3 Gays (& 1 Sexpot) from History Worth Celebrating

While we argue that tossing the “gay” label onto historical figure is problematic, this doesn’t mean that the gay identity was a solely 20th Century invention, or that gay history starts with Stonewall. Meet some of the gay and lesbian forebearers who fought for your rights.

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs
Possibly the very first person to “come out,” in 1867 Hanoverian Karl Heinrich Ulrichs went before the Congress of German Jurists in Munich asking for a resolution urging the repeal of anti-homosexual laws. He was shouted down, but spent the rest of his life writing about and advocating for gay rights (though his preferred term was “Urning” derived from Plato’s Symposium). It’s fascinating to look back at the arguments he makes, for they are the same as the ones we make today. Take this small bit from 1870’s Araxes: A Call to Free the Nature of the Urning from the Penal Law:

“The prohibition of the expression of the sex drive, i.e., between consenting adults in private, lies outside the legal sphere. All grounds for legal prosecution are lacking in this case. Legislators are hindered from doing this by human rights and the principle of the constitutional state. The legislator is hindered by the laws of justice, which forbid applying a double standard. As long as the Urning respects guidelines [against the seduction of male minors, violation of civil rights (by force, threat, abuse of unconscious people, etc.), and public indecency), the legislator may not prohibit him from following the rightful law of nature to which he is subject.”

George Cecil Ives

gcivesPresaging Act Up! by more then a century, Englishman George Cecil Ives fought for “The Cause” of homosexual rights and, believing that they could never be achieved in open society formed the secret Order of Chaeronea, named after the battle where the Sacred Band of Thebes, made up of homosexual lovers, was finally annihilated. When not engaging in pseudo-Masonic fun and calling Walt Whitman “The Prophet,” Ives used the society, which grew to worldwide proportions to present papers arguing for the rights of gays and lesbians. He fastidiously studied and collected gay imprisonments, trials, treatments and the day’s discussions on sex and gender.

Magnus Hirschfeld

magnus_hirschfeldIn 1897, Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee to repeal Germany’s Paragraph 175, which criminalized homosexuality. His arguments would today be considered homophobic (he advocated compassion for gays in the same manner that “cripples” deserved fairness), and some members left the organization over his characterization of gays as being inherently deficient. However, Hischfield made achieving gay and lesbian equality his life’s work and would out closeted gay member’s of the Reichstag who didn’t support his repeal. Hirschfeld’s work in Germany came to an end with the Nazis’ rise to power, but he escaped and spent the rest of his life publishing papers and speaking out for gay rights.

Mae West

039_68763mae-west-postersWhile West was not gay, she is an indisputable early gay rights activist. In 1927, she had become a prolific playwright as well as actor and her play, The Drag, which dealt frankly with homosexuality (and which referenced the works of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs) was a hit in Connecticut and New Jersey, though the Society for the Prevention of Vice prevented it from playing on Broadway. West used her plays to talk about sex, gender and identity and treated the question of sexuality as a basic fundamental human right. Though always scandalous, West used her ability to excite the mind as much as the lower parts the body.

Get Queerty Daily

Subscribe to Queerty for a daily dose of #gayhistory #georgececilives #karlheinrichulrichs stories and more


  • Darth Paul

    Hassan-e Sabbah is my sorta historical queer. Also, I’m deranged.

  • Sebbe

    Again Japh, nice insightful article. Might you consider an ongoing sporadic series highlighting historical and contemporary figures?

  • Mark H

    This is a great article, and we need more! Feed the babies with their real history! Otherwise it gets written by the wrong people.

  • Tallskin

    Gays have so thoroughly excised from the historical record that it’s impossible to know our predecessors! Also heterosexuals have tried hard to claim gays as their own – I mean who is taught in school that Alexander the great had a male lover from his teenage years, or that Julius Caeser liked a bit of cock?

    Of course there openly homosexual men like:

    Leonardo da vinci



    Alan Turing

    Most other names are more of the “was he, wasn’t he” variety like shakespeare. But I guess we’ll never know

    What we do know, however, is that the oppression of gays started with christianity and won’t end until chrisitianity dies.

  • Scott

    How about the gay man who helped save the whole world? If it weren’t for Alan Turing, the Allies might not have won WWII and we’d all be speaking German. Or chilling in a concentration camp.

  • strumpetwindsock

    @Mark H: Mae West also put her money where her mouth was; when the largely transvestite cast of her play “Sex” was arrested she bailed them all out.

    I can offer two more historical figures worth remembering:

    Roger Casement. He was not openly gay, but he was a prominent activist for African anti-slavery and for Irish Nationalism. He was executed for treason following the Easter Uprising.

    Chevalier d’Eon
    She was a French diplomat, spy and master swordfighter. Her military career was cut short when it was revealed she was actually a woman. D’Eon eventually moved to England, and after her death it was discovered she was anatomically male.

