Heroes of Stonewall: Sylvia Rivera

0w5sda97-75dv-q78d-s6ky-6zbn3d195rj8-1541658467Of all of the heroes of the LGBTQIA+ community who fought for us at the Stonewall Riots, I personally think that Sylvia Rivera may have had the most important impact on our community — however, she may also be the most controversial. Though we view her as a hero and champion for our community now, she was not always looked on so fondly.

Sylvia was given the name Ray Rivera when she was born on July 2, 1951 and was of both Puerto Rican and Venezuelan heritage. Her father, Jose Rivera, abandoned the family. Her mother committed suicide — orphaning the young Rivera at only three years old. And so she was raised by her grandmother, who vocally disapproved of how effeminate “Ray” was. This disapproval became even worse when Rivera began to wear makeup in the fourth grade — as a result, she was living on the streets at eleven years old, surviving only by making money through sex work. She was taken in by a group of drag queens, who gave her the name Sylvia that she would carry for the rest of her life.

Rivera developed a very, very fluid sense of gender identity throughout her life. She would alternate between referring to herself as a gay man, a gay girl, a drag queen, a street queen, and a transvestite (while that was still the popular term in usage, anyways.) Consistently, however, she shirked labels whenever possible. In one interview she stated, as a response to the gender identity question: “I am Sylvia Rivera. Ray Rivera left home at the age of 10 to become Sylvia. And that’s who I am.”

Rivera took to activism early, before the Stonewall Riots, and was active in the Civil Rights Movement and protested against the Vietnam War, and was involved in youth activism with the Young Lords and Black Panthers. She was particularly vocal, however, about queer homeless people of color — who she felt were being left behind by a gay community that only wanted to assimilate into the mainstream. She frequently struggled with substance abuse and homelessness herself, so she sought to give a stronger voice to those who — like her — suffered from racism, poverty, as well as inmates, drag queens, and other often ignored sections of the queer community. (Some of these groups, I might add, are still often ignored — we could use another Sylvia Rivera!)

Rivera was a regular customer of the Stonewall Inn in 1969 and was frequently there with her close friend Marsha P. Johnson. Although Rivera stated in interviews in the 90’s that she was present when the riots began, most other accounts — including Johnson’s telling of it — indicate she arrived after the riots began. In fact, by some accounts, she may not actually have been present the first night of the riots at all — though Johnson made sure Rivera was aware of the riots that night, it’s unclear if Rivera actually showed up until the second night of the riots. She was certainly present at that point.

Following the riots, Rivera worked alongside the Gay Liberation Front — and with their next iteration, the Gay Activists Alliance. In 1971, she campaigned with them to pass a sweeping anti-discrimination ordinance in New York City. However, despite her hard work, the GAA made deals that stripped the language protecting non-gender conforming individuals, like drag queens and transvestites. The argument was that it would not be possible to pass the bill with “extreme elements” included — but the GAA rapidly became more conservative, and began to outright exclude any protections for the more “radical” portions of the LGBTQ+ community. The leadership of the GAA would have Rivera plan and front rallies — until the media showed up, when the straight passing members of the organization would essentially push her aside. Eventually, Rivera was all but pushed out of the organization. When recalling this in an interview years later, she’d add “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned.”

In 1970, River and Johnson worked together to found the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to provide support and advocacy for young homeless queer people. In 1972, STAR even managed to open housing for homeless queer youth — with rent paid mostly from money that Rivera and Johnson earned as sex workers. According to Rivera, aside from trying to help those who needed it, they were trying to help move the community away from the mafia-controlled bar scene.

In 1973, at a Christopher Street Liberation Day rally Rivera gave an impassioned speech in which she warned of heterosexual men who preyed on the transgender community, and also declared that queer inmates looking for help “do not write women. Do not write men. They write to STAR.” Despite that — and how revolutionary an organization STAR was — it was short lived, partly because of Rivera’s passion. At the same rally, Rivera and Lee Brewster interrupted Jean O’Leary‘s speech. Rivera argued, “You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!”

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Rivera and Johnson

Following the rally, Rivera attempted to commit suicide — but was found and saved by Marsha P. Johnson. Unfortunately, that outburst cost Rivera much of her remaining support in New York’s LGBTQ+ community. STAR closed within the year. Rivera took the better part of the next 20 years off from activism, feeling totally abandoned by her community. She did — on certain occasions in the ’80s — speak up on behalf of those left homeless by the AIDS crisis.

In July of 1992, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River. Police ruled the death a suicide — something Rivera, among others, insisted was false. Rivera stated that she and Johnson had made a pact to “cross the ‘river Jordan’ together.” In May of 1995, Rivera attempted to commit suicide in the Hudson River. The attempt failed, but afterwards she got back into advocating for the most vulnerable in the queer community — much to the chagrin of other activists in the community. Most of the focus of queer activism at the time involved fitting the homosexuals into existing legal structures — getting marriage equality, overturning Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, passing the Matthew Shepard Act, etc. These were not Rivera’s priorities, and she made it quite well known.

