Danieri Basammula-Ekkere Mwanga II Mukasa (Mwanga II for short) was born in 1868. His father was Muteesa I, the kabaka (or king, basically) of Buganda from 1856 until 1884. On October 18, 1884 Mwanga II became the 31st kabaka of Buganda (part of present-day Uganda). He was sixteen years old — and his reign was not at an easy time. Muteesa I had staved off the “invasion” of Christianity and Islam by playing members of three factions against each other — Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims. Mwanga II did not have the political finesse to keep that going for long after he came to power, and he was quite certain that these “invading” religions were the greatest threat facing his nation. Mwanga decided a more aggressive tactic was needed. British missionary Alexander Mackay, who quite liked the situation under Muteesa, did not like the changes under Mwanga and unfortunately, he’s the main source for the information I have on Mwanga’s reign — so, y’know, keep in mind that this is largely coming from a heavily biased source that definitely did include some absolutely false claims (like that Mwanga learned homosexuality from Muslims traders from Zanzibar — yeah, that didn’t happen).
Within his first year of ruling, Mwanga had ten Christians executed. Following that he had the archbishop James Hannington as he arrived at the kingdom on October 29, 1885. Like that old saying goes, “If you can’t stall them, have them die in mysterious circumstances near your kingdom’s border and hope no one traces it back to you.” (They did trace it back. Oops.) I should probably point out, for the sake of fairness, Hannington’s route took him through a particularly tumultuous area of Buganda’s borders and Mackay himself tried to warn him against going that way. Didn’t stop Mwanga from getting blamed.
To make things worse, Mwanga’s harem (which consisted of both men and women) had been infiltrated by these new religious ideas and they were superceding old traditions. In the old traditions of Buganda, the kabaka was THE authority. You couldn’t tell a kabaka “no” about basically anything. (It’s good to be the king, y’know?) So when Mwanga wanted to sleep with some of the boys in his harem — which was, according to Bugandan tradition, absolutely within his rights — and they told him no because it conflicted with what they were being taught about their new faith (that men had to lie with women), he was infuriated. He also discovered one of those pages teaching Christianity to his “favourite and so far always compliant toy” Muwafi. (I mentioned that a lot of this comes from biased sources, right? So like, take that quote with a grain of salt.). Fearing the Christian missionaries were turning his courtiers into spies, he decided the only appropriate action was to execute every practicing Christian in his court. All told, it’s estimated there were 30 people he executed between January 31, 1885 and January 27, 1887 (including the boys in his harem that refused him). Twenty-two of them were burned alive, and would later become known as the Uganda Martyrs — officially sainted on October 18 of 1964 by Pope Paul VI. One of them, named Kitzito, was only 14 years old making him the youngest saint in history.
In terms of public opinion, the executions backfired on Mwanga on a massive, international scale. They riled up a lot of powerful people — particularly in the British Empire — who decided to back a rebellion to depose Mwanga II and replace him with his older brother Kiweewa. This decision was met with widespread popular support from the British people. The rebellion succeeded in 1888 — although Mwanga escaped — and Kiweewa became kabaka — for forty days. A band of Muslims deposed Kiweewa and put his half-brother Kalema on the throne. Kalema lasted a little bit longer — but Mwanga was nothing if not stubborn. He made a deal with the British to give up some of Buganda’s sovereignty if they’d help him get his throne back. So they did – and he was back on his throne by the end of 1889 and in a formal treaty with the British by December 26, 1890.
In many ways, this worked out well for Buganda — they were given a generous treaty (compared to other treaties in Africa), and the people of Buganda were allowed to administrate over the other areas that the British were including in the “Protectorate of Uganda.” They imposed their language, clothing, and diet on the rest of the protectorate. However, not everything was in their control; for instance, in 1894 the British imposed a ban on same-sex relations between men. I don’t really have any evidence to support this theory, but I think that might’ve been a contributing reason why in 1897, Mwanga decided he didn’t like being a British protectorate and declared war on Britain.
