Unsung Gay Heroes in History

THE IMITATION GAME is a biopic of cryptologist Alan Turing and his heroic war-time efforts at Bletchley Park who is only now being given the recognition he is due. QX looks back into history and highlights other lesser known gay heroes…

 


Alan Turing (1912–1954)

Alan Turing was a pioneering British computer scientist, mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher and mathematical biologist. During the Second World War, Turing worked for the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park, Britain’s code-breaking centre. For a time he led Hut 8, the section responsible for German naval cryptanalysis and created the Turing Machine which decrypted the “unbreakable” German Enigma code.

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Turing’s pivotal role in cracking intercepted coded messages enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in many crucial engagements, including the Battle of the Atlantic. It is said by some historians that Turing’s work at Bletchley Park shortened the war by two to four years and saved approximately fourteen million to twelve million lives.

Nevertheless, Turing led a sheltered and castigated life due to his homosexuality. Whilst he was briefly engaged to fellow Bletchley Park worker Joan Clarke, it was a purely platonic relationship and they soon divorced. Turing was prosecuted by the police in 1952 for homosexual acts, when such behaviour was still criminalised in the UK. He accepted treatment with oestrogen injections (chemical castration) as an alternative to prison and became incredibly depressed. He committed suicide in 1954.

Turing’s wartime heroics were not celebrated until he received an official pardon from Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009 following an internet campaign, and then a further royal pardon from Queen Elizabeth II in 2013.

 

Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929)

Sergei “Serge” Diaghilev was a Russian art critic, patron, ballet impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes, but also one of the first outspoken and unapologetically gay men of the early 20th century. Sergei Diaghilev reshaped that epoch’s ideas about art and performance, and was a pioneer in adapting new musical styles to modern ballet.

He created the Ballets Russes mainly as a showcase for his lover and protégé Vaslav Nijinsky, who is still considered one of the greatest dancers who ever lived. Diaghilev had exquisite tastes, bringing the work of such artists as Balanchine, Picasso, Pavlova and Cocteau onto the stage in his cutting-edge productions, which were often unabashedly erotic.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Diaghilev was condemned as an especially insidious example of bourgeois decadence and his contribution to Russian art was written out of history by the Soviets for more than sixty years.

 

Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)

Bayard Rustin was the brain behind Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement in 1960s America. Rustin was one of the driving forces behind the Congress for Racial Equality and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Most significantly, Rustin organized the 1963 March on Washington — where King gave his legendary “I have a dream” speech.

However, due to his homosexuality and his membership in the Communist Party, he has often received short shrift from historians and his integral role in the civil rights movement is often overlooked. At the time, Rustin selflessly avoided the limelight because he knew that elected officials and politicians would attempt to discredit the civil rights movement by pointing out his sexual and political leanings.

Rustin was also heavily involved in the anti-–Vietnam War and gay rights movements before his death in 1987.

 

Larry Kramer (1935-present)

Every movement needs a voice of anger and righteousness, and when the AIDS pandemic hit, the gay community was lucky to have Larry Kramer, whose editorials and plays (particularly The Normal Heart) demanded that the government take action and that gay men take responsibility for their health.

A fascinating author and a rabble-rouser in the best sense, Kramer continues to be a vital and often infuriating presence. Kramer co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), which has become the world’s largest private organization to raise funds for and provide services to people stricken with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

 

Harvey Milk (1930–1978)

Harvey Milk was an American politician who became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisor.

Milk moved from New York City to settle in San Francisco in 1972 amid a migration of gay men to the Castro District. He ran unsuccessfully for political office three times. Nevertheless, his theatrical campaigns earned him increasing popularity, and Milk won a seat as a city supervisor in 1977. Milk served almost 11 months in office and was responsible for passing a stringent gay rights ordinance for the city.

On November 27, 1978, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, another city supervisor who had recently resigned but wanted his job back. Despite his short career in politics, Milk became an icon in San Francisco and a martyr in the gay community. In 2008 a Hollywood biopic Milk, starring Sean Penn, honoured Harvey Milk’s transformation of San Fransisco into a mecca for LGBT Americans and in 2009 Milk was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

 

• The Imitation Game is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download platforms now, courtesy of StudioCanal.

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