History is full of fascinating women, but their stories are often forgotten or ignored. Those who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community are especially undervalued. Women’s History Month is meant to celebrate and bring awareness to their lives and achievements. This celebration further empowers women and brings attention and recognition to pioneering LGBTQ+ women throughout history.

Stories of queer women are rarely considered in mainstream education, and so it’s vital that we educate ourselves about them.

The United Kingdom along with other countries around the world celebrate Women’s History Month throughout the month of March. It also includes International Women’s Day on the 8th of March. Here, we have selected 7 pioneering women LGBTQ+ heroes from history both from the UK and around the world that everyone should be aware of.

Lili Elbe

Lili Elbe, born Einar Wegener, was born in 1882 in the town of Vejle, Denmark. Elbe was a landscape painter and became known for being one of the first people to receive gender affirmation surgery in 1930.

Prior to her surgeries, Elbe had spent nearly 20 years living a double life. She would frequently attend balls and parties wearing gowns and make-up disguised as “Einar’s sister”. Elbe credited Gerda, an artist whom she was eventually happily married to, with helping her realise her true gender identity.

When Elbe presented as Wegener she would visit many doctors to seek help. Unfortunately, they dismissed her feelings and called her hysterical. It was not until she met a German physician that put her in touch with a clinic in Dresden where she underwent multiple surgeries. Sadly due to a womb transplant she received, she developed an infection that ultimately led to cardiac arrest in 1931.

Today she is honoured through the Lili awards given out at the LGBT film festival, MIX Copenhagen.

Vita Sackville-West

Vita Sackville-West was a writer and gardener who was most famously remembered for being in a relationship with the author Virginia Woolf.

At the time that Sackville-West met Virginia Woolf she had already been in an open marriage and was known for having affairs with high-society women. Sackville-West and Woolf did not establish a relationship until three years later where she then served as inspiration for Woolf’s novel, Orlando.

In addition to being known for her relationship with Woolf, Sackville-West was a famous author and poet. In her writings she often tackled the subject of her bisexuality. She expressed her hope that in the future people would not have to hide their true sexualities.

Josephine Baker

A bisexual woman who although was known for her music was also a spy and a big civil rights advocate.

Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri. Her early career began working as a waitress before she began working in entertainment. It was at the age of 19 when she was recruited to join a travelling group to Paris.

Although she briefly returned to the United States she ultimately favoured the French and returned to gain her citizenship there. Baker was largely known in France during the second world war by her performances. She performed for the troops and worked for the French resistance by smuggling messages in sheet music. Additionally, she was also a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

Baker had relationships with both men and women and was widely known for her family, as she adopted 12 children all of different ethnicities. She later died on 12 April 1975 where her funeral procession was watched by 20,000 people on the streets of Paris. Baker was also the first American woman to be buried in France with military honours.

Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson is arguably one of the most prominent figures in the Stonewall uprising of 1969 and had a large impact on the LGBTQ+ community both in the United States and in other parts of the world.

Formerly known as Malcom Michaels Jr., Johnson began working as a drag queen in New York in the early 60’s. This is where the name Marsha P. Johnson came from with the “P” standing for “Pay it no mind” which was her response to peoples questions about her gender or sexuality.

On the 28 June 1969, Johnson was at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, NY. That early morning police raided the gay bar and began arresting and assaulting the patrons. Although it is not known for certain if she was at the front of the resistance, she was a pioneer for the following gay and trans rights movements that occurred in the US.

In addition to being involved with the movements Marsha Johnson co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) organisations. Marsha P. Johnson also led the gay pride parade in 1973 despite drag queens being banned from the event at the time. Towards the end of her life Johnson was very active in the AIDS movement during the 80’s and early 90’s. Unfortunately she suffered from mental health issues and died tragically at the age of 46.

Christine Burns MBE

Christine Burns is is a British political activist who is recognised for her work campaigning for the civil rights of trans people for over 25 years.

Burns was born in Redbridge, a borough in London, and became a key figure in “Press for Change” which was an organisation that provided legal support for trans people in the UK. Only a year after PFC was established did Burns join and help campaign for the organisation all while keeping her own trans history private. It was not until 1995 when she made her background public and she would then continue to become a leading role in obtaining legal recognition for trans people.

Additionally, Burns and the PFC team won a case in the European Court of Justice in 1996 that would enact a law to protect people’s employment rights. She was also awarded an MBE in 2005 in recognition for her work representing transgender people. Most recently, in 2011 Christine Burns appeared on the list of Time Out magazine’s Pride Power List —a compilation of influential lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Phyllis Akua Opoku-Gyimah

(“Phyll Opoku-Gyimah March 2014” by Sarah Jeynes is licensed under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original format)

Also known as Lady Phyll, Phyllis Akua Opoku-Gyimah is a British political activist along with being a co-founder and executive director of UK Black Pride.

Lady Phyll is a prominent lesbian activist fighting for race, gender and LGBTQ+ rights in the United Kingdom. She has spent 20 years advocating for the rights of workers. Opoku-Gyimah sat on the Trades Union Congress race relations committee up until 2019. Additionally, she also served as the Head of Equality at the Public and Commercial Services Union until the same year she left the TUC committee.

Through her activism, she has brought attention to the issue of racism within the LGBTQ+ community and has spoken about the importance of intersectionality. She continues to advocate for the community as the director of the Kaleidoscope Trust—a nonprofit organisation that campaigns for the human rights of LGBTQ+ people that reside in countries where they are discriminated against.

Lyra McKee

Lyra McKee was a journalist from Northern Ireland who wrote about the consequences of the Troubles (the Northern Ireland Conflict). She would also come to write a blog post titled “Letter to my 14-year-old self” where she discussed the struggles of growing up gay in Belfast. In 2016 she was named as one of Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30 in media”.

Unfortunately, McKee was fatally shot during rioting in 2019. In addition to her journalism work she published a book titled “Blue Faces” and was imminent at the time of her death. Before her death, she gave a TEDx talk on the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting that occurred in the US. By 2018 she had become a trustee of the charity Headliners that had helped her start her career in journalism as a teenager.

What Next?

Extra Reading and Links

To learn about more LBT women who made history, there is more information on the Smithsonian website, Because of Her Story

A quick read on women’s history month and how it came to be.