The war lasted from July 6 until July 20. The British soundly beat him, and he he was forced to flee into modern day Tanzania (German East Africa, at the time). Once there, he was arrested. He escaped, raised an army, attempted to take his throne back and was defeated again on January 15, 1898. This time he was exiled to the Seychelles (which, if you suck at geography like me and didn’t know, is 115 islands forming an archipelago in the Indian Ocean). Since he was stuck on an island, he did not go back to Buganda and actually even eventually converted to the Anglican Church before he died on May 8, 1903. In 1910 his remains were sent back to Uganda where they were interred in the Kasubi Tombs, where his father is buried.
So, okay, I hear you. What’s the big deal about Mwanga? Consider this: in Africa, 36 countries — including Uganda — have criminalized homosexuality. All of them established those laws after being colonized by Europeans. And most of them currently justify those laws by saying that homosexuality isn’t part of their culture, that it was brought to them by Europeans. Aside from some really old, kinda kinky rock art, Mwanga II is some of the best proof against that claim. Also, is it just me or could Chadwick Boseman totally play him in a movie?
This one is going to be long — can’t help it, he did a lot. (In fact, I have cut out so much of this it’s kind of embarrassing. I was just trying to focus in on the gay stuff and the sexy stuff.) He’s also kind of my historical crush — spoiler: I have the worst taste in men. I give you: the poet Lord Byron. Now, he’s from a time before we really had the understanding of sexuality that we have now, but I can say three things for certain. Lord Byron was not heterosexual. Lord Byron was not homosexual. Lord Byron was very sexual.
Lord Byron was born on January 22, 1788 CE in London to parents Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron Gordon and Catherine Gordon — Mad Jack’s second wife. They named their son George Gordon Byron. Between a rocky relationship with his unstable mother, his dad leaving them and then dying in France in 1791 (although, honestly, having read about the dad they were probably better off), and being born with a deformed foot, he definitely wasn’t winning any awards for greatest childhood ever. In 1798, at ten years old, George inherited the title of Baron Byron from his great-uncle (on his father’s side). The title came with very little money — and two properties, one of which his great-uncle had illegally sold (and most of the money Byron inherited was spent on a legal battle concerning that) and the other of which, Newstead Abbey, was run-down to the point of being practically ruins.
As he reached adolescence he was sent to the school of William Glennie. Glennie and Catherine fought constantly, particularly over control of Byron’s schedule. It was around this time (1800) that Byron first started to dabble in poetry — and, not so coincidentally, also around this time he discovered some of his distant cousins were like really pretty.
His mother pulled him from William Glennie’s school and enrolled Byron at Harrow in 1801. It was while he was attending Harrow that he met his cousin Mary Chaworth — and he fell for her hard. She did not return the feelings at all. In September of 1803, Byron refused to return to school because of this rejection. When he finally did return to school (the next year) he rekindled friendships with a number of boys there. He also began writing letters to his half-sister Augusta Leigh (from his dad’s first marriage). In 1805, Byron’s final year at Harrow, he began a romantic relationship with John Thomas Claridge and he would return to Harrow more than once after his graduation to visit Claridge.
After graduating Harrow, Byron began attending Trinity College in Cambridge. There he met John Edleston — who he became close to. While Byron almost certainly had romantic feelings for Edleston, it is unclear from his writings whether or not that friendship was sexual. He may have kept things PG out of respect for Edleston’s supposed innocence — or maybe he just kept his letters PG because England was getting stricter about penalizing anyone even suspected of engaging in “buggery”. The two had planned on living together, they never did.
