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The Most Inspiring British LGBT People Of 2016

They showed great courage. They made real change. We celebrate them.

1. Marco Bulmer-Rizzi, the man who lost his husband and changed the law on same-sex marriage.

Marc Bulmer-Rizzi

It was on 19 January 2016, just three days after his husband died suddenly on their honeymoon in Australia, that Marco Bulmer-Rizzi, grief-stricken and in shock, picked up the phone and set in motion a chain of events that would lead to legal and policy change in two countries – all while reigniting the campaign for equal marriage.

They were in Adelaide when his husband David Bulmer-Rizzi fell down some stairs late at night, cracking his skull. He died in hospital two days later. The authorities told his widower that because same-sex marriage was not legal in South Australia and because the state did not recognise overseas same-sex marriages, the death certificate would read “never married”. Because Marco Bulmer-Rizzi was not deemed the next of kin, all end-of-life decisions had to be approved by David’s father.

Rather than accepting this, Bulmer-Rizzi phoned BuzzFeed News to reveal what was happening. In the eyes of the Australian government, he said, “I’m nothing”.

The story went viral, sparking reports in dozens of news outlets around the world and appearing across television new bulletins throughout Australia. Within 24 hours, the premier of South Australia, Jay Weatherill, phoned Bulmer-Rizzi to apologise, promise him a new death certificate recognising their marriage, and make a pledge to change the law.

But Bulmer-Rizzi didn’t stop there. As the story reignited the national conversation about same-sex marriage in Australia, and while still devastated by his loss, the Briton began working with Australian Marriage Equality, an organisation devoted to bringing in same-sex marriage. They made a short film about the couple's story. And while Bulmer-Rizzi waited for the new death certificate and the law in South Australia to change, he went to see officials at the British Foreign Office, with a list of demands.

The meeting would result in two major policy changes. First, the Foreign Office announced that all Britons would be able to obtain a British-style death certificate in every country in the world – previously several had been exempt from this – so that same-sex marriages could be recorded on the document. Then the Foreign Office announced, as Bulmer-Rizzi had suggested, that all same-sex married couples could apply for a letter before they travelled that would state that the British government considered them the next of kin. The letter could then be presented to officials and doctors in the event of illness, emergency, or accident, so that no one would have to go through what Bulmer-Rizzi did.

In September, Bulmer-Rizzi returned to Adelaide, to help present to the parliament a bill that would introduce a same-sex couples register, giving LGBT people some of the marriage rights heterosexual people enjoy, and recognising overseas same-sex marriages. In December the bill passed. Speaking to BuzzFeed News, he said: “I think David would be proud of me.”

2. Kaelin Farnish, the teenager who inspired banks to welcome nonbinary people.

Kaelin Farnish

There aren’t many people, let alone teenagers, who can say they changed banking history. But Kaelin Farnish, 17, did just that after contacting BuzzFeed News to explain that they could not open a bank account because they did not identify as male or female – and every British bank demands customers tick one of two gender boxes. Being nonbinary, Farnish felt alienated by what is, for most people, a mundane administrative process. So they spoke out.

When the story broke, internet trolls subjected Farnish to abuse merely for saying that banks should recognise that not everyone is male or female, and that gender is a spectrum. But it wasn’t just trolls who saw the story. An employee of Metro Bank – Britain’s newest high street bank – saw the article and showed it to senior executives. Five months later, Metro made an announcement: It was to become the first bank in history to welcome nonbinary customers, by adding a “nonbinary” option in its application forms and an “Mx” title option, along with Mr/Mrs/Ms. Farnish hailed the move as a “massive step forward”.

Danny Harmer, the bank’s chief people officer, issued a direct message to Farnish: “Thank you for sharing your story. It helped us to realise there was a way we could be more inclusive.”

3. Deborah Gold and Yusef Azad, the charity workers who took on the NHS to bring the HIV prevention pill to thousands.

National Aids Trust, Facebook

Years from now, when history notes how the fight against HIV/AIDS changed in 21st-century Britain, Gold and Azad will be featured prominently. More than anyone else, Gold, the CEO of the National AIDS Trust, and Azad, the charity’s director of strategy, ensured that the pill that prevents HIV would become available to those who need it.

