The White Swan was a molly house located in Clare Market — where Vere Street and Clare Street intersected in London — during the year of 1810. As the story goes, a man named Yardley had partnered up with a man named James Cook to open the molly house. Both of them, according to all accounts, were perfectly heterosexual (and Yardley supposedly had a wife) but eternally greedy.
Part tavern, part brothel, the White Swan was notable for the wide assortment of attractions it offered for homosexual men. In the basement, there was a room with four beds in it, a lady’s dressing room with a wide array of cosmetics and make up, and a makeshift chapel where the Reverend John Church performed wedding ceremonies — considered by some to be the first same-sex marriages in England, although they weren’t recognized by the government. Although guests of the White Swan were allowed to participate in sexual activities together free of charge, there were also a number of prostitutes offering services for a charge. No “unusual services” were offered (meaning, nothing too kinky.)
The White Swan had barely been open for six months when it was raided by Bow Street Runners — essentially the police in London at the time — on July 8, 1810. During the raid, a crowd gathered outside — reportedly mostly of women — which was such a vicious mob that some of the prisoners were nearly killed being transported out of the molly house. Twenty-seven men were arrested — including Cook. (Yardley, somehow, seems to have escaped. Which is part of why we only know him as “Yardley” and I couldn’t even tell you if that’s his first name or last name.) Most of these men were released due to a “lack of evidence” (loosely translated, in this case that most likely means “bribing the cops”.)
Those that remained in custody became known as “the Vere Street Coterie“. They were all lower middle class, or even poorer, and certainly unable to afford the bribes that would have been needed to drop the charges. Their names were:
William Amos (aka Sally Fox)
Two others — John Newball Hepburn and Thomas White — were also arrested, though they were not at the White Swan on July 8, due to testimony from an informant. Cook, unlike the others, was not charged with sodomy, but with running a “disorderly house” (a phrase I have to admit I love.) Aspinal was sentenced to a year long prison sentence, as he was considered “less culpable” (though I don’t know why.) Cook, Amos, Kett, Thomson, Francis, and Done were all sentenced to an hour in the pillory. Amos, because this was his third offense, was also sentenced to three years in prison.
On September 27, 1810 the city of London provided 200 armed constables (100 on foot, 100 mounted) to be present to protect the men while they stood in the pillory (which actually involved walking around in a circle around an axis, with your head and hands locked into the frame — not so much just standing.) The constables however, did not do much, and the massive crowd (estimated to be thousands of people) was vicious. The police actually assisted several women in forming a circle around the six men in pillories so that they could pelt them with mud. Others in the crowd found other things to throw at the men — vegetables, fruit, dead fish, dead cats and dogs, feces, spoiled eggs — basically anything disgusting that they could get their hands on. Cook and Amos were the first two placed in the pillories, and suffered the worst of the crowd’s attack — Cook was almost unconscious by the end of the hour. They were all pretty seriously injured.
Hepburn — a 42 year old soldier — and White — a 16 year old drummer for the guard, who also worked as a prostitute at the White Swan — both received a much harsher punishment: on March 7, 1811 they were executed by hanging at Newgate Prison.
Cook refused to implicate any of his clients to law enforcement after his ordeal — though, lest we mistake him for an ally, it should be noted that he proceeded to make money by blackmailing members of the clergy who had apparently escaped arrest during the raid. Until he was imprisoned for an assault that was probably a frame job, and his family was systematically driven out of England.
The entire event — the raid and the subsequent punishment — was written about by a lawyer named Robert Holloway in a book called The Phoenix of Sodom in 1813. The events, including the publication of the book, sent ripples through England — homosexuals, particularly men, felt an even greater necessity to remain hidden — probably a driving reason in Lord Byron‘s marriage in 1815, and (when that failed to curb rumors about his proclivities) one of the reasons he left the country for good in 1816. England continued cracking down harshly on homosexuality for several years — and London wouldn’t see another molly house (that we know of) until the Hundred Guineas Club opened in the 1830’s.
Like so many historical figures, James Barry‘s gender identity is kind of a mystery because the language and understanding we have of gender today has really evolved immensely since the 19th century. Nevertheless, I feel pretty confident that James Barry was transgender and not just trying to escape the confines that came with being a woman in Regency era Britain. I’ll justify that as we go through this.
