When talking about gay rights, it’s easy to heave an internal sigh and politely nod your head and wait for the subject to die down. But gay history revolves around more than just the gay liberation cause. Influential gay people – from kings to politicians to everyday folk – have all contributed to making the world, and the how it perceives us, what it is today.

Some of the earliest references to homosexuality date back to pre-biblical times, but the influence we have had on the world has been consistently downplayed. When you consider notable figures such as the philosopher Socrates, King Edward II of England, the artist Michelangelo, authors Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde, artist and painter Leonardo da Vinci, conqueror Alexander the Great (left), the composer Tchaikovsky and many, many others it’s evident that gay people have made many contributions to all aspects of human life.

Today, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) communities in many countries enjoy freedoms and rights that these heroes had to do without, yet they still secured their place in history against all the odds. Let’s take a look at, and remember, some of those who have made history around the world, in areas as diverse as science, the arts, politics and civil rights. They were often not heroes because they were gay, but despite the fact.

Socrates was a Greek philosopher. Considered one of the founders of Western Philosophy he strongly influenced his student, Plato, who later went on to mentor Aristotle. He is best known for his contribution to the fields of ethics, epistemology (the study of knowledge) and logic. Socrates’ views and work continues to form an important part of the study of Philosophy to this day. It is believed that he was sentenced to death by poison for corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens.

King Edward II of England, born in 1284 and killed in 1327, is perhaps best remembered for his murder and homosexuality. It’s said that the king was killed by the insertion of a red-hot iron rod into his rectum. This savagery reflected the hostility on the part of the Church and other opinion-makers to Edward’s homosexuality and his favouritism towards his young French male lover: Evidence that not even kings could escape persecution for simply being true to their nature.

The classical composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose music has been, and still is, enjoyed and appreciated the world over struggled in a time when homosexuality was not accepted. He suffered through a disastrous marriage that lasted all of nine weeks, leaving him suicidal and with a nervous breakdown.

Like many a tortured artist, some of Tchaikovsky’s best works can be attributed to this time in his life. The Fourth Symphony and the opera Eugene Onegin, arguably two of his finest compositions, were both finished in the six months from his engagement to his ‘rest cure’ in Switzerland following his marriage.

Oscar Wilde (right) was an Irish playwright, novelist, poet and author of short stories. He was one of the greatest celebrities of his day. As a result of his famous trial for being gay, Wilde suffered a dramatic downfall and was sentenced to two years hard labour after being convicted of the offence of ‘gross indecency.’ When asked by the prosecution at his trial, “What is the love that dares not speak its name?” Wilde responded eloquently, defending homosexual love:

‘’It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect… It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as ‘the love that dares not speak its name.’ It is beautiful, it is fine. It is the noblest form of affection… There is nothing unnatural about it. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.’’

Harvey Milk was a US politician and gay rights activist during the 1970’s. He was, according to Time Magazine “the first openly gay man elected to any substantial political office in the history of the planet.” Milk was active during a time of significant change in San Francisco politics and increasing visibility of gay and lesbian people in American society. He was assassinated in 1978 by recently-resigned city supervisor Dan White who also murdered the city’s Mayor George Moscone on the same day. Milk anticipated his assassination and will be remembered for saying, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

One of the most significant contributions made to the equality and liberation cause of LGBT people in the US is that of Matthew Sheppard – a tragically unwitting hero. On the night of October 12, 1998 Matthew Sheppard was approached by two men in a bar who pretended to be gay and offered him a ride home. Matthew was subsequently robbed, pistol whipped, tortured, tied to a fence in a remote, rural area and left to die.

Matthew’s murder brought national attention the issue of hate crime legislation, leading to the birth of the Matthew Sheppard Act that would expand the 1969 United States federal hate crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s ‘actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability,’ among other points.

While Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, Matthew’s attackers, sought to gain $20 and a free pair of sneakers while in the process ‘teaching a fag a lesson,’ they actually aided the cause for equality. Although Matthew’s death at the tender age of 21 was tragic, it was by no means in vain. He will fight the cause with his memory forever.

South Africa has its fair share of LGBT heroes, some long gone and some still alive. Simon Nkoli (left) was born in 1957 in Soweto. He was involved in the 1976 students uprising, and was jailed during the Delmas Treason Trial – one of the most high-profile and longest-running anti-apartheid political court cases in the 1980s.

Eventually Nkoli and the other 21 activists were acquitted. After becoming an internationally recognised gay rights and AIDS activist, Simon died in hospital from HIV related illnesses at the age of 41 on 30 November 1998.

He made a significant impact on the ANC’s acceptance of the importance of gay rights and was a founder of Joburg Pride. In 1990, after he was released from jail, Nkoli said, “In South Africa I am oppressed because I am a black man, and I am oppressed because I am gay. So when I fight for my freedom I must fight against both oppressions.”

Many heroes have come, and many will follow. It is to our benefit, and that of those who will come after us, to make sure that no one’s contribution, no matter how small, is forgotten. As LGBT South Africans we should celebrate our global gay heritage and ensure that we remember and treasure our own growing band of gay and lesbian groundbreakers.

Sources: Wikepedia (, Gay 100: the most influential gay men, lesbians, LGBTs (, Mambaonline (

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