Aids
Nominated by George Severs
Of the thousands of people who have died from Aids-related conditions, many of them gay men, some names loom large. Rock Hudson. Freddie Mercury. Terrence Higgins. On the day of the Lesbian and Gay Pride in London 1989, another name rose more literally. Above a sea of faces – some smiling in revelry, others more sombre – a placard bore the name ‘Alan’ in bold capital letters. Beneath it, the sign read “my best & dearest friend died Pride Day ’88”. On that tragic anniversary, Alan’s friend asked fellow marchers to “make safety his memorial”. Alan’s death, the sombre faces of those in the crowd, and the placard’s call for a memorial are powerful reminders of the ways in which HIV/Aids was felt in the late 1980s.
The need to make safety Alan’s memorial was part of a wider sexual health campaign that sought to make condoms and non-penetrative sex part of the gay sexual landscape (or, as American author-activists Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz put it in the title of their 1983 book: How to Have Sex in an Epidemic).
But why should this photograph be Alan’s only memorial? If the photographer Gordon Rainsford had not captured his arresting image of the scene that day in 1989, would we even know to place this name into our histories of HIV/Aids?
- Read more | Aids: the epidemic that changed Britain
For some people who died from Aids-related conditions, the powerful forces of shame, stigma and homophobia had an enormous impact on the ways in which their lives – and their deaths – were marked and remembered. So heightened was the fear of HIV, both the virus itself and of being linked to it by association, that many families never revealed the cause of their relative’s death. It was all too common for lesbians and gay men to sit through their friends’ funerals, ostracised to the back row, while the deaths were attributed to cancer or unexpected accidents.
Was Alan’s family like this? Is this chance photograph the only record we have of his life as a gay man living with HIV in the 1980s? We may never know. But by holding up his name, Alan’s ‘dearest friend’ offered a powerful reminder of the faceless thousands whose lives were undervalued and whose deaths went unacknowledged.
Dr George Severs is a historian of HIV/Aids, sexual violence and sexual health in modern Britain, based at the Geneva Graduate Institute
Shivananda Khan – Champion of LGBTQ immigrants of colour
Nominated by Somak Biswas
Born in India in 1948, Shivananda Khan shifted to England when he was 10 years old. Attending university in Manchester in the 1960s, at a time when Britain’s sexual liberation movements were in full swing, Khan was inspired to get involved with queer activism. In 1988, he founded Shakti, the first south Asian LGBTQ organisation in Britain, alongside fellow gay activists Poulomi Desai, Pratibha Parmar, Savi Hensman and Sunil Gupta.
Shakti broke new ground by creating a dedicated space for queer south Asians in London. Its journal, Shakti Khabar, was circulated widely in Britain, Europe and south Asia – and especially in India, Pakistan and Nepal. Khan developed crucial transnational links with similar south Asian organisations in Canada (Khush) and the US (Trikone). They foregrounded shared issues affecting queer south Asians in the west: persistent invisibility in mainstream gay movements, a lack of community and support, and widespread homophobia within the diaspora. Shakti highlighted the exclusions that shaped the lives of queer south Asians, but at the same time also created new opportunities for forging communities.
In 1991, against the backdrop of the Aids epidemic, Khan co-founded the Naz Foundation. While south Asian communities formed the foundation’s primary target in Britain, this focus expanded over the coming decades to include Middle Eastern, north African and Latin American communities. Naz thrived in London’s vibrant multicultural ethos, plugging the need for an organisation catering to communities of colour.
Simultaneously, it expanded rapidly across south Asia, developing programmes for a range of LGBTQ communities, women and sex workers in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. It assembled an extraordinary repertoire of activists, resources and workers who proved key to LGBTQ health and activism in Britain and south Asia. In India, Naz spearheaded the legal campaign against Article 377 that led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 2018.
Through Naz, Khan emerged as a leading voice for queer immigrants of colour, proving instrumental in fostering platforms unifying the diverse landscapes occupied by queer south Asians around the world.
Dr Somak Biswas is a historian of modern Britain and south Asia and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge
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This article first appeared in the March 2024 issue of BBC History Magazine
Matt Elton is BBC History Magazine’s Deputy Editor. He has worked at the magazine since 2012 and has more than a decade’s experience working across a range of history brands.