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.

Dung Hà

ztpnnspbDung Hà was an infamous Vietnamese gangster (whose real name was Vũ Thị Hoàng Dung) who reached the peak of her influence during the ’90s.

She was born in 1965 in Hai Phong, North Vietnam. The part of the city in which she lived was a bustling urban area, where she regularly witnessed crimes — some of which were committed by her numerous older brothers and sisters. Apparently, this inspired her. She dropped out of school at a young age and became a career criminal. She started small, with pickpocketing and robbery.

In 1986, Dung Hà was caught robbing a pedestrian and arrested. She spent twelve months in prison, but resumed her illicit activities as soon as she was released. If anything, going to jail made her more involved in crime. She started having a romantic affair with a local crime boss — Hùng Chim Chich (“the Warbler”) Their love story — if you want to call it that — became relatively famous but he started losing money and influence due to a drug addiction. Dung Hà took over his casino businesses, and left him before he died from AIDS-related complications.

When she was 26, she began a relationship with another area crime boss named Hùng Cốm. (I guess she kind of had a type — local crime bosses named Hùng who had more influence than she did.) Hùng Cốm was basically the scariest crime boss around Hai Phong at the time, and rumors said he could not be defeated. The two went on a massive crime spree together and also opened a handful of casinos.

And then Hùng Cốm got arrested. Dung Hà orchestrated an elaborate scheme to free him and help him get to a train that would take him to Hong Kong. She convinced several of his followers to help her, and had agreed to let another convict named An Dong out of prison if he helped as well. She bribed some of the prison guards so that they would let her bring her lover a “farewell gift” — the guards didn’t realize that gift was actually a bunch of grenades. (I mean, what else do you get a crime lord on a special occasion?) Though that part worked, the rest of the plan rapidly fell apart — the gates were too tightly guarded, the grenades turned out to be duds, and An Dong was shot to death in the escape attempt.

Though the plan failed miserably and Hùng Cốm ultimately hung himself rather than face execution — but it had managed to earn Dung Hà a great deal of respect nevertheless. She became, essentially, the queen of crime in northern Vietnam — establishing a rivalry with Năm Cam who ran a criminal empire in the southern half of the country.

dungha15ff63Now, according to total hearsay, after the death of her lover Dung Hà was incapable of ever loving another man and that is why her next love affair was with a woman. That smells like fairly standard bi-erasure to me but I suppose that’s just an opinion. Anyways, Dung Hà cut her hair extremely short and was frequently seen with a beautiful, dark-haired girl who was taller than her and was extremely affectionate towards her. The woman was named Phuong but I cannot find much more about her except that she came from a nice family. She ditched our intrepid queer crime boss when Dung Hà got arrested in 1995. Phuong was, as far as I can find, the last romance of Dung Hà’s life.

Though she was sentenced to seven years in prison, she was released after only three years. Unfortunately, she was under intense police scrutiny and her criminal activities — and therefore her profits — suffered as a result. So Dung Hà decided to pack up and relocate….

….to Saigon, in the southern half of the country. Now, shortly before this, another gangster called Hải Bánh had moved south and joined forces with Năm Cam and he was all about that. He was hoping to get Dung Hà to help him expand his casino business. Unfortunately, Dung Hà had gotten pretty used to being her own boss — and, like, that’s the dream, right? So she was not giving that up. She started a new gang and began intentionally disrupting Năm Cam’s businesses — particularly his casinos.

On September 9, 2000 this new gang interrupted a business run by Hải Bánh — throwing shrimp sauce, snakes, and human feces into the middle of a dance floor. Hải Bánh was furious, and Năm Cam had had enough. Less than a month later, hired guns found Dung Hà and shot her in the head at point blank range.

But Dung Hà would end up with the last laugh — her murder led to increased scrutiny against both Năm Cam and Hải Bánh and would ultimately lead to the collapse of both their criminal organizations. Năm Cam, among several others, was given the death penalty for his involvement in her death. Meanwhile, Dung Hà’s body was brought back to Hai Phong where a truly massive funeral was held in her honor and her ex-girlfriend Phuong is reported to have been seen weeping at the event (as if they hadn’t been broken up for five years at this point but what do I know?)

So that’s the story of Vietnam’s “lesbian” gangster. I wouldn’t call her a queer hero, but she sure makes for a fun story!

