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LGBTQ+ innovators: historical figures who changed the world
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ+) people have made distinctive contributions in the worlds of business, entrepreneurship and the arts. In this article, we shine a light on some notable members of the LGBTQ+ community who achieved remarkable innovations.
1. Alan Turing
Sometimes called “the father of modern computing”, Alan Turing was a mathematician whose research was crucial to the development of computer science. He was instrumental in cracking German codes during World War II while working at the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS). Turing was persecuted for being gay and took his own life in 1954. BGF’s London office was once the headquarters of the GC&CS, today known as GCHQ, before it was moved to Bletchley Park.
Watch: The Imitation Game, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, is on Netflix
Read: Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges is one of the best-known biographies
2. Anne Lister
Described as “the first modern lesbian”, Anne Lister was a landowner in Halifax whose diaries, written in code, record her relationships with women, including her “marriage” to Ann Walker, an heiress whom she lived with for many years. Lister was an entrepreneur. She opened and owned a colliery and had a financial portfolio including shares in canals, railways, mines and stone quarries. Lister’s diaries inspired the BBC drama series Gentleman Jack.
Watch: The first and second series of Gentleman Jack are available on BBC iPlayer
Read: The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall explores the struggles of a protagonist reminiscent of Lister
3. John Maynard Keynes
The most famous economist of the twentieth century, John Maynard Keynes was also a civil servant, director of the Bank of England and member of the Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals. His economic ideas, hugely influential during and after World War II, returned to prominence amid the global financial crisis of 2008, when they provided the intellectual underpinning for efforts to salvage the economy. Keynes was bisexual. Early in life, his relationships were mainly with men. He later pursued affairs with women and married Lydia Lopokova, a Russian ballerina with whom he declared himself “very much in love”.
Watch: Wittgenstein, directed by Derek Jarman, features Keynes in a supporting role, played by John Quentin; available on the BFI Player and through Amazon Prime
4. Michael Dillon
Born in 1915, Michael Dillon is believed to be the first trans man to have undergone phalloplasty. Assigned female at birth, Dillon successfully changed his birth certificate to state that he had been born a man. He later qualified as a doctor. When his past identity came to light, he moved to India to escape unwanted press attention. He wrote, in his 1946 book about transgender issues, “Where the mind cannot be made to fit the body, the body should be made to fit, approximately at any rate, to the mind.”
Watch: Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her performance as a persecuted trans man in Boys Don’t Cry, available on Amazon (she has since suggested that a trans actor would have been a better choice for the role)
Read: Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg is regarded as a classic novel about the transmasculine experience
5. April Ashley
Model, cabaret star and former merchant sailor April Ashley, who died in 2021, was one of the first British trans women to undergo sex reassignment surgery. After appearing in British Vogue, her identity was exposed in the media in 1961. Further scandal followed when her marriage to aristocrat Arthur Corbett, heir of Lord Rowallan, was annulled on grounds that she was legally a man – a landmark case that prevented trans and intersex people from amending their birth records until the Gender Recognition Act 2004. In 2012, she was awarded an MBE for services to transgender equality.
Watch: All About My Mother, directed by Pedro Almodovar, involves the stories of several transgender women
Read: Conundrum by Jan Morris is a classic account of transitioning from male to female in the late 1960s and early 1970s
This list is just a snapshot of the many LGBTQ+ people whose thoughts, works and lives have had a significant impact on the UK, Ireland and beyond.
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