As Pride Month begins: 5 LGBTQ+ icons who have helped shape pop culture and history

Lewis Laney tells Abi Jackson about some of the folks featured in his new book, 365 Gays Of The Year.

Abi Jackson
Thursday 01 June 2023 10:59 BST
New book 365 Gays Of The Year celebrates LGBTQ+ icons (©Charlotte Macmillan-Scott/White Lion Publishing/PA)
New book 365 Gays Of The Year celebrates LGBTQ+ icons (©Charlotte Macmillan-Scott/White Lion Publishing/PA)

Pride is an opportunity to shine a light on people who’ve played a key park in LGBTQ+ history – and as British author Lewis Laney discovered while researching his new book, 365 Gays Of The Year, it’s a long list.

A ‘compendium of queer history through the people that made it’, the book has a page for every day of the year dedicated to a different LGBTQ+ icon or inspiration figure.

“It’s about highlighting all these amazing people who have either done things in the past, like activism which has helped us progress – people who put their lives on the line and who’ve done things other people wouldn’t have done,” explains Laney.

“But there’s also people who just lived as their true selves – they did amazing things, but they did them in their own fields. Perhaps they were a writer or dancer or a civil servant. Just them being out there and living their authentic lives, in the face of adversity, it’s really important.”

Laney, also the author of 2020’s Little Book Of Pride, wanted the book to feel accessible. Readers can dip in and out, and each page includes colourful illustrations by Somerset-based artist Charlotte MacMillan-Scott. Many of the folk featured are alive now, with allies in the mix too.

“I think it’s always important to look back on what’s happened in the past, both good and bad, and to learn from it,” Laney adds. “And there are lots of people in [the book] who it’s just nice to celebrate as well. Obviously, there are a lot of upsetting things in there, things that have happened to people. But in every entry, I wanted to add joy too.”

Here are five of his favourites…

1. La Veneno

Laney hadn’t heard of La Veneno before, but says: “She’s one of my favourite people I learned about from the book. She was a Spanish trans person, who randomly came to fame on Spanish TV in the 90s – it was a show that spoke to people in the street and they picked her. Her vibrant personality shone through, and she just became somebody that Spain fell in love with. I thought that was really wonderful.”

La Veneno, who died aged 52 in 2016, went on to sing and act, and Laney writes in the book: ‘[Her] life was often troubled and in 2003 she was convicted of insurance fraud and arson, after her home burnt down. She denied the charges… but was found guilty and, horrifically, sent to a men’s prison serve her sentence. In 2020, the HBO TV drama Veneno aired, which starred three transgender actresses each playing La Veneno at different periods of her life.’

2. Lady Phyll

“Lady Phyll is really championing activism and purpose. She has her fingers in so many pies and does so much, she is just wonderful,” says Laney. “I’m really pleased that she’s at the front of the book and is one of the first people you can read about.”

Of the London-based community organiser and activist, he writes in the book: ‘Lady Phyll is the co-founder and director of UK Black Pride, an organisation committed to the celebration of Black LGBTQI+ culture in the UK, which hosts an annual event for the LGBTQI+ people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Latin American and Middle Eastern descent during Pride Month.’

She is also executive director of Kaleidoscope Trust, a charity set up to help protect and fight for the rights of LGBTQ+ people around the world.

3. Howard Ashman 

Even if you’re not familiar with his name, most people will know Howard Ashman’s work. The Little Shop Of Horrors co-creator wrote Disney lyrics, creating songs for The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast and Aladdin with composer Alan Menken.

“My favourite story about him was that he managed to convince Disney to change the direction of the way Ursula, the sea witch in Little Mermaid, looked – he convinced them to base her on the drag queen, Divine,” says Laney. “And he obviously had this amazing talent for great lyrics, which rejuvenated the Disney movies. He was awesome.”

Ashman was diagnosed with HIV in the late-80s and died aged 40 in 1991. The following year, along with his co-writers, he was posthumously awarded the Best Original Song Oscar for Beauty And The Beast – the first time an Academy Award had gone to somebody lost to Aids.

4. Tony Warren 

Another hugely influential pop culture figure, Tony Warren was just 24 years old when he created Coronation Street – which started life as a 13-part series but went on to become one of the world’s longest running and best-loved soaps.

Laney writes in the book: ‘Warren, out at a time before homosexual acts were decriminalised, experienced constant workplace homophobia’ – despite the fact he was the reason they even had jobs!

“He came up with these iconic, amazing female characters everybody fell in love with,” says Laney. While Coronation Street didn’t introduce a gay character until 2003 (Todd Grimshaw), it was the first British soap to feature a transgender character in 1998. “Hayley Cropper, who was everyone’s favourite soap character for a good 10 years,” adds Laney. “I will always champion soaps, because they have such an important place in society.”

5. Miss Major Griffin-Gracy 

Introducing the 82-year-old American activist in the book, Laney writes: ‘Born in Chicago, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy came out to her parents as trans around 12 years of age. When they kicked her out, she left and became part of the trans community in New York City, where she took part in the Stonewall riots.’

This was just the beginning of a life dedicated to social justice – including helping ‘countless trans women rebuild their lives after incarceration’.

“She’s amazing,” says Laney. “She has five children now, but three of them were homeless kids she met in a park. This actually isn’t in the book because I couldn’t fit it all in, but they were homeless kids [she adopted]. I’m in awe of people that can do stuff like that, to be that generous.”

365 Gays Of The Year by Lewis Laney, illustrations by Charlotte MacMillan-Scott, is published by White Lion Publishing, priced £16.99. Available now.

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