The National AIDS Trust (NAT) is a relatively small charity with limited funds – and certainly not with the kind of budget that can bring a major lawsuit to the High Court. But that is what it did when NHS England announced in March that despite 18 months of consultations with HIV groups about the prospect of commissioning PrEP, the process would be derailed – ended, and with it any hope of ensuring those most likely to become infected could have access to the drug regime.

The NAT objected. They consulted lawyers. They met with other HIV charities, experts, and HIV patient groups. And they strategised. In June, they sent a legal letter to NHS England, which initially prompted a decision to reconsider ending the path to commissioning. This reconsideration failed to deliver, and so NAT filed legal papers to the High Court. NHS England had claimed that it could not, and therefore would not, commission PrEP because HIV prevention was the responsibility of local authorities. Unfortunately for NHS England, it had not considered what Azad had.

As Gold and Azad discussed the case with lawyers, he suggested something that would prove a pivotal part of the legal arguments: PrEP was not, strictly speaking, prevention but treatment because the drug (known by the brand name Truvada) did not prevent the virus entering the body, but rather dismantled it once it had.

With Azad’s strategising and Gold’s stewardship galvanising support from across the HIV sector, the NAT won the legal battle. However, NHS England not only released a press release saying other patient groups would be affected, but also appealed against the decision, prolonging the legal battle, which again NAT could scarcely afford.

When BuzzFeed News met Gold and Azad at the Court of Appeal in November, just before the decision, there was considerable anxiety in the air. Minutes later, the judge rejected the appeal. The NAT had won again. Four weeks later, NHS England announced that 10,000 people would be prescribed PrEP over a three-year trial, after which a larger rollout would happen.

“This has the potential to have a transformative impact for thousands of people,” said Gold. The game had been changed.

4. Dean Eastmond, the cancer patient who challenged fertility policies.

SWNS for BuzzFeed News

When 20-year-old student and budding journalist Dean Eastmond was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma – a rare, aggressive bone cancer that mostly affects adolescents – he was given only a 50% chance of survival.

But rather than simply focus on fighting for his life, to rid himself of the heart-sized tumour in his ribs, Eastmond took on another fight. When doctors advised him to store a sample of his sperm, as his treatment would likely cause infertility, staff at the sperm bank informed him that his boyfriend would never be able to use the sample in the event of his death – even though a female partner would have been able to.

And so, while undergoing chemotherapy, with his hair falling out and the prospect of a year’s worth of treatment stretching out, Eastmond contacted the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). Britain’s governing body for fertility treatment confirmed what the staff at the sperm clinic had told him. He refused to accept this and so, undeterred, he contacted BuzzFeed News and gave an interview describing his plight with a chemotherapy drip inserted into his chest.

Prompted by the story, the HFEA set about investigating the legal complexities of the situation, and in the end concluded that the advice was wrong, issuing a statement clarifying once and for all that men in same-sex relationships could freeze their sperm for their partner to use following their death, and stating that LGBT people’s rights within fertility treatment were no different to those who are heterosexual. Eastmond, at the toughest time of his life, made a difference to others facing the same battle. Today he is six months into treatment – only halfway through – but still writing, documenting his experiences with cancer, and campaigning for a better life for LGBT people.

5. Chardine Taylor-Stone, the activist who stood up to racism on the LGBT scene.

Taylor-Stone / Facebook

Her campaign against racism within the LGBT community began a year ago and enjoyed almost immediate success. It focused initially on a single drag queen, Laquisha Jonz, who relied on multiple stereotypes of working-class black women and was played by a white gay man, Charlie Hides. Taylor-Stone, a writer, educator, and activist, recently described the blackface character as comprising “exaggerated neck rolling, finger snapping displays of 'sassiness', bad weaves, acrylic nail extensions, welfare, uncleanliness and having numerous children with 'ghetto' names by different fathers.”

Disgusted by this, and by the fact that Hides was regularly booked to perform at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, one of the oldest and most iconic LGBT venues in Britain, Taylor-Stone started a petition and the Stop Rainbow Racism Campaign. She suffered abuse, threats, trolling, and accusations of being a humourless “angry black woman” that themselves revealed the racism and stereotyping prevalent within the LGBT community. But she won. Hides vowed to stop performing that character and publicly apologised. He tweeted Taylor-Stone: “You held a mirror up to me & forced me to take a good hard look at myself. I thank you.”

But Taylor-Stone did not stop there. Throughout 2016, she has continued to highlight the enduring racism within what should be a more inclusive community. She has continued to sustain public dialogue about how LGBT spaces can be more diverse.