She was banned from New York’s Gay & Lesbian Community Center for most of the mid-90s for angrily insisting that they provide housing for homeless queer youth during the frigid winters. She attacked the Empire State Pride Agenda for not being inclusive of transgender issues. She also made something of an enemy of the Human Rights Campaign, because — as she would tell Michael Bronski: “I’m tired of sitting on the back of the bumper. It’s not even the back of the bus anymore — it’s the back of the bumper. The bitch on wheels is back.”

the-crusade-of-transgender-activist-sylvia-rivera-6-1Despite her friction with many queer organizations, Rivera was an active member of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, and often helped to feed the poor and homeless through their food pantry. In 2000, Rivera traveled to Rome, Italy for WorldPride. There she was called “the mother of all gay people” and participated in the Millenium March. In 2001, Rivera attempted to revive STAR as a political organization — changing the “T” to stand for “Transgender,” which was beginning to come into common usage. The new STAR, under Rivera’s leadership, pushed for a trans-inclusive New York State Sexual Non-Discrimination Act, as well as the New York City Transgender Rights Bill. They also fought for justice for Amanda Milan, a transgender woman who was murdered in 2000.

Sylvia Rivera suffered from liver cancer at the end of her life. Before her death — on her deathbed — she negotiated with Matt Foreman and Joe Grabarz, leaders of the Empire State Pride Agenda, to ensure they would be more inclusive of transgender people and issues in the future. She passed away on February 19, 2002.

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Rivera’s portrait in the National Gallery — also featuring Christina Hayworth (left) and Rivera’s partner Julia Murray (right) — which shows them at New York Pride in June of 2000.

After her death, she became much more appreciated by the queer community. The year of her death the Sylvia Rivera Law Project was established, to help fight against discrimination based on gender identity and expression. The MCC in New York built a shelter for homeless queer youth, which is named Sylvia’s Place in her honor. The New School named their social justice hub the Baldwin Rivera Boggs Center, putting her name alongside James Baldwin and Grace Lee Boggs. The intersection of Hudson Street and Christopher Street in New York was also renamed in her honor, coming to be called “Sylvia Rivera Way.” In 2015, she became the first transgender (well, genderfluid?) American citizen to have a portrait placed in the National Gallery of the Smithsonian. It was recently announced that she — along with her friend Marsha P. Johnson — will soon be honored with a monument in Greenwich Village

There have even been some fictional depictions of Rivera. In 2002, she was depicted in the musical ICONS: The Lesbian and Gay History of the World, Vol 1. In 2007, a musical called Sylvia So Far premiered in New York, based on Rivera’s life. She is also depicted in the short film Happy Birthday Marsha!

Despite all that Rivera did, the communities she specifically fought for — the poor queer — mostly transgender — youth of color are still by far the most vulnerable in the queer community. They are the most likely to be homeless, most likely to be uneducated, most likely to be unemployed, and most likely to commit suicide. It’s been 50 years since the Stonewall Riots. It’s been 19 years since she was called the “mother of all gay people” at WorldPride. Now that WorldPride is going to be in New York City, honoring that momentous event 50 years ago, let’s not forget what Rivera was actually fighting for and truly honor her legacy by keeping that fight going.

Mariasilvia Spolato

Let me tell you about a remarkable woman from Italy who gave up everything to live her truth — Mariasilvia Spolato. She was born in Padua on June 26, 1935. She didn’t leave Padua for quite some time — remaining there until after she earned a degree in mathematical sciences.

Degree in hand, she departed for Milan with the plan to teach. She also became a part of the Italian civil liberation movements of 1968. By the following year, she had published a  mathematics book, and begun to write for magazines — as well as publishing her own photographs and poems in magazines. She had earned a great deal of respect in a fairly short amount of time.

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In 1971 she founded the Homosexual Liberation Front (FLO) — which would later merge with the Italian Revolutionary Unified Homosexual Front (FUORI) — and founded the magazine Fuori! with Angelo Pezzana. In 1972, she published her second book: The Homosexual Liberation Movements (not at all like her first book! Less math, more queerness! I haven’t read either but I’m sure this one’s a way better read.)

And then, on March 8 1972, she marched on Rome while carrying a sign that openly and defiantly declared that she was a lesbian — “I love a woman” it read. She was photographed, and the picture was published in a magazine called Panorama. This made Mariasilvia the first woman in Italy to publicly come out as a lesbian. The nation went absolutely nuts — Mariasilvia was dismissed from her teaching position by the Ministry of Education, who determined her to be “unworthy” and her family abandoned her. She was left homeless and jobless.

