International Women's Day: Queer Women From History You Should Know About
Today, March 8th, marks International Women's Day, a celebration of women in all of their beautiful forms. To mark this glorious feminist holiday, and because we can never get enough cool queer history, here are four queer women from history that you should definitely know about.
Sappho Of Lesbos
Let's start with the OG of queer women.
Sappho of Lesbos was a poet from the Ancient Greek island of Lesbos (from which the word lesbianism is supposedly derived). Coming from a well off middle class background, Sappho dedicated herself to a lifetime of writing and poetry that explored the erotic and romantic attraction between women.
Pioneering the most truly lesbian art form of romance poetry, multiple academics have tried and failed throughout history to either downplay or erase Sappho's sexuality entirely, yet she has remained a pioneer of queer womanhood in the ancient world.
Known as Fred to her lovers and Gentleman Jack to the members of the Yorkshire town she lived in, Anne Lister is often referred to as history's first lesbian.
Lister was a pioneer in many ways, being one of the first women to own her own colliery (coal mining business), and living a life that at the time scandalised wider society with how open she was in her lesbianism, eventually taking a wife (though with no legal backing).
Lister is perhaps most famous for her diaries, in which she kept incredibly detailed and explicit accounts of her romances and life, written in a self created code that revolved around Ancient Greek and Algebra. The full details of the diaries were only truly cracked some 100 years after her death!
When the Stonewall Inn was raided by police in 1969, the patrons of the bar did what no one had done before, fighting back against the police and rioting for days in protest of the police's homophobia. Chief amongst those fighting was Sylvia Ray Rivera, a drag queen and trans woman, who, along with Marsha P Johnson, would go on to to form the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a group dedicated to the protection and liberation of trans gender and gender non conforming communities.
In particular, Sylvia focused on the plight of homeless queer youth, to the point of being banned from the New York Lesbian and Gay Community Centre after angrily demanding they open their doors to homeless youth who were sleeping outside the building. Rivera sadly passed in 2002 but her legacy lives on in The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, an organisation dedicated to fighting for trans rights across America.
The Countless Lesbian Carers of The AIDS Crisis
The early years of the AIDS virus are a dark time in queer history, filled with insurmountable tragedy and sorrow. Hundreds upon hundreds of predominantly gay men started to succumb to a mysterious and deadly illness, with great social and political indifference to their suffering. Faced with such horrific circumstances one group emerged as ready to step in as carers, advocates, and fighters for their gay brothers.
The lesbian communities role in fighting the AIDS crisis is often overlooked, but they played a crucial and incredible part, often nursing gay men they'd known and loved through to their deaths. Given at this point in history the fractious nature of Lesbian and Gay Male politics, it is even more poignant that these differences could be laid aside and forgiven. When we talk about the AIDS crisis, we must always remember that the first community to rise up and help was the lesbian community.
When we talk about the history of queer women, it's important and essential to acknowledge just how many stories and histories are lost to us. For all the women we have spoken about here, there are countless others who, due to misogyny, racism, and homophobia, we will never know of. We want to acknowledge these women, and say that on International Women's Day, it is critical that we remember all queer women. No matter what their circumstance.
This post was written by Marilyn Misandry.
Marilyn Misandry is a queer performance artist, clown, and writer who works and plays in Manchester. Her work can be found on many platforms and publications including The Independent and New Statesman. In her free time she enjoys buffet dining and 90s sitcoms.