In 1809, Byron left on “the Grand Tour” which was basically a trip around continental Europe that young British men would take when they finished college — if they could afford it. (Byron could not afford it but he managed to make it happen anyways.) His Grand Tour was a little less grand than most because the Napoleonic Wars were not great for tourism, so his tour focused primarily on the Mediterranean. Byron had a lot of motivations for escaping England at the time — he was jealous that Mary Chaworth was marrying another man, he was being pursued by creditors that he owed money to, and — according to letters written to his friend (and fellow lover-of-men) Charles Skinner Matthew — because he wanted to sleep with men somewhere less uptight than England. (And like all of Europe was pretty much less uptight than England at this point.) They ended up in Greece where Byron reportedly encountered over 200 male lovers, including Eusthathius Georgiou and a 14-year old boy named Nicolo Giraud. Details about the actual relationships are scarce but he sent Giraud to school, and bequeathed him an inheritance of 7,000 pounds (which he later canceled). He eventually wrote in a letter to his friend John Hobhouse that he was tired of “pl and opt Cs” (a code he used for homosexual intercourse), “the last thing I could be tired of”. (I can’t find any evidence that Hobhouse was even the slightest bit gay, so he was either very open-minded for the time or better at keeping his own secrets than he was at keeping Byron’s.)
After returning from his Grand Tour in 1811 and learning that Edleston had died from consumption, Byron attempted to resume his relationship with John Claridge but discovered that Claridge had grown up to be — of all terrible things — boring. Byron wrote in a letter to Hobhouse that Claridge was “a good man, a handsome man, an honourable man, a most inoffensive man, a well informed man, and a dull man, & this last damn epithet undoes all the rest.”
In 1812, the first two cantos of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” were published and Byron became something of a celebrity. He also became — essentially — the premier male sex symbol in England at the time. He is known to have had several affairs in this time, and while I’m sure some are just rumor, I’m equally sure some happened that nobody ever heard about (especially some affairs with men!) One that definitely happened was a tumultuous affair with the married Lady Caroline Lamb. For months, they wrote letters to each other. Byron started calling Lady Caroline “Caro”, and she started using that as her public name — but that was the only public sign of their feelings each other. In public they feigned hatred and Caroline even described Byron as “mad, bad and dangerous to know” — which is possibly the single greatest epithet ever uttered. Unfortunately bumper stickers didn’t exist yet so Caroline couldn’t cash in on her genius. (I, however, am thinking of getting t-shirts made.) Eventually Byron broke up with her. Caroline’s husband took her away to Ireland so she could recover, but like, you know that saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder”? That turned out to be true and also terrible. She became obsessed with Byron. When she came back to London in 1813, she made many very public advances to try to win him back.
Public life also brought Byron back to attention of the various people to whom he owed money. In order to solve this problem, he thought of turning back to the old Byron family book of tricks — marrying for money. He ultimately settled on marrying Annabella Millbanke who was strictly religious and seemed from the beginning to be an ill-suited match for Byron. Furthermore, she was a cousin of Caroline Lamb’s husband. (I don’t know if that was on purpose but if it was, that’s an impressive level of pettiness.) While he was going through the courting and marriage process, he was also becoming reacquainted with his half-sister Augusta and rumors that they were having an incestuous affair began to circulate. The amount of time that he and Augusta spent alone together would end up destroying his marriage, so, y’know, make of that what you will.
Millbanke brought her daughter to London in January of 1816 — leaving Byron behind — and proceedings for an official divorce began. This separation was just one of several scandals plaguing Byron’s life — rumors circulated about his crushing debt, extramarital affairs with actresses, and of course of his incestuous relationship with Augusta. In February, Lady Caroline Lamb added one more devastating scandal to the mix: she started spreading word of Byron’s sexual encounters with men. On February 12, Hobhouse brought news of the rumors to Byron’s attention. Up until this point, Byron had been planning to defend himself in court and prove that his divorce was not his fault. Hobhouse advised him this would be a massive mistake amid the rumors of sodomy. If it had come out in court that Byron had engaged in “buggery”, he might have been executed. Instead, Byron settled on a self-imposed exile. By April 25, 1816 Lord Byron left England for the rest of his life.
