Queer Role Models making History: Past and Present.
Updated: Feb 1
To celebrate LGBT History Month, we've curated a selection of Queer Leaders and Organisations from the past and present who have shaped history through their actions and courageously created space for others.
As Queer Leaders and change makers, we wouldn't be who we are today if it weren't for some iconic figures and organisations who came before us. An inherent aspect of being an activist or an advocate is to positively insight change and create space for others, including those who may come after you. Our team have chosen a small selection of Queer Role Models whom they find inspiring - for the work they're currently doing within the community or the legacy they have left behind.
John Radclyffe Hall
A lesbian poet and author, known for writing “The Well of Loneliness”, a lesbian novel which underwent an obscenity trial in the UK, resulting in it being banned and copies of the book destroyed. The ban was lifted 30 years later. Living off money inherited from her wealthy father, she was able to live without working or marrying, instead spending her time pursuing various women. She was in a relationship with sculptor Una Troubridge until her death in 1936.
Unapologetic and an icon of our time, Radam is someone who you cannot fail to look up to, the power and knowledge they carry in their 6’5 frame is electric and they are full of heart! They are a model and a writer who uses their social media platforms to share educational and uplifting content that can't help but make us smile.
Currently a member of the national Transgender Advisory board for trans pioneers, Jay Stewart has been part of the trans community for almost two decades, and has led a national grassroots organisation with a wealth of lived, years of experience and in depth knowledge of the trans community. Jay is the CEO and founder of Gendered Intelligence, the largest trans organisation in the UK.
Dr Rita Nketiah, PhD
Rita is a Ghanaian researcher at Human Rights Watch – an activist-led fund dedicated to strengthening gender diversity and sexual rights in West Africa. To me she represents this academic force – her research interests covers critical subjects like diaspora homeland engagement, African migration, and African feminist movements. She is relentlessly documenting LGBTI communities in West Africa and is a powerful voice against gender-based violence.
Co-founder and Executive Director of UK Black Pride and Executive Director at human rights charity Kaleidoscope Trust. A force to be reckoned with, and an unapologetic champion on issues of race, gender, and sexuality; Phyll has proven herself to be formidable in the fight for equality for QPOC and in carving out spaces that celebrate and elevate QTIPOC experiences.
Edafe is a multidisciplinary artist, leader, and powerful activist born and raised in Nigeria. He advocated for gay men’s rights - and was forced to flee Nigeria as a result of his activism. A refugee in New York City, he documented his experiences of detention centres, homelessness, grief, and exploration of his queerness in a foreign world. He recently founded the DRJ shelter, a safe space for refugees in New York.
(they/them) (1998 - 2022)
Shay was a young Black queer non-binary person based in London. They were a speaker, activist, and volunteer youth worker; studying creative digital media. Shay used their voice to inspire, educate, and empower, creating positive change and uplifting the QTIBPOC community. They took part in Gendered Intelligence's Activist Network (GIANTS) where they curated campaigns to improve the lives of gender diverse people. Shay walker was a pillar of the community, inspiring us all internationally. Their relentless light will never be forgotten.
Nakhane Mahlakahlaka is a South African singer, songwriter, actor, and novelist. An outspoken and politically engaged person, their binary-defying approach to their art is the epitome of Queer magic to me. Nakhane’s vocals have offered me soundtracks to important personal memories over the years. Their song ‘We Dance Again’ (with Black Coffee) is one you’ll often find playing at the start of We Create Space events.
A transgender military surgeon who rose to the second highest medical position in the British Army. He worked to improve the conditions of soldiers and natives in British colonies. He lived his entire adult life as a man, with his sex only becoming known publicly after a woman who had had access to his body after his death took the story to the press.
Fanny Ann Eddy
(she/her) (1974 - 2004)
A courageous woman with deep commitment to lesbian and gay rights in her native Sierra Leone and throughout Africa. In 2002, she founded the Sierra Leone Lesbian and Gay Association. The group documented harassment and discrimination of LGBT people, providing social and psychological support to the country’s fearful underground community. Eddy publicly lobbied government ministers to end state-sponsored oppression.
Selly is a Senegalese-American journalist and filmmaker who founded None on Record, an African digital media organisation dedicated to lifting the voices and stories of African LGBTQIA people. Her podcast Afroqueer changed the game for me. It offered me stories I’d yearned for my whole life. It breaks the silence around African LGBTQIA experiences and challenges the miscommunications that we are un-African, unauthentic, and invisible.
