The biggest, messiest, most joyful – and devastating – LGBT+ moments of 2021

2021 has been another wild and messy year – the world changed, inequalities persisted, and pop culture continued to distract us just when we needed it the most.

We’ll always look back on 2021 as the sequel to 2020 nobody asked for. This time last year, everyone was saying good riddance – the pandemic had disrupted life as we knew it, and we were all ready to move forward into a better world.

In the end, COVID defined much of 2021, but it wasn’t the only thing that happened this year – and it wasn’t all bad either. There were also moments that had us crying happy tears; LGBT+ rights progressed in some place (and regressed in others), and allies across the world continued to stand up for the global queer community.

It’s safe to say that 2021 has been something of a mixed bag. As the year finally draws to a close, we take a look back at some of the striking, affirming and devastating moments that defined 2021.

The Capitol riots, lockdown, and the death of an icon kicked off 2021

January 2021 isn’t really a month we care to remember. The festive season had just come to an end, with families and friends separated by the pandemic. Vaccines were just starting to be rolled out to the most vulnerable. We all hoped the worst was behind us.

On 4 January, Boris Johnson gave an address to the nation where he announced that England would be returning to hard lockdown in a bid to alleviate the pressure on hospitals.

Just two days later, the world watched in horror as a far-right mob stormed the United States Capitol in Washington DC, refusing to believe or accept that Donald Trump had lost the election. It was a terrifying moment, and it served as a timely reminder just how destructive and dangerous the outgoing president really was.

Rioters clash with police at the Capitol riots

An extremist mob made up of Trump supporters clash with police as they breach the Capitol building. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty)

Just weeks later, on 20 January, Joe Biden was sworn in as 46th president of the United States. There have been plenty of ups and downs since then, but one thing is abundantly clear: having Trump out of the White House has been a good thing for America’s LGBT+ community – and for wider society.

There were also some big moments at the start of the year for the LGBT+ community. It’s a Sin was released in the UK, gripping the nation and bringing the realities of the AIDS epidemic to a whole new generation.

Tragically, January ended with the death of trans icon SOPHIE. According to her label, she climbed to a height to see the full moon when she slipped and fell to her death. There was an outpouring of grief from fans and from the wider LGBT+ community when her death was confirmed.

Britney Spears’ conservatorship, Lady Gaga’s dogs, and Joss Whedon’s ‘toxic’ behaviour dominated headlines

In February, the documentary Framing Britney Spears aired – and finally, the world started to pay attention to the complicated legal situation the pop legend found herself in.

Looking back, it’s remarkable to see just how much has changed over the year for Britney. In June, she spoke out against her conservatorship for the first time. Speaking to a Los Angeles court over the phone, a furious-sounding Britney Spears characterised the legal arrangement – under which her father had controlled much of her life and finances for more than a decade – as “abusive”. She alleged that those in charge of her life had stopped her from marrying her boyfriend – and she said she had been forbidden from removing a contraceptive device, meaning she couldn’t have more children.

Britney Spears attends the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards

Britney Spears arrives for the MTV Video Music Awards 28 August 2016 at Madison Square Garden in New York. (Getty/Angela Weiss/AFP)

That sensational court appearance led to Britney getting a new lawyer, and it culminated in her conservatorship being terminated.

There were also some other big pop culture moments that dominated the news cycle for a period of time – the same month that Framing Britney Spears brought her story to national attention, Lady Gaga’s dogs were stolen in Los Angeles. Shockingly, her dog walker Ryan Fischer was shot in the incident and was subsequently treated in hospital for serious injuries.

There were also the allegations of “toxic” behaviour against Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon. The controversy kicked off on 10 February when Charisma Carpenter, who played Cordelia Chase on the series, released a searing statement in which she accused him of “abusing his power” with his “mean and biting behaviour”.

Lil Nas X giving Satan a lapdance was the cultural reset the world needed

The world had already fallen in love with Lil Nas X by the time he released “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” in March – but that song, and its music video, sealed his position as one of the most exciting artists working today.

