During pride month, it’s common to see LGBTQ figures of history being celebrated, and they should! Being prideful of one’s own authenticity was rarely easy throughout history and it is so very important to appreciate those who’s stories withstood the test of time. How far back does queer history date back, anyways? The answer is complex, with many anthropological findings being seen through a whitewashed and evangelical lens, a lot of queer history seems to have been hidden. However, with more modern historians, theorists, and anthropologists taking interest in this hidden history, it seems that LGBTQ+ individuals were present all throughout history. Instead of providing another list of Historical figures, I wanted to look into actual civilizations, where it was culturally acceptable to love whomever one desired, so here is a list of some ancient civilizations that would celebrate pride month.
Angola and West Africa
When we think of ancient civilizations and their expression of queerness, Africa may not be the first continent that comes to mind. Let’s change that! Before many African countries were colonized by the British and Commonwealth, they were a place of acceptance. In 16th century Angola, it was common to see men in women’s attire and in the presence of other wives. In the Yoruban language, primarily spoken in West Africa, there are numerous words that describe queer people and activities, proving their existence in traditional African culture. The languages, beliefs, and activities of African people before colonization are very accepting and casual regarding sexuality, and this history should not be reshaped through the lens of Christian colonizers.
Another unexpected source of robust queer history is imperialist China. These accounts of homosexuality are sprinkled throughout China’s history much before the common area, with some dating as far back as the 1800s where a male emperor was reported to take male bedmates. The sexual fluidity of China is more apparent in the recently translated findings which take place over many time periods. These findings take the form of anecdotes, poems, and other art forms; one of which tells a story of a duke and a court official, who exclaim their love for one another when sharing a peach. The term, “love of a shared peach” was actually used to describe homosexual relationships for thousands of years. Although throughout many time periods in China, sexuality was rigid, and deviations were punishable, it’s important to understand that this was not always the case and embrace the historical figures who were able to love authentically.
Sappho (610-570 BC) ancient Greek poet depicted holding lyre. 19th century engraving.
One of the more well-known civilizations to document their queerness is Greece. Most people are familiar with famous lyric Poet Sappho, who was arguably the first lesbian influencer in history, however, there is a lot of other rich, gay history in Greece! One lesser-known example was the Poet Pindar, who produced content to be sung at events such as weddings and parties that mainly focused on men who loved other men. At the time, homoeroticism was somewhat reserved for the upper class, however, Pindar made his work available for all. Although it is pretty vanilla, Classical Greek literature has a wealth of information regarding queer life and culture.
Statue of Caesar Augustus in Rome
Ancient Rome, an impressive civilization that desperately tried to escape the shadow of the marginally more impressive ancient Greece. In the process of trying to do this, the Romans mimicked the Greeks in many ways, one example being sexuality! Rome has a complex history of homoeroticism, with men-on-men relationships being seen as desirable and proper, while lesbian love was seen as dirty and was generally frowned upon. This is, until word spreads of a man submitting to another; then they are ridiculed, like Julius Caesar after his rendezvous with the king of Bithynia. Although Ancient Rome had a complex understanding of homosexuality, they partook in it, nonetheless. Understanding their history, although sometimes unoriginal, is important in recognizing how different civilizations treated love and how it impacts other cultures.
Art on their tomb wall depictoing Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep.
Honorable mention: Ancient Egypt
In the last installment of ancient civilizations, we are looking at ancient Egypt. Although there is not much information available on queer activities between Egyptians, there is one finding that’s worth noting. The two (possible) lovers, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were found in ancient graves, in a traditional lover’s burial position. They were portrayed through art as facing each other with their noses touching, which is another lovers position seen with other Egyptian couples. However, it’s only natural that the archaeologists rejected the possibility of these two men having any sort of relationship and were therefore assumed to be brothers. Even though archaeologists have examined these men through a “white colonial lense,” Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep’s eternal relationship is definitely up to different interpretations.
Bella is a Planned Parenthood intern in Florida.