Wherever and whenever LGBTQ+ people have lived, they have loved.
Whether they found romance in ancient Egypt or a 1920s salon, the history of queer people and their lovers is rich with devotion, betrayal, and activism. Throughout history, same-sex couples have fallen in and out of love and experienced joy and heartbreak, just like anyone else.
For anyone who can't get enough of vintage love stories, here are 17 same-sex couples who have defined queer romance over the centuries.
Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not Vita.
The ladies men at a 1920s dinner party where Woolf offered to publish a book Vita had been working on with her husband a few years earlier. Relating to each other over their emotionally absent parents, they became confidants and lovers from then on. Together, the two flourished creatively. During their 10-year relationship, West inspired the gender-shifting protagonist of Woolf's Orlando: A Biography. Woolf, who had been abused by her half-brother, opened up about it to West, and with her, Woolf was for the first time in her life able to have a satisfying sexual relationship.
Their affair ended in the late 1920s on respectful terms, and they remained close friends.
Their husbands also showed a high level of respect. Although both ladies' spouses knew about the affair, they never did anything about it. West and her husband had an open marriage, while Virginia's husband wanted his wife to be happy.
Their love certainly stood the test of time — ancient times, to be exact. The two were servants who lived in Egypt around 2400 BC. Manicurists to the royal court who waited upon the pharaoh himself, Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum were found buried together in the tomb of King Unas. How do we know they were lovers? Their bodies were intertwined and their faces were nose-to-nose, a tradition that marked the dead as married couples.
When their tomb was discovered in 1964, they were reported to be brothers. But in the late 1990s, Egyptologist Greg Reeder became convinced they were lovers. On the tomb, Niankhkhnum’s wife was depicted in a banquet scene, her face obscured. Khnumhotep occupies the place that denotes a wife in many of the scenes.
Egyptologists believe that Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum’s names were strung together in a way that means “joined in life and death.”
You may have heard of this couple from the recent HBO series Gentleman Jack, but the story of Anne Lister and Ann Walker was a defining moment for lesbians and marriage equality in Britain since they exchanged vows in 1834. Lister was a wealthy English landowner famous for her world travels, her openly queer lifestyle earning her the title of "the first modern lesbian," and her extensive diaries chronicling her romantic and sexual relationships.
Lister met young heiress Ann Walker on various occasions in the 1820s, and by 1832 they had fallen in love. They took communion together on Easter Sunday at Holy Trinity Church in Goodramgate, York, now marked with an official blue plaque as the site of the first lesbian wedding to be held in Britain, though the marriage was not legally recognized at the time. The couple lived together in Lister's estate Shibden Hall until her death in 1840.
Lesbian icon and pioneering writer Gertrude Stein found true love in Toklas, with whom she shared a life for nearly 40 years. They met in Paris, sharing creative ideas in a salon that welcomed Picasso, Matisse, and Ernest Hemingway.
Although it was the 1920s, the couple celebrated their love in public. But some secrets of their partnership remained private until the 1980s when Yale University opened a locked cabinet when held hundreds of love letters between the two.
"Because I didn’t say good night and I miss it so, please know now how much I love you,” Stein wrote to Toklas in one of the discovered pages.
Martha May Eliot and Ethel Collins Dunham, two doctors who got their medical degrees together from Johns Hopkins, met while they were students at Bryn Mawr College. They decided to attend medical school together in 1914 and forever stay by each other's side. Though they were both active in fighting for women's right to vote, their ambitions to medicine separated them until they were both invited to the brand-new pediatrics department at Yale.
Both pioneers in their own right, they changed the role of women in children's medicine forever. During the Great Depression, Eliot was an architect of the New Deal's programs regarding maternal and child health, and later she was named chief of the Children's Bureau, a federal health agency, by President Truman. Dunham focused on caring for premature babies and newborns, establishing the national standards for how hospitals care for babies. She became one of the first female professors at Yale's School of Medicine, while her partner was the first female member of the American Pediatric Society and the first woman to become president of the American Public Health Association.
In 1957 the American Pediatric Society awarded Dunham its highest honor, the John Howland Award. She was the first woman to receive the honor. Eliot was the second.
Though known for painting chapels, Michelangelo was far from a church ideal in his romantic life.