  • Leland Frances

    Hmmmm. Please note your contradiction in, “His work came to an end with the Nazi’s rise to power, but Hirschfeld escaped Germany and spent the rest of his publishing papers and speaking out for gay rights.” They WERE his “work” in Germany and out.

    And you fail to mention that West’s attitudes were decidely homophobic, too, in that she thought, somewhat similar to Hirschfeld, that gay men were a “third sex.”

  • Sebbe

    @Leland – you have to put into historical perspective though. It is to simple to call the progressive of one generation bigots as time goes on.

  • jason

    Thanks for including, Hirschfeld, Japhy!!! Not enough is written about him. I’m working on a series of journal articles on his life and theories about sexuality :-)

  • strumpetwindsock

    @Sebbe: I agree.
    One perfect example is Tommy Douglas’s 1968 argument to repeal anti-gay laws in Canada by arguing it was a sickness and not a crime.

    The revisionist approach to history may be tempting, but it is neither fair nor accurate.

    Douglas, BTW, was the father of socialized medicine in Canada, voted our greatest Canadian, and also happens to be Kiefer Sutherland’s grandfather.

  • Leland Frances

    Mostly I was simply expanding upon Japhy’s characterization of Hirschfeld, whom I much admire, as “homophobic.” [He was a transvestite, too, BTW.]

    To be more precise, I think he was simply ignorant [however ahead of his time overall], and that his labeling as “cripples” might have been as much strategic as sincere. Was he “self-loathing”? I doubt it.

    West, on the other hand, seems to have delighted in the concept of a “third sex” or women trapped in men’s bodies, however well she might have treated them. That puts her in the category of those who opposed slavery while still thinking blacks inferior to whites. And, for that, I believe she, as they, qualifies as a bigot as much as those who voted for Prop H8TE.

  • Jonathan

    Japhy —

    My spouse is writing a book on Ulrichs and gay life in Berlin from the 1850s through the rise of the 3rd Reich. It is under contract with Knopf (paperback with Vintage) and will appear in 2011.

    here’s the link:


    I’ll make sure you get a copy when it comes out.

  • Jonathan

    Um. Hirschfeld was neither homophobic, nor ignorant. He was well ahead of his time.

  • strumpetwindsock

    Sorry about the broken link.
    Here’s a poor-quality recording of the relevant part of the 1968 debate between Liberal Leader Pierre Trudeau, Conservative Leader Robert Stanfield and NDP leader Tommy DOuglas. His comments on abortion and homosexuality start around the 3-minute mark:

    Trudeau had already gained attention with his statement that “the state does not belong in the bedrooms of the nation” during the debate over his omnibus bill:

    Yes it is risky to start passing judgement on historical events seen through a modern telescope – just like it can sometimes be hard evaluating other cultures without an inside understanding.

    I read in one essay (it may have been deBeauvoir’s) that the Marquis deSade was reviled for his blasphemous acts (desecrating a communion host) and consensual sodomy with his valet than he was for beating and poisoning commoners.

  • Sebbe

    @strumpetwindsock – I am vaguely aware of Tommy Douglas and his role in Canada specifically health care, but was not aware that is was Keifer’s grandfather and presumably Donald’s father-in-law?

  • Sebbe

    And yes Maldwyn, I don’t think the attempt here was to make an exhausted list of all.

  • Jonathan

    I find it quite interesting that by 1900, Germany had a thriving gay scene that puts most cities now to shame. There were dozens of bars and clubs for both lesbians and gay men; there was an active civil rights movement rights movement (the decriminalization of sodomy (which would not happen in the US until 2003), was openly supported by the largest German political party — the Social Democrats). There were more than 30 weekly or monthly newspapers or magazines devoted to lesbian and gay issues in Berlin alone by the 1920s (more, I daresay than exist now in NY or San Francisco)– there were even personal ads. Hirschfeld and Ulrichs pioneered the idea that sexuality was innate, not a perversion, and that there were more than two genders.

    Almost all of this world was destroyed after the Nazis came to power and decided to purge their own ranks of right-wing gays. World War II finished it off.

    We are only now coming back to the level of openess and public and private toleration for homosexuality that existed in Berlin before WWII.

  • GranDiva

    Now, see, anyone starts talking about Donald Sutherland and I can’t focus on whatever the topic of conversation is supposed to be.

    I love me some Daddy Like That. Now I have to go back and watch Don’t Look Now again.

  • strumpetwindsock

    @Sebbe: That’s right. There’s actually a great TV clip of him (you can probably find it in the cbc.ca archives) getting ambushed by the L.A. media when he flew down to support his daughter (Kiefer’s mom) Shirley Douglas. She had been framed and jailed by the FBI for her anti-poverty and anti-racism work.

