Over the years, I’ve written dozens of articles on queer history, and some of the most interesting figures I’ve come across have been queer women. Action, adventure, wisdom, subterfuge, determination, whimsy, lust, genius — I’ve found a wonderful range in their stories.
Here are some of the more interesting things I’ve learned about history’s queer women.
1. They frickin’ went to space
American astronaut Sally Ride went up in the space shuttle twice, in 1983 and 1984. Her sexual orientation wasn’t known to the general public until after her death in 2012, but we can now say that she was the first-known queer astronaut to go to space. Ride’s romantic partner Tam O’Shaughnessy accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom on her behalf in 2013.
2. They fought for their rights
Born in 1902, African-American Mabel Hampton was openly lesbian as early as the 1930s, and an activist for much of her life. She marched in every gay rights parade that happened in New York City in her lifetime. When she couldn’t walk anymore, people vied for the honour of pushing her wheelchair in the march.
3 They kicked men’s asses
The young Julie d’Aubigny bruised egos (and bodies) and broke hearts (and more bodies) as she criss-crossed 17th-century France with her sword. While records are spotty, this cross-dressing opera singer is said to have been bisexual. On one occasion, she fought and bested three men who were upset that she’d danced with and kissed a woman whom they were all courting.
4. They made great music
Born in 1894 in Tennessee, Bessie Smith had loud and rowdy relationships with both men and women. A popular blues singer in the 1920s and 1930s, she became known as the Empress of the Blues. While we don’t hear much about her today, Smith has since been acknowledged as a strong musical influence by such jazz greats as Billie Holiday.
5. They ruled countries
Born in 1626, the young Queen Christina of Sweden was a butch queen. The daughter of a warrior-king, she wasn’t at all interested in behaving as girls were expected to behave; She swore like a soldier, swaggered, wore a sword and enjoyed shocking people. She was rumoured to be a lesbian, and her early infatuations included one of her ladies-in-waiting, Ebba Sparre, whom she called Belle.
6. They challenged gender roles
Joe Carstairs was a crossdresser and proud playboy for most of her life. Born in England in 1900, she dressed like a man, chased women and distinguished herself in a major sport (which was unusual for women in the 1920s). And when the media eventually turned on her for her attitude and occupation, she just took off to the Bahamas and continued doing whatever she wanted.
7. They could be bloodthirsty
Fifteen-year-old Catalina de Erauso escaped a convent in Spain in 1600, disguised herself as a boy, found work aboard a ship, and made her way to South America. Her violent adventures in the New World — wearing men’s clothing, pawing the occasional woman, gambling, killing willy-nilly, being arrested and escaping to the next town — made her a folk hero.
8. They helped give us Canada’s first gay and lesbian publication
Elsa Gidlow’s family moved from England to Quebec when she was six years old, in about 1904. In her teens, the young lesbian poet met a gay man named Roswell George Mills. Gidlow, who would go on to become a well-connected and accomplished author, started Les Mouches Fantastiques with Mills in her 20s. The title is arguably Canada’s first gay and lesbian publication.
9. They found love
Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, also known as the Ladies of Llangollen, bought a cottage together in Wales in about 1778. They lived a life that was very unusual at the time — one without men. They filled their cottage with oddities and their lives with pleasant activities, and became famous for their lifestyle and literary interests. Many considered them a happy, devoted lesbian couple.
10. They were everywhere (you just have to look harder)
Many know that Kitty Genovese’s much-publicized 1964 murder in New York City spurred psychological study into the “bystander effect,” and provided impetus for the establishment of the 911 emergency phone system. Fewer people know that Genovese was a lesbian. While it likely had little or nothing to do with her death, she was living with her same-sex partner when she was killed.
There is usually an unseen queer dimension to historical events, and you can probably find queer women’s history (and not all of it grisly murders) everywhere if you look hard enough.