LGBT History Month: Inspiration through the ages

In this article to mark LGBT History Month, members of our LGBT+ Lawyers Division Committee share inspirational LGBT+ people from history who worked within, or directly impacted, the legal profession.

Gay Pride Parade and Flag

Chevalier de BeaumontChevalier de Beaumont

The Chevalier de Beaumont, full name Charles Genevieve Louis Auguste André Timothée d’Eon de Beaumont, was a noted celebrity diplomat, spy, soldier, writer, intellectual and accomplished fencer in the late eighteenth century. D'Eon has been an icon for trans groups worldwide.

Born of an aristocratic family on 5 October 1728 in Tonnerè, Burgundy in France (near where Chablis wine grows), D'Eon graduated in law in 1749 and drafted the Paris Peace Treaty formally ending the Seven Years War.

D'Eon claimed to have been assigned as female at birth but raised as a boy. D’Eon went with the French ambassador to London where they lived between 1762 and 1777 as a man but rumours circulated they were a woman leading to a bet on their gender at the Stock Exchange which D'Eon understandably declined to engage with calling it "dishonouring".

They then returned again to London between 1786 and 1810 and lived as a woman. In 1777 Louis XVI granted d'Eon a pension on the condition they dress as a woman.

D'Eon lived in Soho and died in poverty aged 81 on 21 May 1810. The autopsy report suggested they may have been intersex. They were buried in St Pancreas Old Church, London. Their name gave rise to the old-fashioned term "eonism” denoting a tendency to adopt the costume of the opposite sex.

This short article cannot do justice to D'Eon's full life and achievements. What can be inferred, is that despite D'Eon having to confront transphobia and bigotry throughout their multi-faceted career, (in the words of feminist Mary Wollstonecraft) they were a "shining example of female fortitude", and indeed, they remain an inspirational LGBTQ+ role model to this day.

Frances Power CobbeFrances Power Cobbe

Frances Power Cobbe was enormously respected and loved for her efforts on behalf of women, as a campaigner for workhouse reforms, as a writer of treatises on ethics, as a tireless worker in the anti-vivisection movement and as a teacher in the Ragged Schools.

Frances began to write at the age of 40 in order to campaign for various social reforms. In one example, she successfully pleaded for the release of a woman who had killed her husband in self-defence and had been sentenced to hang.

Frances's feminist work included initiating legislation which empowered women to separate legally from battering husbands and to retain custody of their children.

She wrote many books and essays including:

  • The Intuitive Theory of Morals (1885)
  • On the Pursuits of Women (1863)
  • Cities of the Past (1864)
  • Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors (1869)
  • Darwinism in Morals (1871)
  • Scientific Spirit of the Age (1888)

She also founded the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection in 1875, the world's first organisation campaigning against animal experiments and in 1898 the BUAV, and she was on the executive council of the London National Society for Women's Suffrage and writer of editorial columns for London newspapers on suffrage, property rights for women and opposition to vivisection. Around 1880 she founded Homes for Workhouse Girls.

She is an inspiration to LGBTQ+ people because it shows that as even just as one person you can still make a difference and that even if you embark on something later in life you can be enormously successful. It also shows that you can espouse a wide range of causes but still remain effective.

As Frances herself said: "How pleasant and interesting and withall, I hope, not altogether useless a life is open to a woman, though no man has ever desired to share it, nor has she seen the man she would have wished to ask her to do so."

Frances travelled widely abroad and circulated with other celebrity lesbians of the time: the artist Harriet Hosmer, Rosie Bonheur and Emma Stebbins and the actor, Charlotte Cushman, as well as the sculptor, Mary Lloyd with whom she lived for many years in South Kensington, London, before they retired to Hengwrt, near Barmouth in Wales.

If you're interested in learning more about her then her autobiography is "Life of Frances Power Cobbe" by Frances Power Cobbe published in 1904.

Image source: Le Lieure, Rome and The Fawcett Library

Dame Lilian Charlotte Baker Dame Lillian Charlotte Baker

Dame Lilian Charlotte Barker was the first woman to be appointed assistant commissioner of prisons. Her work was fundamental to reforming women’s prisons in England, Scotland and Wales.

Lilian was born in Islington in 1874 and grew up in Kentish Town. After graduating from Whitelands College (Chelsea), in her early career she worked as a schoolteacher specialising in delinquent and other children with issues as well as running a youth club in Paddington. Her work with troubled children led to her being appointed principal of the London County Council’s Women’s Institute correctional facility in 1913.

Following the death of her mother in 1914, Lilian moved in with her partner Florence Francis, a fellow schoolteacher, and Florence’s family. Florence supported Lilian throughout her career, and they lived together for 40 years until Lilian’s death in 1955 at the age of 81.

In 1915, Lilian resigned from her position as principal of the correctional facility to join the war effort where she taught army cooks and in 1916 was appointed lady superintendent of the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. She oversaw the welfare and work of 30,000 women munitions workers.

Lilian’s career went from strength to strength after the war and she joined the Ministry of Labour’s training department. In 1923, she was appointed governor of the Borstal Institution for Girls in Aylesbury. She had an imaginative and humane approach to women’s prison reform, developing progressive ideas focusing on education, guidance and rehabilitation.

Based on her work in Aylesbury, in 1935 she was appointed assistant commissioner of prisons and worked to reform women’s prisons throughout England, Scotland and Wales until her death.

Lilian was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1944 for her "services in connection with the welfare of women and girls".

Image source: NPG

Kamala Harris Kamala Harris

"What's important for my daughter to know is that... if you are fortunate to have opportunity, it is your duty to make sure other people have those opportunities as well."

Kamala Harris has rightly dominated recent press coverage, achieving litany of firsts in the role of vice president of the United State of America alongside president Joe Biden.

Kamala began her career as a lawyer before moving into politics. She has been an ally to the LGBT+ community through her previous roles in the Senate and earlier, as District Attorney and Attorney General at state level.

She was an early supporter of marriage equality and performed same-sex marriages herself in San Francisco. She later cemented this stance by petitioning to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to repeal Proposition 8, a ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage.

As district attorney, she established an LGBTQ taskforce, launching a hate crimes unit to fund the investigations and prosecution of anti-LGBTQ violence.

She was also instrumental in bringing together a review of what was colloquially known as the ‘gay panic’ defence; a defence used where people committed violent crimes due to unwanted sexual advances or victims revealing their LGBT+ identity.

Kamala has drawn criticism around her understanding and previous actions around the trans community. In particular, her involvement as Attorney General of California around a case involving transgender inmates accessing gender assignment surgery has become a hot topic.

She has openly stated the case in question was acting for a client in her role as attorney general and the case did not represent her personal views. She has also acknowledged responsibility for what her office did. Kamala has trail blazed throughout a glittering and awesome career.

As a Black, Asian-American woman, she has risen to enormous heights as a lawyer, and now as a politician. Her career also shows the versatility of a legal background and she has showcased razor sharp cross examination skills in the Senate that have been widely praised and admired. Kamala has an enormous opportunity to use her platform as vice president to push LGBT+ issues to the forefront of the agenda for the Biden administration.

Image source: Adam Schultz

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