Mariasilvia was spent most of the rest of her life wandering through Italy, engaged heavily in activism. She spent many nights sleeping on benches, or staying in homeless shelters or with friends. She claimed half of the train conductors on the continent knew her, she traveled by train so frequently.

maria_silvia_spolato_2During the 90’s, after many years of this, she developed an infection in her leg that ultimately put an end to her travels. She was admitted to a hospital in Bolzano, and afterwards stayed in a newly opened homeless shelter for women that had recently opened there. In 2012, she was given a place to stay at the Villa Armonia nursing home in the same city. Mariasilvia was not eager to give up her freedom, and adamantly refused to do anything but sleep inside the nursing home for the first three years then. After those first years though, she warmed to the idea and began to participate in picking the movies for theme nights, having meals with the other residents, and taking pictures of them all. Eventually, she even gave the books she had been traveling with for decades to the nursing home’s library. She remained there until she passed away at 83 years old on October 31, 2018. She died still estranged from her family and, sadly, forgotten by many despite the momentous act that cost her so much.

Sappho

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Earliest known depiction of Sappho, c. 470 BCE

This woman really needs no introduction, she’s basically the mother of all lesbians. And by that, I mean, they wouldn’t be called lesbians without her. I’m talking about Sappho.

Now, like, Sappho was around in really ancient times and she was a woman, and it kind of took a bit for people to notice she might be someone to pay attention to and maybe write things down about. So, there’s a lot of her life that’s isn’t known for sure or that we have to get from reading in between the lines of things. We’re literally not even sure how to spell her name because there’s a few different ways to spell it, sometimes appearing in her own native dialect.

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“Sappho” by John William Godward

But we do know for sure that she originally came from Mytilene, the capital city of the island of Lesbos — sometime around 630 BCE. Some scholars have guessed that her mother was named Cleïs, but the evidence for that is flimsy at best. The best guess for her father is a dude named Scamandronymous (and I’m not kidding when I call it a guess) but Sappho tells us in her poetry that he died when she was seven.

From her poems, we can also gather that she had three brothers: Erigyius, Charaxus and Larichus. Larichus, apparently, had a job pouring wine in the town hall which also tells us that their family was aristocratic. Charaxus was the black sheep of the family, it seems, who once ransomed off an Egyptian courtesan for a whole lot of money — and Sappho wrote a scathing poem shaming him for it.

She and her relatives were temporarily exiled from Lesbos to Sicily around 600 BCE because some sort of political conflict arose, and her family was involved with the wrong side.

She may have had a daughter named Cleïs (and that’s why its suggested that could be her mother’s name), though some sources indicated Cleïs may have actually been a younger lover. I, personally, think that’s more likely especially since the word “pais” — used in a couple of places to describe Cleïs — is sometimes used to denote a younger same-sex lover (albeit typically in a male relationship. For fun, look up where the word “pais” was used in the Bible some time. That’s a super controversial post for another day.)

And then of course, I’m also fairly convinced because of who is described as her husband in the Suda (which was like an ancient encyclopedia). Her husband was Kerkylas of Andros. The thing is, according to basically everyone, Kerkylas wasn’t a name — it was a word for “penis”…and Andros, although it is a Grecian island, is also a word that means “man”. So…yeah, Sappho was supposedly married to “Penis of Man”? I’m just a little skeptical. It’s been suggested that this was invented for a comedic play, which makes more sense but it’s still kind of at fart-joke levels of humor. Like most scholars, dating from 64 BCE to today — I am also really skeptical of the story that she ultimately killed herself for the love of a guy named Phaon. While we still don’t know how she died, this little story tells us two things: she died around 580 or 570 BCE, and straight-washing has been going on for a long time.

It’s believed that, much like Socrates, Sappho led a sort of informal “school” that was really more a collection of people, mostly women, who liked to discuss art and philosophy and culture. Theoretically, a number of these women may also have been her lovers but we really don’t know for sure.

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Anyways, throughout her life, Sappho wrote something like ten thousand poems in the rare Aeolic Greek dialect — making her the earliest known Lesbian poet. (To clarify — that’s Lesbian with a capital L — as in from Lesbos.) She was also one of the greatly revered Nine Lyric Poets — lyrics poets from ancient Greece who were determined to be worthy of study by the scholars of Alexandria (you know, before they torched the library.) Of those Nine Lyric Poets, Sappho is the only woman. Plato is also known to have described Sappho as “the Tenth Muse.” Statues of Sappho were built, her face appeared on coins in Mytilene — given that she was in a pretty strictly patriarchal society, and that she is the only woman who’s cultural contributions survive to this day, it’s pretty incredible that she managed to reach such high levels of respect and celebration across Greece.

