These Time Periods in History Surprisingly Accepted and Celebrated Homosexuality

These Time Periods in History Surprisingly Accepted and Celebrated Homosexuality

Trista - December 20, 2018

Homosexuals, queer, and transgender people have been widely persecuted throughout much of history, particularly after the founding of the Abrahamic religions. Penalties have ranged from castration to death by burning at the stake. England hung homosexual men into the 19th century. The United States is still working to bar homosexual couples from adopting children.

However, there are bright spots in history where queer sexuality and transgenderism have been celebrated as a natural part of the human experience. Most of these periods are from eras in non-Western cultures and took place before colonization and Christianization, both of which are forces that almost exclusively led to anti-homosexual beliefs in the colonized and Christianized populations.


These Time Periods in History Surprisingly Accepted and Celebrated Homosexuality
Mykonos City, or Chora, on Mykonos Isle, Greece. Wikimedia.

15. Mykonos, Greece in the 1990s

Greece has an incredibly long history of embracing homosexuality, at least in most forms. They did have a complex view of men who were penetrated in same-sex relationships, although this likely stemmed from misogyny more than homophobia. The Isle of Lesbos and its leader Sappho are where many of our terms for female homosexuality originate. The Spartan culture of Greece is noted for its valuing of homosexual relationships, particularly within its military. Unfortunately, the introduction of Eastern Orthodox Christianity put a swift and violent end to those practices through torture, execution, and the destruction of art and literature depicting homosexual relationships. Gay sex was only decriminalized in Greece in 1951, bringing the country closer to back in line with their historical roots.

After same-sex relationships were decriminalized, queer tourists began to return to Greece. A popular destination was the town of Mykonos on the island of the same name. After Jackie Kennedy, Brigitte Bardot, Jean Paul Gaultier, and other gay icons began to frequent the island it became a party central for gay tourists. The heyday of the party scene was the 1990s, and while the island has lost some of its steam in favor of other gay-friendly destinations like Spain, it is still famous and often listed as a gay-friendly tourist destination.

These Time Periods in History Surprisingly Accepted and Celebrated Homosexuality
An illustrated page from the Safavid Empire. Wikimedia.

14. Safavid Empire, 16th through 18th centuries

Given the fiery anti-gay rhetoric of many Islamic leaders today, and the often brutal punishments meted out to homosexuals, it may be surprising to learn that the Muslim Safavid Empire was quite welcoming of homosexuality. The Safavid Empire lasted from roughly 1501 to 1723 and covered a territory of parts of present-day Iraq and Iran. Homosexuality was practiced in all levels of society, including the kings. Gender fluidity was also recognized and accepted, with cross-dressing performers called köçek serving as popular court entertainers. These dancers would wear feminine costumes and makeup and dance in a sexually provocative manner.

Sufi Islam was the dominant theological strain of the Safavid Empire, and many adherents believed the Qur’an had numerous passages that promoted tolerance to homosexuality. The prophet Muhammad was said to have had many gay friends, including two close friends whom he entrusted with the care of his tomb after his death. Erotic literature featuring homosexuality was also standard in the era, with The Encylopedia of Pleasure even highlighting a lesbian relationship between a Christian princess and a Muslim noblewoman. Sadly, the tolerance of the Safavid Empire ended after the British colonization of the Arab peninsula, as the Christian British were outraged by the open displays of homosexuality and quickly instituted harsh anti-sodomy laws throughout the region, some of which persist today.

These Time Periods in History Surprisingly Accepted and Celebrated Homosexuality
The Fire Island Lighthouse on Fire Island, New York. Wikimedia.

13. Fire Island, New York in the 1950s

The United States in the 1950s was not a safe or pleasant time to be a homosexual. Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy was busy leading his “McCarthyism” witch hunts for communists, homosexuals, and other perceived malcontents and enemies of the nation. Ironically, the reason homosexuals were viewed as a threat to the US was due to the nation’s own laws prohibiting homosexuality which the US government believed made homosexuals more liable to blackmail by hostile foreign countries. However, there was one bright spot for the targeted minority: Fire Island, New York.

