LGBTQ+ history before Stonewall
Published 11:50 am Tuesday, May 17, 2022
Simeon Solomon // Wikimedia Commons
LGBTQ+ history before Stonewall
Today’s Gay Liberation Movement can trace its roots directly to the Stonewall riots on June 28, 1969. The impromptu demonstrations, which occurred after a nighttime police raid at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City, lasted several days. Soon after, the Gay Liberation Front 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.
Stacker put together a timeline of LGBTQ+ history leading up to Stonewall, beginning with prehistoric events and ending in the late 1960s. As you read, 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.
Keep reading to learn about some significant moments in LGBTQ+ history.
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Airman 1st Class Perry Aston // U.S. Air Force
2900–2500 BC: First record of a transgender person
Although rock art dating as far back as 9600 B.C. 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 that 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.
Ahmad Badr // Wikimedia Commons
2400 BC: 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 many married couples were buried at the time. Although the site is called the Tomb of the Two 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.
Simeon Solomon // Wikimedia Commons
630–612 BC: 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.
George E. Koronaios // Wikimedia Commons
27 BC: 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. When Nero became emperor decades later, he married two men—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.”
Francisco Goya // Wikimedia Commons
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, dubbed “sodomites” at the time. Decades later, it is estimated there were nearly 1,000 sodomy trials before the Aragonese Inquisition.
MICHAL CIZEK/AFP // Getty Images
1532: Holy Roman Empire makes ‘buggery’ punishable by death
The Holy Roman Empire in 1532 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 executed by hanging after the landlord claimed to have seen them through a keyhole having sex.
Cornelius De Neve // Wikimedia Commons
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 “sweetheart,” as he also called him, to the nobility as the Duke of Buckingham, a move that made him the highest-ranking subject outside the royal family.
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Jean-Pierre Houël // Wikimedia Commons
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.
Markus Bernet // Wikimedia Commons
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.
John K. Hillers // Wikimedia Commons
1886: We’wha takes part in a delegation to Washington, DC
In 1886, a mixed-gender Zuni Native American named We’wha took part in a delegation to Washington D.C., where they were introduced to then-President Grover Cleveland. We’wha was a famous Lhamana, a person in Zuni culture who is assigned a male gender at birth but takes on ceremonial roles and attire typically reserved for women. Today, the Lhamana gender identity is referred to as “two-spirit” or “third-gender.”
1892: Magnus Hirschfeld earns his doctoral degree
Magnus Hirschfeld was a German physician who spent most of his career studying sexuality with a focus on homosexuality. He became a champion for gay rights and co-founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, the world’s first gay rights organization. Being both Jewish and gay, he was frequently targeted in his home country, yet he continued his work. He said he became interested in activism after observing many of his gay patients who died by suicide.
T. Kajiwara // Wikimedia Commons
1910: Emma Goldman begins speaking publicly
A contemporary of Magnus Hirschfeld’s, Emma Goldman was an American feminist and anarchist who served as an early ally to gay rights activism. The Russian-born Jew, who emigrated to America as a teenager, was heterosexual but spent much of her life championing various minority causes. In a letter to Hirschfeld, she said: “It is a tragedy, I feel, that people of a different sexual type are caught in a world which shows so little understanding for homosexuals and is so crassly indifferent to the various gradations and variations of gender and their great significance in life.”
1931: Dora Richter becomes the first transgender woman to get vaginoplasty
Dora Richter was a transgender woman under the care of Magnus Hirschfeld who received the first known vaginoplasty procedure in 1931 (though Hirschfeld did not perform the surgery). Along with a number of other transgender women, Richter worked at the Institute for Sexual Research where she was given special permission by police to wear women’s clothing. Two years after her affirmation surgery, the Nazis burned the library of the Institute and began sending homosexuals to concentration camps.
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Harris & Ewing // Wikimedia Commons
1932: Eleanor Roosevelt’s alleged lesbian affair
Amelia Earhart and openly gay reporter Lorena Hickok are just two of the women with whom former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt was rumored to have had closeted affairs, the latter with whom she exchanged more than 3,300 letters over a 30-year period; Roosevelt and Hickok allegedly began an affair from 1932 to 1938. There has been extensive speculation about the former first lady’s sexuality over the years, however, 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.
1936: Federico García Lorca is executed
In 1936, Spanish police raided the Granada home of Federico García Lorca, a famous poet they described as a socialist prone to “homosexual and abnormal practices.” He fled to a friend’s house but they caught up with him and surrounded the home, arrested him, and took him to an interrogation spot called the Fuente Grande. According to documents published in 2015, they executed him after he gave unspecified confessions, burying him on site in a “very shallow grave, in a ravine.”
