Lesbian history and famous lesbians in history

lesbian history famous lesbians in history

Lesbian history often receives scant attention because of a lack of records. History famously often erases LGBTIQ+ people from the records. Because of oppression and persecution, they stayed hidden or closeted. Sometimes, the life stories of famous lesbians were tweaked by authorities, relatives or followers eager to claim their accomplishments but not their sexuality or identity. Historically, lesbians are even more invisible than gay men because HIStory so often focussed on men and because lesbianism was not criminalised to the same extent as male homosexuality. Therefore, there is less documentation of their lives.

*This article is a work in progress with more to be added.


There can be no more famous lesbian than Sappho. After all, she gifted her name to sapphic love and that of her island home to lesbians, much to the distress of some modern-day Lesbians.

The lyric poet from the Greek island of Lesbos lived around 630 — 570 BCE. She achieved fame in her lifetime and down through the ages for her poetry.

Unfortunately, she suffered a particularly egregious erasure nearly 2,000 years after her death. Translators heterosexualised her lines, changing the objects of her desire to male. Wonderfully, few now deny that she wrote about other women and she has become not only a poet but a proud lesbian muse.

Romaine Brooks

The independently wealthy Romaine Brooks could pursue an artistic career totally without care for public taste. But the public learned to appreciate her female models in masculine attire. Her paintings often featured androgeny and gender ambiguity. Probably, the general public saw as fashion what those in the know recognised as a coded celebration of sapphism.

Radclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall quite openly promoted her 1928 book The Well of Loneliness as about lesbians. The unashamedly butch author wore male clothes and frequently affected a monocle. She never apologised for being herself and recommended the same to others.

“You’re neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad. You’re as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else; only you’re unexplained as yet — you’ve not got your niche in creation. But someday that will come, and meanwhile, don’t shrink from yourself, but face yourself calmly and bravely.”

Gladys Bentley

Gladys Bentley was one of the most memorable live acts ever to tread a stage. She sang, danced, cracked jokes, and flirted with the audience – well, the women, anyway. Gladys wrote her own innuendo-laden lyrics to the popular tunes of the day and designed the choruses for audiences to sing along.

She described her appearance as a unique point of difference.

“I wore immaculate full white dress shirts with stiff collars, small bow ties and shirts, oxfords, short Eton jackets and hair cut straight back.”

Big, Black, undoubtedly Beautiful, and Butch AF, a ‘bulldagger’ in the lingo of the day. But she made no attempt to pass as a man. She wore heavy stage makeup, and her tailor-made tuxedo highlighted her bust. She was proudly and loudly a lesbian.

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale virtually invented modern-day nursing and so the Lady of the Lamp became a secular saint of the British Empire.

Argument rages still about her sexuality. But it’s difficult to argue with something she once wrote in a letter.

“I have lived and slept in the same beds with English Countesses and Prussian farm women. No woman has excited passions among women more than I have.”

Pat McDonald

Already a popular and accomplished Australian actress, Pat McDonald earned the second-ever Gold Logie awarded to a female television personality fopr her portayel of Dorrie Evans on the iconic Number 96.

She and fellow acress, the openly lesbian Bunny Brooke lived together for a number of years.


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