Historical LGBTQ Women Who Blazed The Trail For Modern Activists

Even though the LGBTQ community seems like a recent development, people have been living queer lives since long before the age of the internet. There are many notable figures throughout history, many of the women, who blazed the trail for all of the young and thriving LGBTQ people we know today.

These women don’t often get recognized for their contributions to society. Where would we be without these, scientists, socialites, poets, and politicians? Keep reading to learn more about the very not-straight women in history who totally changed the game.

Nurse Florence Nightingale

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Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The nursing profession as we know it wouldn’t be what it is today without Florence Nightingale. She established nursing as a profession and set up a nursing school at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. Many scholars believe that Florence Nightingale was a lesbian.

Nightingale never got married, and she had a very close friendship with an aunt and a demale cousin. Legend has it that she used to pretend to be a boy, but only because she was in love with the boy’s sister.

Cultural Anthropologist Margaret Mead

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Margaret Mead had a huge influence on the sexual revolution of the 1960s. She didn’t believe in hard and fast rules when it came to sexuality. According to Autostraddle.com, “Mead believed that sexual orientation could be fluid and shift throughout one’s life,” according to Autostraddle.com.

Mead was married to three different men in her lifetime, but she was known to have a close, likely sexual relationship with fellow anthropologist Ruth Benedict. When Mead was older, she lived with Rhoda Metraux, who was also an anthropologist.

Hostess Mary Benson

Photo: E.F. Benson / Wikipedia
Photo: E.F. Benson / Wikipedia

Mary Benson was a Victorian-era English hostess who was married to Reverend Edward Benson. Edward Benson later became the Archbishop of Canterbury. Mary was only 18 years old when she got married. It didn’t take very long for Mary to become the mother of Benson’s six children.

Even though she was married to a man, Marry was involved in a string of same-sex extra-marital affairs. She was even involved with one of her daughter’s female lovers. After Edward Benson died, Marry began living with Lucy Tait, who was the daughter of the previous Archbishop.

Author Willa Cather

Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images
Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images

Willa Cather never felt the need to conform to gendered stereotypes. Sometimes she went by the name William and wore masculine clothes. Her novel, One of Ours, earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.

There’s no concrete proof that Willa wasn’t straight, but she did live with her editor Edith Lewis for almost 40 years until she died in 1947. Willa’s novels are still read in university classrooms today. They give us great insight into what the world looked like post WWI.

Playwright Natalie Clifford Barney

Natalie Clifford Barney was a playwright who is often called the Queen of Paris Lesbians. Natalie wasn’t really one for monogamy. She enjoyed having multiple partners, one of whom was Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dolly Wilde.

Natalie Clifford Barney was originally from Ohio, but she moved to Paris and set up a salon there. Writers and artists from all over Europe would come to her salon to mingle with other creatives. Barney wrote several love poems to other women over the years.

Soldier Hannah Snell

Back in the 18th century, Hanna Snell pulled a Mulan and served in the British Navy. Snell was married to a man once upon a time, but her husband abandoned her.

Snell was able to disguise herself as a man and fight in the Navy from 1745 to 1750. Once, she was tasked with hiring a prostitute for her commanding officer. She pulled the ultimate power move and ended up hiring the prostitute for herself.

Actress Tallulah Bankhead

Tallulah Bankhead was one of the first known bisexual actresses in Hollywood. She is rumored to have dated many famous ladies including Greta Garbo, Billie Holiday, Marlene Dietrich, and Patsy Kelly. Patsy Kelly actually confirmed having a sexual relationship with Bankhead.

Bankhead starred in several films throughout the 1930s. She would also throw very R-rated parties at her Hollywood home. Bankhead contracted an STI that almost killed her, but she was able to recover and went right back to her wild ways.

Fighter Pilot And Race Car Driver Roberta Cowell

Is there anything more awe-inspiring than a tough-as-heck transgender woman who was both a war pilot and a race driver? Roberta Cowell is everything. She was a British World War II fighter pilot and a Grand Prix race car driver – oh, and she also happened to be one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery.

After Cowell got her surgery, she wasn’t allowed to compete in the Grand Prix (let’s be honest, the guys couldn’t handle that she’d probably crush them), but she kept her spirits up. She won the 1957 Shelsley Walsh Speed Hill Climb and continued racing throughout her lifetime. Basically, if Cowell was still alive, we’d want to be her BFF.

