LGBTQ+ history that you didn’t learn about in high school

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Want to find out how a gang of 150 pairs of gay lovers defeated Sparta’s world-famous army? Or about the secret queer life of pirates? Or maybe even about the perspectives of numerous Native American tribes on gender? If so, keep reading — you won’t be disappointed. 

Too often, we’re taught the bare minimum in the standard school classroom, ignoring the important LGBTQ+ voices that have influenced centuries worth of history. In fact, LGBTQ+ individuals have been around since the beginning of time and have left their mark on almost every aspect of our history, from ancient Greece to the raging seas — you just have to look for it.

The Sacred Band Of Thebes

Whether through boring history classes at school or “Percy Jackson” novels, we’ve all heard of ancient Greece’s biggest military superpower, Sparta. The Spartans were famous for having the strongest army and best soldiers in all of the Greek lands, and are perhaps most celebrated for their feats in the Battle Of Thermopylae during which they held off Persia’s invading army of a thousand men with just 300 soldiers. But one thing we didn’t learn in school was how these world-famous, unbeatable fighters were finally defeated — a task which was accomplished by none other than an army of 150 pairs of gay male lovers. 

The Sacred Band Of Thebes was a branch of the Theban army, central to the city-state of Thebes in ancient Greece. The Sacred Band was an elite fighting force of specially selected warriors, created to protect the city of Thebes from invasion. Taking “kill ’em with kindness” quite literally, this force of love consisted of 150 pairs of male lovers. It was created under the idea that a smaller group of unified lovers would fight more cohesively than an ordinary military or a group of total strangers. This unique concept was originally ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s idea, as he proposed using love as motivation to fight in his work “Symposium,” “no man is such a craven that love cannot inspire him with a courage that makes him equal to the bravest born.” 

The band was created, selected and led by Theban military leader Gorgidas. Each soldier chosen to fight in the Sacred Band did so with their lover. The couples that Gorgidas selected fit the model of Greek homosexual relations at the time: the “erastes” (or the more dominant lover and protector) and the “eromenos” (or the beloved). The fighters used their love as motivation to fight to the death to protect each other and their hometown, the city of Thebes. 

Leonardo da Vinci

We all know Leonardo da Vinci, the famous Greek artist, engineer and scientist. However, what we don’t know is that in 1467, 24-year-old Leonardo da Vinci was accused of sodomy with 17-year-old Jacopo Saltarelli. The charge was soon dismissed because the accusations did not meet the legal requirement for prosecution. However, while the sodomy accusation may have been fake or created from malicious intent, it does lead historians to speculate about da Vinci’s sexuality

Plato

While Greek philosopher Plato’s own sexuality is unknown, he was definitely a great supporter of ancient Greece’s LGBTQ+ community. In his books, Plato spoke on the issue of homophobia: “Homosexuality is regarded as shameful by barbarians and by those who live under despotic governments just as philosophy is regarded as shameful by them, because it is apparently not in the interest of such rulers to have great ideas engendered in their subjects, or powerful friendships or passionate love — all of which homosexuality is particularly apt to produce.” 

Homosexuality among pirates

As much as we all love “Pirates of the Caribbean,” the LGBTQ+ aspects of pirate life were lost in translation through Hollywood films and blockbusters. In reality, homosexuality was somewhat common on the raging seas. Pirates were famous for being outsiders who consciously separated themselves from social norms and society’s rules. The laws of the land didn’t extend to the laws of the sea, so the ships didn’t criminalize many “illegal” activities, including homosexuality. In fact, since navy ships did enforce anti-homosexual laws, flocks of LGBTQ+ navy officers fled to piracy to find the sanctuary to be themselves.

Homosexuality was actually common among pirates, and it was even encouraged at times through a practice called “matelotage.” Matelotage, or “seamanship,” originally derived its name from the French word matelot, meaning sailor. Matelotage was essentially a same-sex civil union among pirates. Matelots would share their wealth and also inherit their partner’s property in case one of them died. However, the bond between two matelots typically ran deeper than just simply an economic partnership. Some pirates would take punishments on each other’s behalf, and in a battle, matelots would fight and die together. Matelotage was also often celebrated or marked with tokens such as rings. However, it was always completely voluntary and usually nonmonogamous.

Gender in Native American tribes 

Unlike the strict gender roles in today’s western civilization, the majority of Native American tribes saw gender as a nonbinary spectrum dating back to 14th-century pre-European contact. Research shows that more than 150 Native American tribes acknowledged a third gender in their communities. These tribes even had a special position for people who were considered both male and female, which is known today as “two-spirit.” These people were seen as doubly spiritually blessed, as they had the spirit of both a man and a woman. They also had some of the most prestigious roles in the tribe — healers, artists, hunters or even war chiefs. 

Unfortunately, a large amount of this Native American cultural legacy was erased from all tribes due to colonization, religious indoctrination and the imposition of laws criminalizing varied gender expression after European contact. Two-spirit traditions were specifically targeted by conquistadors, missionaries and government agents, as they clashed with the 14th-century European idea of gender. These people were forced underground or completely uprooted in many tribes. However, Native American activists recently began to use the term “two-spirit,” coining the name in 1990 at the Indigenous lesbian and gay international gathering in Winnipeg to both reclaim their culture and heritage and serve as a pan-Indian unifier for androgyny. 

Throughout many historical events ranging from ancient Greek or Native American cultures to the Trojan War or the Golden Age of Piracy, the LGBTQ+ community has always been a part of human civilization. Despite the suppression of these stories in the history books, LGBTQ+ individuals have been around since the beginning of time, and it’s important to learn about their history to bring those hidden voices into the limelight and uncover the secrets of the past. 

Contact Katherine Kudriavstev at [email protected].