Queer History: Four Times LGBT People were Erased from History

Queer History

by Amanda Mae Downey

Queer HistoryIn just fifty years, life for the LGBTQ+ community has gotten better in many ways. Not only is there more visibility in the media, but people are generally more accepting, and in recent years, rights have been given to the community. Unfortunately, also in recent years, many basic human rights have been taken away. Not only is there the trans ban, but there are laws that give others the right to discriminate openly.

And you can find ways the world discriminates against the LGBTQ+ community in nearly all parts of our lives. Recently I wrote a post about the myths we wrongly believe about diversity in fiction and why we need diversity, but today I want to tackle discrimination from a historical standpoint.

Some people will try to tell you that having another sexuality or gender identity outside the “norm” just wasn’t a thing back then, that people didn’t think about that. But that’s wrong. People did think about it, because it was who they were. There are so many places where LGBTQ+ members were simply erased from history.

But today, I’m going to teach you some queer history lessons that no one taught you and that you’ll never find in a history book. Let’s rewrite the gays back into history.

 

Gays on the Frontier

You know cowboys. They gunsling out in the streets, kill the bad guy (who always has a killer mustache) and then they save the girl from the train tracks and live happily ever after, right? I’m sure some did. But many cowboys were gay and bisexual icons.

In history, we don’t like to talk about this, because there’s a disconnect for many people between these manly men and their preferences which a lot of homophobic people will see as emasculating. But that’s simply not the case. These guys were hardcore. Back when the Wild West was an unpopulated wasteland, they were finding gold and building cities and doing crazy shit. They were awesome.

Cowboys Wildwest
Cowboys go to dance stag, then they end up dancing together. This photograph is rumored to brighten anyone’s day. || {{PD-US}}

So let’s break it down. Why were there so many gay cowboys? The important thing to note is that there wasn’t an inordinate amount of gay or bisexual cowboys, but it seems this way because we actually know they existed. Look at it like this–if you’re a gay man or woman living in the 19th century you had two options. You could either speak out and risk injury, death, or violence. Or you could trade in your happiness for safety and marry the opposite sex. It was what you were expected to do, despite how miserable you might be.

Cowboys didn’t have this dilemma. At this time they were attempting to populate the Wild West, and every so often women would come over and settle down with a cowboy, but it wasn’t often that a single woman arrived in town. For cowboys, suggesting that they were interested in each other wasn’t rare and it wasn’t even strange. Cowboys were open about their relationships. It wasn’t seen as weird or taboo, it was the way things were.

Cowboys, gunslingers, and the like were pretty progressive. And you know, sometimes a gun isn’t just a gun.

Sergeant Johnnie Phelps and the Lesbian WAC

Johnnie Phelps
Sergeant Phelps, lesbian rights activist and owner of a purple heart. Why do we not know about her? || {{PD-1996}}

If you’ve ever met a lesbian, then you’ll know, it’s a hardly a stereotype–they’ll care for you, but they’ll also kick your ass. That’s because lesbians are hardcore, and so as it turned out, there was a disproportionate amount of them that ended up joining the Women’s Army Corp for WWII. And let’s be clear, they didn’t go there to meet other lesbians, they went there to sacrifice their lives for the war effort. And we might also assume that there was this disproportionate amount of lesbians because heterosexual women were needing to stay home to care for their children.

Meet Sergeant Johnnie Phelps. She fought in WWII and was honorably discharged from the military in 1946 and awarded a purple heart. When her injury healed, she re-enlisted for the Cold War.

In 1947, General Eisenhower, a known homophobe who was desperately trying to expose LGBTQ+ people in the government and military, had his eyes on the WAC. He had come to the realization that there were at least a couple of lesbians in the battalion. He told Phelps that he needed to “ferret them out.” Now this was a bit of an awkward situation as Phelps was, to no one’s surprise, a lesbian herself.

She told him she’d make a list for him, but her name would be on the top. And then her secretary, also (suprise, suprise) a lesbian, chimed in that Phelps’ name would actually be second on the list, as she would be typing.

Women's Army Corp
Joining the WAC was a huge sacrifice for these brave women and many lost their lives. || {{PD-1996}}

Then Phelps kindly informed Eisenhower that around 95% of the battilion was comprised of ha

rdworking, asskicking lesbians and he’d lose the best file clerks, nurses, drivers, and commanders. After presumably shaking his fist, Eisenhower told her to cancel the order.

To better understand the timing, this happened just three years before the Lavender Scare, when the United States government mass fired gays, lesbians, and bisexuals in the government and military. The people in charge of these firings were scared that the LGBTQ+ members were not only too “immoral”, but they were national security risks for some reason. In all honesty, it was just another reason to justify discrimination.

We can run circles around politics all day and never agree, but it’s clear to anyone that Eisenhower knew how to run the military. Unfortunately, he did do a huge disservice for the LGBTQ+ heroes working in the military who were offering their life for the United States. And unfortunately we’re still seeing military bans like this today. Hopefully more people can know about the amazing women in the WAC battalion who sacrificed everything they had for not only the United states, but for all the Allies. Let’s not erase these amazing women or any queer person who has risked their life for our freedom.