The two met in 1532. Tommaso dei Cavalieri, who was 23 years old, was known as exceptionally handsome, fitting the 57-year-old Michaelangelo's ideal of masculine beauty. Michaelangelo dedicated a series of drawings and dozens of love poems to the young man, calling dei Cavalieri the "light of our century, paragon of all the world."
Letters exchanged between the artist and the Italian nobleman show that they carried on a mutual romance. De Cavalieri married in 1548, but the two remained close until Michelangelo's death in 1564.
If you've seen The Danish Girl, you know about the romance between these two early-20th-century artists — but the movie omits that both Elbe and Gottlieb identified as LGBT.
Lili, born Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener, met Gerda at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and married in 1904. Elbe specialized in painted landscapes while Gottlieb illustrated books and fashion magazines. After filling in for Gottlieb's absentee model and putting on stockings and heels, it became clear that Elbe identified as a woman. Gottlieb saw herself as a lesbian and even created famous lesbian erotica paintings. The couple moved to Paris to live openly.
Gottlieb rose to success as a painter using Lili dressed as a femme fatale as her muse.
In 1930, Elbe's body dysmorphia drove her to seek out gender-confirmation surgery in Germany. The procedure was highly experimental at the time — Lili is one of the first identifiable subjects — and took four operations over two years. As Elbe's procedure gained press, Danish courts invalidated her marriage to Gottlieb, who remarried and moved to Italy.
Having undergone several operations before the age of antibiotics, Elbe died of an infection in 1931.
The inspiration behind The Picture of Dorian Grey, Lord Alfred Douglas caught the eye of Irish writer Oscar Wilde in a way immortalized in literature. The two met in the summer of 1891. Although Wilde was married and had two sons, he began a doomed affair with Douglas, who was 19 years his junior.
Their love story was often one of pain; Douglas was known to be spoiled and reckless. The two often fought and broke up. Once, after Wilde nursed his young lover through influenza only to contract the disease himself, Douglas moved to the Grand Hotel and sent Wilde the bill on his 40th birthday.
When Douglas's father grew suspicious about their relationship, he launched a campaign against Wilde that eventually led to his arrest on grounds of gross indecency (code for being gay) and was sentenced to two years in prison.
Once Wilde was released, the two tried to rekindle their love, only to be forced apart by their families, who threatened to withhold funds.
Romantic relationships between older and younger men were common in ancient Rome, but the story of Emperor Hadrian and his young confidant Antinous stands out. Hadrian, who ruled the Roman Empire from 117 AD to 138 AD, had a special relationship with Antinous and traveled with him on a tour of the Empire, with Antinous part of the emperor's personal retinue.
When Antinous died in 130 AD, drowning under unexplained circumstances, Hadrian was so heartbroken that he remained in mourning for years, filling his palace with statues that resembled his lost lover, naming stars and flowers after him, and holding festivals and athletic games in his honor. Antinous was eventually deified and worshiped as a god by a cult that spread throughout the Empire until the end of the fourth century.
When people say there's yet to be a lesbian auteur in cinema, they are forgetting Dorothy Arzner.
Arzner, the only successful female director during Hollywood's golden age, was romantically linked to stars including Alla Nazimova and Billie Burke. But everything shifted when Arzner met Marion Morgan, a vaudeville dancer and choreographer, on the set of Fashions for Women. An entrepreneur herself, Morgan led her own performance troupe. The two began a romance and collaborated on films for decades.
Meanwhile, Arzner helped launch the careers of Katharine Hepburn and Lucille Ball and became the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America and direct a film with sound.
Successful businesswomen, Arzner and Morgan commissioned architect W.C. Tanner to build them a Hollywood Hills estate, where they lived for 40 years.
Engaging in nearly 40 years of a passionate romance, British tenor Peter Pears and composer Benjamin Britten brought heat to the opera house.
In 1976, Britten asked a friend, publisher Donald Mitchell, to "tell the truth about Peter and me" in the form of releasing 365 love letters exchanged between the pair, from when they first met in 1937 up to that year. The two were also in love with each other's artistry. "I find other singers rather non-inspiring to write for," Britten wrote in 1965, calling his lover "potentially the greatest singer alive."
The feeling was decidedly mutual. "It is you who have given me everything … I am here as your mouthpiece and I live in your music," Pears replied.
The two traveled the world as partners in life and music, performing in concert halls and for Holocaust survivors. “I live for Friday, & you. My man — my beloved man,” wrote Britten, who died of congestive heart failure in 1976. Pears died of a heart attack 10 years later.