The island began to be popular with Manhattan elites in the 1940s, and by the 1950s numerous celebrities had vacation homes on the small island. Greta Garbo, herself a closeted bisexual or lesbian, began to frequent the island with other stars like W. H. Auden and Xavier Cugat. Former model John B. Whyte bought a hotel on the island and started openly appealing to gay tourists. Playboy wrote an expose on the island’s gay culture in the 1960s, which caused it to become even more of a gay Mecca with LGBTQIA+ tourists from around the world flocking to the island. It also became a place of mourning and togetherness as the American gay community was ravaged by the AIDS epidemic.

These Time Periods in History Surprisingly Accepted and Celebrated Homosexuality
Three Native American women on an Oregon reservation. Wikimedia.

12. Pre-Colonization North America

The term “two-spirit” for an individual who does not fit the binary gender norm was created by indigenous Americans in the 1990s to put a word to a concept that has existed in numerous tribes since before colonization. Many tribes recognized that gender was fluid and celebrated members of their tribe who didn’t fit the binary, esteeming them as storytellers, oral historians, matchmakers, and potters. Some two-spirit individuals wore female clothing while appearing outwardly male, which was noticed by Spanish colonizers when they ventured west in the 1700s.

One Spanish explorer described the two-spirits, saying,
“I have submitted substantial evidence that those Indian men who, both here and farther inland, are observed in the dress, clothing, and character of women – there being two or three such in each village – pass as sodomites by profession… They are called joyas, and are held in great esteem.”

The Spanish colonizers called them joyas, meaning jewels, due to the bright and colorful nature of their dress. Some two-spirits engaged in prostitution, although this was not stigmatized by the tribes as two-spirits were afforded sexual rights that other tribe members were not. The Spanish colonizers, on the other hand, held the traditional 18th-century Christian view of prostitution, and gender fluidity, as profoundly immoral and worked to put an end to both practices.

These Time Periods in History Surprisingly Accepted and Celebrated Homosexuality
A Greek tile depicting gay sex. Wikimedia.

11. Ancient Greece, 500 – 400 BC (kind of)

Legend often paints ancient Greece as a queer paradise where homosexuals could be themselves. In reality, much like in ancient Rome, ancient Greece embraced homosexuality only under particular conditions. While cultural standards did vary between the loosely organized collection of city-states that comprised ancient Greece, by in large, homosexuality between adults was frowned upon. One notable exception was the Thebans, whose military is believed to have been composed of bonded pairs of homosexual men to encourage genuinely frantic fighting. The only homosexual behavior that was widely tolerated by the Greeks was pederasty, paiderastia in Greek, which was practiced in many of the city-states.

In the organized system of paiderastia, older men, known as erastes, would take on younger men, known as eromenos, as mentees. These older men would help raise the young men and train them in crafts, military exercises, and more. They also were legally allowed to indulge in sexual relationships with the young men, which the mentees may or may not have consented to. While pederasty carries a horrible connotation today, in ancient Greece the practice was not only legal but popular and socially embraced. After the Romans conquered Greece, they introduced laws prohibiting being a receiver of male homosexual sex.

These Time Periods in History Surprisingly Accepted and Celebrated Homosexuality
An African sculpture. Wikimedia.

10. Pre-Colonization Africa

Post-colonization Africa has seen a hotbed of homophobic activity in recent years, some of which is reportedly funded and encouraged by US religious organizations. Uganda passed a law enacting the death penalty for homosexual activity in 2014. Robert Mugabe, former president of Zimbabwe, famously said that homosexuality was “un-African” and a colonial import from Europe. Mauritania, Sudan, Nigeria, and Somalia also have death penalty laws for homosexual activity, while 35 additional countries have non-capital penalties for homosexual activity. Only 19 of Africa’s nations have decriminalized homosexual behavior. The current dangers of being queer in Africa are particularly heartbreaking given Africa’s long pre-colonial history of embracing queer and gender fluid expression.

Countless African tribes had their own words for LGBTQ individuals and practices. Many tribes viewed homosexual experimentation as a natural part of adolescence. In Lesotho, women were allowed to engage in long-term lesbian relationships referred to as motsoalle. Numerous tribes allowed male same-sex relationships, including mentor-mentee relationships similar to the paiderastia of ancient Greece. However, all of these cultural practices were swiftly and brutally ended with the arrival of European colonizers. In addition to the horrors of slavery, disease, and colonization, homophobia and anti-sodomy laws were yet more “gifts” from the arriving Europeans.

