Did you know in ancient Thebes, an army was compiled with 300 men – more specifically – 150 gay couples?
The idea behind this was that men would fight with more dedication to protect or impress their lover, and it worked! This group was called “The Sacred Band of Thebes.” They were so successful that they even defeated the Spartans, who were widely known for their brutality and military strength. Have you ever learned this bit of history in school? Have you ever learned queer history in school? In most places, you probably haven’t received this education. This is saddening, especially if you are a part of the LGBTQ+ community. Underrepresentation is harmful in many ways to the community– sometimes even erasing LGBTQ+ parts of history as a whole. To counter this, here are 14 LGBTQ+ stories from the past!
Around 2800-2500 BCE, in modern-day Prague, a burial took place. The person who was buried had male features but was given a very feminine burial. They wore a very traditional female outfit, their head was facing the west, and they had an egg-shaped container near their ankles. In the civilization from which this person had come, burials were cared for with close attention to detail. Mens’ heads would face the East, and they were typically buried with some sort of stone tool or weapon – commonly an axe or a flint knife. This burial was no accident, and many historians consider it to be the grave of a stone-age trans person. The head archeologist at this particular site even noted how many gravesites with skeletal males were buried in a feminine way and vice versa. She even stated that this practice dated back to the Mesolithic period – when people hunted mammoths.
Moving forward about 100 years, in 2400 BCE, we encounter the first-ever recorded gay couple in history. Their names are Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum. They were from ancient Egypt, and they were both royal servants for the sixth Pharaoh in the fifth dynasty. They shared the title of Overseer of the Royal Manicurists; however, the most telling part of their relationship can be found in the artwork and records near their gravesite. Outside of the joint grave that the pair share, are images of what is assumed to be the men. They are embracing, their noses touching, and are holding hands – this is the most intimate position allowed in Egyptian art. Along with this, their chosen names are displayed on the headstone of the grave. Niankhkhnum means life belongs to Khnum, and Khnumhotep means Khnum is satisfied. Some of the artwork even depicts Niankhkhnum taking up the position in which Khnumhotep’s wife would be. After the death of Niankhkhnum, in a painted banquet scene, Khnumhotep is alone with no one in the place of the wife where Niankhkhnum had previously been. Poor Khnumhotep, thank goodness they were able to reunite in the Egyptian afterlife.
Around 630 BCE, legendary lyrical poet Sappho was born on the island of Lesbos. It is found that the terms “sapphic” and “lesbian” come from her name and her home, respectively. This is due to her poems discussing her sexuality and female with female love– making her a symbol of love between women. It is believed that she was a teacher as well as a poet, whose poems often detailed homosexuality. However, there is still controversy over her sexuality in her poems due to only 650 of her 10,000 works still existing today. Most are in small fragments, with only one complete poem still in existence; “Ode to Aphrodite.” It is believed that many of these pieces were destroyed by the church, which was in opposition to her morals. This is because she was described as lustful and a homosexual, which was in opposition to the church’s morals. Gregory Nazianzen, a 4th-century archbishop in Constantinople and well-known theologian, had Sappho’s works publicly destroyed. Many of her surviving pieces were then also burned in Rome and Constantinople around 1073 CE by Pope Gregory VII. Yet, some of her works survived and continued to describe her erotic thoughts and feelings of other women to more modern generations. Sappho’s works were and still are so influential in the LGBTQ+ community, so go check out some of her poems!
Then in 385 BCE, Plato published “The Symposium.” “The Symposium” was a collection of speeches written in a contest-like manner. These speeches were meant to give praise to Eros – the Greek God of love (also known as Cupid to the Romans). The Symposium traditionally took place after meals at banquets where drinking, singing, dancing, and talking would also take place. It was during their drunkenness when they (the Greeks) would be talking about homosexual sex and Eros. During this, Plato and many other scholars agreed that homosexual relationships were the highest form of sex, and sex between man and woman was lustful and utilitarian. This conclusion was important, especially as “The Symposium” is one of the works cited when creating “the Sacred Band of Thebes,” which has been discussed earlier in this article.