The song was released to critical acclaim, and it quickly skyrocketed to the top of charts all across the world.  That was in no small part thanks to the music video, which showed Nas sliding down a pole to hell and giving Satan a lapdance. Queer people were thrilled by the sexy, subversive video – and the usual suspects were absolutely furious. There were hilarious scenes of priests and pastors condemning Lil Nas X, and conservative mouthpieces used his success to try to stay relevant.

That song helped Lil Nas X become one of the biggest artists in the world – he released his debut album Montero in September to critical acclaim. We can’t wait to see what 2022 will bring for him.

Lil Nas X performs onstage during iHeartRadio 103.5 KISS FM’s Jingle Ball 2021 in all pink

Lil Nas X performs onstage during iHeartRadio 103.5 KISS FM’s Jingle Ball 2021 Presented by Capital One at Allstate Arena on 7 December 2021. (Daniel Boczarski/Getty for iHeartRadio )

Lil Nas X wasn’t the only queer artist to make waves in 2021 – over in the UK, pansexual icon Rina Sawayama continued her mission towards pop domination. In February, both the Mercury Prize and the BRIT Awards changed their eligibility criteria after she pointed out that she was ineligible in domestic categories, despite the fact that she had lived in the UK for 26 years.

We were also thrilled when queer singer-songwriter Arlo Parks went on to win the Mercury Prize.

We had some big, momentous coming out moments in 2021

It always feels significant when famous figures come out publicly as LGBT+ – it helps the rest of us feel seen and helps start conversations about queerness (although it’s worth noting that these conversations aren’t always helpful).

In January, Philosophy Tube host and YouTuber Abigail Thorn came out as trans. She used the opportunity to deliver a stunning rebuke to anti-trans “feminists”.

“Trans people, especially trans people of colour, are hit hardest by unemployment, homelessness, and domestic, sexual, and police violence, but the conversion always focuses on wealthy white cis women tweeting about toilets,” she said.

Abigail Thorn sitting on a leather chair wearing a white shiny and black v-neck jumper

Abigail Thorn. (Screen capture via YouTube)

In April, everyone (except Billy Eichner, apparently) was surprised when The Bachelor star Colton Underwood came out as gay. In May, Demi Lovato came out as non-binary. In a statement posted to social media, they said using they/them pronouns helped them capture “the fluidity I feel in my gender expression”.

Other high-profile figures who came out in 2021 include Angel Olson, Carl Nassib, Cara Cunningham, Elvira, Corey Walsh, Courtney Stodden, Ella Hunt, Emma Corrin, Ezra Furman, JoJo Siwa, Joshua Bassett, Kal Penn, Kehlani, Laganja Estranja, TJ Osborne and Tommy Dorfman.

The deluge of famous faces opening up about their sexuality or their gender identity shows just how far we’ve come on LGBT+ issues in recent years.

Queer people made waves on TV – but others tried to hold us back

Speaking of JoJo Siwa, Dancing With the Stars built a huge queer following over the last year by featuring the queer TikTok star on its latest season. She and her partner Jenna Johnson brought queerness to the masses – and it was truly glorious to behold. They ultimately finished in second place.

Over in the UK, John Waithe and his dance partner Johannes Radebe wowed judges and audiences on Strictly Come Dancing as the first all-male couple in its history. Seeing them performing together felt significant – but it also felt, in some ways, unremarkable. Most people didn’t seem too concerned by the fact that they were two men dancing. The response was heartening and life-affirming.

That’s not to say that queer people were always accepted or embraced in entertainment circles in 2021. There was widespread shock and disappointment when DaBaby launched into a bizarre rant about HIV and “sucking d**k” at the Rolling Loud Festival in Miami, Florida in July. That incident led to Dua Lipa – with whom he famously collaborated with on “Levitating” – distancing herself from him. A long line of famous figures stepped forward to condemn his comments, as did HIV charities.