He was the second child born to Jeremiah and Mary-Ann Bulkley in Ireland, though there is very little information about his early life. He was named Margaret Anne Bulkley and lived as a girl until at least age 19. What little information can be found and verified seems to indicate he was born in 1789 — for instance, a letter dated January 14, 1805 states that the young “Miss Bulkley” was fifteen years old at the time. The date of birth is a bit confusing, because there are also sources that indicate he may have been born in 1792, 1795, or 1799. These are probably due to Barry lying about his age through his military career.
There is also some indication that Barry was assaulted as a child, resulting in a pregnancy. The child this produced is theorized to be the youngest Bulkley child, Juliana, who was raised as Barry’s sister.
The Bulkley family had serious financial difficulties — and ultimately they concocted a scheme to produce a better income. “Margaret Anne” adopted the name James Barry and posed as the nephew of the Irish artist James Barry (who was Mary-Ann Bulkley’s brother). Along with his mother (his “aunt” in letters), Barry boarded a ship bound for the University of Edinburgh in 1809. It is from the envelope of one letter from this trip that researchers were able to trace Barry back to his early childhood — the back of the envelope discreetly bore the words “Miss Bulkley, 14 December.” After this point, Barry never permitted anyone to see him change clothes and lived as a man both publicly and privately.
Barry began studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Due to his effeminate facial features, many students believed Barry to be a pre-pubescent boy (like, some kind of prodigy, I guess?) and the university even tried to stop him from taking the final exams because they believed he was too young. The Earl of Buchan intervened, and Barry graduated in 1812 and almost immediately enrolled in courses at the United Hospitals of Guy’s and St. Thomas’. On July 2, 1813, Barry passed the examination of the Royal College of Surgeons.
On July 6, 1813 Barry was commissioned as a hospital assistant in the British army. For anyone keeping track, that’s a four day turn around on graduating school and landing a job. Barry was initially stationed at Chelsea, and then sent to Plymouth to serve at the Royal Military Hospital there. He was promoted to Assistant Surgeon to the Forces (which apparently is the medical equivalent of a lieutenant) on December 7 of 1815.
In 1816, Barry was sent to Cape Town, South Africa. Barry’s previous benefactor, the Earl of Buchan, had sent a letter of introduction to the governor Lieutenant General Charles Henry Somerset. Barry quickly impressed the governor’s family by treating his ailing daughter. Barry was essentially welcomed as a member of the family, and in 1822 Somerset promoted Barry to Colonial Medical Inspector — which was a pretty massive jump in station and in responsibility. Barry spent the next decade significantly improving conditions — especially for slaves, prisoners, prostitutes and the mentally ill. Barry even made a priority out of improving the conditions in hospitals and leper colonies. Barry is notable for being one of the handful of medical professionals at the time who understood that humanitarian conditions — particularly hygiene, diet, and fresh air — were vital to sustain a healthy population and prevent the spread of disease.
Although he used excellent bedside manner with patients, Barry was otherwise outspoken, impatient, brash, and often tactless — particularly when it came to criticizing other people when it came to medical concerns and policies. Not surprisingly, a lot of people did not like Barry because of this but his close friendship with the governor shielded him from consequences. That’s probably a large factor in one major event that took place in 1824: Lieutenant General Charles Henry Somerset was accused of “buggering” Barry. An investigation and a trial followed.
Now, buggering — which, of course, was the act of homosexual intercourse — was still very illegal in the British Empire and could still carry the death penalty. Nevertheless, nobody even seems to have considered that Barry was biologically female and Barry certainly didn’t offer up this information. This is one reason that I’m convinced that Barry identified as a man — Barry never came forward to save Somerset. Somerset also never revealed anything, even though it’s considered probable that he knew.
Though the case failed to prove any buggering, it proved humiliating for both Somerset and Barry. Barry managed to redeem himself in June of the same year — by performing a Cesarean section (without anesthesia) where both the mother and child lived. This was one of the first times this ever done and was the first time this had been accomplished anywhere in the British Empire or, as far as we know, in Africa. This feat easily secured Barry’s position as the best doctor in the colony.
On November 22, 1827 Barry was promoted to Surgeon of the Forces. The following year, he was assigned a new posting in Mauritius. After only a year there, Barry took a leave because Lord Somerset had fallen in. Barry personally cared for Somerset until his death in 1831, at which point Barry was sent to Jamaica and then, in 1836, to Saint Helena.
Barry’s abrasive personality had not mellowed out over the years, and while stationed at Saint Helena he came into some sort of, let’s say, “gentleman’s disagreement” with another officer that resulted in Barry facing a court martial that ultimately found him not guilty.