Traveling west to the Roman Empire in 54 CE, Roman Emperor Nero married two men: Pythagoras and Sporus. With this being one of the first-ever recorded Gay marriages, it is crucial to note, especially, that it was done traditionally. Previously, same-sex lovers could not get married, and their relationships were usually, in some form, a secret. Marriages were more difficult as there wasn’t solid evidence as to any being present until 27 BCE. This was one of, if not the first polyamorous gay marriages. It was very public due to one partner being a Roman Emperor, thus helping this lifestyle be more equally embraced.
In 79 CE, the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the city of Pompeii; however, with this covering, quite a bit of queer history that has been preserved. First of all, there was tons of erotic art saved. A lot of this art was male-male and female-female paintings depicting these couples engaging in sexual acts between each other. There were many statues as well. These statues were graphic, further leading to the idea of Pompeii’s openness and embracement of riskier activities. Also, there were two bodies found embracing. CAT scans found that they were both men and unrelated to each other. It is widely speculated that these two men were gay lovers around ages 18-20, though it can not be said for sure.
Around 218, the Roman Emperor Elagabalus began their reign. This Emperor married five women and one man in a large, public, lavish ceremony. They also had a long-standing stable relationship with their chariot driver, Hierocles. It is even said that Elagabalus enjoyed being called Hierocles’ mistress, wife, and queen. Elagabalus also dresses in wigs, dresses, and makeup. They prefered to be called Lady rather than Lord. At one time, they even put out a reward to any doctor able to provide them with a vagina. For these reasons, they are thought to have been one of the earliest transgender people seeking gender reassignment surgery, which unfortunately was not available to them at the time. Besides their polyamorous relationships, they were a proud transgender woman. Because of their lifestyle, it made life easier for people with the same lifestyle to live under their reign.
In the Early 6th century, Anastasia the Patrician was born. During their life, they abandoned being a lady-in-waiting in the court of Justinian I. After it was speculated that the emperor was attempting to make advances on Anastasia, Queen Theodora grew jealous, which ultimately led to Anastasia leaving the court. Anastasia then spent 28 years dressed as a man– working as a monk in Egypt. In Alexandria, Egypt, they founded a monastery and later were dubbed a saint. They are thought to be one of the first transgender saints by many people in the LGBTQ+ community.
This fact will be fun for you Hamilton fans out there. Around 1776, General George Washington of the Continental Army while fighting for the United States’ freedom, hired the openly gay Baron Friedrich Von Steuben from Prussia. Baron helped whip the Continental Army into shape from being an inexperienced group of volunteer soldiers into a fighting force tough enough to take out one of the biggest global superpowers of its time with tens of thousands of more men than the newly formed army. However, with his help both in training and in fighting, the United States was ultimately formed. George Washington also had appointed Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens as Baron’s aides during his teaching of the colonial ranks. It is likely that Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens themselves had a romantic relationship as well, making all three of these important gay founding fathers crucial to the development of the United States.
In 1959, the first-ever sex-change operation was conducted successfully.
Then in 1986, the lesbian couple Becky Smith and Annie Affleck became the first lesbian couple able to adopt.
Progressing into 2001, the first-ever gay marriage law was passed in the Netherlands, after around 1500 years of the criminalization of homosexual activity.
Also, in 2001, the Netherlands gave same-sex couples the right to adopt legally; rather than fighting court systems until they were allowed to like Becky Smith and Annie Affleck had to.
Throughout history, even with many attempts to erase it, queer lifestyles have always been present. Without it, much of history would have been altered and it wouldn’t have had such a massive impact on modern-day countries. Not only are countries affected, but many people, young and old, are affected by queer history; many people embrace it, while others dedicate their lives to studying it. One thing can be known for certain, though — we are where we are today because of queer icons from the past!
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