Keystone Features // Getty Images
1948: Alfred Kinsey publishes ‘Sexual Behavior in the Human Male’
When biologist Alfred Kinsey published “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” in 1948, he asserted that approximately 37% of men at the time had engaged in homosexual activities at least once. That, along with other findings in his book, acted as the “opening salvos of the sexual revolution,” according to some, and brought the conversation about sex of all types to the mainstream.
“During the Twentieth Century, no one individual did more to bring homosexuality into the public forum than Alfred Charles Kinsey,” wrote James Alan Branch, professor of Christian ethics at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Prior to Kinsey, people were generally considered to be either heterosexual or homosexual. Instead of this binary approach, Kinsey saw sexual behavior on a continuum which rarely described individuals as either strictly homosexual or heterosexual.”
Roger Jackson/Central Press // Getty Images
1951–52: Christine Jorgensen has sex reassignment surgery
Gender confirmation surgeries (called “sex reassignment” at the time) had been performed prior to Christine Jorgensen. However, the transgender woman from the Bronx was the first person to become famous for it, bringing awareness and resources to the trans community that previously had very little access to information. After completing two operations in Denmark, she returned to New York to instant fame and began touring, writing, and speaking to advocate for transgender rights.
1955: The Daughters of Bilitis is formed
In 1955, there weren’t any lesbian political rights groups in the United States until the Daughters of Bilitis formed in San Francisco, making history as the first group of its kind. What began as a safe space for women to meet without the risk of police raids at gay bars quickly morphed into a full-blown political organization that created other political offshoots including The Ladder—the first nationally distributed lesbian publication—which encouraged women to “take off their masks.” For 14 years, DOB, as they were known, helped women come out of the closest and offered resources to anyone who needed it.
Townsend // Getty Images
1956: ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’ is first published by James Baldwin
James Baldwin published “Go Tell It on the Mountain” in 1956, offering the world a novel that was “pivotal in American gay literature,” according to many critics. Although the theme of homosexuality is never outrightly expressed, the subtext is hard to miss.
Daderot // Wikimedia Commons
1958: US Supreme Court rules in favor of gay free speech
One, Inc. v. Olesen was the first U.S. Supreme Court case that involved gay rights—and it won, marking a triumphant moment for the emerging liberation movement. The ruling occurred in 1958 when the high court overturned a federal district court’s decision to label gay magazine ONE: The Homosexual Magazine as “obscene” and ban it from being distributed through the United States Postal Service.
Patrick Emerson // Flickr
1962: Illinois removes sodomy law from criminal code
In 1962, Illinois became the first state in the nation to remove sodomy laws from its criminal code. The historic legislation occurred after the American Law Institute put together a list of recommendations called the Model Penal Code in an effort to create more legal uniformity across states. Illinois was the first state to adopt the full set of recommendations that omitted sodomy from the criminal code.
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Warren K Leffler // Wikimedia Commons
1964: First gay rights protests at Whitehall
Although it’s hard to say for sure given the burgeoning nature of the gay rights movement at the time, the protests outside the U.S. Army’s Whitehall Street induction center in 1964 are generally considered to be the first public demonstrations for gay rights. The demonstrations occurred after the confidentiality of a gay man’s draft record was broached, prompting an activist named Randy Wicker to organize the protest to speak out against the military’s anti-gay policies.
Warren K Leffler // Wikimedia Commons
1965: Vanguard is created
In 1965, a group of young people in San Francisco got together to create the Vanguard, the country’s first gay liberation organization. The group, co-founded by Adrian Ravarour and Billy Garrison, also produced an accompanying news publication, the Vanguard Magazine, which was created by Jean-Paul Marat and Keith Oliver St.Clair.
Mattachine Society of New York
1966: The Mattachine Society organizes a ‘Sip-In’
When the New York State Liquor Authority banned bartenders from serving alcohol to gay people, an activist group called the Mattachine Society responded in 1966. Large groups turned out at the bar Julius’ in New York City to host a “Sip-In,” as they called it, promoting the issue to land in court. “The importance of this, I think, was that until this time gay people had never really fought back,” said Dick Leitsch, head of the New York Mattachine Society at the time. “We just sort of took in everything passively, didn’t do anything about it. And this time we did it, and we won.”
David McNew // Getty Images
1967: Police raid Black Cat Tavern
After plain-clothed police officers raided the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles on New Year’s Day in 1967, beating up staff and patrons alike, a group of gay rights protestors began demonstrating out front. Organized by the Personal Rights in Defense and Education group, the crowd was considered the biggest civil rights demonstration the LGBTQ+ community had produced at the time, leading some historians to call it the “birthplace of a worldwide movement.”