Author Meg Ten Eyck is a white, cisgender, queer woman based in the USA. She is an award-winning LGBTQ travel content creator, CEO of EveryQueer, and has been a professional LGBTQ+ activist and queer history expert since 2005. She has also been a featured speaker at LGBTQ+ conferences around the world, has visited over 60 countries, and recently published her first book, Slacktivist: Using Digital Media to Create Change.
Throughout history, queer women have been restricted from exploration because travel was only deemed appropriate for a proper young lady when she was accompanied by her husband or another male relative. Queer history is tough to document because of the taboo nature of same-sex love in some cultures, but there are many stories of queer women in LGBTQ+ history that lived brave and open lives while exploring the world. Unfortunately, the practice of preventing women from having financial and physical autonomy is a tool of misogynistic oppression that is still used around the world today, but it is doubly difficult to overcome when factoring in LGBTQ+ identity and racial oppression. Despite these obstacles, some queer women have still explored far and wide throughout history.
Finding historical evidence of women who lived as lesbians or bisexuals is difficult because their loved ones often destroyed letters and journals upon their death to avoid scandal or family shame. Most mentions of women who loved women are found in the context of condemnation because, throughout the majority of history, same-sex female attraction was viewed as sinful and a personal defect. Still, many women who spent their life with another woman as their long-time partner are deemed ‘close friends or roommates’ by biased historians, despite evidence of physical and romantic relationships.
Even so, there were numerous recorded examples of queer women who dedicated their lives to building community, fostering adventure and preserving queer culture regardless of the consequences or obstacles against them. As a queer woman myself, I never learned my own history in school. It wasn’t until well into my twenties that I learned about the contributions of people like me to history. I never heard the stories of queer women boldly seeking adventures, which is why it’s so important for me to tell their stories. It’s only through looking back that we are able to look forward to a world where queer people of all identities feel confident to boldly seek adventure. Here, I’ll share the stories of a few of those pioneering queer women who’ve inspired me.
Queen Christina of Sweden
Queen Christina of Sweden was an emboldened rule breaker and androgynous icon who marched to her own beat. She had a witty, bold and curious personality with a passion for learning, as well as a flair for attention-seeking dramatics, like giving away crown lands. She became queen in 1644 and abdicated the throne a decade later because she would rather give up her crown than marry a man.
After stepping down, Christina chopped off her hair, put on masculine clothing and strapped a sword to her chest as she took off to explore. She moved throughout Europe, studying the arts and upsetting nobles abound with her plots to become the queen of several other sovereign states. In 1681, Christina wrote a long-awaited autobiography, in which she discussed her androgynous identity, female lovers and how she was ‘neither male nor hermaphrodite, as some people in the world have pass’d me for’. Eventually, she settled in Rome where she studied eight languages and became a patron of the arts.
Queen Christina is widely considered to have been a lesbian, but historians differ in their accounts. Some claim she died a virgin and others say she had multiple affairs with both men and women. Either way, her vivacious personality led to a movie about her life in 1933, where she was played by another famous lesbian, Greta Garbo. If you get the chance to visit Stockholm, you can tour the Swedish Royal Palace to see her famous silver throne and dig deeper into the history of her rule.
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Gladys Bentley was an unapologetically gay blues singer who was an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 30s in New York City. She’s often left out of history books detailing the contributions of black performers of the era because of her open queerness and lewd lyrics. For example, Gladys combined the popular songs ‘Sweet Alice Blue Gown’ and ‘Georgia Brown’ to became a song about anal sex.
In her heyday, Gladys was famous for performing raunchy songs with a chorus line of drag queens in Prohibition-era speakeasies. She favoured wearing a dandy signature white top hat, tuxedo and tails. Her gender-bending antics left audiences scandalised and titillated in New York City. Such a set would be controversial today, let alone 100 years ago.
The height of her career was during the Prohibition era in the United States, when alcohol was illegal. Harlem was an all-black neighbourhood in Manhattan, filled with nightclubs and performance venues that were controlled by mobsters and bootleggers. The police turned a blind eye to the illegal drinking in the neighbourhood, which resulted in flocks of white people from around the city going to Harlem to partake in the access to alcohol granted at Harlem’s parties, speakeasies and performance venues. This created an extreme juxtaposition: local black families were struggling with the Great Depression, while hoards of white visitors were using Harlem as a playground for booze and debauchery.
Gladys was open about her sexuality from a young age and left behind intimate letters and journals detailing her queerness. She went as far as marrying a woman in the 1920s and openly discussing the nuptials with a reporter. She was frequently in the gossip columns for her brazen queerness. While Gladys’ star was prematurely dimmed in the 1950s due to the McCarthy-era witch hunts on gay people, she should be lovingly remembered for who she was: a queer, feminist icon and a gender outlaw.
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Jane Addams is considered to be the mother of modern social work. She was a fixture in Chicago in the late 1800s and a pioneer of the women’s suffrage movement, who also worked on reforms in child labour, public health, garbage collection, labour laws and race relations.
