7 British LGBTQ Trailblazers to Know: From Sir Ian McKellen to Freddie Mercury

(Photo: Getty Images)

Happy Pride Month! To mark the occasion, we're shining a spotlight on seven LGBTQ trailblazers from the U.K. who have played a role in improving queer rights and visibility.

Sir Ian McKellen

One of Britain's greatest actors is also a tireless LGBTQ activist. In 1988, he came out as gay in order to publicly oppose Section 28, a cruel piece of legislation that prohibited schools and local authorities from "promoting" homosexuality. The following year, he co-founded British LGBTQ rights organization Stonewall in order to continue lobbying against the section, which effectively meant teachers couldn't discuss any aspect of queer life with their pupils.

Since then, he's made countless school visits in his capacity as a Stonewall Role Model, called out Hollywood for its lack of LGBTQ inclusivity, and marched at numerous Pride events on both sides of the Atlantic. He's also shown a terrific sense of humor every step of the way by embracing the campy nickname that Stephen Fry gave him after he was knighted: Serena McKellen.

April Ashley

In 1960, Liverpool-born April Ashley became one of the first British people to undergo gender-affirming surgery. She later worked as a successful fashion model, even appearing in Vogue, before a tabloid cruelly outed her as trans in 1961. She married British aristocrat Arthur Corbett in 1963, but their union was annulled by a judge seven years later on the grounds that Ashley wasn't legally female. This influential case established a firm precedent in British law until the Labour government passed the Gender Recognition Act in 2004, at which point Ashley was finally recognized as female in the eyes of the law.

In recent years, Ashley has embraced her role as a trans pioneer by appearing at a series of high-profile events and exhibitions dedicated to sharing her remarkable life story. In 2012, she was deservedly made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in acknowledgement of her services to transgender equality.

Alan Turing

Portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in the acclaimed movie The Imitation Game, this mathematical genius is widely considered the father of theoretical computer science; invented in 1936, his "Turing machine" was essentially an early version of the personal computer. He later played an absolutely vital role in World War II by helping to decipher intercepted coded messages that enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis.

Despite his sterling service, Turing was prosecuted for "gross indecency" in 1952 after admitting to a sexual relationship with a man, something illegal in the U.K. until 1968. He accepted chemical castration instead of a prison sentence but died two years later of cyanide poisoning. An inquest determined that he had committed suicide, but this version of events has often been disputed over the years.

Following an internet campaign, he was granted a posthumous pardon by Queen Elizabeth II in 2012. The "Alan Turing law" is now an informal term for legislation introduced in 2017 that retroactively pardoned men convicted of homosexual acts. This month, Turing will be honored on a new £50 note issued by the Bank of England, underlining his status as a truly great Briton.

Phyll Opoku-Gyimah

In 2005, Phyll Opoku-Gyimah and fellow members of the online social network Black Lesbians in the UK (BLUK) took a day trip to England's south coast and co-founded UK Black Pride. Since then, with Opoku-Gyimah as executive director, it's grown to become Europe’s largest celebration for LGBTQ people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Latin American, and Middle Eastern-descent. More than 8,000 people attend its annual flagship event in east London's Haggerston Park.

Along the way, Lady Phyll – as she is also known – has firmly established herself as one of the U.K.'s most respected and eloquent activists. In 2016, she revealed that she was "honored and grateful" to have been offered an MBE award by the U.K. government, but had decided to decline on principle.

"I don't believe in Empire. I don't believe in, and actively resist, colonialism and its toxic and enduring legacy in the Commonwealth, where – among many other injustices – LGBTQI people are still being persecuted, tortured and even killed because of sodomy laws… that were put in place by British imperialists," she told The Independent at the time.

Freddie Mercury

Though the iconic Queen frontman never put a label on his sexuality, neither did he hide the fact that he enjoyed romantic relationships with both women and – more commonly – men. In the '80s, he was a regular at London gay club Heaven and fashioned an image inspired by the "Gay Clone" look that was popular in San Francisco at the time. Even the band's campy name was a playful acknowledgement of Mercury's private tastes. The fact that he managed to navigate the very straight, very white world of rock of music as a queer man of color made him a trailblazer even if he probably didn't see himself that way.

When Mercury died in 1991 due to complications arising from AIDS, it marked an important milestone in the fight against the disease. He was the first major rock star to succumb to the so-called "gay plague" and a tribute concert organized by his bandmates was watched by a billion people worldwide. Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest live performers ever, his enduring popularity and influence was underlined by the enormous success of the 2018 biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.

Peter Tatchell

Peter Tatchell has a staggering 54 years of LGBTQ and human rights activism under his belt. After moving to the U.K. from his native Australia in 1971, he helped to organize the UK's first Gay Pride march in 1972 and became a key member of the Gay Liberation Front. In 1989, he became a British citizen, underlining his dedication to queer rights in the U.K.

Later, he co-founded '90s grassroots group OutRage!, which campaigned successfully to equalize the age of consent for gay men in the U.K. and helped to combat police persecution of the LGBTQ community. OutRage! also spearheaded the lengthy campaign to secure equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Some of his views and methods have attracted controversy over the years, but no one would deny his commitment to the cause – and at 69, he remains as determined as ever. A documentary film exploring his life and career, Hating Peter Tatchell, has just been added to Netflix.

Quentin Crisp

Born in south London in 1908, this fiercely unique writer, actor, and raconteur was openly gay and unashamedly effeminate in an era when homosexuality wasn't just illegal in the U.K., but dangerous to display in public. He became an unlikely transatlantic celebrity after John Hurt portrayed him in the classic 1975 TV movie The Naked Civil Servant, which was based on Crisp's own memoir.

In the early '80s, Crisp moved to Manhattan, where his phone number was listed in the phone directory so that literally anyone could ring and invite him for dinner. He duly inspired the classic Sting song "Englishman in New York," then continued to tour his one-man show and make chat show appearances until his death in 1999. Towards the end of his life, Crisp became a polarizing figure for criticizing aspects of the gay liberation movement, but there's no denying he was a true pioneer.

Who else do you consider an LGBTQ trailblazer?