LGBTQ history before Stonewall
June is Pride Month, a celebration that occurs every summer and includes festivals, parades, lectures, speeches, and community events dedicated to celebrating the queer community. The goal is to honor gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, non-binary, gender non-conforming, and other members of the LGBTQ+ community, spreading tolerance, education, awareness—and most of all, pride.
The history of the celebration dates back to June 2, 2000, when President Bill Clinton declared it "Gay and Lesbian Pride Month” in honor of the Stonewall Riots, a series of demonstrations that took place in New York City on June 28, 1969. Prior to that, “LGBT History Month” had occurred in October in conjunction with National Coming Out Day since 1994.
This year is a particularly special one for Pride Month because it marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The famous impromptu demonstrations, which occurred after a nighttime police raid at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, lasted several days. They are typically pointed to by historians as the beginning of the modern Gay Liberation Movement. Soon after, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed, joining the many gay activist organizations that had been springing up in previous decades. From there, the movement caught fire and spread rapidly: “These events catalyzed lesbian women, gay men, and bisexual and transgender people to unite in a nationwide movement to seek equal rights for all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” reads an excerpt from the Stonewall National Monument website.
Earlier this month, New York City's police commissioner apologized for the raid 50 years ago that prompted the riots, saying that “the actions taken by the NYPD were wrong.” Seymour Pine, the officer who led the raid never formally apologized for the incident during his lifetime, but after his 2010 death, The New York Times reported that he had, in fact, apologized spontaneously at an event six years earlier.
In honor of the historic protests, Stacker has put together a slideshow featuring a chronological timeline of LGBTQ+ history leading up to them, beginning with prehistoric events and ending in the late 1960s, just before the events in Lower Manhattan. As you scroll through the slides, keep in mind that LGBTQ+ is a relatively new term and, while queer people have always existed, the terminology has changed frequently over the years. In an effort to avoid being anachronistic and to accurately describe the experiences of these historical figures, we have chosen in some instances to use the terminology of the time.
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2900–2500 B.C.: First record of a transgender person
Although rock art dating as far back as 9,600 depicts what some scholars have interpreted as homosexual love scenes, one of the first sets of skeletal remains of an LGBTQ+ person was a body thought to be a transgender woman discovered in 2011. The archaeological remains, which were found outside Prague, were of a skeleton that was assigned male at birth but arranged in a burial ritual that was reserved strictly for women. “We believe this is one of the earliest cases of what could be described as a transsexual or third gender grave in the Czech Republic,” archaeologist Katerina Semradova said at a press conference.
2400 B.C.: Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep are buried together
Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were ancient manicurists who worked for the royal court in a city called Saqqara, Egypt around 2400 B.C. In 1964, archaeologists unearthed a joint tomb in which the men were buried face to face in the same fashion that many married couples at the time were. Although the site is called the Tomb of the Brothers, and there is debate as to its significance, many historians have interpreted it as evidence of early gay relationships “Same-sex desire existed just behind the ideal facade constructed by the ancients,” said Egyptologist Greg Reeder in a 1998 speech in Dallas.
630–612 B.C.: Sappho the poet is born
The lesbian poet Sappho, who hailed from the island of Lesbos (the root of the word lesbian), was born sometime between 630 and 621 B.C. Though her sexuality has been an ongoing subject of debate, she wrote commonly about seemingly lesbian desires, and her only complete surviving poem, “Ode to Aphrodite,” features the female speaker begging the goddess of love to help her get over her unrequited love for a woman.
27 B.C.: First recorded same-sex marriage under Roman Empire
In 27 B.C. Augustus established the Roman Empire under which the first recorded same-sex marriage ceremony reportedly took place. At this time, laws around homosexuality were also formed—among them that gay prostitution would be legal, but taxed. A couple of decades later, when Nero became emperor, he married two different men, according to historians: one of whom Nero allegedly dressed in the clothing of one of Caesar's wives and even castrated to make the man seem more “womanlike.”
1478: The Spanish Inquisition stones “sodomites”
In 1478, the Spanish Inquisition was established, which resulted in the stoning and castration of many gays and lesbians, then dubbed “sodomites.” Decades later, it is estimated there were nearly 1,000 sodomy trials before the Aragonese Inquisition.
1532: Holy Roman Empire makes “buggery” punishable by death
In 1532, the Holy Roman Empire made intercourse between two women a crime punishable by death. In 1533, the “abominable vice of buggery” for both sexes was made a capital crime, a law that remained mostly unchanged until 1861 when it was changed to life in prison. The last people executed for the crime were Londoners James Pratt and John Smith, who were hanged after the landlord claimed to have seen them having sex through a keyhole.
1623: King James appoints his lover as Duke of Buckingham
It is well-documented that King James I had a lover named George Villiers whom he called his husband and the one he loved “more than anyone else.” In 1623, he went to the length of appointing his “sweet heart,” as he also referred to him, to the nobility as the Duke of Buckingham, a move that made him the highest-ranking subject outside the royal family.
1791: France becomes the first Western European nation to decriminalize homosexuality
During the French Revolution, the penal code outlined new crimes and their respective punishments in an effort to take sweeping power away from judges. Along with the new code came the legalization of sodomy, which was the first lift on the ban in Western Europe and one that paved the way for others to follow.
1800s: Decriminalizing homosexuality spreads through Europe and Latin America
In 1811, The Netherlands was the first major European country of the 19th century to decriminalize homosexuality. The Dominican Republic followed suit in 1822. Over the next decade El Salvador, Brazil, Bolivia, Portugal, Argentina, Turkey (then the Ottoman Empire), Honduras, Italy, and even The Vatican did the same — all before the turn of the next century. By contrast, Russia, Poland, and Germany enacted new laws against gay and lesbian activity.
1884: Eleanor Roosevelt is born
Amelia Earhart and openly gay reporter Lorena Hickok are just two of the women whom First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was rumored to have had closeted affairs with, the latter of whom she exchanged more than 3,300 letters with over a 30-year period. There has been extensive speculation about the First Lady's sexuality over the years, though some have argued it's irrelevant when discussing her contribution to the gay rights movement, particularly given her position of power. “(Roosevelt) did more than almost anyone in the pre-Stonewall era to model acceptance of gay relationships—and she did it in the White House,” wrote Marc Peyser for the Huffington Post.