While travelling through Europe, Jane visited Toynbee Hall, a settlement house for immigrants in London’s East End. It inspired Jane and her long-term partner, Ellen Gates Starr, to found the US’s first settlement house, Hull House, to cater to the disenfranchised immigrant populations in Chicago. The settlement house initially opened as a childcare centre in order to allow immigrant mothers to work outside their homes without leaving their children unattended. Eventually, it expanded to allow for primary and secondary education as well as college-level courses, and classes on social justice and civil rights. Eventually, Jane and her colleagues at Hull House founded what would become the Juvenile Protective Association, whose mission it is to protect children from abuse and neglect. Jane was also a founding member and the inaugural president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. If that wasn’t enough, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
Despite much evidence of her two long-term, same-sex relationships, history has not remembered Jane for who she was: a queer woman who created a safe space for other queer women at Hull House. She worked almost exclusively with other queer women and shaped most of her life around building a community for these women.
Eventually, Jane ended her relationship with Ellen Gates Starr and met Mary Rozet Smith, who she was married to for 40 years. While they were not legally married, Jane and Mary travelled, shared a bed and owned property together. They also viewed themselves as a married couple. In a letter to Mary, Jane said, “There is reason in the habit of married folks keeping together.” Jane would write letters every day they were apart, saying things like, “I miss you dreadfully and am yours ’til death.” She also referred to Smith as “my dearest” and “my forever dear” in numerous letters throughout their 40-year relationship.
Jane and her companions most likely would not have used the identifier ‘lesbian’ because it wasn’t popularised at that time. Historians differ in their opinions of Jane’s queerness because she and her partners left behind little information about the sexual nature of their relationships. They did leave much evidence of their love and intimacy, but many historians reduce queer people to their sexual practices rather than their intimacy and love with another woman.
The reality is that sexually explicit content of any variety, whether hetero or homosexual, would have been considered indecent for women of their time and stature. We will never definitively understand the sexual nature of their relationship, but we do know they viewed each other as life partners and each other’s great loves.
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Judy Dlugacz co-founded Olivia Records, a feminist record label, in 1973. By 1990, Judy decided to start a cruise line for lesbians that operated more like a floating concert venue for the artists that Olivia Records supported. This became what we know today as Olivia Travel, or just Olivia, the largest travel company in the world that invests in chartering entire ships and resorts exclusively for the community of LGBTQ+ women. By enabling hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ+ women to take cruises and participate in onshore adventures, from Mexico to Europe and beyond, Olivia has paved the way for lesbian travel around the world.
To this day, Olivia is one of the only travel companies specifically for LGBTQ+ women. Olivia offers opportunities for all groups, from specific programs for women of colour to activities just for solo travellers to age-specific offerings. In this way, Olivia helps to create a safe space for its travellers so they have the freedom to be authentically them during their getaway.
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Christine Jorgensen was the first transgender woman to publicly undergo a series of gender-affirming surgeries in 1952. She travelled from her home in New York City to Copenhagen, Denmark, where she met Dr. Christian Hamburger, a Danish endocrinologist and specialist in rehabilitative hormonal therapy. Together they pioneered medical advancements in hormone therapy, surgical procedures and transgender healthcare. Christine even chose her name as a homage to her relationship with the doctor, and he credited her in his research studies as pivotal to his medical research.
When Christine returned home to the Bronx after her surgeries, she was met with a wave of media attention, including a front-page story in the Daily News, and became an overnight celebrity. Her media appearances created a platform for her to educate about and advocate for the transgender community. She became a case study for other LGBTQ+ celebrities on how they could use their platform as a public figure to give back. This public attention, however, was a double-edged sword that resulted in an inability to lead a quiet life with regular employment. Christine lived out the rest of her life working in entertainment, advocacy and activism, with the majority of her work centred on improving the living and working conditions of her transgender peers.
Jorgensen was not the first transgender woman to have surgical procedures, but the publicity she received was the first time the mainstream media spotlighted the option of surgical innovations. Her transition helped other people realise that if there were transphobic medical professionals in their area, then they could travel to other regions of the world for medical interventions in a safe and affirming atmosphere. Prior to this media coverage, many people were unaware that medical interventions were even possible.
To this day, many transgender people travel to places outside of their hometown to seek out experts in the field of transgender wellness. Each year, for example, transgender people from across the globe travel to Pennsylvania for the Philadelphia Trans Wellness Conference (PTWC), which is the largest transgender health conference in the world.
For more queer history
Queer history is passed from generation to generation via oral histories and the written accounts, although they are not extensive since countless documents were destroyed and many truths were suppressed. Luckily, we have virtual and in-person Pride celebrations around the world highlighting the works of activists in the queer community. We can also watch lesbian movies and lesbian books for a peek into our culture’s past. To learn more about LGBTQ+ women’s history and the impacts of queer women in particular, check out EveryQueer’s article on the best lesbian historical landmarks around the United States. It’ll be great inspiration for your next trip stateside, too.
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- Stay up to date with the latest Pride celebrations around the world
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