In 1840, Barry was promoted to Principal Medical Officer and assigned to the Leeward and Windward Islands of the West Indies. His assignment was to improve the conditions of the soldiers stationed there. This posting was apparently uneventful until Barry contracted yellow fever in 1845 and returned to England on sick leave. After being cleared for duty in 1846, Barry was stationed in Malta where he quickly ruffled feathers by — apparently — sitting in a seat in church that was reserved for clergy. This led to a formal reprimand, but Barry was less concerned with hurt feelings and more concerned with the looming threat of cholera. The disease ultimate did breakout, despite Barry’s efforts, and he was called on to treat it.
Although the cholera epidemic lasted until 1860, Barry’s superiors sent him to Corfu in 1851. On May 16, they promoted him to the rank of Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals. Barry requested to be posted in Crimea, but the request was denied. In turn, Barry requested a leave and traveled to Crimea anyways. While there, Barry had a run-in with Florence Nightingale. The only descriptions I can find of the event come from Nightingale, but it sounds like Barry, on horseback, confronted her about something while she was (I’m guessing) crossing camp either to or from showers because she was basically naked. Whatever transpired, it left Nightingale with a deep dislike of Barry, whom she later described as “the most hardened creature [she] had ever met.”
On September 25, 1857 Barry received a promotion to Inspector General of Hospitals and was posted to Canada. He remained in this post, improving healthcare particularly for the poor, until he was forcibly retired from military service because of age and illness on July 19, 1859. He returned to London, where he lived quietly with only his servant John Joseph Danson (who had been with Barry since his first posting in South Africa) and a poodle named Psyche. Barry died from dysentery on July 25, 1865. Shortly thereafter, Danson disappeared — but is believed to have gone to Jamaica.
Despite having left strict instructions that his body not be examined in any capacity after his death, the truth of Barry’s biological sex was discovered. The physician who had issued the death certificate, Major D. R. McKinnon, had written on the certificate that Barry was a male. Afterwards, a woman — who is believed to have been laying out Barry’s body for burial — discovered Barry was biologically female and showed signs of having given birth at a young age. She attempted to use the secret to blackmail McKinnon. However, Barry had no known surviving family and McKinnon was not especially concerned (stating that he had figured Barry was a “hermaphrodite” but that it was “none of [his] business”), so he shrugged her off. The woman leaked this information to the press. A number of people responded by claiming to have known it all along, and Florence Nightingale responded by writing a scathing letter about how much she didn’t care what he was, she still really didn’t like him.
The British Army, in an effort to save face as women were allowed to be neither officers nor doctors and Barry had been both, sealed all records about Barry for the next hundred years. Isobel Rae, a history, gained access to the records in the 1950’s and ultimately pieced together Barry’s history from before he transitioned.
There’s a lot of discussion regarding whether or not Barry was truly transgender. Some would argue that because he transitioned with the help of his family in order to financially aid his family means it was all an elaborate ruse. Obviously, I’m firmly in the other camp that he was — living as a man even in private, not even breaking from his gender expression to prove a friend innocent of buggery, and trying to maintain that gender identity even in death despite not having any surviving family — to me, that all indicates someone who vehemently identified as a man.
There’s been a great deal of buzz this year about seeing Pete Buttigieg — someone who is part of the LGBTQIA+ community — doing so well in his campaign for the presidency. But what most of us don’t realize (and in fact, I didn’t even know until two weeks ago!) is that we’ve already had a queer person in the White House.
Okay, no, maybe not the President. But for sure, the First Lady Rose Cleveland. Rose Elizabeth Cleveland was born in Fayetteville, New York on June 14, 1846 to Richard Falley Cleveland and Ann Neal Cleveland. She was the youngest of nine children — counting Stephen Grover Cleveland among her older siblings. They mostly called her “Libby.”
In September of 1853, the family relocated to Holland Patent, New York where their father was appointed pastor of Presbyterian church. He died a month later, after preaching only one sermon. (I hope it was a good one!) Rose, at seven years old, took on the task of taking care of their widowed mother. Grover Cleveland — sixteen years old at the time — decided he was going to support the whole family. (One teenager supporting a family of ten — my how times have changed!)
When she was older, Rose became a student at the Houghton Seminary in Clinton, New York. Afterwards, she became a teacher so she could support herself and her mother. (I guess one teenager couldn’t support a family of ten after all.) Later, she taught at the Collegiate Institute in Lafayette, Indiana and a girls school in Muncy, Pennsylvania.
