The theme for LGBT+ History Month this year is ‘Politics in Art’, and to celebrate we are shining the spotlight on three influential LGBT+ Londoners who have impacted the world with their creativity and innovative works.
Arguably one of the most renowned LGBT+ writers in history, Wilde was born in Ireland in 1854 and found fame as a playwright and author in 19th-century London. He demonstrated his ability as a classicist studying at Trinity College Dublin and Oxford, then came to the city to pursue a career in writing. He penned works such as The Picture of Dorian Gray in his Chelsea home, and made a name for himself as an eccentric ‘aesthete’ with a personality that was well known throughout the city. Wilde’s wit shines through his vast array of literary works—he was known for his fiction, poetry, plays, and satirical depictions of Victorian society.
Wilde was unapologetic for his sexuality and the relationships he held with men, but ultimately his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas led to his trial and imprisonment for charges of ‘gross indecency’ in 1895. He spent two years in prison and never recovered, dying in France in 1900. His imprisonment exposed his sexuality to the world, but even when being so cruelly challenged his wit did not falter and he refused to apologise for who he loved. While Wilde’s story has a tragic ending, he is remembered today for his many influential works and his tremendous impact on the literary and cultural scene of London.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1955, Fani-Kayode’s family moved to Brighton in 1966 to escape the military coup and civil war. He studied art at British schools, then Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and the Pratt Institute in New York City. He moved to London in 1983 and joined the Brixton Artists Collective, quickly demonstrating himself as an accomplished artist. Fani-Kayode’s works explored themes of race, colonialism, sexuality, religion, and his upbringing.
Fani-Kayode's artwork communicated his experience of being a queer Black man in the Western world and the sense of being an outsider. His photography skillfully utilised aspects of both African and European culture to portray complex themes and social commentaries in the midst of the Thatcher era and AIDS crisis. He died of an AIDS-related illness in Brixton in 1989. During his lifetime he was a chair of Autograph London, a photography organisation which focuses on exploring identity and social justice, and his work is still exhibited by them and numerous other organisations.
Born in London in 1882, Woolf is now viewed as one of the most prominent writers of the 20th century. She studied classics and history at King’s from 1897 to 1901, and in 1904 moved to Bloomsbury to be surrounded by important intellectuals and creatives who would inspire her career in writing. She married Leonard Woolf in 1912, but throughout her life would have relationships with women who influenced many of her works. One of the most notable relationships she held was with fellow author Vita Sackville-West, and the love they had for each other inspired both women’s literary careers.
Woolf published her novel Orlando in 1928 which publicly challenged widely accepted ideas of sexuality and gender. The main character, who is modelled after her relationship with Sackville-West, has relationships with women and does not subscribe to the rigid gender roles which were forced upon women at the time. Woolf’s sexuality was complex and fluid; she maintained a relationship with her husband throughout her life while also engaging in passionate romantic relationships with women. She died in 1962 having established herself as a monumental London author and feminist icon. The Virginia Woolf Building at King’s is named in her honour.
Born in 1946 in Zanzibar, Mercury’s family moved to Feltham, London in 1964. He explored his musical and songwriting abilities before forming the band Queen in 1970 along with Brian May and Roger Taylor. His star quality and musical ability carried the band to fame, with iconic hits like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘We are the Champions’ topping the charts in the 1970s. Mercury continued to influence the London musical and cultural scenes, living in South Kensington and hosting lavish parties.
Outside of his life as an iconic musician and personality, Mercury was a private individual who did not wish to make his sexuality a part of his public persona. Despite this, he was known to have relationships with men and women and challenge the restrictive gender norms of the time. He died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991. Tributes immediately poured in from across the world. Mercury is seen as one of the greatest singers in the history of rock music, and his popularity continues today.
Ashley was born in 1935 in Liverpool to a working-class family. She lived in London and Paris working at nightclubs to save the money needed to medically transition. She received the surgery in 1960 and returned to England to work as a fashion model. She was photographed for British Vogue and also appeared in films. In 1961, Ashley was publicly outed as a transgender woman by the Sunday People newspaper, which brought her into the media spotlight and resulted in her losing work.
Despite the unwanted onslaught of attention, Ashley remained steadfast. She spent years away from London, but returned in 2005 and in 2012 was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). The Liverpool Museum dedicated an exhibition to her life in the same year. Ashley remained a prominent voice up to her death in December 2021.
LGBT+ History Month runs for the entire month of February. See more about the events and initiatives we're running to mark the month here: kclsu.org/lgbt