Blues Singer Gladys Bentley

Gladys Bently was entirely unapologetic for her free love attitude during the Harlem Renaissance. The 1920s was a pretty liberal time as far as history goes, but Gladys Bently took that liberal attitude to a whole new extreme. She regularly performed as a lesbian drag king.

She performed raunchy parodies of popular songs with a whole chorus of drag queens behind her. She had a unique, gravelly voice, and she always owned whatever stage she stood on.

Activist Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson was an awesome transgender woman who helped paved the way for gay liberation. Johnson, a New Jersey-bred activist, became was an icon in New York’s gay and art scene during the 1960s and 1990s.

Johnson is renowned for her activism. She was one of NYC’s best-known drag queens and founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (later renamed the Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries) with her friend Sylvia Rivera. The organization was at the helm of the Stonewall riots, which is often referred to as the single most important event leading the gay liberation movement. Johnson also created STAR, a charity that advocated on behalf of homeless drag queens and runaways.

Singer Billie Holiday

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday was known to be openly bisexual during her heydey. She was rumored to have had affairs with numerous female celebrities during her career, including the aforementioned Tallulah Bankhead. Holiday infamously served time in prison for drug possession, during which time she reportedly was involved in lesbian relationships.

Despite her legendary career and immense talent, Holiday’s abusive relationships with men coupled with her drug and alcohol addictions caused her voice to deteriorate. Cirrhosis took her life on July 17, 1959.

Writer Lauren Morelli

Lauren Morelli is the groundbreaking writer behind the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Morelli only came out as a lesbian in 2014 and attributed the discovery of her sexuality to writing the main characters in Orange is the New Black. She filed for divorce from her husband of two years in September of 2014, and in 2016, she announced that she was engaged to Samira Wiley (the actress behind Litchfield inmate Poussey Washington).

Morelli’s worked has been the subject of much praise. In 2014, the Online Film and Television Association nominated her for “Best Writing in a Comedy Series.” She was awarded “Best Comedy Series” by The Writer’s Guild of America in 2014 and 2015 for Orange is the New Black.

Congresswoman Barbara Jordan

Photo by Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images
Photo by Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images

Texas-born Barbara Jordan was the first Southern African-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives after already having become the first African-American elected to the Texas Senate.

Jordan met educational psychologist Nancy Earl on a camping trip in the ’60s and from then the two maintained a strong partnership. Earl even helped Jordan pen some of her eloquent speeches. Though she never confirmed this herself, many believed Jordan was a lesbian. If she really was and came out during her lifetime, she would have been the first lesbian elected to the U.S. Congress.

Dancer Josephine Baker

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Baker rose to prominence as a dancer in Paris during the Jazz Age, with her provocative performances delighting many spectators who referred to her as the “Black Pearl” or “Creole Goddess.” During World War II, she was known to be an integral aid to the French Resistance. She was also active during the Civil Rights Movement and refused to perform for segregated audiences.

Josephine Baker was openly bisexual. She was married four times to four different men, but she also had some high profile relationships with women including blues singer Clara Smith.

Landowner And Writer Anne Lister

Anne Lister, who had a lot of money and land in the 1800s, spent a lot of time writing about her various lesbian relationships in her diaries. Lister wrote her diaries in code though, because back n the 1800s, being a lesbian (and being a female landowner) wasn’t as accepted as it is now. The code was made up of algebra and Ancient Greek.

Lister lived an openly lesbian lifestyle, and she was quite aware that what she was doing went against the status quo. She was often harassed by men and women alike about her sexuality.

Heiress Joe Carstairs

Joe Carstairs didn’t give a darn about being feminine. She never felt like she needed to become a mother or limit herself to the female gender roles of the 1900s.

Joe inherited a lot of money from her family and she used that money to become a star powerboat racer. She almost always wore men’s clothing and she had relationships with several notable women including Dolly Wilde. Yes, Dolly Wilde was Oscar Wilde’s niece, and yes, she did also have a relationship with another woman on this list.

Writer And Activist Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde was an African-American writer, civil rights activist and vocal feminist. She was also a tough-to-the-bone lesbian who was never afraid to fight for change. Audrey’s poetry was truly radical and dealt with the very taboo topics of civil rights, feminism, and exploring the black female identity

Audre Lorde famously said, “Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

Theologian Katherine Zappone

Katherine Zappone is an American politician, feminist, and theologian. She became one of the first openly lesbian members of the Oireachtas (Ireland’s legislative branch) and the first one to be in a same-sex relationship. She has served as both a member of the Irish Human Rights Commission and chief executive of the National Women’s Council of Ireland.