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Sappho in “Parnassus” by Raphael, depicted with a paper that says “Sappho” because I guess the Greeks invented name tags?

As of this writing, about 650 of them are known to have survived. Her most famous of these are lyric poems, which were intended to be played with music. Her contemporaries who wrote about her spoke mainly of her love poetry, but she also has a lot of poems about her family (mostly her brothers).

None of the love poems are truly explicit — it’s hard to say if she was actually sexually or romantically attracted to men or women or both or neither, or if it changed from day to day. The Suda states that accusations of her sexual relationships with female students were slanderous, and other ancient sources only describe her as being accused of having relations with other women. And so — for centuries — it’s been hotly debated whether or not Sappho was in love with women or just really good friends with them — and conversely, whether or not she was in love with any guys or just really good friends with them. A lot of the answers may depend on cultural context that we simply don’t have and probably will never get.

That said, it’s from her name and her life that we’ve derived the words “sapphic” and “lesbian” so I’d say that we get to claim this one.

Heliogabalus

I’ve heard some feedback that people want me to talk about ancient Rome because it was like “super gay”. That’s not quite right though — like, yeah, a lot of guys were having gay sex but the place was so patriarchal and sexist that there were laws restricting who could be in the “feminine roll” (y’know, bottoms) — slaves, prostitutes, and entertainers; people who did not get the benefit of “citizenship”. That is, that was the situation for male-on-male loving until after today’s subject wasn’t emperor anymore. Things went downhill after that.

Now Heliogabalus (also frequently called Egabalus) was probably born with the name Sextus Varius Atinus Bassianus but it’s hard to know for sure. He was born in Syria around the year 203 CE; his parents were Julia Soaemias and Sextus Varius Marcellus. In his younger years, he was a priest to a god called Elagabalus — a Syrian/Roman sun god that you’ve probably never heard of. And, you’ll note, he shares an alias with his god — there’s a reason for that and the confusion about his names. We’ll get there.

Anyways, in April of 217 CE the emperor Caracalla was assassinated by Marcellus Opellius Macrinus — who became emperor. Caracella’s aunt, Julia Maesa, began a revolt in order to have her grandson Heliogabalus named emperor instead (some families just put the “fun” in dysfunctional, y’know?). Although Heliogabalus was named emperor on May 16 of 218 CE, Macrinus wasn’t officially defeated until June 8. As emperor, Heliogabalus took the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus. He was 14 years old. Despite Rome’s best efforts to make it so no one remembered his reign at all, it is remembered — mostly for sex scandals and a total disregard for Roman tradition.

Right from the start, Heliogabalus started changing things and making people very unhappy about it. One of his major projects throughout his reign was changing the state religion to worship of Elagabalus. First he put a painting of Elagabalus over a statue of the goddess Victoria — so when people made offerings to Victoria they were by default also making offerings to Elagabalus (who was basically only worshipped in Syria before this. He was basically considered some kind of redneck, backwoods deity.) Later on he installed Elagabalus as the head of the Roman pantheon, replacing Jupiter, and gave Elagabalus a consort who was one of the pre-existing Roman goddesses (though there’s debate on if that was Minerva, Astarte, or Urania). He built a temple (called the Elagabalium) where he eventually had all of Rome’s most sacred artifacts moved. And, as like an extra “screw you” to the old Roman cult, he installed himself as high priest of the Cult of Elagabalus in a public rite that involved his circumcision — and he forced the entire Roman Senate to attend the ceremony. Let’s just say, the Senate was not overjoyed.

He also gave his mother and grandmother very important positions in the government, including Senate seats (making them the first women allowed in the Senate — imagine how well that went over). They probably were responsible for a number of the decisions Heliogabalus made — because, like, what 14 year old (who had nothing to do with government until his grandmother installed him in power) is going to be doing things with money like reducing the purity of the silver used in the denarius and demonetizing the antoninianus? Which, of course, ticked a lot of people off as well because that was their money he was making worthless.

Heliogabalus was definitely making his own decisions about his love life, though he still managed to make all terrible decisions according to pretty much all of Rome. He reportedly married and divorced five women (although we only know who three of them were). And that’s not counting his marriages to men. In 219 CE, he married a woman named Julia Cornelia Paula. He divorced her  a year later and then flipped the bird to Roman tradition by marrying Julia Aquilia Severa — a Vestal Virgin. Vestal Virgins took a 30 year vow of chastity and Romans thought it was VERY important that Vestal Virgins not marry. But Heliogabalus said they’d have “godlike children”. He was married to her for less than a year — basically just long enough to thoroughly destroy her life — and then married a woman named Annia Aurelia Faustina. After that (brief) marriage, he went back to his Vestal bride — claiming the original divorce was invalid. Apparently, after that, she stayed with him (even though we know there were two more wives to go through!) but several sources claim she was kept by his side against her will.