These events had changed Byron. He considerably more serious — and more political — but he was also more discreet. In fact, that I can’t find any records of him being sexually involved with any men from this point on although I think we can all agree that he was probably still having same-sex affairs. (I suspect, had his memoirs not be destroyed, we’d probably know a lot more about his relationships during the next few years of his life.)
By the summer of 1816, Byron had settled at Lake Geneva with a motley crew — his personal physician John William Polidori, Percy Shelley, Shelley’s future wife Mary Godwin, and her stepsister Claire Clairmont. Claire and Byron had a brief affair, which resulted in his illegitimate daughter Allegra being born in 1817. His stay at Lake Geneva is mostly important, though, because of the other writers who were there: chiefly, Mary Godwin created a draft of what would become Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Also, Byron and Polidori pretty much invented the modern idea of the vampire as a sexy blood-drinker.
By the winter, Byron had moved on — settling down in Venice. He stayed in a house belonging to Marianna Segati — a married woman with whom he was having an affair. He broke it off, and started an affair with another married woman named Margarita Cogni — though he continued staying in Marianna’s house. Anyways, Cogni left her husband and moved in — a bad move because she and Byron argued constantly (and also, not his house. His ex lover’s house. Seriously.) He finally asked her to move out, and she responded by throwing herself in the canal and drowning herself.
Around 1819, he encountered the young Italian countess Teresa Guiccioli. She fell in love with Byron — despite it being three days after her wedding to the Count Guiccioli — and he asked her to elope. The two lived together in Ravenna until moving to Pisa in 1821. Around that time, Byron and Shelley worked with Leigh Hunt to create a newspaper that they called The Liberal.
In 1823, advocates for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire approached Byron looking for support. They hoped his fame would prove a valuable asset. Byron was hesitant — he did not want to abandon the Countess Guiccioli. Circumstances in her family, however, forced her to abandon him. So, Byron set sail for Greece. Byron also planned to give generously to the cause of Greek independence. To that end, he sold his remaining estate in Scotland — Rochdale Manor — for 11,250 pounds. Translated into today’s money, Byron would have been a multimillionaire — and at the time there weren’t people with Jeff Bezos’ wealth so that was way more impressive. Byron intended to spend it all on the effort to free Greece. Virtually every Greek leader wanted Byron’s money. Only one won his favor — while others vied through a variety of tactics. Byron put his support behind Alexandros Mavrokordatos.
Meanwhile, Byron had a few distractions of his own. He pursued a relationship with his page Lukas Chalandritsanos — though Lukas was very seriously not interested and kept things very professional. Byron wrote Lukas a bunch of poems and lavished Lukas with basically anything he wanted — to no avail. But Lukas wasn’t the only person Byron was spoiling — he had begun doting on a nine year old Turkish Muslim girl named Hato, whose father had been killed by the Greeks. He considered adopting her, spent quite a bit of money on dresses for her — and when things began to get dangerous for her and her mother, he sent them away to the island of Cephalonia.
Mavrokordatos and Byron began planning an assault on Lepanto, a fortress held by the Ottoman Empire. Although Byron had no military experience, he planned to lead the attack himself. Before they could actually follow through with this plan, however, Byron became very ill with malaria. Doctors decided bloodletting would help, because that was a thing they did back then. It didn’t help — surprise! — in fact, it made things worse. Especially because no one sterilized their medical tools. (That wasn’t so much a “medicine used to suck” thing as “Byron’s doctor sucked” thing.) He developed sepsis and a fever, and then died on April 19, 1824.
Upon his death, Byron was firmly solidified as a national hero in Greece — and his reputation in England instantly became one of reverence. The reaction caused some alarm for his friends — who wanted him to be respected in his death — and so Hobhouse, Thomas Moore, and John Murray promptly burned the only copy of his memoirs instead of publishing them. His body was embalmed in Greece (though rumors circulate that the Greeks kept his heart) and then returned to England. Massive crowds came out to view his coffin. Despite efforts by Murray’s publishing firm (and later by way too many historians) to hide Byron’s sexuality, many religious and cultural institutions of the country refused to honor Byron — Westminster Abbey did not memorialize Byron in their Poets’ Corner until 1969.
