February 1st marks the start of LGBTQ + History Month, I wanted to put together a piece that highlighted women whose stories aren’t popularly known, but should be.
If you have heard of the Danish Girl, then you’ll be familiar with Lili Elbe‘s story. This story is significant as Lili was one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgery in 1930.
Born Einar Wegener, Denmark in 1882, the famous landscape painter had spent near enough two decades living her life as much as a woman she could. From 1912 Lili would accompany her wife Gerda to balls and parties wearing gowns and make-up, tactically disguising herself as Gerda or Einar’s sister. Lili has credited Gerda’s love and support to being the foundation in discovering her true gender identity. All because one life model didn’t turn up for Gerda, she asked Lil to step in.
It was Magnus Hirschfeld, a German physican who changed everything. Other doctors had dismissed Lili as gay or hysterical, this wasn’t even a thought to Magnus. He had been a founder in the world’s first gay rights organisation. Magnus put Lili in touch with a clinic in Dresden where she underwent a womb transplant. This would prove fatal, as she developed an infection as a result of the transplant and died in 1931 from cardiac arrest. Lili’s legacy remains, as each year the LGBT film festival MIX Copenhagen gives our Lili awards in her honour.
Firstly, I think Radclyffe Hall has the most impeccable fashion, but before we get into that, Radcliffe was originally born as Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall in 1880. She started out as a writer, producing poetry alongside comic and dramatic novels. She began to do as she pleased, dressing in typical-men’s fashion of the times, such as trousers, monocles, and hats.
It was her relationships with women that inspired her literary success later in life. One particular relationship with Mabel Batten, who -might I add- was married, with children and grandchildren, but Radclyffe fell in love with Mabel’s cousin, Una Troubridge. To which Radclyffe moved in with in 1917, a year after Mable’s death. They remained happy together, although this did not stop Radclyffe having a lengthy relationship with a Russian nurse Evguenia Souline.
The literary work which changed things for Radclyffe was The Well of Loneliness 1928, which is a largely autobiographical work in which a lesbian heroine, Stephen Gordon, searches for fulfilment and acceptance in the post-Victorian age. Despite the book being PG, it still caused a stir for provoking lesbian themes. There was an obscenity trial which deemed it to be ‘obscene libel’ with a male magistrate ordering all copies to be destroyed. It was actually a US Court that disagreed, but the British didn’t lift the ban on the book until Radclyffe’s death in 1943.
Today, The Well of Loneliness is hailed as a seminal work of LGBTQ+ literature.
Not only was Lorraine Hansberry the first African-American female to have a play performed on Broadway (A Raisin in the Sun highlights the lives of Black Americans living under racial segregation in Chicago), she was also an activist and writer having contributed to early queer publications including the lesbian-oriented The Ladder and the gay magazine One. She spoke out about the intersection of feminism and LGBT rights, before others even did. She was married to Robert Nemiroff, although this was belived to be purly platonic as she had affairs with women. Sadly, Lorraine died of pancreatic cancer at just 34.
Her legacy lives on in so many ways: 1) In 1969, Nina Simone first released a song about Hansberry called “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” The title of the song refers to the title of Hansberry’s autobiography, which Hansberry first coined when speaking to the winners of a creative writing conference on May 1, 1964: “Though it is a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic — to be young, gifted and black.” 2) In 1999 Lorraine was posthumously inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. 3) In 2013, Hansberry was inducted into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display which celebrates LGBT history and people. This makes her the first Chicago-native honored along the North Halsted corridor.
We’ve all heard of affairs the Presidents have had (cough Bill Clinton), but have we ever really heard of those involving the first lady? Lorena Hickok was a renowned journalist of her time, especially for her proximity to Elanor Roosevelt.
By 1928, Lorena had become known as a “dogged and brilliant” Associated Press journalist, and had become the first woman to have a byline printed in the New York Times. Lorena had started covering the Roosevelts from the early 1920s, but wanted to avoid covering Eleanor’s in fear of being a women who only covered women. It was in 1932 that Lorena and Eleanor first met. They got on like a house on fire, soon spending near enough every day together.
In 1933 she quit the Associated Press and moved into a private room at the White House. It was said over thirty years, Lorena and Eleanor exchanged almost 4,000 letters. An example Eleanor sent Lorena in 1934: “Dearest, I miss you & wish you were here I want to put my arms around you & feel yours around me. More love than I can express in a letter is flying on waves of thought to you.“
Last of these women if Babe Didrikson: basketballer, runner, softballer and tennis player. Recognised as one of the greatest athletes of all time, it was at the 1932 Summer Olympics in L.A she made her mark. Two gold medals in track and field and a silver in high jump. She is the only athlete to win Olympic medals in running, throwing and jumping events.
It was through gold she earned her greatest recognition yet. Babe won the 1946 U.S Women’s Amateur Tournament and the first American to win the British Ladies Amateur Tournament in 1947. Through golf she met Betty Dodd, they toured together and had a long relationship. Babe did marry, though not Betty, but George Zaharias. Some believe this was a publicity stunt to tackle the negative press of her ‘mannish’ appearance. Babe still moved Better in with her and George.
Within five examples we are shown the depth of history related to LGBTQ+. Over the month of February, I hope people will take a moment of reflection or even look into more elements of LGBTQ+ history. As we can see, it is a history that has been around for decades and now we must celebrate these stories as we thread them back into the historical narrative. t