She wrote this week: “I’m now working with UK Black Pride and LGBT Underground to promote the anti-racism code of practice which I developed so that venues and promoters have a better understanding of the many forms in which racism manifests itself and sends a clear message that racist acts will not be tolerated.”

Taylor-Stone added: “If you are a venue or promoter you can download the code, upload it onto your website, share it on social media and join us in saying NO to Rainbow Racism."

6. Ben Smith, the man who ran 401 marathons for anti-bullying charities.

The 401 Challenge

He was bullied for years growing up. He attempted suicide twice. It took him until he was 30 to come out. But when he found the thing that helped his mental health, Ben Smith decided that running would also be what he did to help others.

And so, last year, he began an epic feat: running a marathon every day for 401 days to raise money for two charities that work to combat bullying, Stonewall and Kidscape. While undertaking this unimaginable journey he also made time to visit over 100 schools and talk to children about mental health, sexuality, and bullying. He turned down any school that approached him but did not want him to discuss these topics.

Because of the pressure on his body from all the marathons, he broke a bone in his back along the way. But kept going. He lost 6st (38kg), broke a big toe, saw his knee double in size, and endured acute tendonitis.

Shortly before the final marathon, he told BuzzFeed News: “I think deep down I always had a belief I could do it…I’ve sat on my bed and tried to take my life. You can’t get any worse than that. I got through that, so I feel like nothing can stop me. It’s not arrogance, it’s a true inner belief in who I am.”

That belief paid off. On 5 October 2016 Smith finally finished, having completed 401 marathons as many days and beating his target of raising £250,000. Ruth Hunt, the CEO of Stonewall, hailed him as a “fantastic role model for young people across Britain”.

7. Lily Madigan, the trans teenager who fought back against her school.

SWNS for BuzzFeed News

When most teenagers get sent home from school for wearing the wrong uniform, they might argue, protest, even refuse to comply, but they don’t get a lawyer. Most teens, however, are not trans and therefore not up against regressive attitudes towards gender identity.

Madigan arrived at her school in Kent one day in March wearing the girls’ uniform for the first time. Soon after, a teacher – the head of sixth form – sent her home. She and her mother were called in for a meeting where, she told BuzzFeed News, it was made clear that she had to “wear the male dress code…and if I didn’t like it maybe it was best if I went somewhere else.”

Forced to return in the boys' uniform, Madigan attempted other methods to challenge the school's rules. She set up a petition. She emailed her headteacher. When neither worked she looked on Google for a lawyer who could help and then rang one up. A lawyer at Leigh Day agreed to help, and drafted a letter to the headteacher, informing him of his legal duties under the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act, and issuing him with a list of demands. These included allowing Madigan to wear the girls’ uniform, and for staff and pupils to use her acquired name, Lily, and female pronouns. It worked.

The school backed down. Madigan is now in her last few months of sixth form, finishing her exams with the full knowledge, given how viral the story became, that any pupil in Britain now knows that they can wear any clothes or uniform they like, regardless of gender.

8. Maria Munir, the student who came out to Obama.

Sky News

There were 500 young people in the hall, President Obama, and cameras that would later beam what was happening to an audience around the world. Maria Munir, a 20-year-old politics student from Watford, stood up to ask a question, and 28 seconds in said to Obama: “I’m about to do something terrifying, which is I’m coming out to you as a nonbinary person…”

Munir was about to explain what that meant – neither identifying as male nor female – before tears sprung, only to be wiped away, as the audience clapped and cheered. But Munir continued: “I’m from a Pakistani Muslim background, which inevitably has cultural implications,” and went on to highlight the legal and social struggles surrounding nonbinary and trans identities, raising the issue of the so-called bathroom bill in North Carolina – prohibiting trans people from using public toilets that correspond to their identity – and the lack of legal protections for nonbinary people in the UK.

More applause followed before Obama told Munir he was “incredibly proud of the steps it sounds like you’ve already taken to speak out about your own experience and to create a social movement and change laws. It sounds like you’re already on the right track… We’re moving in the right direction – in part because of courageous and active young people like yourself.”

Munir, who uses they/them pronouns, had never disclosed their gender identity publicly before. And no one had ever come out as nonbinary – in a public setting – to a president before. The footage went viral. Munir was widely lauded for showing epic courage and throwing a spotlight on gender identity issues. And the Obama administration later sent guidelines to schools prohibiting discrimination against trans students.

