Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben

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Baron von Steuben, the drillmaster for the Continental Army in the American War of Independence who did not speak English, was among one of history’s quirks of circumstance. Thanks to a falsified lineage he had been able to enjoy the patronage of one of Prussia’s poorer princes before being driven out due to rumors of his homosexuality. He bounced around France until Benjamin Franklin finally hired him on as a volunteer without pay.

Von Steuben’s tactics, which he required translators to convey to the troops until he got around to writing down and distributing the army’s first training manual, were brutal and advanced – and included hygiene provisions -, which turned the soldiers into a respectable fighting force and von Steuben into a Major General.

The United States German-American community now celebrates Von Steuben Day (which appears in the comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) in September. Although von Steuben’s homosexuality was never conclusively proven, he is included here due to the threat of discharge and to the two attractive young men who accompanied him throughout his campaign.

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Tu Er Shen

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In Chinese mythology, Tu Er Shen (兔兒神 or 兔神) is the god of male homosexual love. As the story goes, he was once an ordinary man named Hu Tianbao, who fell madly in love with an attractive imperial inspector, which he kept to himself because they were socially unequal; when he was caught watching the object of his affection through a bathroom wall and confessed to his infatuation, he was punished with death by beating. What might have been a tragic gay-bashing tale instead has a happy ending: The lord of the underworld judged Hu’s crime to have been love, which was no crime at all, and appointed him the deity of gay romance. He then appeared as a rabbit (hence the name Tu Er Shen, which means “The Leveret Spirit”) in a dream to a man from his hometown and prompted him to erect a shrine in the new god’s honor.

Worship of the Leveret Spirit has continued on and off since its 18th century inception. This website lists traditional methods of praying to Tu Er Shen, including offerings of paper charms and description of the deity’s generous nature. An online vendor now sells love spells named after Tu Er Shen (the website even includes handy instructions for determining if you are homosexual).

Lord Byron

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George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, had a family life so complex that Wikipedia gave it its own page. The short version is that he inherited the title of “lord” at the age of ten and proceeded to become a hopelessly debauched bisexual poet in an age when England was tightening its anti-homosexuality laws. He traveled widely across the Mediterranean, leaving behind a string of former flames and compositions in their honor. His brief stay in Switzerland left him in the company of Percy Shelley and (not yet) wife Mary; their mutual fondness for fantastical stories inspired Mary to write Frankenstein that very summer.

In Byron’s later years he visited Venice and became obsessed with the Armenian language, then fought with the Greeks for independence from the Ottoman Empire; during the war he fell ill and died of what may have been sepsis. He left behind enough classic literary works to have the term “Byronic hero” named after him, and his role in modern pop culture also has its own Wikipedia page.

Margaret Todd

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In chemistry the word isotope (Greek for “in the same place”) refers to radioactive elements that can have more than one atomic mass despite their identical chemical properties. Although the phenomenon was discovered by chemist Frederick Soddy, it was his friend the Scottish physician Margaret Todd who suggested its name, leaving a small but important mark on scientific history.

Todd’s medical schooling took double the expected four years due to her secondary career as an author; she published several books over her lifetime (including the semi-autobiographical Mona Maclean, Medical Student), gradually transitioning away from a male pseudonym, and completing the process just in time to publish a biography of the love of her life: Dr. Sophia Jex-Blake, the head of Todd’s university. Jex-Blake also had a hand in Todd’s literary career, working as an intermediary between the author and her publishing company so her secret identity wouldn’t be discovered.

The Chevalière d’Éon

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Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont, or the Chevalière d’Éon for short, was a French writer, soldier, spy, diplomat, fencing instructor, and subject of contentious betting pools on the topic of her sex. Her title ‘chevalière’ – the French word for knight and a shortening of ‘chevalier des ordres du Roi’ – was awarded after she drafted the peace treaty that ended the Seven Years’ War between France and England. Political warfare at court left her stranded in England, but she was able to negotiate a return in exchange for keeping some of the secrets she had learned as a spy to herself. However, she named as a condition that she be recognized as a woman, claiming that her parents had disguised her as a man for inheritance reasons; the French government agreed, on the condition that she wear women’s clothing. They even offered her money for a new wardrobe.

The latter part of d’Éon’s life passed in relative peace. She taught fencing and competed in tournaments for a living. Although she offered to go to war on multiple occasions she was rebuffed every time. Upon her death her body was examined and pronounced anatomically male.

D’Éon’s story is typically told with the understanding that she was a man who dressed as a woman for political reasons; to that end, male pronouns, including chevalier (the male form of chevalière), are employed. This post uses female pronouns for her because they were the ones she employed in her ghostwritten memoir, and because she repeatedly insisted that she was a woman. However, as with all deceased persons who left records that do not flawlessly map onto the present understanding of sexuality and gender, other interpretations – including some form of genderqueerness or gender fluidity – are possible.

The Ladies of Llangollen

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In the 18th century, aristocratic Irish women were expected to either marry (to the tune of immense dowries in order to secure the family’s fortunes), or, should that prove impossible, retreat to a convent. Eleanor Charlotte “this is a woman that no man would conquer” Butler and Sarah Ponsonby flipped everyone the bird and chose a third option: run away to Wales and become hyper-intellectual lesbian tourist attractions.

Butler’s castle, which belonged to her dynastic Irish family, was only two short miles from where Ponsonby lived. The two met when Butler was in her late 20s and became close “friends,” exchanging letters filled with flirtatious pet names. While this wasn’t unusual for the time period, eloping with another woman and stowing away in a barn dressed in men’s clothing after missing a planned boat was, and their respective families were dreadfully cross when they tracked down the errant women. Undaunted, the two skipped town again, this time settling down in a remote – and very lovely – part of Wales, where they holed up in a mansion. There they stayed for fifty years, composing poetry, gardening, and playing host to such illustrious guests as Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and the Duke of Wellington, who all made pilgrimages to see visit the quirky couple.

As alluded to above, close platonic relationships between women were commonplace in Western cultures before the mid-19th century. The Ladies are listed here as lesbians because of the single-minded intensity of their lifelong relationship, including their unusual refusal to marry, and accounts from local gossips that attest to their obsession with each other; however, other interpretations are possible.

For more complete accounts of the Ladies’ exploits, see here and here.