No one knew raw sexuality better than Tennessee Williams, author of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire, and one of the most consequential playwrights in history. When he was 36 years old, he met Frank Merlo, a Sicilian-American actor 11 years his junior, in New Orleans. A year later, they were madly in love.
After the success of Streetcar, the two traveled the world in the late 1940s and 1950s, summering in Europe as Williams sought inspiration in Rome, Barcelona, and London. Merlo became Williams's personal secretary, creating order in his life and helping him deal with his constant struggle with depression. The two split after 14 years of harmony, unable to work through infidelity and drug abuse on both sides.
Shortly after their breakup, Merlo was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Suddenly none of the wounds of the past mattered; Williams returned to nurse his lover until cancer took his life.
Consumed by the loss of his true love, the Tony winner became plagued by theatrical failure, drug abuse, and depression. Through his later life he was in and out of treatment facilities, unable to live up to his creative glory.
These lifelong companions met at Oberlin College and became agents of the American Anti-Slavery Society as soon as they graduated. The couple traveled on the abolitionist lecture circuit alongside Sojourner Truth fighting for black people to be freed.
After the Civil War and emancipation, the two split to pursue their calling for justice. Holley gave talks in the North raising money to educate freed slaves, while Putnam went to Virginia to teach them. She ended up founding the Holley School, named after her partner.
Holley joined Putnam in Lottsburg, Va., where they taught together at the school year-round. Dedicated to encouraging and enabling black men to vote when they as women still could not, they died having left the school to an all-black board of trustees who kept it open for decades.
Throughout the late 19th century, Irish novelist Edith Somerville wrote in collaboration with "Martin Ross," who in reality was her second cousin, Violet Martin. Publishing 14 stories and novels, the two achieved success under the pseudonym "Somerville and Ross."
While the exact nature of their relationship is a subject of debate, they lived together like a married couple in Drishane, County Cork, and later in her life Edith became a close companion of lesbian composer Ethel Smyth.
After Violet died, Edith continued to write under their shared pen name, convinced that the two could communicate through spiritualist séances.
Mercedes de Acosta, a successful poet, playwright, and screenwriter, was an out and proud lesbian who bragged that she could have any woman she wanted. After meeting Hollywood icon Greta Garbo in 1931, she knew exactly what woman that was.
The two began a relationship shortly after their introduction, but it was never smooth sailing. At times, Garbo opened her arms and heart to de Acosta, only to pull away. They drew inspiration from each other, with de Acosta penning a screenplay for Garbo to portray Joan of Arc, but it was never filmed. But their romance was never dead even when it was over; Garbo wrote de Acosta 181 letters, cards, and telegrams. In 1959, when de Acosta was destitute, she sold them to the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia.
"I would not have had the heart or courage to have burned these letters," de Acosta wrote to William McCarthy, curator of the museum. "Greta's and Marlene's who were lovers .... I only hope ... they will be respected and protected from the eyes of vulgar people."
Convinced de Acosta was bad luck and upset that she was open about her queer relationships in memoirs, Garbo decided to erase their romance from her life completely. When de Acosta was dying, a friend asked Garbo to write her a goodbye, but out of pain and fear, Garbo refused.
While some scholars try to deny that the nature-loving poet was queer, most agree that Walt Whitman had a romantic bond with Peter Doyle, a streetcar conductor he met in 1865. According to Doyle, the men met at a hotel after his shift and were inseparable for years.
"We were familiar at once — I put my hand on his knee — we understood. He did not get out at the end of the trip — in fact went all the way back with me," Doyle said in 1895.
It's believed that Whitman disguised Doyle's initials in his notebooks by using the code "16.4" — representing the 16th and fourth letters of the alphabet.
Though we don't know for sure if the most consequential U.S. first lady was a member of the LGBT community, it's believed she fell for journalist Lorena Hickok.
They met in 1928, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for governor of New York. He was elected president four years later, and by the time he was sworn in as commander in chief, the first lady was already wearing a sapphire ring bestowed on her by "Hick," as she affectionally called Hickok. The journalist joined the Roosevelts every Sunday night for dinner, went on trips with Eleanor to the opera, and was the first to interview her as she took on the White House.
When apart, the two professed their love via telephone and letter; Roosevelt even kept a picture of Hickock in her study.