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These 15 Historical Examples Of LGBTQ Culture Around The World You Might Not Have Known About

Proof that the LGBTQ identity is not a new thing.

Contrary to what the right-wing likes to say, LGBTQ culture is far from a recent, or Western, phenomenon. "Homosexuality" today is intrinsically tangled in the Euro-American history of ideas and cultural traditions, but fluidity in gender, sexuality, and the performance of such roles is evident in many different cultures around the world — particularly before Christianity and Western influence spread.  

1. Nonbinary Vikings

A viking helmet with a wreath of flowers draped across the horns
Olivia Ott / BuzzFeed

Viking imagery in contemporary culture is heavily associated with stereotypes surrounding masculinity; long-haired, heavily muscled warriors are used to sell everything from beer to sports. While gender boundaries were rigidly policed, as in any raider society, these borders were more permeable than people today may think. "The Vikings were certainly familiar with what would today be called queer identities," says Neil Price, a historian specializing in the Viking age, in an article for Time

At a Viking-age tomb in Sweden, a male-bodied person was unearthed buried in a Sámi settlement, according to Sámi rituals, but attired in a conventional Sámi man's weapons and tools over a Nordic woman's linen dress and female jewelry — signifying a crossing of cultural and gender norms that was accepted in their society.

2. Native American "Two-Spirits"

Open palms with a rainbow traversing them
Brooke Greenberg / BuzzFeed

Traditionally, Native American "two-spirits" referred to people who were female, male, or intersexed and combined traits unique to their status as two-spirit people along with activities conventional to male and female gender roles. In many tribes, "two-spirits" were considered neither men or women, but occupied an alternative, distinct gender status. In certain tribes where two-spirit females and males were known as the same term, "two-spirit" status was a third gender. In other tribes, two-spirit females constituted a fourth gender and were referred to with a distinct term. 

Although there were key differences in the role two-spirits played across indigenous North American culture, some common traits include:

*Spiritual sanction

*Same-sex relations

*Gender variation

*Specialized work roles

3. Five genders in the Java Island tribes

A bust of a bissu priest in traditional clothing with flowers in their hair
Charlotte Gomez / BuzzFeed

Modern Indonesia is a primarily Muslim country, but pre-Islam, many tribes in Indonesia were open and flexible regarding gender and sexuality. With a population of 3 million, the Bugis are the largest ethnic group in the South Sulawesi of Indonesia. Today, most Bugis have converted to Islam, but pre-Islamic Bugis rituals include unique views of sexuality and gender. 

The Bugis language features five different terms referencing distinct combinations of sex, gender, and sexuality: makkunrai (“female women”), oroani (“male men”), calalai (“female men”), calabai (“male women”), and bissu (“transgender priests”). 

These are not exact translations, but they define the overall meaning of genders in the society. Thinking about gender as a spectrum, like how Kinsey defined sexuality, illustrates how gender often is a performance of our walk, dress, and talk. 

4. Homosexuality in classic Chinese literature

Two queer Chinese men in historic clothing embracing, surrounded by flowers
Kevin Valente / BuzzFeed

Dream of the Red Chamber, composed by disposed nobleman Cao Xueqin, is one of the four great works of classic Chinese literature. The epic chronicles the rise and fall of two great noble families, and mirrors the realities and lies implicit in upper-class clan life. One of the central characters, crown prince of the noble Jia family, famously has a homosexual affair that is presented as fairly socially acceptable behavior. Nobody really bats an eyelash, and the book is a great example of how criminalizing homosexuality is the result of post-Communist China, a country where homosexuality has up until recently been fairly accepted and present in the noble classes (as long as you could still perform family duties like producing an heir). 

5. Kabuki Theater

Kathy Hoang / BuzzFeed

Kabuki is an ancient Japanese art originating in the Edo period around 1603 by female performers, who were often prostitutes who played young men in plays and dances. In 1629, these performances were deemed too wild and disorderly, and women were banned from performing the art form — prompting a transition to adolescent boys, who were often also gay prostitutes. Apprentice kabuki actors were mostly bisexual and formed relationships with higher-ranked samurai to become big stars. When performing they dressed up as women in head-to-toe makeup and costuming while performing with high-pitched voices. 

After a period of regulation, the Meiji government reinstated kabuki as a classic performing art. The tradition of men playing female roles remains. 