These Time Periods in History Surprisingly Accepted and Celebrated Homosexuality
An ancient Egyptian tile fragment depicting gay sex. Wikimedia.

9. Pharaonic Egypt, 330 – 30 BC

The ancient Egyptians were quite relaxed about sexuality and gender. They had some of the world’s most progressive gender norms, at the time, with women’s rights being almost on par with men, including the valuable right to both purchase and inherit property. The gods of ancient Egypt also led the way for progressive values, with the god Hapi having numerous wives and also being represented in both male and female forms. The gods Horus and Set were described as having a homosexual relationship in The Pyramid Texts, with a passage stating, “Horus has penetrated Seth’s anus with his seed. Seth has penetrated Horus’ anus with his seed.”

Despite the relatively high status of women’s rights, almost nothing is said in ancient Egyptian texts about lesbians or sex between women. While homosexuality is quite thoroughly discussed, there are only two possible references to lesbians throughout all the recorded works historians have access to. For men’s homosexual activity, Egyptians carried similar prejudices to the later Greeks and Romans, with the act of submitting to another man in sex frowned upon, but homosexual urges and dominant activity were widely tolerated. The ancient Egyptians were also notable for having ritual prostitutes, encouraging incest in their ruling families, and the belief that intercourse would occur in the afterlife.

These Time Periods in History Surprisingly Accepted and Celebrated Homosexuality
Sappho and Phaeon by Jacques-Louis David. Wikimedia.

8. The Isle of Lesbos, Greece in 600 BC

While most of ancient Greek history and texts exclude the discussion of lesbian relationships, possibly due to the deep-rooted misogyny in Greek culture, the Isle of Lesbos is an extremely notable exception. Before the Greeks settled the island in the 12th century BC, there was a matriarchal culture of the island that worshipped a female goddess who served as a model for the next goddess Dionysus. The residents of the island were called Lesbians, and actually still are, from which modern English took the word for women attracted to women. The most renowned resident of Lesbos in ancient times was the poet Sappho, who became an icon for the poetic depiction of desire and love between women.

While much of Sappho’s poetry is believed lost, one complete surviving poem depicts an unknown author speaking to Aphrodite about their love for a young woman. The term sapphic, meaning relating to lesbians or lesbianism, comes from her name. Sappho was an esteemed woman and served as a mentor to young women on the island, possibly in the paiderastia sense that was common in Greece at the time. The long history of the Isle of Lesbos as a matriarchal and lesbian area led the island to become a popular tourist destination for lesbian travelers.

These Time Periods in History Surprisingly Accepted and Celebrated Homosexuality
The Colosseum in Rome. Wikimedia.

7. Ancient Rome (kind of)

The ancient Romans had complicated views on homosexuality. Homosexual relationships were seen as virtuous, pure and mature for those men who were on the giving end of the relationship, physically. However, the men who received were viewed as being similar to women, which lowered their status and made them open to mockery and ridicule. These beliefs likely stemmed more from the grave and pervasive misogyny of Roman culture than any homophobia. Women were looked on as childish and of incredibly low rank in Roman culture, so any perceived feminine behavior in men was met with strong disapproval. Female homosexual sex was little discussed, due to the Roman belief that sex had to be penetrative and that female desire for another female was mostly unheard of.

Many Roman noblemen and military leaders had male lovers. Emperor Hadrian was openly gay and traveled with his partner, Antinous. Male prostitutes were also common for the higher echelons of Roman society. In the later years of the Roman empire, passive, or receiving, homosexual male sex was outlawed, but it was still permitted for the “top” partner. After the Roman Empire Christianized, under Emperor Constantine, the traditional early Christian attitudes towards homosexuality took hold throughout the Roman Empire, and violent penalties were enacted for homosexual relationships of any kind.

These Time Periods in History Surprisingly Accepted and Celebrated Homosexuality
The story of Mizi Xia. Closet Professor.

