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LGBTQ history before Stonewall

Simeon Solomon // Wikimedia Commons

LGBTQ history before Stonewall

June is Pride Month, a celebration that occurs every summer and includes festivals, parades, lectures, speeches, and community events dedicated to celebrating the queer community. The goal is to honor gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, non-binary, gender non-conforming, and other members of the LGBTQ+ community, spreading tolerance, education, awareness—and most of all, pride.

The history of the celebration dates back to June 2, 2000, when President Bill Clinton declared it "Gay and Lesbian Pride Month” in honor of the Stonewall Riots, a series of demonstrations that took place in New York City on June 28, 1969. Prior to that, “LGBT History Month” had occurred in October in conjunction with National Coming Out Day since 1994.

This year is a particularly special one for Pride Month because it marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The famous impromptu demonstrations, which occurred after a nighttime police raid at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, lasted several days. They are typically pointed to by historians as the beginning of the modern Gay Liberation Movement. Soon after, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed, joining the many gay activist organizations that had been springing up in previous decades. From there, the movement caught fire and spread rapidly: “These events catalyzed lesbian women, gay men, and bisexual and transgender people to unite in a nationwide movement to seek equal rights for all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” reads an excerpt from the Stonewall National Monument website.

Earlier this month, New York City's police commissioner apologized for the raid 50 years ago that prompted the riots, saying that “the actions taken by the NYPD were wrong.” Seymour Pine, the officer who led the raid never formally apologized for the incident during his lifetime, but after his 2010 death, The New York Times reported that he had, in fact, apologized spontaneously at an event six years earlier.

In honor of the historic protests, Stacker has put together a slideshow featuring a chronological timeline of LGBTQ+ history leading up to them, beginning with prehistoric events and ending in the late 1960s, just before the events in Lower Manhattan. As you scroll through the slides, keep in mind that LGBTQ+ is a relatively new term and, while queer people have always existed, the terminology has changed frequently over the years. In an effort to avoid being anachronistic and to accurately describe the experiences of these historical figures, we have chosen in some instances to use the terminology of the time.

You may also like:Looking back at 50 years of pride festivals

Airman 1st Class Perry Aston // U.S. Air Force

2900–2500 B.C.: First record of a transgender person

Although rock art dating as far back as 9,600 depicts what some scholars have interpreted as homosexual love scenes, one of the first sets of skeletal remains of an LGBTQ+ person was a body thought to be a transgender woman discovered in 2011. The archaeological remains, which were found outside Prague, were of a skeleton that was assigned male at birth but arranged in a burial ritual that was reserved strictly for women. “We believe this is one of the earliest cases of what could be described as a transsexual or third gender grave in the Czech Republic,” archaeologist Katerina Semradova said at a press conference.

Ahmad Badr // Wikimedia Commons

2400 B.C.: Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep are buried together

Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were ancient manicurists who worked for the royal court in a city called Saqqara, Egypt around 2400 B.C. In 1964, archaeologists unearthed a joint tomb in which the men were buried face to face in the same fashion that many married couples at the time were. Although the site is called the Tomb of the Brothers, and there is debate as to its significance, many historians have interpreted it as evidence of early gay relationships “Same-sex desire existed just behind the ideal facade constructed by the ancients,” said Egyptologist Greg Reeder in a 1998 speech in Dallas.

Simeon Solomon // Wikimedia Commons

630–612 B.C.: Sappho the poet is born

The lesbian poet Sappho, who hailed from the island of Lesbos (the root of the word lesbian), was born sometime between 630 and 621 B.C. Though her sexuality has been an ongoing subject of debate, she wrote commonly about seemingly lesbian desires, and her only complete surviving poem, “Ode to Aphrodite,” features the female speaker begging the goddess of love to help her get over her unrequited love for a woman.

George E. Koronaios // Wikimedia Commons

27 B.C.: First recorded same-sex marriage under Roman Empire

In 27 B.C. Augustus established the Roman Empire under which the first recorded same-sex marriage ceremony reportedly took place. At this time, laws around homosexuality were also formed—among them that gay prostitution would be legal, but taxed. A couple of decades later, when Nero became emperor, he married two different men, according to historians: one of whom Nero allegedly dressed in the clothing of one of Caesar's wives and even castrated to make the man seem more “womanlike.”

Francisco Goya // Wikimedia Commons

1478: The Spanish Inquisition stones “sodomites”

In 1478, the Spanish Inquisition was established, which resulted in the stoning and castration of many gays and lesbians, then dubbed “sodomites.” Decades later, it is estimated there were nearly 1,000 sodomy trials before the Aragonese Inquisition.