    They tried to throw it in his face as he got off the plane, but he shut them right down. It’s nice to see an old guy wipe up the floor with a bunch of smartass kids sometimes.

    But sorry to get off topic. Back to Weimar, has anyone seen the original “Viktor und Viktoria”?

  • Leland Frances

    Saying Hirschfeld was ignorant does not mean he was mentally challenged. While he was far ahead of his time in terms of making teaching about and fighting for essential equality for those not exclusively heterosexual or conforming to gender expectations a career, he was “ignorant” in that even his great mind could not conceive of an identity that wasn’t but an “abnormal” variation of those expectations.

    Of course, this s/he construct persists among most of our opponents today who cannot/will not conceive of a male-identified man who likes other males or a female-identified woman who likes other females, and the transgenderd at once reinforces [in their minds] their belief as well as reflects the other side of the outer limits of their cerebral boundaries.

    Gays as a “third sex” is to sexology what flat is to Earth.

  • strumpetwindsock

    @GranDiva: and Fellini’s Cassanova too, I am guessing. Though I remember the last time I saw Altman’s M.A.S.H. it had not aged well. A lot of really offensive homophobic bits, but then again, it was 1950s army culture.
    If you are really a fan you should check him out in “Bethune”. Not a sexy role, but an obscure and good one.

  • strumpetwindsock

    @Leland Frances:
    People can define themselves however they wish. Most of the differences between the terms we are talking about are semantic anyway so why are you throwing people into the pit because you think they do not agree with your narrow gender definitions?

    “S/he” is a perfectly valid description for fuck sakes. Get off your high horse and dance.

  • Leland Frances

    Don’t put words or anything else in my mouth, strumpetwindsock! Fuck you very much.

    If you had actually read what I wrote instead of getting your Tuesday panties in a bunch, you’d see that I never said anything about the freedom of people to call THEMselves whatever THEY want.

    I merely [and clearly] wrote that Hirschfeld, West, et al., were intellectually wrong when they called simply gay men some variation of “s/he.”

    Attempting to reach consensus on “semantics” is vital to communication between ourselves and those who are different from ourselves, and progress and, yes, liberty.

    “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” – Mark Twain.

    • Japhy Grant

      Leland- You’re violating our comment policy. Consider this your only warning. Refrain from personal attacks, please.

  • rayrayj

    So did Ms. West think all gay men were a third gender or was she referring to the transvestites with whom she worked? Regardless neuroanatomically speaking, it may well be that gay men differ biologically from heterosexual men, what that may or may not say about gender remains to be seen. One’s sex is biologically determined XX, XY or some variation of the same. Gender however is a social construct, so I’m confused about how the idea of a third gender is insulting or demeaning.

  • strumpetwindsock

    @Leland Frances:
    Regarding the difference between right and almost right, there’s no way to know exactly how any one else defines his or her self; that’s why they call it gender fluidity.

    And a good first step in cutting through semantics and misunderstanding is to not go condemning others.

    I am not trying to tell you how you should think, but I am giving you shit for making harsh and unfair judgements from a comfortable position of 50/50 hindsight.

    Are we supposed to think Newton is a dummy too because he didn’t figure out relativity? In reality some of these people had intellects broader than yours and mine put together.


  • strumpetwindsock

    (I accidentally posted before I was finished)

    And who knows, perhaps in 50 years people might think Hirschfield was absolutely correct in his models of sexual identity, and our ideas were behind the times.

    Rather than cut him down perhaps we should be thankful for his bravery in doing the good work he did for us.

  • Leland Frances

    Having read both Mae West’s autobiography [“Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It”] and numerous articles about her, I don’t recall her making a distinction between types of gay men.

    And, NO, gender is NOT a “social construct” any more than any word/label is. But perhaps you meant “gender expectations.” If so, I yield.

    The issue isn’t that WE’re saying a “third gender” is insulting or demeaning but that, with some variations, Hirschfeld and West AND Ulrichs [“a female soul trapped in a male body”] meant it as abnormal inferior or “like a cripple.”

