What You Might Not Know about Queer History

A person walks in front of the Stonewall Inn decorated in Pride decor.
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Key Takeaways

  • Queer people have influenced the world and been in leadership in various cultures throughout all of history.
  • Although queerphobic people have and continue to threaten the lives of queer people or make life challenging, the LGBTQ+ community has always come together to counter hardships by supporting each other.
  • Queer identity is not a trend. Instead, more people—and often, youth—now feel safer questioning and exploring their identities because society and peers are more accepting and affirming.

Queer People are Everywhere, and Always Have Been

Queer experiences and identities aren't anything new and aren't specific to one culture. Queer people are global and live in a variety of contexts, with queer experiences that often reflect their cultural identities.

Blake Pruitt, a queer activist with the Reclaim Pride Coalition, says that working on community organizing efforts in his community has helped him learn through oral histories, told by people who have information about queer life and culture that isn't widely known or as easily accessible.

Blake Pruitt, LGBTQ+ Activist

If you spend time in community, you will meet people who bring queer history to you.

— Blake Pruitt, LGBTQ+ Activist

He underlines that people told stories of queer life and activism decades before he was born, reminding him that queer people have always been forging their way in the world. He notes that he's learned a lot about cultures that are not his own through community engagement and has been exposed to a richer breadth of queer experiences.

The influence of forced Western values during colonization is present in some African nations which have laws and policies that discriminate and threaten the lives of queer people—but some of these cultures have historically recognized and accepted queer identity.

King Mwanga II was openly bisexual in the 1800s when he ruled a kingdom in the area that is modern-day Uganda, a place where it is no longer considered safe to be openly queer. Nations that span the continent respect diverse experiences with gender identity, sexuality, and partnership, and their local languages include terms that reflect this.

In precolonial times, same-sex partnerships were commonplace and accepted in Native American communities too. Before their lands were colonized, over 150 Indigenous tribes are recorded as respecting integrated gender experiences or those who do not ascribe to a binary experience with gender.

Today, the term Two-Spirit has been adopted to describe some of these people, but others prefer the language that comes directly from their own Native culture. Some tribes believed then, and still affirm Two-Spirit people as especially sacred.

Christianity influenced many anti-queer perspectives with laws and edicts banning queer marriage beginning in the 4th Century under Christian rulers. Many people associate the movement for queer liberation during the mid-century with the events and people who have been part of a more visible narrative of queer history—but people have been fighting for queer rights since as early as the Middle Ages. In 1512, a group of young people protested against this oppression in Florence with an event that is believed to be the first recorded queer rights demonstration.

Some people believe trans identity is trendy right now after noticing an uptick in teens and young people exploring gender identity—but this is not true. Over the past few years, some queer experiences have become more normalized by mainstream culture thanks to the effort of queer leaders and activists who shared their stories and knowledge with the masses.

LGBTQ+ people have been leaders since BCE, with rulers, teachers, warriors, philosophers, and many other influencers who were recognized as gay, transgender, intersex, bisexual, and for having other queer identities and experiences before modern times. Today, openly queer political leaders are serving nations in a variety of cultures, and many more are impacting change while keeping their queer identities more private.

Attempts to Erase Queer Life and History Stifled Progress

Although gender affirmation medicine and surgeries also seem like a more modern marvel, the first surgeries that helped trans people transition actually occurred in the 1920s. Medical centers of the time recognized the skills and expertise of transgender medical professionals who were employed by the lead surgeon, a gay, Jewish man, Magnus Hirschfeld.

His institute opened in Germany in 1919, providing those who found community there with education about contraception, sexual health, and research and services that affirmed gender and sexuality.

This was not a place where queer people's experiences were treated as deviant or researchers sought cures for queer identity as though it were a malady. Instead, his work promoted wellness and led to progress in queer rights.

Hirschfeld helped patients get legal identification documents that identified them as “transvestite” (a category that would have included transgender people), which feels similar to the option for people to choose a third gender designator on IDs in some US states, legislation that was only very recently adopted.

Hirschfeld created a safe environment for people to seek support and community, and people flocked to this site from around the world. He implemented a collaborative space that offered offices for feminists, sex researchers, and writers to do their work too. When the institute's extensive library was raided by Nazis, more than 20,000 rare books and diagrams about gynecology, trans health and gender affirmation surgery technique, sexual health, and sexuality were lost in the first of the infamous Nazi book burnings.

Blake Pruitt, LGBTQ+ Activist

We have always needed to rely on each other to stay safe and find resources.

— Blake Pruitt, LGBTQ+ Activist

Before the Nazi rule, Berlin was lauded as the "gay capital of the world." The decision to eliminate so many published works meant to limit access to knowledge that would advance the rights and improve the lives of queer people, who thrived under the care of this doctor and within the power of the community he developed.

Some queer people and allies who supported this work fled while others were persecuted or murdered. But some, including Erwin Gohrbandt, joined the Nazis. Gohrbandt led studies on queer people and other vulnerable people at the Dachau Concentration Camp.

His actions highlight how trusted allies of the queer community and other marginalized groups have often abandoned them when it is no longer convenient to offer support and have even taken steps to harm them when cultural norms shift in this direction.

At least 100,000 men were arrested under Nazi homosexuality laws, and because the experience of queer women, transgender people, and others in the LGBTQ+ community is under-researched and under-reported, it is unclear how many thousands perished. An estimated 65% of gay men perished in camps after being tortured and mutilated, and those who survived left as convicted criminals.

Laws that criminalized queer existence resulted in hundreds of thousands of arrests, which included continued imprisonment, until at least 1969. These laws were not repealed in Germany until 1994.

