To mark LGBT History Month in the UK being held this February, Andre Johnsen tells the story of prominent LGBTQIA+ people often forgotten by British history.
For those who may not know, LGBT history month is upon us. Despite February being the shortest month, and many of our communities (Queer, Intersex, Asexual, etc...) being unacknowledged in the official acronym of this history month, February presents us with a host of opportunities to stop and acknowledge all the Queer folx who paved the way for M&S LGBT sandwiches and fanatical consumption of shows like Euphoria or It’s a Sin. Acknowledgment of Queer history is essential for the preservation of Queer communities’ contributions to British society and the normalisation of queerness for all British people. Unfortunately, this celebration often becomes marred by focusing on the atrocities of our past and present, or the erasure of our stories beyond the likes of Alan Turing, Maureen Colquhoun, Chris Smith & David Bowie.
Queer history is synonymous with British history. With historical records of accepted homosexuality in Celtic Britain, and perhaps even a Lesbian Queen; many Briton’s would be surprised to learn that many of their favourite historical figures weren’t all cis, White, straight, and able-bodied. To ensure, the full histories of Britain’s’ LGBTQIA+ communities are preserved, LGBT history month should particularly highlight the stories of Racialised, Trans, and Disabled Queer folx. Below, I have highlighted four stories that remind us of the millions of Britons whose histories haven’t been written down.
Eleanor Rykener (Late 14th – Early 15th Century)
Eleanor Rykener, a 14th-century barmaid, sex worker, and embroideress challenges many historians' theoretical notions in the same way many of her Trans-siblings do today; by simply existing. Despite often being labeled by historians as “John”, Eleanor lived predominantly presenting as a woman, working women’s jobs in a time when a particularly Christian England was suffering from war, disease, and famine. Although little of her life is known, it is important to note and preserve her history as a placeholder for her and other Trans voices that are so often left out of the history books.
Princess Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh (1871 – 1942)
God-daughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Catherine was a prominent suffragette and out Lesbian. Catherine and her sisters were prominent figures in Victoria’s court and British gentry life. Catherine and her sisters Bamba & Sophia would be instrumental in the Indian, and British suffragist movements. Catherine eventually would reside in Germany where she and her life partner, Lina Schäfer would be instrumental in aiding Jewish families escape Germany during WWII before eventually resettling back in England before passing in 1942.
Edith Craig (1869 – 1947)
Another suffragette, Edith Craig, was a prolific director, writer, and costume designer. She also managed acute arthritis her entire life and was in a polyamorous relationship with fellow suffragettes playwright Christabel Marshall and painter Clare “Tony” Atwood. Craig was an important figure in the British Drama League, Everyman Theatre & Leeds Art Theatre and used these platforms to promote gender equality and inclusion in and beyond the arts.
Les Child (196X – X)
Les Child and other Black Queer and Trans peers Robb Scott, Kendrick Davis, Velma Davis, Winn Austin, and countless others often get overlooked by the more-prolific 1980s American Ball, Vogue, and Queer scene popularised by RuPaul, and shows like Pose. However, Les and others would be instrumental in shaping and defining the iconic British 70s and 80s culture. Les would be one of the Royal Ballet Schools’ first Black male dancers and would become a principal dancer for Michael Clarke company for 8 years. Les also founded the “House of Child” Britain’s first vogue house, and continues to serve as a ground-breaking Director, advocate, and creative.
Constant reviews and acknowledgment of the erasure of Queer history are critical to preserving truth in our historical representations. In the words of Churchill, “History is written by the Victors”. Unfortunately, seldom have Queer people been the victors. And when we are, we’re often reduced to being acknowledged as unwed and living with our platonic life partner/partners (not to say that isn’t a legitimate option as well).
So much of Queer history in Britain has been forgotten and as history is being made by the likes of people like Nadia Whittome (MP for Nottingham East), Lady Phyll Opoku-Gyimay, Munroe Bergdorf, and Liam O’Dell it is the responsibility of them and our allies to bolster and uplift the voices of others within our communities. Initiates like Black & Gay, Back in the Day, The Beaumont Trust, and Rukus! are critical to protecting Britains’ Queer; Intersectional, and Disabled histories. As we protect these histories we then must share that knowledge; ensuring our policy, programming and candidates reflect the diverse and nuanced of our communities.
Andre Johnsen is the Head of Social Innovation Programmes at Year Here, Labour Member of Tower Hamlets and a board advisor to Queer Leadership charity WeCreateSpace. He tweets at @andre_johnsen.