Stop, in the name of love! We’re here to fill you in on some incredible people: queer icons of past and present that you really ought to know about. As Pride celebrations continue around the UK this summer, we’ve been thinking about our favourite queer icons. These individuals are amongst a handful of queer figures that have all been inspirational in exploring their queer identity, encouraging others to do the same, or fighting against discrimination within the community.
Read on to learn more about queer icons chosen by our Insight & Strategy Executive, Faith, our New Business & Marketing Executive, Pamela, our Content Marketing Manager, Charlotte and our SEO Team Lead, Suzannah.
Faith’s Queer Icon: Virginia Woolf
We’re throwing it right back to the modernist period of TS Elliot and F Scott Fitzgerald for this first icon — none other than Virginia Woolf.
Woolf is known as one of the most prolific and acclaimed writers of the 20th century, and is today seen as somewhat of a queer icon, through both her writing and her personal life. Out of all her novels that challenged the status quo through non-linear narratives, Orlando stands out as being the most bizarre and most queer. The novel follows the story of the protagonist, Orlando, who changes identity and sex, living different lives over 400 years. Today, modern critics discuss Orlando as trans fiction with its exploration and interrogation of gender and identity, but the novel was originally a love letter written from Virginia to Vita Sackville-West, titled ‘Vita from Virginia’, and the character Orlando is based on Vita herself.
Who is Vita you ask? Only Woolf’s long-time friend and lover, whom Woolf exchanged hundreds of letters with over the course of their affair. Both women were part of the London ‘Bloomsbury group’, a group of forward-thinking intellectuals, artists and writers. Vita and her husband were known to have affairs with people of the same gender over the course of their marriage, with Vita often taking lovers away on holiday.
Virginia and Vita’s letters have since been analysed and immortalised in novels, biographies and films. The letters are so famous due to the richness of their content — long excerpts about each other’s lives, in-jokes and innuendos, and exchanges of each other’s literature and poetry. At their heart, the letters display the deep connection the two had for each other on many levels, as friends, lovers and women living in a world made for men. For me, this is what makes Virginia Woolf an inspirational figure and icon. Through her literature and her letters, she spoke her truth in a time when women were persecuted for doing so. She inspires us queer women to be brave and, most importantly, to be ourselves.
“I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia…It is incredible how essential to me you have become.”Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf
Pamela’s Queer Icon: Dr Lady Phyll
Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, aka Dr Lady Phyll, is well-known for many things. I first encountered her during UK Black Pride, which she co-founded in 2005, but after learning more about her, there are so many other amazing things that she is recognised for and actively doing for the LGBTQ+ community.
Born in the UK to Ghanian parents, Dr Lady Phyll says that since she was a child, she’s always wanted to tackle head-on all forms of inequality. She began being politically active in school after her requests to learn about black history were refused, so she took matters into her own hands and educated herself by reading about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Marcus Garvey
“I love history and I was taught about Christopher Colombus, the Battle of Hastings 1066, I can recite the names of Henry VIII’s wives but I was never taught about colonialism and enslavement and slavery and capitalism and how Britain benefitted off the backs of Black people through enslavement. I would always question and I would be sent out of the classroom for disrupting.”Dr Lady Phyll for the Gay Times
When Phyll attended an event in 2005 to discuss the need for a Black Pride in the UK, members of the mainstream LGBTQ+ communities told her to “go back to where [she] came from”. She recalled that she never would have imagined that people who understand marginalisation, discrimination and oppression, to a greater or lesser degree, would turn around and tell her that. This is when UK Black Pride was born. Her determination to create a safe haven for celebrating LGBTQ+ people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Latin American and Middle Eastern descent grew as she went from strength to strength.
Since 2019, Phyll has been the Executive Director of The Kaleidoscope Trust — a charity focused on fighting for the rights of LGBTQ+ people across the Commonwealth. She’s also a trade unionist and co-editor of the Sista!, an anthology of writing from 31 different black and POC queer women.
Additionally, she’s won numerous awards for her activism — and even turned some down, too.
This includes publicly refusing an MBE in the New Year’s Honours List. This happened in 2016, when she stated that she could not accept the award so long as “LGBTQI people are still being persecuted, tortured and even killed across the world by laws put in place by the British Empire”. This just goes to show her dedication to the cause.
In 2022, she received an Honorary Doctorate from London South Bank University. Amazing right? But, above all, Opoku-Gyimah leads with love and is an important organiser for BPOC LGBTQ+ communities across the UK. She mentions in Dazed that one of her favourite memories since UK Black Pride began, was “seeing the crowds and seeing the people that own and claim UK Black Pride because it’s theirs. It doesn’t belong to one person. It belongs to our many different multiple communities”.