“I was definitely elated,” Munir told BuzzFeed News, who continues to campaign for the rights of LGBT people today.

9. Letitia, the trans woman who fought the government for pension rights.

BuzzFeed News

When she spoke out for the first time in October, Letitia asked BuzzFeed News not to publish her surname, to avoid the backlash other trans people have faced.

But the 68-year-old became the only person to reveal her identity among the clutch of transgender pensioners who are taking the British government to court in a historic fight for their state pension.

As other legal loopholes for trans people are beginning to be closed, the right to a state pension at 60, the female pension age for trans women, is still yet to be won, unless they comply with the Department for Work and Pensions' demand that they obtain a gender recognition certificate. Letitia did this, and the DWP still will not backdate her pension payments. Her case is now one of four, all waiting for the European Court of Justice to decide on one of them, which could form a precedent ensuring that every trans woman in Britain can expect a pension at the same age as cisgender women.

“If it wasn’t because I actually need the money it would be incumbent on me to fight this anyway,” said Letitia. “It’s the principle.”

Inspired by her story Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, took up her plight and told BuzzFeed News: “I am appalled to hear about Letitia’s case. As a constituent of mine, I will do all I can to ensure she receives equal treatment from the system.” The case continues.

10. Bisi Alimi, the activist who set up a foundation for LGBT Nigerians and opened his home up at Christmas.

Bisi Alimi / Twitter

In 2004, Bisi Alimi became the first person in Nigeria to come out as gay on national television. Death threats followed, forcing him to flee to the UK to seek refuge. Eleven years later, following endless campaigning for the dignity of LGBT people, immigrants, and refugees, and for people living with HIV, Alimi set up the Bisi Alimi Foundation to improve the lives of LGBT people in Nigeria.

This year, the foundation has flourished and now provides advocacy for LGBT people in Nigeria, training for media outlets to improve their coverage of LGBT issues, video campaigns to banish stereotypes of sexual minorities, research into social attitudes towards LGBT people, and corporation engagement programmes in Nigeria to raise awareness of the benefit to businesses of treating employees and customers equally.

All this, and Alimi continues to write and speak out across a range of media outlets in Britain to give voice to progressive values and challenge racism, xenophobia, and homophobia wherever it surfaces. When Theresa May became Britain’s new prime minister in July, Alimi told BuzzFeed News: “The only hope I have is that she surprises us in a good way. Her record on immigration and on asylum has been horrible. My fear is what the fate might be of LGBT people who are coming to this country to seek support.”

And after marrying his long-term partner earlier this month, the couple (above) opened up their home on Christmas Day to anyone lonely and in need in London. “As a refugee,” he wrote, “I experienced first hand what it means to be lonely and suicidal on Christmas Day… This year, we have seen a huge wave of refugees from the Middle East in Europe. Many of them do not have any family here.”

And so, he explained, “a few days ago, I posted on my social media accounts an invitation to anyone in London who would appreciate spending the Christmas holiday with my husband and me. Many people got in touch and asked if they could join us. To us, this simple act of community gathering is what makes Christmas a beautiful holiday. This is a tradition we hope to continue into the future.”

11. Judith Gough, the British ambassador who spoke out about being a lesbian diplomat.

BuzzFeed News

Many public figures came out in 2016, but what Judith Gough did was different, and in some ways more significant. She became the first British ambassador to give an in-depth interview about what it is like to be a diplomat and a lesbian.

The backdrop to her decision to allow BuzzFeed News into her professional and private sphere only increased the courage it took and the impact it had. Gough is the ambassador to Ukraine, a country now partly annexed by Russia, which seeks also to reverse many of the gains made by LGBT people over the last 50 years. Ukraine, meanwhile, continues to see violence against LGBT people as commonplace.

But Gough spoke out regardless – and not only about the fact of her sexual orientation but about her life with a female civil partner and two children, coming up against the attitudes of other ambassadors around the world. Her interview marked 25 years since the British Foreign Office allowed LGBT people to work within the government department. Previously they were deemed a threat to national security.

Now, with Gough leading the way, they can give interviews – despite her admitting that it was a risk to her personal safety.

She said: “It’s about being able to stand in front of your children and say, ‘This is me, this is who I am.'”