Lesbians in History

José Sellier’s drawing of Marcela Gracia Ibeas and Elisa Sanchez Loriga. The two were the first lesbian couple married in Spain in 1901. Image by Jose Sellier.

The average history class barely mentions LGBT people, save a short paragraph on Sappho, a brief overview of Stonewall, or an allusion to the fact that gay and bisexual men were the most affected by the AIDS crisis. This does not mean that the LGBT population was nonexistent until recent years. Instead, a lack of records and the frequent erasure of LGBT identities means that many gay historical figures go unnamed. Lesbians, in particular, are seldom acknowledged, though history is nonetheless marked with their accomplishments. Some examples include:

Sappho (630 BC-580 BC): Sappho was an archaic Greek poet born to an aristocratic family. She is among the nine lyric poets held in high regard by scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria. Although much of her work was destroyed, either by those who opposed her or by the deterioration of the ancient documents over time, pieces of her writing still survive today. What remains of this poetry focuses on love, particularly love for women. “Sweet mother, I cannot weave—slender Aphrodite has overcome me with longing for a girl,” reads a translation of one of the more well-known fragments of Sappho’s writing. It is with this legacy she is immortalized, as a figure of lesbianism. In fact, the term “lesbian” comes from the Isle of Lesbos, where Sappho was born and raised. Additionally, the word “sapphic,” which is used to describe women who love other women, finds its roots in her name—evidence of the legacy she left behind.

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962): Eleanor Roosevelt was a diplomat, politician, and activist. Although she is best known as the wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the longest serving First Lady of the United States, Eleanor established herself beyond her husband’s domain. She actively supported workers’ unions and women, and advocated to end the segregation of African Americans. Roosevelt was also in a relationship with reporter Lorena Hickok, which was revealed by letters between the two.

Gladys Bentley (1907-1960): Gladys Bentley was a blues singer and pianist, known for dressing in men’s clothes and singing about women. As a black woman and an openly gender-nonconforming lesbian in the earlier part of her career, Bentley was a revolutionary figure during the Harlem Renaissance, leading many to redefine their conventional idea of the meaning of womanhood and serving as an inspiration for LGBT African Americans for years to come.

Billie Jean King (1943- ): Billie Jean King is a retired professional tennis player and winner of 39 Grand Slam titles. She is best known for facing Bobby Riggs in an exhibition match termed the “Battle of the Sexes” in a push for equal pay in women’s sports. King was the first well-known athlete to come out as a lesbian after her secretary filed a palimony lawsuit against her. Although King initially denied the extent of the relationship, she later stated, “I wanted to tell the truth but my parents were homophobic, and I was in the closet.”

Sally Ride (1951-2012): A physicist and astronaut, Sally Ride is best known for being the first American woman in space. Beyond her career at NASA, Ride contributed to the writing of seven children’s books and played tennis, volleyball, and softball. After her death, it was revealed that Ride had been in a relationship with childhood friend Tam O’Shaughnessy for 27 years. To this day, Ride is the only known LGBT astronaut.

Alison Bechdel (1960- ): Alison Bechdel is a cartoonist known for addressing lesbianism and gender-nonconformity in her work. Bechdel was originally known for her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which introduced the Bechdel test. To pass the Bechdel test, a fictional work must include two women who talk about something other than a man. This assessment serves to call attention to gender inequity and women’s dependence on men in fiction.

Leave a Reply