MICHAL CIZEK/AFP // Getty Images

1532: Holy Roman Empire makes “buggery” punishable by death

In 1532, the Holy Roman Empire made intercourse between two women a crime punishable by death. In 1533, the “abominable vice of buggery” for both sexes was made a capital crime, a law that remained mostly unchanged until 1861 when it was changed to life in prison. The last people executed for the crime were Londoners James Pratt and John Smith, who were hanged after the landlord claimed to have seen them having sex through a keyhole.

Cornelius De Neve // Wikimedia Commons

1623: King James appoints his lover as Duke of Buckingham

It is well-documented that King James I had a lover named George Villiers whom he called his husband and the one he loved “more than anyone else.” In 1623, he went to the length of appointing his “sweet heart,” as he also referred to him, to the nobility as the Duke of Buckingham, a move that made him the highest-ranking subject outside the royal family.

Jean-Pierre Houël // Wikimedia Commons

1791: France becomes the first Western European nation to decriminalize homosexuality

During the French Revolution, the penal code outlined new crimes and their respective punishments in an effort to take sweeping power away from judges. Along with the new code came the legalization of sodomy, which was the first lift on the ban in Western Europe and one that paved the way for others to follow.

Markus Bernet // Wikimedia Commons

1800s: Decriminalizing homosexuality spreads through Europe and Latin America

In 1811, The Netherlands was the first major European country of the 19th century to decriminalize homosexuality. The Dominican Republic followed suit in 1822. Over the next decade El Salvador, Brazil, Bolivia, Portugal, Argentina, Turkey (then the Ottoman Empire), Honduras, Italy, and even The Vatican did the same — all before the turn of the next century. By contrast, Russia, Poland, and Germany enacted new laws against gay and lesbian activity.

Harris & Ewing // Wikimedia Commons

1884: Eleanor Roosevelt is born

Amelia Earhart and openly gay reporter Lorena Hickok are just two of the women whom First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was rumored to have had closeted affairs with, the latter of whom she exchanged more than 3,300 letters with over a 30-year period. There has been extensive speculation about the First Lady's sexuality over the years, though some have argued it's irrelevant when discussing her contribution to the gay rights movement, particularly given her position of power. “(Roosevelt) did more than almost anyone in the pre-Stonewall era to model acceptance of gay relationships—and she did it in the White House,” wrote Marc Peyser for the Huffington Post.

John K. Hillers // Wikimedia Commons

1886: We'wha takes part in a delegation to Washington D.C.

In 1886, a mixed-gender Zuni Native American named We'wha took part in a delegation to Washington D.C., where they were introduced to President Grover Cleveland. We'wha was a famous Lhamana, a person in Zuni culture who is assigned a male gender at birth, but takes on ceremonial roles and attire typically reserved for women. Today, the Lhamana gender identity is referred to as “two-spirit” or “third-gender.”

Wikimedia Commons

1892: Magnus Hirschfeld earns his doctoral degree

Magnus Hirschfeld was a German physician who spent most of his career studying sexuality with a focus on homosexuality. He became a champion for gay rights and co-founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee—the world's first gay rights organization. Being both Jewish and gay, he was frequently targeted in his home country, yet he continued his work. He said he became interested in activism after observing many of his gay patients committing suicide.

T. Kajiwara // Wikimedia Commons

1910: Emma Goldman begins speaking publicly

A contemporary of Hirschfeld's, Emma Goldman was an American feminist and anarchist who served as an early ally to gay rights activism. The Russian-born Jew, who emigrated to America as a teenager, was heterosexual, but spent much of her life championing for various minority causes. In a letter to Hirschfeld, she said: “It is a tragedy, I feel, that people of a different sexual type are caught in a world which shows so little understanding for homosexuals and is so crassly indifferent to the various gradations and variations of gender and their great significance in life.”

Wikimedia Commons

1931: Dora Richter becomes the first transgender woman to get vaginoplasty

Dora Richter was a transgender woman under the care of Magnus Hirschfeld who received the first known vaginoplasty procedure in 1931 (though Hirschfeld did not perform the surgery). Along with a number of other transgender women, Richter worked at the Institute for Sexual Research where she was given special permission by police to wear women's clothing. Two years after her affirmation surgery, the Nazis burned the library of the Institute and began sending homosexuals to concentration camps.

Wikimedia Commons

1936: Federico Garcia Lorca is executed

In 1936, Spanish police raided the Granada home of Federico Garcia Lorca, a famous poet they described as a socialist prone to “homosexual and abnormal practices.” He fled to a friend's house, but they caught up with him and surrounded the home, arresting him and taking him to an interrogation spot called the Fuente Grande. According to documents published in 2015, they executed him after he gave unspecified confessions, and they buried him on site in a “very shallow grave, in a ravine.”

