When considering the history of romance, it’s difficult to see exactly where queer people fit into the picture. A lot of our culture and history has either been rewritten or buried completely, meaning that many people don’t know much about it. However, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) romance has been around just as long as any other type – even if it hasn’t always been the most conventional form of love.
Throughout history, women gave violets to their female lovers to symbolise their love for each other. Sappho of Lesbos, a lesbian poet who wrote almost exclusively about love, started this trend in 630 BCE, as she and her lover would wear garlands of violets. The term ‘Sapphic’ has also gone on to describe women who love women in queer circles and is still frequently used in the common day as an identifier.
Indeed, some of the earliest instances of same-sex relationships can be found in Ancient Greece. These relationships often occurred alongside heterosexual marriages, with mature men taking younger men as lovers. Philosophers frequently praised these relationships as being beneficial and there are many examples of love poetry demonstrating that these relationships were just as emotional as they were pedagogic.
Romantic relationships between same-sex couples existed outside of Europe as well. Many Japanese Heian diaries refer to emperors being involved in homosexual relationships with ‘handsome boys’ and the Indian Kamasutra, an ancient text about love and sexuality, discusses same-sex relationships. Women in Lesotho, Africa, engaged in socially sanctioned long-term relationships with other women, which were referred to as ‘motsoalle’ (loosely translated as ‘a very special friend’). These relationships were intimate and sometimes erotic, although they often occurred alongside heterosexual marriages. These relationships, usually formed in adolescence, were celebrated with ritual feasts or parties.
Poetry resurfaced as a popular form of romance in Muslim countries
Similarly, women in later centuries would continue to have very intimate friendships, many of which are now described as being romantic in nature, with women even cross-dressing in order to live with women they loved. These relationships spanned from the Middle Ages to the 20th century in Europe, often involving deeply devoted love letters between two female ‘friends’. One famous example is Virginia Woolf and her lover Vita Sackville-West, for whom she wrote ‘Orlando’.
Meanwhile, poetry resurfaced as a popular form of romance in Muslim countries as many poems explored homoerotic and romantic themes. Poems celebrating love between men were more common than those expressing affection towards women and many male Persian poets alluded to Sufi spiritual practices in which the form of beautiful boys was admired in order to take a glimpse at the beauty of God.
As time went on, women in the 19th century would often form life-partnerships known as “Boston marriages”. Unlike ‘motsoalle’ relationships, these women would live together, independently of men, and they provided an alternative to heterosexual marriage. For many queer women, this made it socially acceptable to live with their lovers under the guise of just being ‘very close friends’. While not all of these relationships are believed to be romantic, many queer women did live in these arrangements. The Ladies of Llangollen are a famous example of a Boston marriage, often suspected of being lovers even when they were alive, who lived together for 50 years and dressed in men’s clothes. They were later laid to rest in the same burial plot.
Queer dating has adapted to the digital era
Around the same time, covert meeting places for men to socialise or find partners were being used, known as ‘molly houses’. The molly houses were usually taverns, public houses, or coffee shops. These were often raided by police and those who participated were arrested or became targets of blackmail, as homosexual activities were heavily prosecuted. Men meeting there would often use female names or titles, cross-dress, or adopt ‘feminine’ mannerisms and speech. Many of these subversions of gender norms are still present in LGBT spaces in the modern-day, with drag culture playing on heterosexual norms and identities.
During the 1980s, many queer women resorted once again to old-fashioned methods of finding lovers by placing personal ads in papers. A famous example is ‘On Our Backs’, an erotica magazine that was run exclusively by women and gave a voice to queer women. Advertisements would be placed outlining what women were looking for in a lover and what their desires were. Indeed, personal ads are still used by many women looking for female lovers, with the LGBT dating app, Lex, using the lonely-hearts format.
Like the rest of the world, queer dating has adapted to the digital era. Apps such as Grindr, a popular hook-up app for queer men, and Tinder are often used by members of the LGBT community. While this has made it easier to find other queer people, it isn’t without its drawbacks. Many men still manage to slip into lesbian’s feeds by signing up as ‘female’, couples constantly target bisexual women to join them, and transgender individuals often receive harassment from both people inside and outside the LGBT community. Individuals also run the risk of ‘outing’ themselves to people in their area by signing up to these apps.
It’s important that we celebrate our rich history and culture
There are still many undercover methods of dating in countries where homosexuality is illegal. In countries like Burundi, there are secret shorthand codes that local lesbians use to find each other. This isn’t unlike the coded images and language that have been used by the LGBT community throughout history to find partners, which begs the question- has queer dating remained exactly the same since it began in ancient times?
While it is easier for queer people to date nowadays, it still doesn’t come entirely without its own risks and problems. However, during pride month, it’s important that we celebrate our rich history and culture as well as our love that has survived thousands of years of oppression.