3 min

Ancient lesbians, gays and cross-dressers

Taking a closer look at our hidden history

Credit: Capital Xtra files

The headline of this installment of Sapphic Traffic is not meant to refer to the octogenarians among us, but rather to a lecture I attended as part of the Toronto Pride celebrations at the Royal Ontario Museum. Entitled Out in History, the lecture explored lesbians and gays in ancient times. The talk was delivered by ROM lecturers Gayle Gibson and Sudharshan Duraiyappah.

Egyptologist Gibson started her lecture by explaining that, contrary to popular opinion, male homosexuality was not in fact prohibited in ancient Egypt.

The prohibition against homosexual sex referred exclusively to copulation in a temple.

The most famous gay ruler in ancient Egypt was King Pepi II. His reign was resplendent with naked statuettes of beautiful young men. This style of art did not exist prior to or following his reign. There is a story that chronicles King Pepi falling madly in love with his general, Sassonett. Apparently, the pharaoh left his palace in the night, hiding in street shadows as he made his way to General Sassonett’s house, where, like Romeo, he threw pebbles at his window. General Sassonett let down a rope and King Pepi climbed it. The Egyptians say, “King Pepi did what he wished with General Sassonett all night long.”

There is actually no word for queen in ancient Egypt, only king. From the time the female pharaoh Hatshepsut assumed her kingship, she appeared as a man. Images and statues show her as male, without any female accoutrements whatsoever. Images of her soul were shown as male with a false beard. A small hieroglyphic was the only denotation of her biological sex. Statues of Hatshepsut show her in a pharaoh’s headdress, bare-chested and wearing a kilt with a bull’s tail in the back. Since bulls were the most powerful male symbol of ancient Egypt, it was a sign of her active sexuality and power. But was Hatshepsut’s manner of dress really cross-dressing or convention? History shows that there were in fact several female pharaohs, none of whom assumed the throne dressed as a man as Hatshepsut did.

It was typical for ancient Egyptian tombs to contain images of husband and wife. Sometimes there were figures of women embracing or one woman extending a blossoming blue lily to another. These images signified the importance of female sexuality in the afterlife. There were not, however, images of men in tombs together, but for one exception.

A beautiful tomb of two men near Saqqarah has become the site of gay pilgrimage in Egypt. These two men were Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, the royal manicurists. Among their many duties as aestheticians was to shave the king completely. Considered half deity, half man, the pharaoh had to have every hair on his body removed.

Possessing good taste and ample money, theirs was an ornate tomb. Both men had wives and children, fulfilling their duty to society. But unlike other tombs, only a single section is devoted to their wives and children – the rest belongs to the two men alone. Images show them hand in hand as they inspect their estates, others show them sharing a banquet together. A few rooms illustrate the men in a kiss, embracing one another within the conventions of Egyptian art, but with their belt buckles touching. The most intimate image is an embrace in the back of the tomb where ordinary priests and people could not go. This was clearly a love relationship. The two men are alone on their souls’ journey through the afterlife, and they have clearly chosen to go together into eternity.

Duraiyappah spoke about a section of the Kama Sutra on lesbian love and sex that is often overlooked. The Kama Sutra was written in elegant Sanskrit in fourth-century India by Vatsyayana, who in turn drew inspiration from an 800-year-old text.

One section of his famous love treatise concerns what Vatsyayana describes as the third gender. The chapter opens with the statement, “Lucky are those of third gender whose love is liberated from procreation.” The Kama Sutra then goes on to provide its own description of a lesbian: “A woman known for her independence, with no sexual bars, and acting as she wishes, is called svairin.”

The Kama Sutra also provides methodologies for women using an apadravya. The direct translation from Sanskrit is “secret instrument,” but we know the object today as a dildo. The dildo, as you may well know, has existed throughout history. On the ancient Grecian Sapphic Isle of Lesbos, women carried around baskets filled with olisbos or dildos. During the 17th century Qing dynasty in China, ceramic statuettes of two women using a dildo rose to popularity in some circles.

A lecture series also entitled Out in History will be given by Gayle Gibson and Sudharshan Duraiyappah for six weeks from Sep 26 through Nov 14, 7 to 9pm at the ROM. For registration: or (416) 586-5797.