Ma Rainey

MaRaineyIt’s been a really great month for queer music — we’ve got a new album from country’s first openly gay singer Steve Grand; a new album from British synthpop band Years & Years, led by the openly gay Olly Alexander; and Panic! at the Disco’s lead singer Brendon Urie came out as pansexual. With all this new news, I — of course — wanted to check out some old queer music history. It’s no surprise that led me to the incomparable Mother of Blues herself: Ma Rainey.

Born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886 in Georgia or possibly in September of 1882 in Alabama (depending on if you believe Gertrude or the U.S. census — researchers seem generally not to believe her). She was the second of five kids (the other four were pretty definitely born in Alabama — and her parents lived in Alabama. I’m just saying.) At 12 or 14 years old, Gertrude performed at a talent show in Columbus, Georgia and then began performing in black minstrel shows. According to Gertrude, she first heard blues music in 1902. The story goes that she heard a performer singing a blues song at another minstrel show — Gertrude was entranced, committed the song to memory that day, and immediately began using it as an encore to her own performances. Of course, she also claimed to have invented the name of the blues genre (she didn’t) so she’s not always the most reliable source of information. Just sayin’.

Two years later she married William “Pa” Rainey — a traveling comedian and vaudeville performer. Some time shortly after that, she and her husband formed a company called the Alabama Fun Makers Company. The troupe was short-lived, and in 1906 they both joined Pat Chappelle’s Rabbit’s Foot Company where they both performed and became quite popular.

In 1912, the Rabbit’s Foot Company was taken over by F.S. Wolcott. The Raineys stuck with the company for two more years before joining Tolliver’s Circus and Musical Extravaganza — which billed the duo as “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues”. The name stuck, and the two were soon using it on their own without being part of a troupe of performers. Soon after that, Gertrude was getting bookings all on her own — using the name Madam Gertrude Rainey, or “Ma”.

When Ma took the stage, she was a sight to behold — adorned in a diamond tiara, a necklace made out of $20 pieces, rings on each finger, wearing a golden gown with gold-capped teeth. She carried a gun and an ostrich plume. Audiences were enthralled. In fact, even though she was in the deep south, her shows were peacefully integrated between black people and white people. She was sometimes hired by wealthy white people to play private parties, but after every single one of these she would go out dancing and socializing at the local black café.

The Raineys spent winter in New Orleans, where they met a large number of blues performers — including Louis Armstrong, Pops Foster, and another queer blues singer Bessie Smith. (A story later came about that Ma had kidnapped Bessie, forced her to join the Rabbit’s Foot Company, and made her sing the blues but even Bessie’s family denied the story.) In 1916, Ma separated from her husband, ending both their working and romantic relationships.

Her star continued to rise, and in 1923 Paramount Records asked her to record songs for them. With Paramount, over the next several years, she released more than 100 singles and sold so many of them that she has been credited with saving the company single-handedly. The recordings were very popular — but, you know how some performers are better live than if you’re just listening to them? Ma Rainey was universally considered one of those — and audiences became even more eager to see her, and even more excited at her shows.

Ma was not as open about her sexuality as some of the women of early blues — Gladys Bentley for instance — however, she wasn’t in the closet either. In 1925, neighbors called the police when one of her parties became too raucous. The officers arrived just as things were beginning to get shall we say intimate with the all-female group. Ma Rainey was arrested for “running an indecent party” but was bailed out by Bessie Smith the next day. This may have been one reason Rainey’s guitarist Sam Chatmon thought the two were romantically linked.

This incident may have been part of the inspiration for “Prove It On Me Blues”, which Rainey recorded in 1928. The lyrics are a fairly explicitly about lesbianism and of breaking gender norms. As far as I can tell, this was the first recorded piece of music to celebrate a queer sexuality.

“Went out last night with a crowd of my friends
They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.
It’s true I wear a collar and tie,
Makes the wind blow all the while.”

ma-rainey-prove-it-on-meParamount ran an ad for the song — a drawing of Ma Rainey in a three-piece suit (albeit, with a skirt and heels) and a fedora, talking to a group of women with a policeman watching from across the street. The ad said “What’s all this? Scandal? … Don’t fail to get this record from your dealer!”