Heliogabalus did have some stable relationships in his life but pretty much exclusively with men. He married an athlete named Zoticus in a very public ceremony and he gave Zoticus a high-ranking administrative position within the government. But his most stable, and most famous, relationship was with a charioteer (and slave) named Hierocles. Although there’s no record of an actual marriage ceremony, Heliogabalus referred to Hierocles as his husband and reportedly delighted in being called Hierocles’ wife or mistress or queen. He attempted to get Hierocles the title of Caesar, but couldn’t manage to get the Senate on board with that.

Heliogabalus also developed a reputation for wearing cosmetics, painting his eyes, and plucking his body hair. He would put on wigs and then prostitute himself in taverns, brothels, and even in the imperial palace. He was said to have agents who were hired to act as his lovers and leave him payments — and he is also said to have bragged to other prostitutes that he was more beautiful, had more lovers, and made more money. Reportedly, he was also offering tons of money to any doctor or surgeon who could equip him with female genitals — sadly, it would be more than 1,700 years before science would actually catch up with this goal.

Anyways, by 221 CE the Praetorian Guard — the Roman soldiers who personally saw to the emperor’s security — had basically had it with Heliogabalus, largely because of his doting on the slave Hierocles. Honestly, I’m surprised it took them as long as it did. Julia Maesa, his grandmother, finally realized that he wasn’t the best choice to be emperor and decided to replace him with her other daughter’s son — Severus Alexander. She convinced Heliogabalus to name Severus Alexander heir to the throne. This worked well at first, until Heliogabalus began to notice that the Praetorian Guard liked Severus Alexander better. Heliogabalus responded by trying to have Alexander assassinated — which failed. More than once. So, instead, he stripped Alexander of his titles and power and started a rumor that Alexander was dying. The Praetorian Guard rioted and demanded that both Heliogabalus and Severus Alexander make an appearance at their camp.

On March 11, 222 CE Heliogabalus gave in to the demands of the Praetorian Guards and showed up at their camp with his mother Julia Soaemias and Severus Alexander. Since Alexander was perfectly healthy, the Praetorian Guard cheered for him. Heliogabalus was not happy, so he ordered everyone who cheered to be executed. Instead, the Praetorian Guard attacked him and his mom. They were both killed, beheaded, and then dragged through the streets of Rome. His mother’s body was lost somewhere in the streets, and Heliogabalus’ corpse was tossed into the Tiber River.

After his death, all of his religious changes were swiftly undone. The stone of Elagabal was sent back to Syria. His cohorts were executed — including Hierocles. Women were, once again, banned from the Senate. A smear campaign was launched against him, and then the practice of damnatio memoriae was initiated in an effort to erase him from history. This was one of most successful instances of this practice ever — most of what we know comes only from two historians who lived through his reign and bits of the smear campaign that managed to survive. It’s important to recognize that we really have no idea how much of this is true, and how much is the result of a concerted effort to make all of Rome despise him.

Unfortunately, the effect seems to have gone further — it’s arguable that we’re still feeling the effects of Heliogabalus’ disastrous, if short, reign every day. Shortly afterwards, Severus Alexander banished all men in public life who had male lovers from the city of Rome. Penalties, such as fines, were placed on homosexual behavior through the empire. Less than a decade later, male prostitution was illegalized — and, need I remind you, that’s extremely limiting when there’s certain positions that male prostitutes are basically the only people allowed to be in. Constantine — Rome’s first Christian emperor — wouldn’t rise to power until 306 CE, but when he did he enacted laws harsh laws which led to the murder of certain sects of effeminate priests. Both of Constantine’s heirs would have same-sex relationships (we’ll get to them at another time), the Roman government would continue to attempt to stamp out homosexuality and anyone who did not strictly fit into the gender binary and this would continue until the fall of Rome. As the independent nations of Europe began to develop, they continued this and, when they began to colonize and conquer the rest of the world they carried their bigoted laws with them until they’d spread to every continent. I’d definitely arguethat without Heliogabalus’ disastrous reign, history might have been a lot easier on the LGBTQ+ people of the world.

His legacy isn’t all bad though — during the Decadent movement, he was celebrated as a hero in a lot of artistic works. That actually still continues to today — Marilyn Manson’s 2015 album The Pale Emperor was inspired by Heliogabalus.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

Lemme tell you about Karl Heinrich Ulrichs — who I briefly talked about in discussion of Karl-Maria Kertbeny. He is considered by many to be the father of the modern gay rights movement — roughly a hundred years before the Stonewall Riots would push the movement into the mainstream.

Heinrichs, like Kertbeny, came up with his own words to classify human sexuality. His word for a man who desired men was “Urning” which I, for one, am glad is not the word that made it to the mainstream, but since it’s how he identified himself I’m going to use it here. The term, for those curious, comes from the god Uranus, who was male. Totally weak explanation, I know, but that’s what we’ve got.