A picture of dababy at the rolling loud concert at new york

DaBaby performs as a special guest during 50 Cent’s set at Rolling Loud New York 2021 at Citi Field on 28 October 2021 in New York City. (/Astrida Valigorsky/Getty)

We wish we could say that was all – but of course, it wasn’t. There was widespread shock when Dave Chappelle doubled down on his anti-trans views in his Netflix special The Closer. He declared himself to be on “team TERF” and aligned himself with JK Rowling, who has become well known for her anti-trans tweets.

While Chappelle was busy mouthing off, Elliot Page did a powerful sit-down interview with Oprah Winfrey to discuss his transition and trans Jeopardy! champion Amy Schneider thrilled queer people everywhere with her record-breaking victories – and she isn’t done yet.

Elsewhere in pop culture, Playboy had its first ever gay male cover star, a twink got rimmed on The White Lotus, Armie Hammer was accused of sexual assault and inappropriate behaviour (he denied the allegations). John Barrowman’s career took a nosedive when he was accused of exposing himself to colleagues on Doctor Who (he has said the incidents were not sexual in nature).

Pose bowed out after three seasons – and Mj Rodriguez became the first trans woman nominated in the lead actress category at the Emmys for her star turn as Blanca. Speaking of Pose, it was incredible to see Billy Porter opening up about his HIV status – that simple act will have helped demystify a virus about which so much misinformation persists.

In the world of Drag Race, this was the year of Bimini Bon Boulash, who instantly became an icon following Drag Race UK season two. It was the first of two UK seasons, with the third welcoming the franchise’s first competing cisgender woman, Victoria Scone, who was forced to bow out early due to injury. We have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of her. In the US, RuPaul finally started listening to our cries for trans inclusion: we met Gottmik, the first trans man to compete on the show, and said hello again to Kylie Sonique Love and Jiggly Caliente on All Stars 6 – the former becoming the first American trans woman to win Drag Race.

And, in a moment that devastated queer people everywhere, the C**k Destroyers broke up (we still haven’t gotten over that one).

Laurel Hubbard competes at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games

New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard competes in the women’s +87kg group A final weightlifting event during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. (Getty/Stanislav Krasilnikov/TASS)

In the summer, queer people felt a rush of emotion when Quinn became the first out trans Olympian to win a medal (and a gold one, at that) at the delayed Tokyo 2020 games.

It was also remarkable to see Laurel Hubbard become the first ever out trans woman to compete at the Olympics, and to see non-binary skateboarder Alana Smith make their debut at the games. Neither won a medal, but just seeing them on sport’s biggest global stage was an affirming and empowering experience for trans people everywhere.

Brits were also thrilled when Tom Daley won a gold medal with diving partner Matty Lee.

LGBT+ rights remain in flux

On the legal side of things, 2021 was a year of flux for LGBT+ people. In the UK, conversion therapy has remained legal as Tory ministers have twiddled their thumbs and largely delayed dealing with the issue. As time has gone by, it has become increasingly clear that the issue is now seen as something of a political hot potato – better to avoid touching it for fear of upsetting a small but vocal group of transphobes. A public consultation into a ban has been extended into 2022 – here’s hoping that this time next year, Johnson (or his successor) has stopped the dither and delay.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been progress elsewhere on conversion therapy – Canada’s parliament voted to ban the discredited practice, and New Zealand inched closer to making the practice illegal too. Other countries such as Ireland, Israel, Norway, Denmark, Finland and France are also considering banning conversion therapy. Let’s hope 2022 will see greater progress on the issue all around the world.

Things improved for LGBT+ people in other parts of the world too. Chile and Switzerland legalised same-sex marriage in landmark moments for queer people in those countries. Meanwhile, Botswana upheld a ruling which decriminalised same-sex relationships.

A Pride In Surrey activist protests outside the first annual conference of the LGB Alliance at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre on 21st October 2021 in London, United Kingdom. Many LGBT+ activists and advocacy groups are opposed to the LGB Alliance, a government-registered charity, which they consider to be a divisive anti-trans campaign group. (photo by Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images)

In the US, despite Joe Biden undoing the worst of Donald Trump’s assaults on trans rights, Republicans up and down the country launched an unprecedented wave of attacks on the community. In October, Texas became the 10th state to enact an anti-trans sports ban when governor Greg Abbott signed into law a bill banning trans athletes from playing on school sports teams that align with their gender identities.