6. Ancient China

China struggles with a great deal of homophobia today. Much like in some African countries, such as Zimbabwe or Uganda, a common belief in China today is that homosexuality is an import from the west and counter to traditional Chinese values. As in the case of African countries, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Positive depictions of homosexuality date back to the Han Dynasty, 206 BC – 220 AD. Homosexual behavior was called Nan-Feng and was commonplace, especially among the class of scholars and officials called Shi-Da-Fu. Affairs between two men were prevalent in this social rank and depicted very positively.

Ancient China was a polygamous culture, with men able to take many wives. While marriage was limited to taking place between men and women, same-sex affairs outside of marriage appeared to be widely tolerated. This acceptance changed, as in so many other nations, when western colonizers and missionaries arrived with Christian ideas of monogamy and morality. Everywhere Christian missionaries and western colonizers went, they quickly instituted codified morals that governed sexual behavior. It isn’t hard to feel, looking at the history of eras where homosexuality was tolerated, or even celebrated, that missionary work and colonization set tolerance back hundreds, if not thousands of years.

These Time Periods in History Surprisingly Accepted and Celebrated Homosexuality
An Edo period illustration of a samurai and townspeople. Wikimedia.

5. Pre-Meiji Japan

Pre-Meiji Restoration Japan, especially the Edo period, is rife with historical references to positively portrayed homosexual behavior. Three ancient practices have been identified as homosexual by scholars: shudō, wakashudō, and nanshoku. Shudō behaviors were limited to the military class of pre-Meiji Japan, especially samurai. Much like the Greek paiderastia, shudō involved an older, dominant man and a submissive younger mentee. The wakashudō behavior appears to be very similar in that it involved adolescent boys and older men in a military context. Nanshoku dealt with monastic relationships but again involved older men and younger mentees. Male prostitutes were prevalent in the era and catered to both female and male clientele. While many older erotic works have yet to be translated into English, at least one exists that depicts a bisexual man’s sexual adventures.

Japan stands alone as a compelling case where western influence played a role in the developing homophobia of a nation, but at the hands of the nation’s leaders and scholars themselves. The Meiji Restoration saw Japan intentionally attempting to westernize itself through imported scientific and social ideals. Japan was never colonized, so their importation and use of western models is a fascinating case and shows how the power of culturally dominant western ideals can spread even without active colonization.

These Time Periods in History Surprisingly Accepted and Celebrated Homosexuality
An illustration of King Mwanga II of Buganda. Wikimedia.

4. Kingdom of Buganda, 19th century

Buganda is one of the largest traditional kingdoms within the borders of Uganda. The nation is ruled by a leader called the Kabaka. Throughout the 19th century, the Kingdom of Buganda was incredibly permissive of homosexuality. Young men served as greeters in the royal courts and provided sexual services to visitors and the country’s elites. Kabaka Mwanga II who ruled in the latter half of the 19th century was widely recognized as gay by the citizens of Buganda, despite marrying over a dozen women. Towards the end of Mwanga II’s reign, the Imperial British East Africa Company began exerting greater and greater control over the kingdom. Mwanga II was deposed for the second and final time in 1897, and homosexuality was criminalized only five years later.

Uganda, and by extension Buganda, continues to be an extremely homophobic nation. Homosexuality has carried legal penalties since 1902, with a 2014 act, signed by President Yoweri Museveni, adding the death penalty and including lesbian sex for the first time. Thankfully, the Constitutional Court of Uganda declared the law invalid later the same year. Sadly, these laws fly in the face of numerous tribal cultural conditions of pre-colonization Uganda, including the “mudoko dako” effeminate men of the Langi tribe who were allowed to marry as though they were women and the homosexual priests of the Bunyoro people.

These Time Periods in History Surprisingly Accepted and Celebrated Homosexuality
Zande men in the 19th century. Wikimedia.

3. Sudan, Pre-19th century

The Zande tribe, which lived in pre-colonization Sudan, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic, had an exceptionally sexually permissive culture. Similar to the Greek paiderastia, warriors between the ages of 20 and 30 would take on young mentees between the ages of 12 and 20 would engage in intercrural, or thigh, sex with their mentor. There was also a tradition of older warriors taking boys as wives, paying a bride price for them in the same manner they would for a female bride. When these boy wives grew up, they would also take on younger boys as boy wives. Households in the Zande tribe practiced polygamy, and there is some evidence that lesbianism was practiced among women in various homes.

