Staff Writer Jax Gay
It’s Women’s History Month, so we’re highlighting the lives and accomplishments of seven incredible queer women often overlooked by the history books.
Catalina de Erauso (1585-1650)
Little is known about the early life of this 17th-century nun who escaped her convent, disguised herself as a man, and enlisted in the Spanish army. But the gender-bending soldier’s escapades around Spain and Spanish America have been preserved in her autobiography, The Lieutenant Nun.
It’s not clear how Erauso identified: At points in her life, she presented as a woman and used female pronouns; other times, she completely assumed a male identity. Regardless, when she wasn’t dueling, getting thrown in prison, or avoiding religious persecution, she seduced numerous women—including the boss’s wife at a shop she managed in Peru.
Aphra Behn (1640-1689)
Like Erauso, the origins this 17th-century British novelist, poet, playwright and translator, are shrouded in mystery: Her birth name and date are unconfirmed, although she worked as a Royalist spy in the Netherlands. Most notably, though, she was one of the first British women to made a living as a writer: Behn published more than 16 plays and several novels, including The Fair Jilt, Agnes de Castro and, most famously, Oroonoko.
She left clues about her sexuality in her writing: In a poem from her anthology Lycidus Behn writes, “To the fair Clarinda, who made Love to me, imagin’d more than woman.”
Though critics of her time condemned her for writing about topics like sex, impotence, and the female orgasm, she’s now lauded as a dramatist and a major influence on the development of the novel.
She is also remembered in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”
Anne Seymour Damer (1748–1828)
Damer (née Conway) was an 18th-century sculptor called “the female Bernini” for her skill with marble. She was actually one of the only female sculptors of her day, but being born into an affluent family allowed Damer to pursue art, something impossible for most women at the time.
She married John Damer in 1767, but the two separated after seven years. She soon moved in with playwright Mary Berry, whom many historians believe was her lover. Damer favored men’s clothing and had many close relationships with women: She was actually accused of lesbianism in her lifetime in satirical pamphlets like A Sapphick Epistle from Jack Cavendish to the Honourable and most Beautiful, Mrs D. (British diarist Hester Thrale scandalously called Damer “a Lady much suspected for liking her own Sex in a criminal way.”)
Thompson, a freed slave who lived in the South in the 1860s, was assigned male at birth, but presented as female throughout her adult life.
In 1866, Thompson testified before Congress about the infamous Memphis riots, a series of racially charged attacks against the city’s African-American community. (She and her roommate, another freed slave, had been raped by rioters during the assault on the city.)
Sadly, a decade later, police arrested Thompson for wearing women’s clothing, and her status as a “transvestite” was used to discredit her testimony.
Alla Nazimova (1879-1945)
Born Miriam Edez Adelaida Leventon in Russia, Nazimova became a Broadway star with performances in plays by Ibsen and Chekhov, and appearances in numerous silent films.
She was called “the mother of Sapphic Hollywood,” and had public affairs with high-profile women including actress Jean Acker, director Dorothy Arzner, and writer Mercedes de Acosta. Longtime flame Glesca Marshall lived with Nazimova at her Sunset Boulevard estate, Garden of Alla, rumored to be the site of debauched parties in the 1920s.
Nazimova married twice, though her union with gay actor Charles Bryant (below) was never consummated and they divorced after a short time.
She is credited with coining the phrase “sewing circles” to refer to lesbian and bisexual actresses in Hollywood.
“Babe” Didrikson Zaharias (1911-1956)
A decorated multi-sport athlete, Zaharias played basketball and baseball in her younger years, and won two gold medals in track and field at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. She then became a pro golfer and, in 1950, helped launch the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
Athletic and tall, and often donning masculine clothes, Zaharias subverted notions of femininity in the pre-war years. Though married to pro wrestler George Zaharias, Babe was reportedly involved romantically with fellow golfer Betty Dodd, who moved in with the couple.
Writes biographer Susan Cayleff, “they never used the word ’lesbian’ to describe their relationship, but there is little doubt that Dodd and Didrikson were intimate and loving partners.”
Marion “Joe” Carstairs (1900-1993)
An heiress to the Standard Oil fortune, Joe Carstairs’ true passion was speed-boat racing and she was touted as “the fastest woman on the water.” She wore men’s clothing, smoked cigars, sported visible tattoos and was openly lesbian at a time that was unheard of. (To access her inheritance, Carstairs married a childhood friend but the marriage was later annulled.)
During World War I, she put her motoring skills to use as an ambulance driver in France. After the war, she ran a car service in London with a group of other women. In 1934, she purchased an island in the Bahamas, where she hosted famous queer guests like actress Marlene Dietrich (with whom she reportedly had an affair).
When Carstairs died in 1993, she was cremated with Lord Tod Wadley, a stuffed doll given to her by girlfriend Ruth Baldwin.