In the 1880’s, Rose went back to Holland Patent and taught Sunday school so that she would be able to take care of her mother, who’s health was not doing well. In 1882, Ann Cleveland passed away. Rose remained at their homestead for some time after this and continued to teach Sunday school. In one class, she gave a lecture in which she stated:
“We cannot touch humanity at large, except as we touch humanity in the individual. We make the world a better place through our concrete relationships, not through our vague, general good will. We must each find a true partner, someone who understands and appreciates us, someone whose faith in us brings out our best efforts. Our deepest craving is for recognition—to be known by another human being for what we truly are.”
And if that doesn’t sound like a great beginning to a coming out speech, I don’t know what does. But alas, we’re not there yet. In 1885, the unmarried Grover Cleveland was elected President of the United States — and suddenly, Rose had another family member who needed her help. She took on the role of First Lady, including standing next to Grover during his inauguration. She lived in the White House for two years — and fulfilled the duties of First Lady, although she found them to be frustrating. She was not a woman made for high society — she was fond of intellectual pursuits, and did not care much for fashion. The public’s infatuation with her dresses irked her, as did her inability to go to a public market. There were some perks however — her book of essays entitled George Eliot’s Poetry was a bestseller based almost entirely on her name recognition.
Eventually Grover married Frances Folsom, and Rose was able to leave the White House and actually, finally, do some things for herself! She became president of the Collegiate Institute in Indiana and also contributed to a magazine called Literary Life. In April of 1890, at 44 years old, she entered into a romantic and undeniably sexual relationship (the first of her life, that I can find) with a 33 year old widow named Evangeline Marrs Simpson who she had most likely met in Florida months earlier. However, six years later, against Rose’s urgings, Evangeline married Henry Benjamin Whipple. Although the women kept in touch after this, they were definitely not as…. let’s say intimate as they had been. Rose left for Europe shortly after the wedding, and did not return to the United States for three years.
Whipple died in 1901 and the pair reignited their relationship. In 1902, they traveled to Italy — and in 1910, they moved there. Evangeline told her caretaker at her home in Minnesota not move anything. They established a home for themselves in Bagni di Lucca, in a house shared with Nelly Erichsen. Rose and Evangeline contributed a great deal to the community there, including establishing an orphanage. They also worked for the Red Cross during World War I, and helped move refugees displaced by the war to Bagni di Lucca. During the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918, Nelly contracted the illness. Rose took care of her, ultimately contracting the illness herself as a result. They died within days of each other.
After Rose’s death, Evangeline wrote “The light has gone out for me. . . . The loss of this noble and great soul is a blow that I shall not recover from.”
When Evangeline eventually died in 1930, she was buried next to Rose in Bagni di Lucca. It’s been said that, to the two of them, Italy represented the ultimate freedom to be themselves.
The letters Rose sent to her lover remained in Evangeline’s Minnesota home — untouched by the caretaker (who was way more obedient than I would have been) until they were gathered together with other papers and donated to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1969. The implication that there could have been a lesbian relationship was too much for them, so they hid the letters from the public until 1978. Rose’s letters have now been compiled into a book, Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890-1918.
Of 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 theGay Liberation Front— and with their next iteration, theGay 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!”
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.”
Despite 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.
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.
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.
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.
During 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I hope that almost anyone reading this site knows at least something about Matthew Shepard — whose face became a figurehead in the gay rights movement after his grisly murder in 1998.
Matthew was born on December 1, 1976 in Casper, Wyoming to parents Judy and Dennis Shepard. He was their eldest son — their other son Logan was born in 1981. He had a close relationship with his brother. He attended local schools through his junior year of high school, developing an interest in politics, and was generally friendly to his classmates even though he was frequently teased for being thin and not athletic.
In 1994, Dennis Shepard was hired by Saudi Aramco to be an oil rig inspector, and Shepard’s parents moved to Dahran, Saudi Arabia for the job. Matthew attended his senior year of high school at The American School in Switzerland (TASIS). While there, he started studying German and Italian and became interested in music, fashion, and theater. During February of his year there, he and three classmates took a vacation to Morocco — where Matthew was beaten, robbed, and raped by a group of locals who were never caught. The attack was traumatic for Matthew — afterwards he had bouts of depression, anxiety and paranoia and experienced flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts which lasted through the remainder of his life, despite his best efforts in therapy. When therapy seemed to fail him, he turned to drug use. He also began routinely being tested for HIV after this.
