In the forty years since the Stonewall riots, and the emergence of the gay liberation movement, a process of historical archaeology has been underway. Its aim has been to make the hidden past visible.
This timeline of anniversaries is a look into what we now know of this hidden past, and also the revealed present.
Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep
circa 2416BC/1964AD 4425 years ago
The Egyptian pharaoh Nyuserre Ini reigned circa: 2416 bc – 2392 bc. The tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep was discovered by the modern world in 1964.
The two men are described in hieroglyphs as overseers to the pharaoh’s manicurists. The Egyptologist Greg Reeder noted that images of the two men mirror those of heterosexual married couples on tombs that date from the era.
Niankhkhnum means “joined to life” and Khnumhotep means “joined to ‘the blessed state of the dead'”. Together the names can be translated as “joined in life and joined in death.
Only the select few had tombs erected in their honour, and it invariably needed a favour from the pharaoh or a religious leader to have one built.
c. 611, 2620 years ago
It is estimated that the poet Sappho was born around this time.
No Athenian woman would appear at a social gathering with men in this era unless she were a prostitute. Women were confined to the house and denied an education. This was not the case in earlier, Homeric times. This tradition survived in the Aeolian culture of Lesbos, and produced Sappho, whose poetry sang of the beauty of nature and the beauty of women. She was revered as the greatest lyric poet of the age.
“You may forget but
let me tell you
this: someone in
some future time
will think of us”
In defense of Socrates
396, 2405 years ago
Plato’s Apologia, which described the trial and execution of his teacher Socrates, published. Socrates was charged with the corruption of youth.
None of Socrates’ writings survive. It is only through the dialogues of Plato that his thoughts are known. According to Plato, Socrates believed that the education of a young man by an older one, and the physical relationship that accompanied it, was more intimate than the union of man and wife. He believed that nevertheless one should move from worshipping the beauty of individual boys to beauty in the abstract and then the beauty of political institutions. This was the path of the philosopher.
Alexander the Great
326, 2335 years ago
Alexander the Great, the Macedonia King, ushers in the Hellenic age with his forging of an empire that extended from Greece to Persia, Egypt and India. He died under mysterious circumstances that same year, a month short of his 33rd birthday.
Alexander is also celebrated for his love of Hephaestion, with whom he commanded armies. When Hephaestion died in 324 of a fever, Alexander was inconsolable.
The Hellenic age lasted until the accession of Roman Emperor Constantine I, who ruled from AD 306 to 337 and adopted Christianity as the official imperial religion. The last stand of Hellenism occurred in the reign of the emperor Julian (Caesar, 355 – 360, Augustus 360 – 363), who tried to restore its place as the official religion. Julian believed he was Alexander reborn. He died without completing this task at the age of 32 in Persia whilst attempting to extend the empire’s Eastern wing. His tutor, the philosopher Libanius, claimed that a Roman Christian soldier had killed him in battle.
529, 1480 years ago
The Roman emperor Justinian assumed the throne in 527. He was a passionate student of theology and equally ruthless when it came to suppressing any and all opposition.
Justinian commissioned the compiling of Roman law, the Corpus Juris Civilis, or the Code of Justinian. Influenced by the austerity of St Augustine, he decreed in 529 that persons who engaged in homosexual sex were to be executed. He spared the repentant. Justinian believed that homosexual activity was one of the chief causes of earthquakes.
In his epic work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon described the usefulness of this law to the reign of Justinian. “A sentence of death and infamy was founded on the slight and suspicious evidence of a child or servant: the guilt of the green faction, of the rich, of the enemies of Theodora, was presumed by the judges, and paederasty became the crime of those to whom no crime could be imputed.”
First New World Lesbian conviction
1649, 360 years ago
First known conviction for lesbian activity in North America, Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Two English colonists, Sarah White Norman and Mary Vincent Hammon, were charged with “lewd behaviour each with other upon a bed”. The laws governing sexual morality were harsher in Puritan New England than in the mother country, where such laws were applied to male sexuality and sodomy.
Mary was fifteen, and so was “cleared with admonition”, whereas Sarah, who was ten years older, stood trial. Sarah was forced into public acknowledgement. Her husband returned to England.
Queen Christina abdicates
1654, 355 years ago
Queen Christina of Sweden abdicated the throne and renamed herself Count Dohna.
Christina was the only surviving legitimate child of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden and his wife Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg. She succeeded her father on the throne of Sweden upon his death at the Battle of Lützen in the Thirty Years’ War. She was six years old.
Christina often dressed in men’s clothing, and there was certainly a hint of bisexuality.
Her story was retold in one of Greta Garbo’s more extraordinary roles in Queen Christina (1933). This added to the rumours circulating about this most elusive of film stars.
1789, 220 years ago
In the spring of 1789, the year of the French revolution, the diarist Hester Thrale wrote of Marie Antoinette that “the Queen of France is at the head of a set of Monsters call’d by each other Sapphists”.
In 1775, when Marie Antoinette was twenty and queen for a year, a series of pamphlets by anti-royalists outlined her affairs and her lesbianism. She had only contempt for public opinion and did not care.
The rumours persisted, and speculation about the Queen was international by 1879, fuelled by the fact that she had become patroness of the opera singers Sophie Arnould and Françoise Raucourt, who were known to have been lovers.