To me, her whole being is iconic — not many people would turn down an MBE to publicly stand up against laws set by the British Empire. She is an icon to me because she has continuously created safe spaces for marginalised voices, firstly within her sisterhood, then around the UK and now globally. She continually confronts the difficulties and persecutions as a fierce, black, queer warrior lady, just as she did when she was a young girl.
“I don’t want to just say it’s solely down to me, but I’ve led this to a place where we’re strong in numbers. We’re very clear about our mission and our vision and the way we fostered great links with other Prides. We see ourselves as part of the wider Pride family. And we are incredibly inclusive: African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, Latin American, indigenous, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, the young, the poor.”Dr Lady Phyll for GQ Magazine
UK Black Pride is back this year. The festivities were held in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park for the first time on Sunday 14th August 2022, with their biggest turn out yet of 25,000 people, making it the worlds largest Black Pride.
Charlotte’s Queer Icon: Richard Siken
One of the things I like best about poetry is how it can put emotions you didn’t know you had into delicate, beautiful, birdlike words. In its truest form, it’s an outpouring of raw human emotion, visceral, hideous and breathtaking all the same time. A poem can make you ache and make you think, rip your heart out and then give you catharsis — at least, my favourite type of poetry can. And I don’t know a poet with a knack for that kind of writing more than the gay American poet, Richard Siken.
Siken, who also dabbles in painting and filmmaking, was born in New York City in February of 1967. After graduating with a BA in psychology and a MFA in poetry from the University of Arizona, he went on to co-found the small press, Spork Press. He is best known for his poetry books Crush and War of the Foxes, and has received a selection of awards for his work.
Perhaps what I love most about Siken is that he writes so poignantly and tragically about what it is to be queer and the human condition, in a way I’ve never encountered before. He perfectly captures feelings of love, loss, longing, yearning, desire, connection and isolation — deeply intimate feelings that are difficult to share and almost burn when you touch them.
He inspires me to read, to write, to cry and, perhaps most importantly, to feel.
The blond boy in the red trunks is holding your head underwater
because he is trying to kill you,
and you deserve it, you do, and you know this,
and you are ready to die in this swimming pool
because you wanted to touch his hands and lips and this means
your life is over anyway.
You’re in the eighth grade. You know these things.
You know how to ride a dirt bike, and you know how to do
and you know that a boy who likes boys is a dead boy, unless
he keeps his mouth shut, which is what you
because you are weak and hollow and it doesn’t matter anymore.
Suzannah’s Queer Icon: Elliot Page
Elliot Page is an actor and activist, appearing in films such as Juno, Inception and X Men. In December 2020, Page came out as Transgender. This received a huge amount of attention and sent shockwaves online and offline.
‘Page’s announcement, which made him one of the most famous out trans people in the world, started trending on Twitter in more than 20 countries. He gained more than 400,000 new followers on Instagram on that day alone. Thousands of articles were published. Likes and shares reached the millions.’
In a historic interview with Time, Page says he didn’t expect this level of attention, but he felt a deep responsibility to share his truth: “Extremely influential people are spreading these myths and damaging rhetoric — every day you’re seeing our existence debated. Transgender people are so very real.”
Previously, Page (then presenting as female) came out as gay at a human rights conference in 2014. This also received a huge amount of attention from the press and the public alike. Here, Page again put himself in the limelight in order to bring truth to an important cause. Elliot’s acts of bravery are one of the reasons I, and others, find him so incredibly influential.
According to Stonewall’s latest report, currently in the UK, 41% of trans people have experienced a hate crime because of their gender identity. One in four trans people have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. Two in five trans people adjust the way they dress because they fear discrimination or harassment.
These shocking statistics serve to highlight the hate epidemic that faces Trans people living in the UK today. Both nationally and globally, Trans people are still fighting to be not just recognised, but to be treated fairly on every level. On coming out, Page told Time: “What I was anticipating was a lot of support and love and a massive amount of hatred and transphobia — that’s essentially what happened.”
For me, what Page has done by coming out so publicly (twice) was not only incredibly brave but also serves to shine a light on the work that still needs to be done in protecting, celebrating and supporting the trans community today.
“With deep respect for those who came before me, gratitude for those who have supported me and great concern for the generation of trans youth we must all protect, please join me and decry anti-trans legislation, hate and discrimination in all its forms.”Elliot Page, Time
We have highlighted only a handful of inspiring queer figures, but we know that there are so many more out there to be praised for their amazing work. Passion supports and celebrates our own Queer Passionistas, and this month we will be raising money for an LGBTQ+ charity in order to support others in the community. As Pride celebrations continue around the UK this summer, we will continue to celebrate queerness all year round. Take a look at our latest job openings to join our inclusive team.