Nong Toom, a kathoey (a Thai gender identity roughly equivalent to a trans woman), became a boxer at 16 to fund her transition. She captured the interest of the media, turning up to fights in full makeup. The sport embraced her, and her participation revitalised public interest in Muay Thai. She retired after funding her surgery, but later made a boxing comeback in the mid 2000s. She has also worked as a model and actress.
(1894 - 1954)
Cahun was a French surrealist photographer, working in the first half of the 20th Century. They're best known as a self-portraitist, whose work explores the fluidity of gender. In their autobiography, Cahun described their gender in the following way: "Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me."
Street Tranvestite Action Revolutionaries
STAR was an activist collective founded by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. In addition to carrying out political demonstrations and regular meetings, STAR aimed to provide housing to the homeless within the LGBTQ+ community, with Rivera and Johnson frequently facing homelessness themselves.
Together they fundraised enough money to purchase a four bedroom apartment which became STAR House. The pair primarily funded the House and supported their queer children through sex work.
(she/her) (1934 - 2002)
An American writer, feminist, womanist, librarian and civil rights activist. Lorde’s work drew upon her intersectional life experience to address the injustices of sexism, racism, classism and homophobia. Through her poetry, letters and teaching, Lorde sought to make these conversations accessible beyond the confines of gatekeeping white academic circles.
Co-founded TransActual in 2017 in response to media transphobia and misinformation about trans people Chay led the team that created the Trans Lives Survey 2021, which highlighted the inequalities faced by trans people in the UK. Chay has led the campaign to reinstate and improve access to NHS bottom surgery for trans men and nonbinary people, stepping in to communicate the most up to date information with those impacted when the NHS has not. Chay has also appeared on BBC Radio and Channel 5, speaking on
trans people's access to healthcare.
D’Éon was a French diplomat and spy who infiltrated the court of Empress Elizabeth of Russia by presenting as a woman. They lived as a man for 49 years, but began presenting as a woman full-time when they returned to France after being pardoned for their previous exile. The word “Eonism”, taken from their name, was previously used to describe transgender people.
Travis is an award winning writer, performer and theatre maker. They identify as Black, transfeminine and gender non-conforming. Alabanza's work focuses on the importance of trans rights as well as the need for safe spaces for trans and gender non-conforming people, driven in strength by personal experience - they articulate the world beyond binary gender in ways that empower and unite us as a community which is a rare gift.
Amara the Lesbian
Amara is an activist, YouTuber and lesbian living in Nigeria. She and her partner Olayinka tattooed each other’s name on their ring fingers when they got married, as a sign of their love and commitment in defiance of Nigerian law prohibiting same-sex marriages. Her content covers issues relating to polyamory, feminism, family and self care. She continues to champion the rights of LGBTQ+ Nigerians.
Third Genders in Indigenous Cultures.
Third genders have existed in countless cultures across the globe throughout human history, often taking on spiritual roles within communities. Modern examples of indigenous third genders include the fa'afafine of Samoa, the hijra of the Indian subcontinent and the various Native American identities which fall under the two-spirit label. In many cases third genders were an accepted part of their respective cultures until they were marginalised as a result of (often British) imperialism.
Winner of the 2022 BAFTA award for best short film. A documentary film-maker who aims to provide a platform for marginalised communities, so they can share their story on their own terms. Cherish has worked with some well known brands and broadcasters, including VICE,
SBTV, Stonewall, London Live and BBC One. Most recently Cherish produced and directed "Too Gay for God?" a documentary for BBC One, exploring the place for LGBTIQ+ people within the Church of England.
Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (1984-2015)
LGSM was an alliance of queer people, founded by Mark Ashton and Mike Jackson, who supported and raised money for the National Union of Mineworkers during their major strike between 1984-1985. This resulted in a reciprocal alliance between the LGBTQ+ community and miner labour groups, with miners joining pride parades, voting in support of LGBTQ+ rights and campaigning against Section 28.
Max is a speaker, advocate and content creator. His passion is using his experience in events and corporate culture, coupled with his lived experience as a trans person to educate people and make genuine change. They share important, informative content on inclusion and queer rights, but also give us an insight into the joy they experience in their life with a sense of humility and approachability.