Ulrichs was born on August 28, 1825. As a child, he recalled, he preferred wearing girl’s clothing, playing with girls, and stated that he had wanted to be a girl. At the age of 14, he had his first sexual encounter with another man — his riding instructor. He studied law and theology at Gottingen University, and then studied history at Berlin University. All told, he finished his formal education in 1848 after which he took a job as a legal adviser for a district court in the Kingdom of Hanover. He lost that job when his sexuality became known in 1857.

In 1862, he came out as an Urning to his friends and family, and declared that his feelings were biological, and natural. He penned five essays under a pseudonym “Numa Numantius” that explained all of this, before he began publishing under his real name. This, of course, meant he was constantly in trouble with the law — though, usually for his words, which argued for decriminalizing homosexuality, and not his sexual activities — and had to keep moving around Germany. His books were banned and confiscated in Saxony, Berlin, and the entirety of Prussia.

In 1867, after a brief imprisonment in Prussia, he moved to Munich. There, he spoke to the German Association of Jurists and urged them to reform the laws against homosexuality. This was the first time in history that an openly homosexual (well, Urning) person publicly spoke on behalf of LGBT rights.

In 1870, Ulrichs wrote and published a book called “Araxes: a Call to Free the Nature of the Urning from Penal Law” which is particularly remarkable because of the close similarity it bears to the demands of the modern gay rights movement. In this book, Ulrichs vehemently decries not just anti-sodomy laws, but the unequal treatment of Urnings under the law. He calls sexuality a “right established by nature” and states that “legislators have no right to veto nature.”

In 1879, Ulrichs published his 12th book — entitled “Research on the Riddle of Man-Manly Love” and then went into self-imposed exile to Naples. He, apparently, felt he had done all he could for Germany and nothing had really changed. He continued to write prolifically in Naples, receiving an honor degree from the University of Naples. He died on July 14, 1895.

Ulrichs legacy would live on. Streets are named after him in Munich, Bremen, Hanover, and Berlin. (Berlin would go onto become something of a gay capital in Europe — as I think many of us know — in the 1920’s. I find it hard to imagine that that could have happened without Ulrichs.) In Munich each year on his birthday, a street party is held that includes lively poetry readings. In the city of L’Aquila, where his grave is, an annual pilgrimage is hosted.

The International Gay and Lesbian Law Association also awards the Karl Heinrich Ulrichs Award in his memory, recognizing those who have contributed to LGBT+ equality.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)

Catalina de Erauso

Let’s delve into the story of one of my favorite historical women-loving women: Catalina de Erauso. She hasn’t, as far as I know, had any sort of far-reaching impact on today’s LGBTQ+ community…. but her story’s really fun…

19029193_10100197163315309_7678398842583670678_nMost of what we know about Catalina comes from her autobiography “The Lieutenant Nun” (so take a lot of this with a grain of salt), which claims she was born in 1585 — however, her baptismal certificate states she was born in 1592. I’m more inclined to believe her on this one because otherwise — well, I don’t want to spoil the rest of the story, nevermind. She was born into a large noble family — her brothers were all sent to the New World to participate in its conquest, her sisters were all sent to convents until a suitable husband could be found. (Only one of her sisters ever married. Ouch.)

At four years old (so, 1589 or 1596 depending who you want to believe) she was placed in a convent to be raised by nuns, just like her sisters. This was not exactly the lifestyle for someone with Catalina’s adventurous nature, so on March 18, 1600 she cut her hair, put together some men’s clothing made out of her own undergarments, gave herself the name “Francisco de Loyola“, and fled — well, fled is a strong word — casually strolled out of the convent. This made Catalina a fugitive — a status she would maintain (with great effort and enthusiasm) for many many years. (If her baptismal certificate is right, she was eight years old at this point. If she’s right, she was fifteen. That’s kind of why I believe her on this.)

She traveled for twenty miles on foot, eating what she could find as she passed through villages, until she reached the town of Vitoria, where she encountered a doctor who happened to be married to her mother’s cousin. (Her travels through Spain involved frequent near-run-ins with her family.) He took her in, without recognizing her, and gave her clothes. She stayed with him for three months, but he sexually abused her during that time so ultimately, she fled again — this time stealing money before she left. (He kinda had it coming.) She met up with a mule driver, who took her with him to the court of King Juan de Iqiaquez. Dressed as Francisco once again, Catalina serve the king as a court page for seven months until her father — who was an important military leader for the king — showed up, so she fled once again and ended up in Bilbao. This time, she was unable to find work or a patron — but she did find a bar fight (this will become a common theme for her) and she was arrested. She spent a month in jail, and decided that being arrested was awful and if she was going to continue her life as a fugitive she was going to need to avoid it in the future. (The idea of not committing crimes apparently did not occur to her.)