If you made it this far, congratulations. Like I said, I really cut a lot out of this so I definitely encourage you all to read up on him some more! He’s iconic, and — despite the best efforts of historians — he’s undeniably queer.
It’s Pride in Montreal this week — and that city has a long and illustrious queer history. The first recorded gay establishment on the North American continent was in Montreal — but that doesn’t mean our history there has always been a pleasant one. One particularly contentious episode in that history began in 1975.
Montreal was selected by the International Olympic Committee to host the 1976 Summer Olympics. In retrospect, there’s a number of reasons this was not exactly the most successful Olympics ever (and by that I mean, just short of being a total disaster). Not least among those reasons, of course, was that preparing for these Olympics sparked a clash between the police and the LGBTQ+ community.
Mayor Jean Drapeau established the Public Morality Program to help clean up the city’s image when the eyes of the world would be upon it. I’m sure I don’t have to explain that “Morality”, in this case, means “not queer”. They began a campaign of oppression, specifically designed to terrorize the LGBTQ+ community. As Gay Times reported, citing a police source, it was “designed to frighten gays from frequenting public places where Olympic tourists [were] likely to be.”
Using a law that was initially designed to allow police to raid brothels, the police launched a series of brutal raids, over the course of which an estimated 175 people were arrested for being in a “bawdy house”.
It began on February 4, 1975 with a raid on Sauna Aquarius. Police broke down the door, and arrested 36 people. (Just a side note — I found some incongruities here, a couple sources said this was on April 4 and one said in August. Also, a couple sources said it was 35 people arrested. So, somewhere in all of that is what actually happened, but I’m pretty sure it was February 4.)
This initial raid was shocking to the LGBTQ+ community — but seemed like an isolated incident until October of that year. On October 17 and 18, police raided five gay bars. That Halloween, two more gay bars — the Limelight in the heart of downtown, and lesbian dance club Baby Face. Anyone at Baby Face who could not produce an ID or refused to show one was taken into custody until proof of their identity was provided by family or friends. The next month, a series of raids in downtown — including another one at the Limelight — led to the arrests of 80 men.
On January 23 of 1976, police raided Club Baths. Although they were provided a master key to each room in the bathhouse, the police officers broke through the doors with axes instead. They caused more than $500 of property damage and arrested 13 men. On February 11, Sauna Cristal was raided.
And then in May (or possible in March, depending on who you ask), things became truly brutal. On May 14, Neptune Sauna was raided and 89 men were arrested. Police also confiscated a membership book, with an estimated 7,000 names of members of the bathhouse. (But like, how amazing must that place have been to have had 7,000 members?) Over the next week, there were raids practically every day — Sauna Cristal was raided again. Police invaded popular lesbian bar Chez Jilly’s — carrying cameras and rifles. No arrests were made — it was clearly an effort to intimidate. And it worked. On Ste. Catherine Street, police demanded IDs from everyone trying to enter the Bellevue Tavern — again, no arrests were made there but the impact was undeniable. On May 22, Club Baths was raided yet again.
And this was the final straw. By this time, there had been eighteen raids — mostly in Montreal but with a few in Ottawa and Toronto (where a handful of the Olympic events would be taking place.) The raids in May alone had led to so many arrests that it was the largest mass arrest in Canadian history since the October Crisis of 1970 — which was a terrorist action that led to martial law being instituted, just so we’re all clear. Like, it could not have been closer to a declaration of martial law on the LGBTQ+ population of Montreal without someone in the government actually declaring martial law.
So the community formed an organization, calling themselves the Comité homosexuel antirépression (CHAR) or the Gay Coalition Against Repression. On June 19, CHAR gathered roughly 300 demonstrators to protest police oppression of their community — at the time, the largest LGBTQ+ protest in Canadian history. They marched through Montreal, down what was then called Dorchester Boulevard, marching in front of both the Olympic headquarters and city hall.