1928 was Ma Rainey’s last year as a recording artist. Popular music styles were changing, so her contract with Paramount ended. She toured a little bit longer, before settling down back in Columbus, Georgia. It was about this time (1932) that Sterling A. Brown wrote a poem about her called “Ma Rainey”, describing how powerful her performances were. In her later years, she opened a handful of movie theaters — the Lyric, the Airdome, and the Liberty Theatre. On December 22, 1939, she had a heart attack and died but her legacy continues to this day.

Six months after Ma’s death, Memphis Minnie wrote a tribute song called “Ma Rainey”. It was the first such song, but it would not be the last. In 1965, Bob Dylan paired Ma Rainey with Beethoven in his song “Tombstone Blues”. In 1982, August Wilson published a play about her called Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In 1983, Ma Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. In 1994, the U.S. Post Office released a commemorative stamp in her honor. Ten years later, her song “See See Rider Blues” (recorded in 1924 — you can hear it below) was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and was also added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. In 2015, a film about Bessie Smith was released (Bessie) in which Mo’Nique played Ma Rainey, and one year later the First Annual Ma Rainey International Blues Festival was held in Columbus, Georgia. Last year, in the same city, the Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts opened — named after Ma Rainey and Carson McCullers.

In 1952, Langston Hughes released a poem called “Shadow of the Blues”, in which one character proclaims of Ma Rainey: “To tell the truth, if I stop and listen, I can still hear her!” I think we still hear a bit of Ma every time an artist releases a song about queerness — and if that’s the case, I hope we never stop hearing her.

Anne Lister

Anne Lister (sometimes called “Gentleman Jack“) is a remarkable figure in history for a number of reasons — but one of them was that she was living openly as a lesbian in Regency England. Not exactly an easy thing to do (though easier than being a gay man — which you could be executed for). Anne is sometimes called “the first modern lesbian” (whatever that means) and her coded diary gives some insights into some very modern (for the time) views of sex and sexuality.

Anne was the second oldest child, and oldest daughter, in her family, born April 3, 1791. She and her younger sister were the only two of six to survive to adulthood. Anne discovered her sexuality at the age of 13, at boarding school with a girl named Eliza Raine. Eliza was terribly in love with Anne, and expected to live her when they graduated. That ultimately didn’t happen, and Eliza was “driven to despair” and institutionalized (because that was a thing you could do with emotional women, especially if they were emotional *lesbian* women.)

Instead of having a forever-kind-of-love with Eliza, Anne ultimately had for-right-now kinds of love with Isabella Norcliffe and Mariana Belcombe. All while at school. (Incidentally, Clifton Asylum — where Eliza Raine was sent — was run by a Dr. Belcombe. Mariana’s father. Coincidence?) She would continue her relationship with Mariana even into adulthood — and even once Mariana married a man. Mariana’s husband not only knew about their relationship but apparently gave his permission for it to continue.

With so few people left in her family by her adulthood, Anne Lister performed — without ever trying to — a very rare feat for the time period. She inherited land from a relative. Anne became the sole owner of Shibden Hall — which she extensively made over both to allow herself greater privacy and also because she wanted to, basically, show off how rich and influential she and her family were.

And oh boy was she rich. Anne had, aside from income from tenants living in the farming lands of Shibden Hall, but also from properties she owned in the nearby town, as well as investments she made in canals, railroads, coal mining, and other industries. This sort of business savvy was unheard of in women of the day — and ruffled more than a few feathers. But Anne had more than enough money to live life exactly as she wanted with little to no interference from anyone else.

Anne was also able to convince her lover Ann Walker to move into Shibden Hall, and the two engaged in some “marriage rituals” (I’m using quotes because I haven’t found any elaboration of what those rituals might have been) to honor their relationship — although they were not married in the eyes of the country or the church.

Aside from women, Anne other great love was adventure. And she had plenty of money to finance travels to places where she could have adventures. In 1830, Anne became the first woman to ever climb up Monte Perdido in the Pyrenees. Eight years later, she and Ann Walker would return to the Pyrenees. Together, they became the second pair of people ever to complete a climb up Vignemale — the tallest mountain in the French Pyrenees. This climb also made them the first women to climb the mountain, and the first non-locals to climb it. As a result, Anne Lister became something of a hero in France.

Anne Lister died of a fever while traveling in the country that is now called Georgia on September 22, 1840. Shibden Hall was inherited by Ann Walker — however this was disputed and Ann’s sanity called into question. She spent some time under the care of Dr. Belcombe (were there any other mental health doctors in England at the time? Seriously?) and this invalidated her ability to inherit.