When European colonizers arrived in the Zande’s tribal lands, they were horrified by the non-monogamous and queer practices and quickly put an end to them. The cultural traditions of the Zande tribe, which once revolved around witchcraft and a supreme being called Mbori, have largely been eradicated and replaced with Christian practices. While some elements of witchcraft remain, they are now primarily viewed through a Christian lens, and the traditional ghosts of their ancestors are now associated with evil rather than protection.

These Time Periods in History Surprisingly Accepted and Celebrated Homosexuality
A painting of the Khoikhoi tribe in South Africa by Samuel Daniell. Wikimedia.

2. South Africa, 18th century

The Khoikhoi are a nomadic cattle-herding tribe that lived in a large area of southern Africa at the time of Dutch colonization. The Dutch named the tribe the Hottentots due to their inability to understand or speak the Khoekhoe language. Had the Dutch been able to speak the language, they would have realized that Khoekoe includes at least two words that specifically refer to homosexual activity. The word koetsire, in Khoekhoe, means a man who is sexually receptive to the advances of other men. The term soregus referred to a special same-sex friendship in which mutual masturbation occurred.

The more recent history of the Khoikhoi is tragically similar to that of many other tribes. The hostile Dutch, upon arrival, immediately began enslaving the Khoikhoi, seizing their cattle, and putting the Khoikhoi men to work for Dutch industries. The Dutch also worked hard to eradicate the Khoikhoi’s cultural practices, including their traditional religion and their acceptance of homosexual behavior. Through several wars, in which the Khoikhoi were forced to defend themselves against fighters with advanced weapons on horseback, they were eventually defeated and forced to give up most of their land to the Dutch. While South Africa is now one of only a handful of African countries that decriminalized homosexuality, it is in no part thanks to the Dutch, as it was decriminalized after Apartheid ended.

These Time Periods in History Surprisingly Accepted and Celebrated Homosexuality
The ruins of a 16th-century Angolan cathedral. Twitter.

1. Angola, 16th century

European colonizers “visiting” Africa in the 16th century wasted no time in imparting judgment on the cultural practices of those they’d soon be enslaving. The Portuguese, responsible for such atrocities as the genocide of indigenous Americans, wrote home about the “unnatural damnation” of homosexual male sex in the Congo. A British traveler named Andrew Battell had unkind words for the Imbangala tribe of Angola, writing, “They are beastly in their living, for they have men in women’s apparel, whom they keep among their wives.” If only British travelers had found the slave trade and violent African and Indian colonization as beastly.

Despite hating the Imbangala for their homosexuality, the Portuguese came to prize them for their ferocity in battle, which was truly legendary and fear-inducing. The Imbangala were famed for raising their children, and captives of their conquests, in a Spartan-like fashion, training children rigorously in military tactics from a young age. Ritual violence and cannibalism were common practices which, somehow, the Portuguese were fine with. The Portuguese ended up turning a blind eye to the homosexuality among the Imbangala in favor of using them as mercenaries in their war of conquest against the Angolan kingdom of Ndongo. Beastly, indeed.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“All the Periods in History When Homosexuality Was Celebrated & Embraced” David Sharp, Ranker. n.d.

“If you say being gay is not African, you don’t know your history” Bisi Alimi, The Guardian. September 2015.

“The idea that African homosexuality was a colonial import is a myth” Bernardine Evaristo, The Guardian. March 2014.

“Homosexuality in ancient Rome” Wikipedia contributors. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. November 2018.

“Women’s Legal Rights in Ancient Egypt” Janet H. Johnson, Fathom Archive. 2002.

“Ancient Egyptian Sexuality: Life in Ancient Egypt” Caroline Seawright, Tour Egypt. August 2013.

“China’s Misunderstood History of Gay Tolerance” Yuxin Zhang, The Diplomat. June 2015.

“Homosexuality in Japan” Wikipedia contributors. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. November 2018.

“LGBT history in Uganda” Wikipedia contributors. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. June 2018.

“Mwanga II of Buganda” Wikipedia contributors. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. March 2018.

“Zande” Eva Gillies, UCLA. n.d.

“Imbangala” Wikipedia contributors. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. January 2018.