  • GJR


    You have to look at things in a historical perspective. The things a 19th century feminist would have demanded would be laughed at by today’s feminist. The case is even more complex in terms of gay people – we really didn’t have a way to get together and show strength in numbers. Part of bringing the gay rights movement forward is the fact that we know we are not alone, we can discuss what happens to us and how we feel. A 19th century person who was gay would likely has had a bit of self-loathing – pity me, it’s just the way I am. And sympathetic straight people would also not have a clear picture of what it would mean to be gay or lesbian – sure, they can understand the mechanics of it, but not that it is simply different that heterosexuality, not sick, not strange…
    So yes, people in their time can be seen as backwards or even contrary to the cause in the present context

    I was struck the other day when I was watching the 25th anniversary DVD of Yentl – I like Babs and Yentl – just sue me.
    What struck me was that it was a film about overcoming prejudices – that Avigdor could not see a woman could be an intellectual equal and had the right to study as did men. Yet, when talking about the prospect of two women marrying, Yentl said, “According to God, it’s not a marriage..” Yes, from the perspective of 1904 this was an issue not even on the radar and even through the prism of the 1980’s it really wasn’t, discussed only in select queer circles. So a movie that focused on overcoming narrow mindsets illustrated yet another one of those times. (Even though, Barbra, I’m quite sure, would support gay marriage, given her son Jason among other things)

  • rick

    mae west?????????????? there are dozens of actual gay people from the same era who could be in the position you gave her.

  • Sebbe

    @rick, i don’t think japh was making a list of numbers 1 2 3 4.


    omg leland francis – you are such a stain. just SHUT UP.

  • Charles J. Mueller


    “omg leland francis – you are such a stain. just SHUT UP.”

    Another wonderful example of “free speech”. So intelligent. So articulate. So erudite. Flame much?

    Apparently, your comment, Nicholas, has something to do with something?

    WHAT COMMENTING IS NOT (Queerty’s definition)

    Comment threads are not the place to exhibit grade school playground behavior. That means adherence to simple rules, such as not calling each other names, throwing profanity at other readers, or calling them idiots (particularly if you can’t back it up). It’s also not a place to say “Queerty sucks,” because while that may be true, you really shouldn’t be wasting your time visiting, let alone posting on, a site that sucks. You will be removed for such juvenile behavior.

    Seems pretty reasonable to me.

    What say you, Nicholas?


    @ Charles J. Mueller:

    What say I? I say you are a hypocrite. You criticize me for name calling – yet, in your own comment you refer to me as a flamer… So intelligent. So articulate. So erudite.

  • Charles J. Mueller


    Another name thrown out for lack of the ability to express yourself in a socially acceptable and credible manner.

    From Dictionary.com – definition of flame

    Computer Slang. an angry, critical, or disparaging electronic message, as an e-mail or newsgroup post.

    In addition to an apparent lack of understanding of the English language, you also seem to suffer from lack of computer etiquette.

    The only hypocrite and name caller here, is you, Sir. I think Leland would agree with me on that point.

    Btw…exactly what is a “stain” in the obviously pejorative sense you seem to be employing it?

  • hardmannyc

    Freud was a prominent defender of, and exponent of, Hirschfeld. He told the Berlin psychoanalysts not to shun him because he was open about his homosexuality.

  • rayray

    Regarding response number 29. I beg to differ with you, however as a social scientist I agree that words have power and therefore is is important to be precise. I will refer anyone who cares to follow up on this to Websters II New College Dictionary which defines gender as “a set of two or more categories, as masculine, feminine, and neuter into which words are divided according to sex, animation, psychological associations or other characteristics and that govern agreement with or the selection of modifiers, referents or grammatical forms…” Further evidence of gender as a social construct would be the existence of individuals accepted as something other than man or woman in aboriginal cultures, such as the Berdache of the plains indians.

    If you are talking about sex then most people typically agree a male generally has a XY chromosome and an external penis and testicles; and most would agree a female has a XX chromosome labia with internal ovaries. However, even these these definition do not alway hold true (e.g., some people are born with an additional sex chromosome, and others are born with genitalia which does not match their genotype.

  • fervor

    Do the research — Wikipedia even alludes to it. Though not taught in our public schools and the facts destroyed and buried by his family and historians James Buchanan, the 15th President of the U.S. was a gay, or at the very least bisexual, man.

  • strumpetwindsock

    You are absolutely right about the need for precision in language. My point was just that words and models are at best an approximation of our real thoughts and understanding of things. Just like the matter and energy models of light, neither is exactly correct, nor should they be expected to be, but if they help increase our understanding then they have served their purpose (so long as we can remember they are just models).

    Thanks for your refreshingly constructive input.

    Anyway, here’s another great lesbian artist from the Weimar Republik days – Claire Waldoff:
    The German page has a bit mroe info:

  • meredith

    I’d love to see something like this recurr, possibly with the inclusion of the sadly under-appreciated John Addington Symonds.

  • Sebbe

    @fervor – I’m not criticizing your opinion in the slightest, but it is often wise from starting with “Wikipedia even alludes to it” as a general rule, although I admit it is one of the best things to have hit the internet.

  • glendowynne

    @GJR: Did I see you mention Yentl? Yess. The movie just speaks volumes, even today. STILL today. Its amazing. I got the newest 2 disc DVD from Amazon, GJR. Good stuff. Heres a clip from it so the other readers can view her brilliance, directing and acting simultaneously in this clip, no cuts:

Comments are closed.