LGBTQ+ people who were deemed criminals under the Nazi law were not pardoned until 2002. Those prosecuted in the years following were not pardoned until 2017, when the approximately 5000 remaining survivors were offered 1,500 euros for every year they spent in jail.

The Movement is Justice-Seeking

Although there was an end to Nazi-era persecution, the bigotry of that time influenced the decades that followed. Average people sought justice with protests and riots to combat legal statutes which prohibited queer people from openly expressing themselves, and in some cases, from expressing themselves at all. Activists associated with the mid-century movement for queer rights were the most vulnerable and marginalized members of the queer community.

In the United States, some of the most recognizable names of the movement include Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, two trans women who started a riot when they fought back against police harassment and brutality in 1969. There was also Harvey Milk, who became the first openly gay elected official in the United States in 1977. But, this movement was made possible by many nameless queer people throughout the years.

Pruitt points to the work of activists during the AIDS epidemic, who cared for community members others refused to touch or go near out of bigotry or fear. Biased and inaccurate information about AIDS promoted during the 1980s and 90s increased stigma against gay men by misrepresenting the illness as being caused by promiscuity and risk-taking. When the government did not offer adequate care to AIDS patients, who were largely queer or racial minorities, almost 450,000 people died before the end of 2000 as a result.

Pruitt said, "We are always concerned for our most marginalized community members," who still lack access to appropriate medical care and need other resources, like housing, jobs, and basic necessities. He adds that there’s still much to do to protect and affirm Black, trans people, and other vulnerable community members, including the disabled, immigrants and refugees, and youth.

He notes that allies—including queer people in privileged circumstances who attempt to advocate for more marginalized community members—need to listen more to learn about the hardships more vulnerable people endure and take action in the ways they ask. This applies to non-queer allies, who often embrace the more celebratory aspects of Pride but aren’t always as invested in justice-seeking movements.

Blake Pruitt, LGBTQ+ Activist

Information about how to do better is out there. The burden to seek information and teach others should be on those with the most power, privilege, and time.

— Blake Pruitt, LGBTQ+ Activist

Organizations are not always led by the most marginalized people, which upholds problematic hierarchies even within the queer community, including a focus on funding and programming that doesn’t always meet the needs of the most vulnerable people. Pruitt recommends donating time and funds to efforts run by, and for the people who need the support or financial assistance.

Today, the work of activists has led to greater access to education, social spaces, and resources for trans and nonbinary people, offering language for their experiences that many people lacked familiarity with before the last few years.

Pruitt explained that the dedication of other activists makes it easier to be out and live openly in authenticity. He notes that in spaces where people are working together for collective liberation, there is a sense of camaraderie that doesn't exist elsewhere.

Celebration is an Act of Resistance

Still, queerphobia makes an impact today. Legislation limits access to proper education regarding queer identity and health, bans trans girls and women from participation in sports, and eliminates the use of restrooms and public hygiene spaces for trans and nonbinary people. Their safety and health are compromised due to discrimination and makes it difficult for many people to come out.

Visibility is important—and celebrating queer joy in public spaces is an act of rebellion and resistance in itself. Pruitt emphasizes justice-seeking marches are not somber and can be equally a place to celebrate life and freedom.

He encourages queer people to explore various offerings and spaces to find what feels comfortable for them and to find a way find even small or personal ways of seeking authenticity as a way to find strength and peace.

Blake Pruitt

In the spirit of the true history of Pride, we take to the streets without anyone’s approval or permission.

— Blake Pruitt

“The Queer Liberation March is in its third year, and we’ve always said no to cops, corporations, or political grandstanding," he says. Explaining that this space is for people to seek justice for the community and reclaim public space as a place for queer people to openly and proudly exist.

Because the LGBTQ+ community is so diverse, attending Pride events or seeking to gather in spaces specifically intended for queer people offers an opportunity to connect with people whose life circumstances could be very different than our own. We might not otherwise spend time together without that intentionality.

"The best way to learn about our cultural history is to seek to surround yourself with people who can speak to its experiences firsthand," Pruitt says.

He explains that the community's oldest members tell stories that remind us of how far queer rights have come and teach us about how to better seek justice in the future. He says that people with cultural experiences that are different from our own show us the beauty and power of diversity.

More people are openly announcing and exploring their identities because it's now often safer to do so. There's still a lot more work done to seek safety and wellness for the most vulnerable queer people, but the very act of celebrating queer authenticity is already making the world a better place for all.

What This Means For You

If you are queer, you are part of a rich and diverse history that resists respectability and conformity for the sake of authentic love and expression. You are a vital part of this community, no matter if you embrace your queer identity as an open part of your life or keep this private. You are celebrated, valued, and loved by your community and activists will never stop working to make the world a safer and more affirming place.

11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Out Magazine. Today in gay history: Uganda's bisexual King Mwanga II takes the throne.

  2. The Guardian. If you say being gay is not African, you don’t know your history.

  3. National Park Service. LGBTQ America: a theme study of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer history.

  4. Haskins S. The influence of Roman laws regarding same-sex acts on homophobia in AfricaAfrican Human Rights Law Journal. 2014;14(2):393-411.

  5. HuffPost. A very gay coup.

  6. Scientific American. The forgotten history of the world's first trans clinic.

  7. Atlas Obscura. The early 20th-century ID cards that kept trans people safe from harassment.

  8. Stonewall. Remembering the holocaust.

  9. Time. How LGBTQ victims were erased from Holocaust history.

  10. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Background and timeline: Nazi persecution of homosexuals 1933-1945.

  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV and AIDS—United States, 1981–2000. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2001 Jun 1;50(21):430-434.

By Lauren Rowello
Lauren Rowello is a writer focusing on mental health, parenting, and identity. Their work has been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, and more.