Matthew graduated from TASIS in 1995. Shortly after his graduation, Matthew came out to his mother. She was very accepting of him and apparently coming out was entirely without drama, so we’re just going to breeze by it now. After high school, Matthew began to study theater at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina until he briefly moved to Raleigh. He enrolled at Casper College in his hometown. At Casper College, he met Romaine Patterson, who became his close friend. Together, they moved to Denver where Matthew took on a series of short-lived part time jobs.
At 21 years old, Matthew enrolled at his parents’ alma mater, Wyoming University in Laramie. He felt that a small town environment would make him feel safer than he had in Denver. He began studying political science, international relations, and foreign languages. He quickly became an active member of the campus’ LGBTQ+ student organization and earned a reputation for passionately pursuing equality. Some time after beginning school at Wyoming University, Matthew tested positive for HIV — a fact he confided in a handful of friends, but kept from his parents.
And that brings us to October 6, 1998. Matthew was at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie. According to later testimonies, Matthew encountered two men — Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson — in the bar that night. They pretended to be gay to lure him out to McKinney’s truck. Matthew was expecting a ride home, but put his hand on McKinney’s knee, which set off a deep rage in McKinney. The two men robbed Matthew, hit him with a gun, beat him and tortured him until he was covered in his own blood and was virtually unrecognizable. They tied him to a fence in the middle of nowhere and left him there in temperatures that were close to freezing. According to later testimonies, both men were completely sober and, after finding out his address, planned on robbing Matthew’s home as well. First, however, they returned to the town and subsequently got into a fight with two other men. When police broke up the fight, McKinney was arrested and his truck was searched. They found shoes, a bloody gun, and a credit card also smeared with blood. The shoes and credit card belonged to Matthew.
Eighteen hours later, a man named Aaron Kreifels went past the fence on his bicycle. He initially mistook Matthew for a scarecrow, but upon realizing that it was a badly beaten, comatose person he immediately called the police. It’s reported that there was so much on Matthew’s face that the only places you could see his skin were tracks from his tears running down his face. The first officer to respond was Reggie Fluty. She arrived with a supply of faulty medical gloves, which she eventually ran out of while trying to clear blood out of Matthew’s mouth so he could breathe. When Matthew’s HIV status became clear to authorities, Fluty was put on a regiment of AZT for a month but she did not contract the virus.
Matthew was brought to Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie, and then moved to a more advanced facility at Pudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. Even there, the doctors decided his injuries were too severe for operations. Matthew remained in a coma until October 12, when he was taken off of life support and pronounced dead.
During the six days, news of the attack had gained international attention. Candlelight vigils were held around the world — as well as anti-gay demonstrations. When Matthew’s funeral was held, the Westboro Baptist Church protested — gaining themselves national attention. (Which, of course, is all those parasites want or care about so I’m saying the bare minimum about them.) In response, Romaine Patterson organized a counter-protest where a group of people dressed as angels to block out the protest — this would be the foundation of the organization Angel Action.
Meanwhile, authorities arrested McKinney and Henderson. They were charged with attempted murder (later upgraded to first degree murder), kidnapping, and aggravated robbery. Their girlfriends, who had provided alibis and tried to help dispose of evidence, were charged with being accessories after the fact. McKinney’s girlfriend Kristen Price told detectives that the violence had been set off by how McKinney “[felt] about the gays” (a testimony she recanted in 2004) and the defense team attempted to argue that McKinney had gone temporarily insane when Matthew had come onto him. This is one of the most famous examples of the “gay panic” defense, but the judge rejected that argument.
Henderson took a plea deal, pleading guilty and agreeing to two consecutive lifetime sentences instead of the death penalty. In exchange, he testified against McKinney. McKinney was found guilty by a jury of felony murder, but not of premeditated murder. While they deliberating on whether or not he should receive the death penalty, Shepard’s parents arranged a deal — McKinney would serve two consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole.
In the years that followed, this attack would remain in the minds of the American population. The events inspired a number of television, film, and theatrical works — the most notable (in my opinion) being The Laramie Project and Matthew Shepard is a Friend of Mine (go watch those if you haven’t seen them yet!) More importantly, Matthew’s death was a major part of the impetus for passing more comprehensive anti-hate crime legislation in the United States. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act (sometimes called the Matthew Shepard Act) became law on October 28, 2009.
Dennis and Judy Shepard have been staunch advocates for LGBTQ+ rights since the attack, and the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which they founded, has become a massive force for education and advocacy regarding LGBTQ+ issues. This year — on the 20th anniversary of the attack — it was announced that Matthew’s remains will be interred in the Washington National Cathedral on October 26, 2018.