Zappone paved the way for LGBTQ visibility. The scholar (with a Ph.D. from Boston College) is Ireland’s first openly lesbian government minister and the world’s 32nd lesbian to be elected to parliament.

Singer Jayne County

Jayne County (previously known as Wayne County) is widely regarded as being rock’s first openly transgender singer. County has created 11 full-length studio albums and garnered a number of acting credits since she began acting in 1969 when she was asked by Warhol superstar to appear in Femme Fatale.

Jayne County’s music spans a number of genre’s including glam, punk, blues and boogie-woogie. Though you may have never heard of her, she was an influence for some of the most influential rock musicians of all time including The Ramones, David Bowie, Patti Smith, and Lou Reed.

Businesswoman Ruth Ellis

Ruth Ellis was the oldest-known lesbian when she died at the age of 100 in 2000. Her story is one that is so inspiring to feminists and hopeful boss ladies everywhere.

Ellis had brains. The Illinois native graduated high school at the age of 16 and started her own printing business. Imagine starting a business as a teenage girl in 2017, and you could imagine how much more difficult it must’ve been for a black teenager in the 1910s. Still, Ellis’ business was a success. In the 1920s, Ruth met her life partner Celine, and the couple spent the rest of their years opening up their Detroit home to African American gays and lesbians who needed refuge.

Actress Alla Nazimova

Alla Nazimova was a mega movie star. In 1917 she signed a MGM contract where she made a whopping $13,000 a week. What do you do with all that money? Throw lavish parties, of course!

Nazimova was known to have some pretty scandalous and intimate encounters with women at her mansion on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard. She even coined the term “sewing circle” to describe closeted lesbian and bisexual women in Hollywood. Nazimova definitely made the most of her life in the spotlight.

Poet Vita Sackville-West

English poet Vita Sackville-West is mostly known for her risqué affair with Virginia Woolf, but what happened over a decade before was even more controversial.

Sackville-West was the kind of woman who didn’t care what anyone thought. She did exactly what she wanted to do – which for a time, was a steamy affair with her friend Violet Trefusis. Trefusis was married to a man but they had an open relationship and she could pursue same-sex affairs. Trefusis and Sackville-West had a very up-and-down relationship which was documented in a series of letters that were later published as a collection.

Writer Mercedes de Acosta

Mercedes de Acosta was a fierce temptress and renowned writer. She once said, “I can get any woman away from any man.” We’ve got to applaud that level of confidence and sort of wish we could embody it ourselves.

Not only was Mercedes a great beauty, but was also a woman with a colorful personality. She was of Spanish/Cuban descent, and perhaps best known for (proudly) sleeping around in the era of silent movies. She was involved with a number of famous women including Russian ballerina Tamara Karsavina. Snaps for Mercedes and her wildly confident sexuality.

Activist Jane Addams

When it comes to women’s suffrage, Jane Addams was one of the fiercest activists. Addams was a pioneer American settlement activist, social worker, philosopher, sociologist, and author. Basically, she was super smart and used her smarts to smash the patriarchy. Though she never came out as a lesbian, probably because of the time in which she lived, Addams exclusively had romantic relationships with women.

Addams is known as the mother of social work – she helped create this important and necessary profession. She worked to help America address and focus on mothers care about, such as children’s needs, public health, and world peace. She believed that women couldn’t make their communities a better place without being able to vote and became the first woman awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Entertainer Cha-U-Kao

This Moulin Rouge entertainer was a muse for artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The famed lesbian was a female clown, who was confident in her choice to pursue a male-dominated career. She is depicted in a number of Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings with her various female lovers.

Toulouse-Lautrec was apparently inspired by Cha-U-Kao because she was so open and confident about her sexuality (which is a thing that was taboo for women in the 1890s, especially homosexual women). Basically, Cha-U-Kao lived her life the way she wanted and we’ve got endless respect.

Poet And Author Radclyffe Hall

Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images
Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images

English poet and author Radclyffe Hall is perhaps best known for her novel, The Well of Loneliness. Published in 1928, the novel is considered a pioneering work in lesbian literature but became the subject of court battles in the U.K. and the U.S. by people who considered it obscene.