She spent the next two years disguised as a man, working throughout Spain, although mostly staying close to her hometown and the convent that she had been raised in. She did not have a feminine build, and — apparently — had used an ointment to “dry her breasts”. On Holy Monday in the year 1603, she embarked on a ship for the New World. The first place she landed was Punta de Araya (which is now Venezuela) where, apparently, she was attacked by Dutch pirates who she defeated. From there, she and the crew she traveled with (which included one of her uncles, who did not recognize her) sailed to Nombre de Dios, where they stayed for nine days. Several members of the crew died due to the weather, so the crew determined to return to Spain.

Instead of going back to Spain, Catalina murdered her uncle, stole 500 pesos, told the rest of the sailors her uncle was on an errand and then she — you guessed it — fled. Still in men’s clothing, she found work as a sailor for a wealthy merchant. The large shipment she was transporting got caught in a terrible windstorm, the ship sank. Catalina managed to save herself and her master. Her master, grateful to be alive, rewarded Catalina with a house, money, and three slaves.

But Catalina’s penchant for violence would catch up to her soon. While attending the theater in Sana, a young man threatened her. She was not having any of that, so she took a whetstone, made herself a saw-tooth blade, and cut open his face. She was taken to jail, but through the efforts of her master and the bishop of the area she was soon released. One condition of her release was that she marry the aunt of the man who’s face she’d cut open. Fearful of her secret being discovered or of being tied down in a serious relationship, she refused to marry and left for Trujillo instead, where her master was opening a store.

The man who’s faced she’d sliced up tracked her there with two friends and challenged her. She killed him, she killed his friend, and then she took refuge in a church — declaring sanctuary until things died down. Around this time, Catalina began courting her master’s mistress — to the point where the mistress demanded they sleep together. Catalina wasn’t having that either — but this was also her master’s last straw, no matter how grateful he was for being saved from drowning. He gave her some money, a letter of recommendation for work in Lima, and kicked her to the curb.

Catalina presented her letter of recommendation to Diego de Solarte, a rich merchant who gave Catalina a store in just a matter of days. This new career was not destined to last long, however, as just nine months later she was caught fondling her new master’s sister-in-law and was fired. With few other career options available, Catalina joined the army and was placed under the command of Captain Gonzalo Rodriguez. They marched to Chile, where she was greeted by the governor — her brother Don Miguel de Erauso, although he did not recognize her. She served in the military there for three years, earning the rank of Lieutenant. However, she was too violent and cruel towards the Native people and complaints from her fellow military officers about this prevented her from achieving any higher ranks. (And, like, I’m sorry, but having read what was the norm for the way the native people were treated at the time, I can’t *imagine* what sick, bloody things Catalina was doing to those poor people. Holy crap.)

She was extremely frustrated by this, and so took out her frustration on literally anyone she met on the road. She killed people, she burned crops, she was generally a menace. She murdered the chief auditor of the city of Conception — and declared sanctuary in a church where she stayed for six months. She left the church after six months to serve as the second in a friend’s duel. (She did have friends! Which is kind of amazing all things considered.) In the course of the night time duel, she killed the other man’s second — only to discover that he was her brother Don Miguel.

This is the only event in the entire autobiography that makes Catalina even come close to being introspective. It left her depressed (and in prison) for almost a year. Then, I guess, she just got over it and left for Argentina. The journey across the Andes almost killed her, but she was saved by a villager, who nursed her back to health but somehow never noticed that Catalina was a woman. While she was recovering, she ended up engaged to two women at the same time. Hey, y’know, it happens. Still unwilling to settle down with either of them, she skipped town right before the first of the two weddings.

She made her way to Potosi, where she took a job as an assistant to a sergeant and joined in with his mass murders of the natives. Some time after that she was accused of a crime that she did not commit (for a change) and imprisoned, where she was tortured (and yet, they still never noticed that she was a woman). After she was released from prison, she devoted herself to smuggling — but soon a lawsuit forced her to seek sanctuary in a church once again. After leaving the church, she got into a fight with a man and killed him, and was sentenced to death. Through fortunate events for her, her execution was postponed, she escaped and — spoiler alert, this is not going to surprise you — sought sanctuary in a church.

After escaping from that, she got into an argument with a sheriff’s servant and, of course, murdered him. (In broad daylight. In front of the sheriff. Not her finest moment.) She was sentenced to death again — and this time, she was unable to evade capture. She was clever though — more clever than she’d been when she murdered the sheriff’s servant right in front of him — and demanded that she be allowed to confess her sins to a priest. She was brought to a church — where she declared sanctuary. (Raise your hand if you saw that coming. Anyone?)

