14 of History’s Hidden Lesbians

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Do you know what I can’t believe I still have to point out when discussing lesbians and gay rights/culture/history/etc? That we aren’t a new thing. Seriously, I’m having this conversation with at least one [insert expletive here] a month.

“Look,” I say, resisting the urge to kick them hard in the shins. “We weren’t dropped here from an alien planet at some point in the 1900s. We have always existed and we will always exist.”

Then they’ll scoff, mention something about evolution or their religious text (assholes come in religious and secular form) or lackluster historical records as if that’s proved their point, and then run off, presumably to avoid a slap.

The thing is they have a point… kind of. Historical records of lesbians and LGBT people and their experiences are often ignored, misinterpreted, or outright erased by the powerful people of history (read: straight men) and so we are often left with mere speculation. In some cases, our community may even have closeted themselves to avoid retribution from those around them (imprisonment, execution, abuse). This is especially true for lesbians and for bisexual women.

Often lesbianism was not punished as severely as male homosexuality because the lawmakers either didn’t understand how women could have sex with each other, or didn’t think women have sexual urges, or didn’t think women were capable of such ‘depravity’.

Often lesbianism was not punished as severely as male homosexuality because the lawmakers either didn’t understand how women could have sex with each other, or didn’t think women have sexual urges, or didn’t think women were capable of such ‘depravity’.

In England, it was thought so unlikely that women would ever think about having sex with each other, that there was no need to criminalize it, lest it give them ideas. I’m not kidding.

 

Entries from a timeline on LGBTQ+ rights at the Never Going Underground exhibit at the People’s History Museum in Manchester, UK. Taken by Emma Murphy.

 

Even during times in history where being a gay woman was not illegal, it often caused women to be ostracized or be sent to a mental institution (where they faced sexual assault or rape from ‘doctors’) or even be subject to genital mutilation to remove the clitoris. And even those who were out during their lifetimes may not have stayed out afterwards. Descendants, desperate to avoid a ‘scandal’, would often destroy evidence, like love letters or diary entries, and present their relative as 100% straight.

Is it any wonder that we are left without clear evidence?

With that in mind, I’d like to present to you some well known historical women that you probably didn’t know were lesbian or bisexual. All of these ladies had relationships (whether sexual or romantic) with other women and were able to keep it a secret until after their deaths, but, as always, their sexual orientation is the least interesting thing about them.

 

1.     Eleanor Roosevelt

 

Who? First American Ambassador to the United Nations, FLOTUS, Wife of FDR

Relationships with Women: Lorena “Hick” Hickock, a political journalist. The story goes that FDR- in order to cheat on his wife- permitted Eleanor to engage in a Boston Marriage with Lorena. The two women had a tender relationship with decades of love letters between the pair showcasing their devotion. Eleanor even wore a sapphire ring given to her by Lorena to the 1933 inauguration.

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