Hall fell in love with a singer named Mabel Batten, who was 24 years her senior, and the couple began living together after Batten’s husband died. Hall also met Batten’s cousin, Una Troubridge, with whom she fell in love and lived with after Batten’s death.

Musician And Activist Laura Jane Grace

Laura Jane Grace is a modern-day, ultra-inspiring feminist and transgender musician and activist. As the singer and guitarist of the punk rock band Against Me!, Grace, who identifies as female, came out as transgender in 2012.

Since coming out as trans, Grace has become an activist for trans women and works to increase trans visibility in the mainstream. She has since released a memoir and starred in an AOL original series called True Trans. The Emmy-nominated series explored the punk rocker’s life since she came out as a woman, as well as the lives of other people in the trans community who are underrepresented in the media. Grace famously burned her birth certificate live on stage to protest North Carolina’s trans-phobic “bathroom bill.”

The Ladies of Llangollen

Photo: Richard James Lane / Wikipedia
Photo: Richard James Lane / Wikipedia

The Ladies of Llangollen included Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who had eloped together to Wales in 1778. Butler and Ponsonby were both in compromising situations before running off together. Butler was a spinster who was unlikely to marry, much to the dismay of her family. Ponsonby faced unwanted affections from her much older guardian.

The two women infamously shared a “romantic” relationship back then, calling each other “My Beloved” and sharing the same bed. However, romantic did have a different meaning back then. Historians have speculated over their sexual orientation, deciding that if they were lesbians they didn’t realize it, since that was unthinkable at the time.

Sculptor Lady Troubridge

Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Una Vincenzo Troubridge was a British sculptor who was known to translate works of literature, notably the works of French writer Colette. In 1908, Troubridge married Captain Ernest Troubridge and had a daughter, though the marriage didn’t last.

As previously mentioned, Troubridge met Radclyffe Hall through her cousin Mabel Batten and they began living together after Batten’s death. Troubridge and Hall identified as “inverts,” a term coined by Hall to describe homosexuality. Troubridge took care of Hall up until her death in 1943.

Writer And Activist Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Wikipedia
Wikipedia

American writer and political activist Alice Dunbar-Nelson was a prominent figure in the African-American community at the start of the Harlem Renaissance. She takes the name Dunbar from her first husband, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, and the name Nelson from her third husband, civil rights activist Robert J. Nelson.

Her marriages were reportedly marred by her extramarital affairs with women, which Robert Nelson reportedly read about in her journal after her death. Aside from her personal life, Alice was an advocate for African-American and women’s rights throughout the early 1900s.

Athlete Babe Didrikson

Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Mildred “Babe” Didrikson was an incredible female athlete throughout the first half of the 20th century. She competed at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and won two gold and one silver medal for track and field. Aside from that and her abilities in basketball, and baseball, Didrikson is best known for her feats in golf. She even co-founded the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

Although she married professional wrestler George Zaharias in 1908, she is also known to have been closely involved with fellow golfer Betty Dodd, whom she met at a tournament in 1950. Didrikson and Dodd toured together and were so close that many didn’t doubt they were also intimate.

Playwright Lorraine Hansberry

Photo by David Attie/Getty Images
Photo by David Attie/Getty Images

American playwright Lorraine Hansberry is best known for the play A Raisin in the Sun, which is the first play by a black female author performed on Broadway. In addition to this work, Hansberry was known to be a gay rights activist and wrote many pieces about feminism and homophobia. She also reportedly wrote anonymously to The Ladder, a lesbian magazine.

For this reason, many people identify her as a lesbian and if she was, she remained closeted her whole life and was even married to publisher Robert Nemiroff. After her death, many of her writings were found which expressed notions of homosexuality.

Writer Katharine Lee Bates

Photo by Bachrach/Getty Images
Photo by Bachrach/Getty Images

Songwriter Katharine Lee Bates is best known for writing the words to “America the Beautiful,” which she wrote while teaching at Colorado College in 1893. In addition to poetry, Bates wrote travel books and children’s books, apparently having a hand in popularizing the idea of Mrs.Santa Claus.

For 25 years of her life, Bates lived with Katharine Coman, a teacher who founded the Wellesley College School of Economics. Because the pair lived together for so long, they are known to have engaged in a “Boston Marriage,” which refers to two educated unmarried women in a co-habitational relationship.