She fled from the church and returned to Peru, where it did not take long for her to get into another violent dispute and get arrested. With the death sentence hanging over her head and not going away in the foreseeable future, Catalina confessed to the bishop that she was actually a woman and a nun. The bishop had her examined by nuns, who determined that she was still a virgin. This, apparently, made her some sort of miracle and she became an overnight celebrity. She was basically given the choice of facing execution for her crimes, or writing down a confession and returning to Spain. That confession ultimately became her autobiography, the number one source for all things Catalina de Erauso. (Pretty much the only source for most of this.)

Once back in Europe, she petitioned the king to give her a pension due to her military service (and her celebrity status). Later, she traveled to the Vatican and met with Pope Urban VIII who gave her special leave to continue to wear men’s clothing if she so desired — but reminded her that “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is one of the Ten Commandments. Returning to Spain, Catalina petitioned the crown for compensation for money she lost traveling to Spain and for a reward for her military service.

One of the last events recounted in her autobiography, which ends in the year 1626 (four years before her estimated date of death), she encountered a cardinal who told her that her “only fault is that [she was] a Spaniard.” She replied, “With all due respect, that is my only virtue.” At least she had one virtue.

Eventually, Catalina returned to the New World and then pretty much disappeared from history until her death in 1630.

Now, there’s a lot of discussion with Catalina about her sexuality and gender identity. And that’s a worthwhile discussion given that basically none of the terms we used to describe these things existed back then. Of course, as with pretty much any LGBTQ+ historical figure, there are those who are try to claim that she was straight and cisgender, and she only pursued women to keep her disguise intact. Some of these historians — and I use that term loosely — have invented romantic relationships with men that do not appear anywhere in her autobiography. In fact, she does not discuss any romantic anything towards men in her autobiography (or any other writings), despite there being several romantic and sexual encounters with other women. The autobiography, in my opinion, is not at all unclear about her exclusive attraction to women. She never expresses any interest in men, and virtually every woman who isn’t related to her is a potential love interest.

The only case that can really, justifiably be made for Catalina being straight, is if she’s transgender rather than cisgender. And that is totally a possibility. The only reason I’ve discussed her in the context of being a lesbian rather than being a transgender man is because — in my opinion (she’s not still around to ask) — it seems like she’s always aware she’s a woman disguised as a man. It doesn’t seem — to me — like she identifies as a man at all. I could be totally wrong on that, especially given that she continued to dress like a man even after her secret became public knowledge.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)

Prehistoric Queer Art

The earliest depictions of homosexuality in art are a subject that’s up for a lot of debate — and that’s understandable considering that we’re talking about primitive rock art. Our cavemen ancestors may have been a lot of things, but Picasso wasn’t one of them. Actually, maybe Picasso isn’t the best example… My point is, there’s a lot of room for interpretation.

800px-Palermo-Museo-Archeologico-bjs-11Arguably, the oldest depictions of homosexuality are the Grotta dell’Addaura (or the Addaura Cave) in Sicily. These particular images are estimated to date back to somewhere roughly between 9,600 BCE and  The area had already been studied by paleontologists, because there’d been remains of a dwarf elephant nearby but in 1943 Allied forces invaded the island. They decided to store ammunition in some of the caves near Palermo. Some of the ammunition being stored in this particular cave exploded — revealing previously buried rock art. Obviously, there was a war going on and a recent explosion of valuable ammo, so studying the rock art wasn’t an immediate priority. Nevertheless, Jole Bovio Marconi studied the rock art extensively and published her findings in 1953 CE. The particular drawing of note in this cave — which Marconi herself believed was a homoerotic image — shows a circle of people around two men who are arching their backs. It’s been argued this isn’t actually an image of gay sex (and — again — it’s a little hard to tell but if it is, it seems kind of, I dunno, kinky?) Some people say it’s an image of hunters hunting (hunting what?) or of a religious ceremony, or possibly of acrobats. I honestly couldn’t tell you but that’s why I included a picture of it. I sort of see seals but what do I know, really?

The oldest rock art to definitively show some man-on-man action is in Zimbabwe, painted by the San people. These paintings date back to roughly 8,000 BCE and some are especially controversial because they appear to show three men engaged in a sexual act together. I don’t have a picture of that one, and I am really sorry about it. It must really be something to see.

Art — both drawings and figurines — dating between roughly the years 7,000 BCE and 1,700 BCE also seem to depict transgender and/or intersex people and even some individuals are depicted without any defining gender or sex characteristics at all. At least one figure found thus far seems to depict what some have called a “third sex”, with breasts and male genitals. I wasn’t able to find any pictures of these yet, but I will definitely keep looking!

So what’s the take away here? We’ve been here, we’ve been queer, and the world should definitely be used to us by now.

(Adapted from a Facebook post.)