Similar legislation has been passed in Montana, Idaho, South Dakota, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida and West Virginia. According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 130 anti-trans bills were introduced across 33 states this year, targeting sports inclusion, bathroom rights and healthcare. Of these, 13 were signed into law. In total, states adopted 25 new pieces of anti-LGBT+ legislation.

HRC has called on Biden to urgently pass the Equality Act, which he promised would become law within his first 100 days. But with the Senate divided evenly, the 60 votes required to pass the legislation seems impossible to achieve.

Around the world, queer people are still criminalised in more than 60 countries for simply living their lives openly and authentically.

In the UK, attacks on the trans community and its allies continued

Sadly, 2021 was a year in which “gender critical” voices were far from silenced. Rather, they were given platforms on national television, in newspapers and on radio, which more often than not, they used to complain about being cancelled, seemingly oblivious to the meaning of the word.

One of the outcomes of this was a “coordinated attack” on Stonewall across the mainstream media.

In a 24 May statement, Stonewall said: “Over the last few months there has been a sustained attack on Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme, which proudly partners with more than 850 leading employers to support their LGBTQ+ colleagues to thrive.

“We believe these attacks are threadbare and deliberately organised and coordinated to undermine support for our work to ensure every LGBTQ+ employee can thrive at work.”

Sadly, this wasn’t the end. Many major institutions cut ties with Stonewall throughout the year, including the BBC and University College London, which claimed that being associated with the charity posed a risk of perceived bias and of threatening academic freedom respectively, as though supporting trans rights is a matter of debate.

The BBC Stonewall

The BBC’s logo. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty)

Speaking of the BBC, the nation’s public broadcaster horrified the LGBT+ community throughout the year, but most forcefully when it published an article titled “We’re being pressured into sex by some trans women”. The piece quotes the LGB Alliance (which was controversially given charity status in April), a survey of 80 people sourced by an anti-trans group, and a cis woman who later called for trans women to be “lynched” and “executed” (her contributions were ultimately removed from the article, which remains online, otherwise intact).

As the BBC continued to defend the piece, LGBT+ staff reportedly began an exodus.

These public attacks coincided with yet another rise in hate crime: figures obtained in October revealed there to be 19,679 reports of hate crimes based on sexual orientation in 2020-21, and 2,588 reports of transphobic hate crimes in the same period. Separate figures shows that between January and August this year, at least 14,670 homophobic hate crimes were recorded in the UK. During the same period, 2,129 transphobic offences were reported.

ILGA-Europe said in February that “hate crimes had been steadily increasing… in part due to an increase in reporting, but also influenced by increasing hostility in UK-wide media towards trans identities and communities”. Despite it all, the LGBT+ community refused to be beaten down, taking to the streets in protest time and again.

It was the deadliest year on record for trans people

There was plenty of fun and silliness along the way, but there was a great deal of pain and suffering in 2021 too for marginalised communities. It became the deadliest year on record for trans people. Between 1 October 2020 and 30 September 2021, at least 375 trans, non-binary or gender non-conforming people were killed violently across the world. The terrifying spate of killings has proven that transphobia is a disease – and there are no signs of it abating.

Research also proved what most of us already knew – COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on LGBT+ people everywhere, particularly younger members of the community who have faced the challenge of building social connections through Zoom instead of through real-life encounters.

Of course, the world reeled in horror as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August. Since then we’ve heard from numerous gay Afghans about the horrors they are not facing, and continued pleas for the global community – and world leaders – to do more to help. Closer to home, across Europe, the community faced legislative attacks from leaders in Poland and Hungary.

Despite the horrors of 2021, there is hope for the future. The last year wasn’t always easy for queer people, but the tide is continuing to change. Rights are being won, equality is progressing. Queer people and their allies have continued challenging prejudice and discrimination where they see it – and that will continue into the new year, too.

And hey, if there’s one takeaway from 2021, it’s this: at least Donald Trump finally left the White House.