WAC Lesbians
Gals who like other gals operate a teletype. || {{PD-1996}}

Dressing Outside of the Perceived Binary

Mary Read
Mary Read kills a pirate who told her that she made him feel uncomfortable; uses her breasts as a distraction || {{PD-US}}

Drag Queens make it glamourous, but back in the old days, life wasn’t so easy for the guys and gals that didn’t like the clothes mom gave them. You’ve probably read a story or two where–more typically–women dressed outside of their perceived gender binary.

In my experience this alone was a topic that made teachers uncomfortable. On a basic level we know that a lot of these women were simply trying to get accepted into the military or another male-dominated area. And they did, and for a lot of women it was that simple. For other women and men, there was more of a motive.

I wrote a post a while ago about lesser-known historical pirates that could inspire a character. In this, I talked about Mary Read, who dressed as a man to get on board a pirate ship and ended up falling in love with another lady pirate named Anne Bonny. A lot of lesbians dressed as men not only to gain admittance into male-dominated society, but also so that they could live out their lives with their prefered partner without risking violence.

But you’re probably thinking there were transgender heroes back in the day. And yes, there were. Emperor Elagabus (204-222 AD) was a roman emperor given the throne as just 14 (truly an Empress, but sadly no one gives her the title). Elagabus was born male, but did not identify this way. Due to this, she dressed in clothes that represented her gender. She also pleaded with doctors to do something about her dysphoria, but it was always refused (I should note that should the surgeries have been attempted, they would have failed). We like to think that the Greco-Romans were progressive and good with the LGBTQ+ community, but they hated Elagabus. While it had a lot to do with her gender orientation, it is to be said that she instituted controversial religious practices as well. This was the last straw for the Romans. At just 18, this Empress was assassinated (an act ordered by her own grandmother) for feeling a different way, a horrifying reality that modern trans people know all too well. Not only do we not talk about her, but her identity is often plainly disregarded and many people will refer to her as a “he” with “eccentricities” despite the very obvious intentions she had to associate under a different gender and sex than her biological one.

Dressing outside of the gender binary was done for so many other reasons besides trying to make it into a male-dominated workforce. Besides it being a way of life for transgenders, and a safe way to be somewhat happy for lesbians and bisexual women, there were more reasons. I’ll end this with an honorable mention to Queen Christina of Sweden who many regard as nonbinary, but there isn’t necessarily enough proof to say so.

Emperor Elagabus
The Bust of Emperor [sic.] Elagabus || {{PD-US-unpublished}}

Gays Rule the USA

Abraham Lincoln
Honest Abe, looking snatched. || {{PD-US}}

 

It is many people hopes that the first gay president will come into office and really sort some shit out, but what if I told you we already had gay presidents?

If a president is ever called gay it’s usually an insult or a way derail his campaign. We saw this when the always well-adjusted Alex Jones did this to President Obama. When presidents legitimately raise suspicion, we don’t like to talk about it. Why? Because homophobes like to assume that being gay makes you a bad person, but when a good person is gay, it confuses them. It’s simply easier to erase the person’s identity than to cast them into the fires of hell. You know, as you do.

Enter Abraham Lincoln, possibly one of the most beloved presidents ever, slaying racists (and vampires, as some movies suggest).

While you may not agree with some of his policies, everyone sane can agree that he changed our country for the better. Many also speculate that he was gay or bisexual. No one figured it out while he was alive, but there were letters found after his death that revealed that he spent a good deal of time sleeping in the same bed as his bodyguard. If you’re unfamiliar with the presidency and bodyguarding, that’s not a part of the job description. Lincoln also wrote at least one steamy poem about men and expressed a problem with establishing emotional connections to women.

There are a lot of other presidents that may have been gay or bi. The lifelong bachelor James Buchanan has come under question. There are others, but the proof for these other men doesn’t seem convincing nor is it necessary to speculate without proof. There’s no need to create queer history where it doesn’t exist, but there’s no need to erase it either.

 

Erasing queer and trans identity throughout history is no good. Not only is it harmful to the legacies of the people we’re disregarding, but it doesn’t allow queer and trans men, women, and children the role models they need. It breeds this idea that no one was gay before the 1960’s. And that’s cockemamie. The whole of the LGBTQ+ community has existed just as long as heterosexuality and cisgenderism has existed. There are also several identities I didn’t even get to touch on in this article, so if you know another instance where this has occurred (which there are many!), leave a comment!

Let’s stop the erasure of the queer and trans people that changed history. Their struggles and the indignities they faced are too eerily similar to the same ones the LGBTQ+ community faces today. By spreading the stories of these amazing men and women, maybe we can change minds, and hopefully change history.

We post every Monday, so check back next week for another post from the amazing Anna Wahler.

Do you know any other instances of queer or trans erasure in history? Do you think the inclusion of these people for who they truly were in history books is important? Leave a comment, let’s talk!

 

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