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    Famous and Forgotten LGBT Firsts

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    Because we have always been here, there are many firsts associated with our LGBT communities. For brevity, we are using terms like gay, lesbian and homosexual very broadly to describe people of the past who sought same-sex intimacy, although they understood things differently. Human nature has not changed across recorded time, but how we think about it and the ways in which we act upon it have changed, as have the rules that govern it and the words we use to describe it.

    First Gay Holiday

    Dating to the reign of the emperor Tiberius (14 CE–37 CE), the Fasti Praenestini stood in the town square of Praeneste (modern Palestrina), a favorite summer resort of wealthy Romans. A calendar of annual events, recovered in the 18th century, it stated that April 25 was a holiday for male sex workers (pueri lenonii). The profession, of course, was much older. “The value of male prostitutes,” the Roman historian Cato noted in the second century BCE, “exceeds that of farmlands.” Their endeavors were widespread and taxed by the state until 498 CE.

    First Known Transsexual or Transgender

    Roman emperor Heliogabalus (c. 204–222 CE), who came to the throne when he was 14 years old in 218 CE, married and divorced five women before he was 18. According to his contemporary Cassius Dio, however, his most enduring relationship was with his chariot driver, a blond slave from Anatolia. Heliogabalus was also “delighted to be called the mistress, the wife, the queen of [philsopher] Hierocles.” Even so, it was Zoticus, an athlete from Smyrna, whom he wed in a public ceremony in Rome.

    His lifestyle shocked even the sexually fluid Romans. Dio—who almost certainly did not approve—told readers in his Augustan History that on at least one occasion, when a visitor saluted the emperor as “My Lord Emperor, Hail!” he assumed “a ravishing feminine pose” and answered, “Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady.” Another time, “he asked the physicians to contrive a woman’s vagina in his body by means of an incision, promising them large sums for doing so.”

    We do not know how Heliogabalus saw himself. The Emperor does seem to have developed a reputation among his contemporaries for living a decadent life, but his attempt to make the sun god Elagabal Rome’s chief deity may have led to his downfall—or simple palace intrigue. Whether all of the stories about him were true or not, he was assassinated by members of his Praetorian Guard after four years on the imperial throne.

    First Modern Advocate for Gay Rights

    Happily married—or at least reasonably so—Swiss author Heinrich Hössli (1784–1864) argued in his two-volume work, Eros: The Greek Love of Men, published in 1836–1838, that sex between men was natural. “Sexual nature is immutable,” he wrote, an “eternal part of human nature.” To question it was to raise “questions about the individuality, the foundation essence, the original depths of human disposition,” as well as someone’s “innermost, unchangeable nature and being.” He now is considered to be the modern world’s first champion for homosexual rights.

    First Recorded Use of the Word ‘Lesbianism’

    In his diary entry for May 2, 1870, Arthur Munby wrote that his friend, British poet Algernon Swinburne, “expressed … an actual admiration of Lesbianism.” Munby was shocked, but Swinburne liked shocking people and promoted his reputation as a devotee of decadence. Oscar Wilde, however, stated that actually he was “a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestialiser.”

    First Voice for Homosexual Rights in the United States

    Anarchist, political activist, advocate for equal rights and for a woman’s right to family planning, Emma Goldman (1869–1940) gave the first public defense of homosexuality in the United States during a speech in 1910. “It is a tragedy,” she later wrote to German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, that the world “shows so little understanding for homosexuals and is so crassly indifferent to the various gradations and variations of gender and their great significance in life.”

    Her colleague and lover Alexander Berkman (1870–1936) in 1915 gave the earliest known lecture in San Francisco supporting sexual freedom for homosexuals. The U. S. government deported the couple in 1919.

    First Fundraiser in the U.S. for a Gay Cause

    Dancer and choreographer Lester Horton (1906–1953) staged the first benefit performance for gay civil rights, raising money for the Mattachine Society to fight the Los Angeles Police Department’s notorious campaign of entrapment to “combat the homosexual scourge.” The May 23, 1953, event brought in some $500 to help the organization. The policy of having undercover officers pose as gay men to arrest them and charge them with lewd behavior continued for many years, however.

    First Television Program to Discuss Homosexuality

    In 1954, the weekly Los Angeles-based program Confidential File included an episode that was almost certainly the first discussion of homosexuality on broadcast television. Hosted by homophobic newspaper reporter Paul Coates (1921–1968), the tabloid-style “newscast” aired Homosexuals and the Problem They Present, which showed men who love men as being a “social problem.” A follow-up segment, Homosexuals Who Stalk and Molest Children, was televised in 1955.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.