Film Director Esther Eng

Photo: John Dowen / Wikipedia / cropped and enlarged from original
Photo: John Dowen / Wikipedia / cropped and enlarged from original

Chinese-American film director Esther Eng was a trailblazer for Asian-American women in film, having made a total of nine films in America and Hong Kong. Eng is known as the first female to direct a Chinese-language film in the U.S. Her films include Heartaches, National Heroine, and Tragic Lovers, which all came out in the ’30s.

Esther Eng was openly lesbian, which apparently was not a problem due to her involvement with the Chinese opera, which was accepting of homosexuality. Eng was posthumously honored with a documentary about her life and career, titled Golden Gate Silver Light.

Writer Rita Mae Brown

Photo by Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Photo by Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

American writer Rita Mae Brown’s most notable work is Rubyfruit Jungle, an explicitly lesbian novel that is more or less an autobiographical coming-of-age story. Throughout the ’60s, Brown participated in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as becoming a proponent of feminism, Gay Liberation, and the anti-war protests.

Brown lived with Fannie Flagg, who wrote the novel that was eventually adapted into 1991’s Fried Green Tomatoes. After breaking up due to reported “generational differences,” Brown entered into a relationship with tennis player Martina Navratilova. They also eventually broke up over Navratilova’s fear that her sexuality would jeopardize her application for U.S. citizenship.

Activist Barbara Gittings

Photo: Kay Tobin Lahusen / Wikipedia / cropped and enlarged from original
Photo: Kay Tobin Lahusen / Wikipedia / cropped and enlarged from original

Prominent LGBT activist Barbara Gittings has done a lot for the LGBT community in her lifetime. She not only worked extensively with the American Library Association to expand LGBT literature, but she also joined the movement to get the American Psychiatric Association to drop homosexuality as a mental illness.

She helped forge the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian rights organization and was an editor of their magazine, The Ladder, from 1963 to 1966. Gittings was also key in protesting gay discrimination in the U.S. government all over Washington. Gitting’s partner, coming up next, was also a prominent figure in the LGBT community.

Photojournalist Kay Lahusen

Photo: Moni3 / English Wikipedia/ cropped and enlarged from original
Photo: Moni3 / English Wikipedia/ cropped and enlarged from original

American photojournalist Kay Lahusen was the first openly gay person in the profession. Much of her work included lesbians that were featured on the covers of The Ladder during the ’60s, helping to improve the quality of the magazines which previously only featured line drawings on the covers. She and Gittings were partners for 46 years.

In addition to her photos, Lahusen contributed articles to Gay Newsweekly and helped co-author The Gay Crusaders alongside Randy Wicker. Lahusen helped found the Gay Activists Alliance in 1969, months after the historic Stonewall riots.

Novelist Patricia Highsmith

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

American novelist Patricia Highsmith’s first novel was Strangers on a Train, which Alfred Hitchcock famously adapted into a film in 1951. Highsmith’s work was primarily psychological thrillers, writing a series of novels around her character, Tom Ripley. Much of her work has been adapted for film and the stage, most notably her 1955 novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Highsmith penned The Price of Salt under the pseudonym, Claire Morgan. It is known as the first lesbian novel that has a happy ending and in 2015 was also adapted into a film called Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

Priest Pauli Murray

Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Pauli Murray made history when she not only was among the first group of women to become an Episcopal priest, but she was also the first black woman to do so. Aside from becoming a priest, Murray dedicated her life to activism during the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement.

Reports suggest that Murray was constantly at odds with her sexuality. Wikipedia notes that although she freely referred to others as homosexual, she never placed the label on herself, rather saying that she had an inverted sex instinct. She allegedly desired a “monogamous married life” with a man, despite being in relationships with women.

Poet Sappho

Photo Credits: DEA / G. NIMATALLAH/De Agostini/Getty Images
Photo Credits: DEA / G. NIMATALLAH/De Agostini/Getty Images

Sappho is an ancient Greek poet that lived between 630 and 570 BC. Although many of her poems are lost, what poetry remains is mostly broken up into fragments except for her one poem the “Ode to Aphrodite”.

Aside from being a renowned poet, Sappho is also been considered to be a symbol of love between women. It is also considered that the modern term lesbian is an indirect reference to Sappho. Although she wasn’t considered to be a homosexual by all, today, many of her poems are believed to be inspired by homoerotic desires and celebrate love for the same gender.