Now we know a LOT about Anne Lister because, well, she was obsessive about her diary. Her diary is a 4 million word volume that she began in 1806 while in her relationship with Eliza. The writings continue, in a code, throughout her life and explicitly detail her relationships with other women. The last person to live in Shibden Hall, John Lister was able to decode the diary. His friend Arthur Burrell told him to burn the diary, but John opted instead for hiding it in a wall where it was eventually found. The diary completely re-shaped a lot of our understandings of the Regency period — and especially re-shaped our idea of what life was like for lesbians of the time.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)

Sun-bin Bong

Royal Noble Consort Sun of the Haeum Bong Clan (or Sun-bin Bong) was the second consort of the crown prince Munjong of Joseon, who was crown prince of Korea for a record breaking 29 years before becoming a mostly forgettable king.  Munjong is remembered for a few things — none of them particularly good — but one of them is that he had terrible luck with wives or, as they were called when you were married to the crown prince, royal noble consorts.

See, part of Munjong’s problem is that he mostly favored one of his concubines who he couldn’t make his royal noble consort. His first wife tried some witchcraft to make him love her instead — which backfired because he banished her for it. That meant he still needed a wife though. So, Sun-bin Bong was made the Royal Noble Consort in 1429 CE. But he didn’t love her either — which was probably fine with her; it seems like she was mostly there because it was the most powerful position a woman could have in Korea at the time. She wanted to help the village she was born in (even though her family definitely seems to have been upper class), and she didn’t seem to care much about the prince.

She sent clothes — some her own and some which she had stolen from other people in the royal court — back to her home village. This was a serious problem, but no one knew about it for several years so she kept it up. When one of the prince’s concubines became pregnant (and I assume it’s the one he actually liked but I’m not really sure), she started to fear she would be replaced as the prince’s official wife — and she was not quiet about it. This — unfortunately for her — brought her to the king’s attention.

She attempted to salvage her place in the court by (possibly) faking a pregnancy and a miscarriage, claiming to have buried the remains. Servants went to dig up the remains but found only burial clothes. At this point, they discovered that Sun had been sleeping with one of her handmaids, So-ssang. So-ssang insisted that she’d tried to refuse, but Sun had insisted. When they questioned Sun about it, she claimed it was only because the prince didn’t love her, wouldn’t sleep with her and she didn’t want to be alone. She claimed to have also slept with a servant named Dan-ji to help with her loneliness. When pressed further, she went so far as to say that she was intimate with So-ssang “night and day”. The problem with this wasn’t just that she was sleeping with another woman, it was that she was a royal noble consort — a member of the royal class through marriage to the prince — sleeping with a slave. The fact that she’d been sleeping with a woman was bad enough — sleeping with someone so far out of her royal social class made matters much worse.

In the proceedings against Sun that followed, several more accusations were laid out against her. One was, of course, the theft of food and clothing that she sent back to her village. She was also accused of spying on people outside of the palace through a hole in the wall. Lastly, three months before the proceedings began, she had received a visit from her aunt’s husband — he reported that her father had died. The prince had never been notified of the visit, another breach of etiquette. The royal court determined this showed a lack of respect for the greater good, and decreed that she would be demoted to the rank of commoner. The decree mostly focused on her thefts, and really really downplayed the whole lesbianism thing that was, realistically, the true reason behind this whole ordeal. The royals were trying hard to save face.

Now, Sun’s fate after this is unclear. The popular version of events is that her father killed her in an honor killing. The problem with that story is that her father had died three months before — remember that whole breach of etiquette? The rumor-mill of old Korea apparently didn’t. It’s much more likely that she was killed before ever leaving the palace. Other women of the upper classes of Korean culture during that time period were executed with fewer accusations against them, so it would not be out of character.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)

Julie d’Aubigny – “La Maupin”

Born in France in 1673, Julie d’Aubigny — better known as La Maupin — would grow up to become an accomplished opera singer and swordsman, and her sexual exploits made her what may well have been the first bisexual celebrity in history. Her father trained the court pages, so she learned many of the skills, including fencing, that pages needed to know early in her life.

At the age of fourteen, she became the mistress to her dad’s boss. But he soon found her to be a little too much to handle, and she was married off to a mild-mannered man named Sieur de Maupin. Shortly after the wedding, he was given an administrative position in the southern part of France. Julie opted to remain in Paris.