Although this protest was enough to temporarily stop the raids on queer establishments, CHAR accomplished something else pretty remarkable. Prior to the Olympic clean up, the LGBTQ+ community of Montreal was divided by language — English speakers versus French speakers. CHAR bridged that gap. Eventually, CHAR became the L’association pour les droits de gaies du Québec — an effective political organization that began winning legal protections for LGBTQ+ Canadians in Quebec by the end of 1977. The successful protest encouraged Gays of Ottowa (or GO) to hold a press release condemning the police actions, and demanding a meeting with the mayor on the issue.
And yet, the stage had been set for another clash between the queer community of Montreal and law enforcement. All of this laid the groundwork for the Truxx raid of 1977 — one of biggest events in the queerstory of Canada. And one we will cover another day. Stay tuned!
It’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.”
Paramount 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.
Jemima Wilkinson — also known simply as “the Friend” (short for “the Publick Universal Friend” — was a preacher who declared independence from gender in the same year that America declared independence from Britain, and advocated for equality for all in the early years of the United States’ existence. (And since Jemima is not around to ask what pronouns to use, I’m going to be using “they/them” for the rest of this.)
Jemima Wilkinson was born on November 29, 1758 in Cumberland, Rhode Island. Their parents were Quakers. Their early life appears to have been fairly uneventful until they became ill with a fever in 1776. Although they came close to death, they did recover — and declared that Jemima had died, and they had been reborn as the genderless Publick Universal Friend. The Friend not only did not identify with any gender, but was also quite openly asexual and promoted abstinence.
On October 13, less than a week after recovering from the fever, the Friend gave their first public sermon. Although the Friend’s teachings included a lot of Quaker values like pacificism, abolitionism, et cetera — they were still labeled a heretic by the Quakers. The Friend’s teachings also included sexual abstinence, being friendly to everyone, and gender equality (that’s the heretical part, if you weren’t sure). During the American Revolution, the Friend provided medical attention to soldiers on both sides of the war. Despite preaching about dressing plainly, the Friend’s outfits were a big part of what brought people out to listen to their sermons — the Friend wore the traditional black robes of the clergy, over petticoats, as well as a broad-brimmed black man’s hat and brightly colored women’s scarves.
The Friend preached throughout Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut before heading to Pennsylvania. By this time, there were a number of followers calling themselves “Universal Friends” and in 1783 the Friend organized the Society of the Universal Friends. Although the Friend only claimed to be a vessel for the Holy Spirit, the Universal Friends made claims that they were “the Messiah Reborn” and “Christ in female form”.
These claims — as well as the Friend’s flagrant challenge to the patriarchy — made the Friend a target. They were publicly slandered time and time again, especially in Philadelphia — an area rife with Quakers. In 1788, the Society of Universal Friends pooled their resources and purchased land near the northern end of Keuka Lake in New York. In March of 1790, they actually began journeying to the land they had purchased and on April 13, 1790 they officially declared the settlement of Jerusalem at that location. (Although Jerusalem is still a town, this particular part of it where they settled is now the village of “Penn Yan”. Which stands for “Pennsylvania Yankee”. Apparently.)
In 1800, was taken to court for blasphemy but — in what would be a landmark decision — it was ruled that American courts could not try people for blasphemy due to the separation of church and state. This would go on to influence the laws around the First Amendment as the United States developed.
The trouble with having a community where one of the central tenets is sexual abstinence is that the population tends to dwindle. Because like, you if you can’t have babies, you don’t replace the adults when they kick the bucket. Or, should I say, when they “leave time” — that’s how the Friend’s death was described by the Universal Friends when it happened on July 1, 1819. They were 61 years old — and in those years, they had challenged virtually every institution in this country, at it’s very beginning. I also want to note that, despite not identifying as a woman, the Friend is considered the first American-born woman to begin a religious movement (and is definitely, and more accurately, the first American-born non-binary person to begin a religious movement.)
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.
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.