(1882 - 1941)
An acclaimed modernist author, who has been influential throughout the feminist movement. Woolf was either a lesbian or bisexual and had affairs with various women. Her relationship with Vita Sackville-West inspired her novel “Orlando”, about a poet whose sex changes throughout the course of the novel. She struggled with mental illness and killed herself in 1941.
Zanele is a South African visual activist and photographer. Their work offers a powerful exploration Black, Queer identity – their striking signature black-and-white portraits always capture the humanity and soul of their subjects – how their African heritage glows across their skin, faces, and bodies. Zanele’s art reminds me of what’s possible when we can choose to look at ourselves with curiosity, rawness, tenderness and an unconditional acceptance.
Fox is an artist, film maker, author and trans campaigner, whose art has been viewed by millions around the world. Through the children's books that they write and illustrate, Fox is helping engineer a strong foundation of support, education and representation for the next generation of Trans and Non-Binary Leaders, as well as their allies.
(1907 - 1960)
An American blues singer, pianist and lesbian, cross-dresing performer during the Harlem Renaissance. Headlining in the early 1930s at Harlem's Ubangi Club, she was backed up by a chorus line of drag queens. Bentley openly had relationships with women early in her career, and continuously faced criticism for her masculine attire but ultimately, her talent won over audiences across the country.
Iesha is a creative thinker, speaker and body positive advocate. Hailing from the beautiful Turks & Caicos Islands, this is where their love for community engagement began. They currently work as a campaign officer for UK-based charity, Mermaids, supporting transgender and gender-variant children and young people, and was instrumental in starting the charity's podcast, “She said, They said.”
Founded by Tiffany Kagure Mugo and Christel Antonites Siphumeze Khundayi, Hub of Loving Action in Africa (HOLAA) is a pan-Africanist hub space for queer African women to submit their own experiences of sexuality, sensuality, pleasure, and bodily autonomy, creating an archive of their stories. As well as hosting offline events and workshops, HOLAA use their blog, social media and podcast to uplift the voices of queer African women, both on the continent and within the diaspora.
The founder of CliniQ the first UK holistic sexual health and HIV service for transgender and non-binary people. With 34 years in sexual health, HIV and wellbeing behind her, she is a member of IRGT: A global network of trans women, advocating for trans issues in the
international HIV response.
Laila is a Queer, Muslim, feminist, educator and a human rights activist from Ghana. Laila is the co-founder and director of One Love Sisters Ghana. In this current critical climate where Ghanaian law is denying LGBTQIA+ persons fair access to their fundamental rights, Laila’s work boldly tackles discussions around gender based violence, sexual and reproductive health, consent, LGBT+ rights and more.
Jeffrey is a coach, speaker, writer and activist, known for their thoughtful and uplifting video content on social media. Their long-standing work as an advocate, raising awareness for the issues that non-binary people face, is respected and an inspiration to many. Through their coaching and writing they impart their experience and knowledge to the wider community.
Azekel Axelle Nasa
A Black queer non-binary activist based in Leeds and London, who aims to build a world where Black Trans and gender-nonconforming people have the same access to healthcare and opportunities as their cisgender counterparts. Their most recent work has been setting up a community interest company, The Black Trans foundation, a non-profit organisation working for the advancement of Black Trans people in the UK.
Proudly identifying as a Caribbean, Black, Asian lesbian, Staceyann Chin is also a poet, actor, and performing artist. Her work includes “Crossfire: A Litany For Survival”, the critically acclaimed memoir “The Other Side of Paradise” and multiple one-woman shows. She centres themes of identity, belonging, desire, sexuality and parenthood through witty and evocative wordplay.
Jonathan Van Ness
Jonathan is most famous for managing manes on Queer Eye but they also embrace curiosity and learning in their award-winning podcast “Getting Curious”. Jonathan’s position as a public figure has given non-binary identity a foothold in modern culture, showing the world that non-binary identities cannot remain on the sideline - we are stars too.
An American track and field athlete who competes in the shot put and discus throw. Saunders recently won a silver medal in shot put at the 2020 Olympics in Japan. Often seen sporting bold and bright hair colours, she champions marginalised people, most notably holding her arms in an X on the podium when accepting her Olympic medal.