Keystone Features // Getty Images

1948: Alfred Kinsey publishes “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male”

When biologist Alfred Kinsey published “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” in 1948, he asserted that approximately 37% of men at the time had engaged in homosexual activities at least once. That, along with other findings in his book, acted as the “opening salvos of the sexual revolution,” according to some, and brought the conversation about sex of all types to the mainstream. “During the Twentieth Century, no one individual did more to bring homosexuality into the public forum than Alfred Charles Kinsey,” wrote Alan Branch, professor of Christian Ethics at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “... Prior to Kinsey, people were generally considered to be either heterosexual or homosexual. Instead of this binary approach, Kinsey saw sexual behavior as existing on a continuum, which rarely described individuals as either strictly homosexual or heterosexual.”

Roger Jackson/Central Press // Getty Images

1951–52: Christine Jorgensen has sex reassignment surgery

Gender confirmation surgeries (then called “sex reassignment”) had been performed prior to Christine Jorgensen. However, the transgender woman from the Bronx was the first person to become famous for it, bringing awareness and resources to the trans community that previously had very little access to information. After completing two operations in Denmark, she returned to New York to instant fame and began touring, writing, and speaking to advocate for transgender rights.

Wikimedia Commons

1955: The Daughters of Bilitis is formed

In 1955, there weren't any lesbian political rights group in the United States—that is until the Daughters of Bilitis formed in San Francisco, making history as the first group of its kind. What began as a safe space for women to meet without the risk of police raids at gay bars quickly morphed into a full-blown political organization that created other political offshoots including The Ladder, which encouraged women to “take off their masks.” For 14 years, DOB, as they were known, helped women come out of the closest and offered resources to anyone who needed it.

Townsend // Getty Images

1956: “Go Tell It On The Mountain” is first published by James Baldwin

James Baldwin published “Go Tell It On The Mountain” in 1956, offering the world a novel that was “pivotal in American gay literature,” according to many critics. Although the theme of homosexuality is never outrightly expressed, the subtext is hard to miss. “James Baldwin's vision of otherness is very closely related to the vision of the self, thus the search for self-identity, the identity of a black gay man in a racist, homophobic society is one of the central themes of his works,” wrote Csaba Csapó in a collection of critical essays.

Daderot // Wikimedia Commons

1958: U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of gay free speech

One, Inc. v. Olesen was the first U.S. Supreme Court case that involved gay rights and it won, marking a triumphant moment for the emerging liberation movement. The ruling occurred in 1958 when the high court overturned a federal district court's decision to label gay magazine “ONE: The Homosexual Magazine” as “obscene” and ban it from being distributed through the United States Postal Service.

Patrick Emerson // Flickr

1962: Illinois removes sodomy law from criminal code

In 1962, Illinois became the first state in the nation to remove sodomy laws from its criminal code. The historic legislation occurred after the American Law Institute put together a list of recommendations called the Model Penal Code in an effort to create more legal uniformity across states. Illinois was the first state to adopt the full set of recommendations which omitted sodomy from the criminal code.

Warren K Leffler // Wikimedia Commons

1964: First gay rights protests at Whitehall

Although it's hard to say for sure given the burgeoning nature of the gay rights movement at the time, the protests outside the U.S. Army's Whitehall Street Induction Center in 1964 are generally considered to be the first public demonstration for gay rights. The demonstrations occurred after the confidentiality of a gay man's draft record was broached, prompting an activist named Randy Wicker to organize the protest to speak out against the military's anti-gay policies.

Warren K Leffler // Wikimedia Commons

1965: Vanguard is created

In 1965, a group of young people in San Francisco got together to create the Vanguard, the country's first gay liberation organization. The group, which was co-founded by Adrian Ravarour and Billy Garrison, also produced an accompanying news publication, the Vanguard Magazine, which was created by Jean-Paul Marat and Keith Oliver St.Clair.

Mattachine Society of New York

1966: The Mattachine Society organizes a “Sip-In”

When the New York State Liquor Authority banned bartenders from serving alcohol to gay people, an activist group called the Mattachine Society responded in 1966. Large groups turned out at Julius Bar in New York City to host a “Sip-In,” as they called it, promoting the issue to land in court. “The importance of this, I think, was that until this time gay people had never really fought back,” said Dick Leitsch, head of the New York Mattachine Society at the time. “We just sort of took in everything passively, didn't do anything about it. And this time we did it, and we won.”

David McNew // Getty Images

1967: Police raid Black Cat Tavern

After plain-clothed police officers raided the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles on New Year's Day in 1967, beating up staff and patrons alike, a group of gay rights protestors began demonstrating out front. Organized by P.R.I.D.E. (Personal Rights in Defense and Education), the crowd was the biggest civil rights demonstration the LGBTQ community had produced at the time, leading some historians to call it the “birthplace of a worldwide movement.”

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