8 Historical Women You Had No Idea Were Queer

Oftentimes when we think of historical figures, we don’t imagine them being anything other than straight. However, there have always been lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and queer people throughout history, but the terms to represent their sexuality were not always in existence.  

Relationships and language are influenced by power, meaning that straight men in recent history have dominated the narrative. This hegemony pushes down the beautiful diverse love stories that are normal and deserve to be represented. 

As a reminder, the term “Queer” was reclaimed in the 1980’s and now serves as an umbrella term for the LGBTQ+ spectrum. “Queer” breaks the binary that sexualities are often bounded by, freeing the multiplicity and fluidity of identity. Some of these figures clearly align as what we now call “Bi-Sexual” or “Lesbian, etc, but if their sexuality is not as defined, I will use the term “Queer”. With that said, here are a few of the wonderful queer figures from our  past!

1. Emily Dickinson     

Born in 19th century Massachusetts, Dickinson became well-known after her death in 1886 when her family found 1,800 poems hidden in her desk. She was a confident writer, and intentionally chose solitude, using isolation and space to nurture her skills. Emily never married, and is highly speculated to have been queer due to her intense amorous letters she exchanged with her friend Sue Gilbert (who ended up marrying her brother, AH!). Although passionate female friendships were normal in the 1800’s, it is clear that Dickinson’s intimate desire longed for more than just friendship. Her famous poetry often known by the American public today are light, dainty pieces, however  her work goes far beyond your traditional expectations. She writes dark, demonic, sensual, and magical poetry, often backed by her sexuality and rejection of institutionalized religion. 

2. Sally Ride 

Not only was Sally Ride the first American woman to go to space, she was also the first known queer person to go to space! She joined NASA in the late ‘70s  and was one of only five women in the program. She married Steve Hawley in 1982, but divorced after five years. Ride passed away from cancer in 2012 and it was not until after her death that the public came to know about her sexuality. Ride’s partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, shared that they had been in a loving relationship for 27 years. They met as children, remained friends throughout their life, and later became lovers. A year after Ride’s death, O’Shaughnessy graciously accepted a Presidential Medal of Freedom dedicated to Ride from Barack Obama. 

3. Eleanor Roosevelt 

Anna Eleanor Rooselvelt is the well known former first lady to the United States, the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, and was an advocate for women’s rights. She married Franklin Roosevelt, her distant cousin, in 1905 and they were married through his death in 1945. Their marriage was not a fairytale though, Eleanor found out her husband had been having an affair in 1918 with his secretary, and the love and intimacy lacked thereafter. Due to the potential destruction of their public image and the threat his mother made to take away their inheritance, the two never divorced. While they remained together legally and stayed friends, they both turned to others for companionship. Eleanor fell in love with Lorena Hicock, a renowned reporter. They sent each other deeply compassionate letters and had a strong connection. Eleanor Roosevelt is remembered as queer and asexual, representing that love doesn’t have to fit the traditional mold. 

4. Billie Holiday 

Billie Holiday, originally named Eleanora Fagan, is a renowned American Jazz singer from the early - mid 20th century. She was born in 1915 in Philadelphia and had a horrific childhood full of sexual abuse and prostitution. Billie got her start singing in a New York Harlem Nightclub when she was 16, and quickly rose to fame as a talented Jazz musician. After experimenting with narcotics, Holiday spent some time in prison where isolation allowed her to develop romantic relationships with other women. She became openly bi-sexual and is speculated to have dated fellow star, Tallulah Banker. Interestingly, her song “Strange Fruit”, famous for its metaphorical imagery to lynching, is theorized by some academics to also have sexuality embedded within its lyrical statement.  

5. Florence Nightingale 

Recognized as the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale was a key figure in discovering the benefits of sanitation. She was born in Florence, Italy in 1820 and her father helped her engage in traditionally male spheres of conversation, which eventually led her to a prestigious Nursing school. She later played a major role in the Crimean War, devoting her time to the health of the soldiers and meticulous record keeping. She gained the nickname, “Lady with the Lamp '' due to her routine check-ups on the sick through the night. History glorifies her for her career, so there is little attention on her sexual orientation. However, in today’s terms it seems that she was definitely queer, and likely a lesbain. She once wrote, “I have lived and slept in the same beds with English Countesses and Prussian farm women. No woman has excited passions among women more than I have”. Occasionally sharing beds with other women was normal within the context of the 19th century, but her writing indicates the loving connection she felt toward women. In addition to being queer, she was also asexual, with several records indicating that she lacked sexual attraction. This asexual representation has more presence in history than we often assume. 

6. A’lelia Walker 

As a patron of the Harlem Renaissance arts, businesswoman, and the first ever female self-made millionaire, A'lelia Walker goes down in history as “Queen of the Night''. She was born in Mississippi in 1885 as the only daughter of Madam C.J. Walker. Together they grew a Black hair care and cosmetic empire, including beauty products, schools, and salons. Walker loved entertaining lavish guests on her estates, including civil rights leaders, artists, and even European and African royalty. She married and divorced three times, and it is speculated that she had a relationship with a woman after her failed marriages. This woman was a long time friend, and the content of their relationship is often debated. It seems like A’lelia Walker might have been queer, but even if she was not, it is well-known that Walker was a staunch ally of the LGBTQ+ community. Her wild parties were accepting and safe places for the queer community to thrive in. 

7. Barbara Jordan 

Barbara Jordan made history as the first Black woman elected to the Texas Senate in 1966, and later the first Black woman to become president of the Texas Senate. Her achievements do not stop there though, she was a lawyer, an educator, and also became the first African American from the South elected to congress in the 20th century. She was also both the first African American and the first woman, to be the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention. From there, she went on to advocate for equality, fighting for racial and class justice. She was a powerful political leader, smashing the barriers set up before her. Later in life she fell ill with multiple sclerosis, and it is now known that Nancy Earl, her caregiver, was also her partner. They lived together for 20-30 years, and privately identified as lesbians. She was forced to keep her love life in the dark due to warnings by campaign managers that her “female companion” would ruin her image. She passed away in 1996, and her obituary was the first time her relationship with Earl went public. 

8. Katharine Lee Bates 

If you have ever heard the national hymn of “America the Beautiful”, then you have listened to the words of Katharine Lee Bates. She wrote the lyrics, originally a poem, and it was published in 1895. It grew in popularity as it was spread across the nation and transformed into a song, later performed by famous musicians like Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, and Ray Charles. Besides her accomplished poem, Bates was also an educator at Wellesley College. She became chair of the English department and spent her days writing poetry and books, gaining recognition as a literary scholar. During her time at Wellesley, she fell in love with a fellow professor, Katharine Coman. They reportedly lived together and were in a romantic relationship for 25 years. Bates published a collection of love poems about Coman after her death titled, “Yellow Clover: A Book of Remembrance''. In one of those poems, “If the Celestial Body”, she writes, “For the swiftest gleam of your radiant glance in the unreturning, Years of our mortal grace, Would flood my heart with fullness of joy. Oh, lean to my yearning, Celestial face”. Her words about America may be well-known, but I think her words about Coman are more powerful due to their authentic bond and lively romance. 

 

These women are powerful historical figures, stemming across various realms of expertise from  astrophysics, poetry, medicine, law, music, and politics. They all made their mark on this world in unique ways, and they were all queer. We sometimes think being straight is the default sexual orientation, but it is not. People throughout time and across cultures have loved others and sought out companionship in many different ways. It’s time we normalize the fluidity of sexual identities and construct an equitable society where everyone feels safe to love who they desire.

 

 

Sources: 

https://www.hrc.org/resources/glossary-of-terms