The theme for this year’s LGBTQ+ History is #underthescope, where we celebrate the contribution of LGBTQ+ people to the world of medicine and healthcare, as well as recognising the historic and ongoing struggle the LGBTQ+ community face within the medical field.
Get to know a few of our LGBTQ+ medical heroes below as we continue to uncover stories of those who have previously been silenced, recognising their impact on the medical world, and look to how we can champion those too often marginalised voices who continue to break boundaries.
Dr Louisa Martindale (1872 – 1966) developed the New Sussex Hospital for Women, where she was the senior surgeon and physician. Martindale broke boundaries through her promotion of women in medicine, speaking up about controversial topics such as venereal disease and prostitution and was a specialist in the early treatment of cervical cancer. She lived with her partner, Ismay FitzGerald, for 3 decades and wrote about their relationship in her autobiography A Woman Surgeon (1951).
Magnus Hirschfeld (1868 – 1935) founded the first LGBT human rights organisation, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, in 1897 and believed that a better understanding of the science around homosexuality would eliminate social hostility. His book The Homosexuality of Men and Women aimed to highlight that homosexuality occurred in cultures around the world and he ran the Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Science) which oversaw the first modern gender confirmation surgeries, had large scale studies on homosexuality and lobbied the government for LGBTQ+ rights until it was targeted by Nazis and destroyed.
Cecil Belfield Clark (1894 – 1970) was one of the UK’s first Black doctors and ran his own medical practice for 50 years. Perhaps best known for the Clarke’s Rule, he later became one of the first black doctors elected to the council of the British Medical Association, where he served as a representative for the West Indies and later a senior medical office to Ghana. We now know that he was also gay, who lived discreetly with his long-term partner Edward Walter.
Roberta Cowell (1918 – 2011) was the first UK female trans person to undergo gender confirmation surgery in 1951. The operation was performed by Sir Harold Gillies, widely considered the father of plastic surgery, despite the procedure being illegal at the time, and changes in sex would not be legally recognised in the UK until 1999.
Alan Turing (1912 – 1954) was a national hero for his efforts during World War II, including breaking the wartime Enigma codes and devising the Turing Test. Despite his scientific breakthroughs, he was criminalised for acknowledging his relationship with Arnold Murray in 1952, when he could be convicted under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1855. Turing underwent chemical castration as part of his terms to avoid prison and tragically died by suicide in 1954.
It wasn’t until 55 years later that Gordon Brown, the Prime Minster at the time, offered a formal public apology for the treatment of Turing: “…this recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and is long overdue”
Simon Nkoli (1957 – 1998) founded the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW) and was seen as a central hero of the gay and lesbian struggle in South Africa. He played an integral role in convincing the African National Congress to formally recognise gay and lesbian rights and was one of the first gay activists to mee with President Nelson Mandela in 1994. He declared his HIV positive status and began to work to destigmatise HIV and AIDS before passing in 1998.
Terrance Higgins was a gay rights activist and was one of the first British men to be diagnosed and pass away from AIDS, aged only 37. In 1982, the Terrance Higgins Trust was the first charity in the UK to be set up in response to the HIV epidemic.
Labelled the ‘gay cancer’, AIDS dominated mainstream media throughout the 1980s and beyond, promoting fear and stigmatism towards the gay community. Many health campaigns played on metaphors that were sexist and homophobic, promoting celibacy and monogamy rather than educating people about safer sex.
We now know that contracting AIDS has nothing to do with your sexual orientation, and groups such as the Terrance Higgins Trust seek to tackle the stigma that still surrounds AIDS and HIV to this day
Harvey Kennedy-Pitt is the founder and former CEO of Black Beetle Health. Starting as an Instagram page in 2019, Kennedy- Pitt's research focused on optimising sexual health services for LGBTQ+ people of colour in the UK. Black Beetle Health is dedicated to ‘promoting health, wellbeing and equality for LGBTQ+ Black and People of Colour’ and have created resources such as the LGBTQ+ BPOC Health Equity and Advocacy Toolkit and The Beetle Feed magazine.
Ruby Rare is a sex educator, author, broadcaster and public speaker and, in their own words, is ‘on a mission to get people talking more confidently and inclusively about sex’. Her work is shaped by her experiences as a queer, non-monogamous, dual-heritage person, has been teaching Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) for 8 years and is passionate about educating people of all ages about sex, relationships and bodies