Circa 1687, she became involved with a fencing instructor who — shortly thereafter — became a fugitive after murdering someone. Julie, apparently, decided that this was actually the absolute best time to stand by her man (even though this wasn’t actually her man because, y’know, married) and became a fugitive alongside him. She donned men’s clothing, but otherwise made no real attempts to hide her gender, and the duo made a living by singing in taverns and giving fencing exhibitions.

The duo reached Marseilles, and Julie joined an opera company — singing under her maiden name. It was about this time that she decided she was over the fencing instructor, and she began a relationship with a young woman. The woman’s parents put her in a convent in Avignon. This wasn’t enough to deter La Maupin, she entered the convent as a postulant and set about securing their escape. To that end, she put the corpse of a dead nun in her lover’s bed and set the room on fire. This proved enough of a distraction to allow them to escape.

The affair lasted three more months, but eventually the young woman returned to her family. Julie was charged, as a male (and in absentia because no one managed to catch her), with kidnapping, body snatching, arson, and failure to appear before a tribunal and was sentenced to death by fire. She took off once more, making her way back to Paris and earning a living by singing.

In Villerperdue, Julie engaged in a duel with a nobleman she would later learn was the son of the Duke of Luynes. After wounding him in the duel, she visited him and they briefly became lovers. This relationship ended when he had healed and returned to his military unit, though the two remained friends for the rest of Julie’s life. (I mention this because most of Julie’s relationships don’t end that well.)

Julie soon met another singer, named Gabriel-Vincent Thevenard. They began a relationship while they both traveled towards Paris, hoping to join the Paris Opera. While on the way, Julie contacted her father’s employer/her former lover and asked him to convince the king to pardon her for her convent-related crimes. And she was, in fact, pardoned.

Initially, Julie was denied a place with the Paris Opera, but Thevenard intervened on her behalf. She began performing regularly in the opera, initially as a soprano and then later in the contralto range. Her performances were very popular, and the Marquis de Dangeau even wrote that she had the “most beautiful voice in the world”.

But Julie also caused a stir by having outlandish episodes and habitually wearing men’s clothes — although she still never tried to pass herself off as a man. Nevertheless, some refused to believe she was a woman — one anecdote tells of a heckler who accused her of being a man in the middle of one of her performances. She responded by ripping off her shirt. La Maupin, as she was known by now, was capturing the imaginations of all of Paris.

Another famous anecdote from this period of her life — one singer in the opera was harassing the women of the troupe, so La Maupin challenged him to a duel. He refused, so instead she beat him with a cane and stole his wallet and snuffbox. The next day, she overheard him complaining that he’d been jumped by a group of men — so she threw his watch and snuffbox at him and announced that she was the only one involved in kicking his sorry chauvinistic ass.

She fell in love with another female singer of the troupe, Fanchon Moreau, who actually rejected her. This left La Maupin pretty distraught, and by some accounts she tried to commit suicide, but apparently she got over it quickly. In 1695, La Maupin kissed a woman at a royal ball, and was immediately challenged to duels by three men. She bested all of them — but laws existed against dueling within the city of Paris. By some accounts she was pardoned immediately by the king, because he thought this was entertaining and the anti-dueling laws technically only applied to men. Whether or not this happened, she left Paris for Brussels pretty immediately.

She began a relationship with the Elector of Bavaria, and performed in the opera in Brussels from 1697 to 1698 — at which point, she returned to Paris to replace a retiring performer at the Paris Opera. She continued performing there until 1705. In these final years, she had a romantic relationship with Madame la Marquise de Florensac. When Florensac died, La Maupin was inconsolable.

After 1705, accounts differ. By some accounts, she returned to her husband — because, right, they were still married. That whole time. By other accounts, she entered a convent and became a nun. Both of these accounts come out sounding more like morality tales about how not to spend your life as a heathenous, cross-dressing, bisexual celebrity so I’d take both of them with a grain of salt. She is believed to have died in 1707, at the age of 33. (Yeah, she fit all of that in between the ages of 14 and 33!)

La Maupin’s gender identity is a bit of a question, that unfortunately we’ll probably never have confirmation of, but with her frequent waffles back and forth between men and women in her romantic relationships, it’s pretty hard for even the most conservative of historians to try to paint her as a straight woman. This is pretty remarkable in its own right because a lot of historians are very good at straight-washing people.

(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.)