6. Hijras in India

Queer Indian Hijras standing in a group and smiling
Lyla Ribot / BuzzFeed

In Hindu society, nonbinary gender expression has played an important role for over 2,000 years. This "third gender" can be seen in Hindu holy texts such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, where Hindu hero Arjuna transforms into the third gender. There are several different groups of "third gender" roles in South Asia, but the most common are known as Hijras. Hijras are typically born biologically male, but dress and act in traditionally feminine ways. Most, but not all, decide to undergo a castration ceremony to remove their male genitalia and offer it to Hindu goddess Bahuchara Mata. Some hijras are born biologically intersex. HIjras are considered good luck, and are invited to bless births and weddings to bring fortune and fertility.

Hijras are mostly thought of as a "third gender" — in between male and female, rather than transgender, they are thought of as a different gender. Hijra identity is complex, however, and some self-identify as transgender. 


7. Muxes in the Zapotec culture of Southern Mexico

A coloful bust of a Muxe, smiling and fanning themself
Olivia Ott / BuzzFeed

In the Zapotec culture of Oaxaca, the Muxes are an established third gender that maintain the Zapotec language, traditional dress, and other cultural traditions less prevalent among the larger Zapotec community. The small Oaxacan town of Juchitán de Zaragoza boasts a large population of Muxes who have been celebrated since pre-colonial times. Muxes are celebrated as part of the Zapotec culture and its traditions, rather than a separate fringe group, prompting the community's wider acceptance of a third gender.

Every November, the city of Juchitan still celebrates a party called the Vigil of the Authentic Intrepid Searchers of Danger, which has been described by Vice as "one of the best parties we've ever been to."

8. Traditional plurality in gender and sexuality in Thailand

Thai person in a traditional headdress gesturing with their hands
Brooke Greenberg / BuzzFeed

Southeast Asia is steeped in a long history of sexual and gender plurality that remains today — in fact, Thailand amended its constitution to recognize a third gender in 2015 (although it is a military junta...). Thai kings and queens in both ancient and modern times openly engaged in rather famous homosexual affairs. Unfortunately, today transgendered individuals are not afforded the same privileges; while Thailand is still culturally fairly open to transgender people and culture, there's not a lot of economic opportunities for transgender or third gender people, and they are often discriminated against in the job market. 

9. The Greeks...loved to "do it Greek"

Two statues of nude Greek men embracing one another
Charlotte Gomez / BuzzFeed

From Hercules and Achilles to Apollo and Dionysus, most muscle-bound Greek heroes and all of the gods from ancient mythology took gay lovers. Pederasty, where an older man forms a "daddy" kind of relationship with a younger male was a common and somewhat accepted practice. Homosexuality was not as stigmatized, and it was not seen as detracting from masculinity. 

10. Queer love in Ancient Egypt

Stylized illustration of Ancient Egyptian men touching noses
Kevin Valente / BuzzFeed

Discovered by archaeologists in 1964, the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep represents what may be one of the oldest pieces of evidence of queer lives to date. The two lovers lived and died sometime around the year 2380 BCE, and they are depicted in the tomb in many of the conventional ways heterosexual couples were illustrated in Egyptian funeral art: holding hands, kissing nose-to-nose, and standing closely together in a near-embrace. Although they have wives and children depicted in the tombs, there are no paintings of either man with their wives. 

Either the Pharoah's two chief manicurists (yes, really) were very, very very close brothers...or a couple determined to stay together in the afterlife as they were in life.  

11. Eunuchs in China and the Middle East

Emperor figure in the center with eunuchs draped over them
Kathy Hoang / BuzzFeed

Eunuchs were a separate "class" of servant in Far and Middle East royal courts. Most often "emasculated," or castrated men or boys, eunuchs played an important social role in the royal palace as servants, advisors, councilors, and organizers who could interact closely with females in the harem without risking the royal bloodline (since they couldn't get any women pregnant). 

There were many different kinds of eunuchs in Chinese courts, and the practice dates back 2,000 years; many were given as small boys by their families as a path towards higher social mobility or for a cash reward. Some "strong eunuchs" were castrated in adulthood to preserve their physical strength, either as a choice to stable employment and social mobility or as a punishment. 

Eunuchs were also common in the Persian and North African courts, serving similar functions.

Eunuchs were seen more as "genderless" than queer, but it wasn't uncommon for older eunuchs to take younger ones as lovers. Bisexuality was rampant and fairly accepted in imperial China; as long as the emperor produced heirs, nobody batted an eyelash at male lovers. 

12. Same-sex Relationships in Ancient Africa

Cave painting of two silhouetted hands holding one another
Lyla Ribot / BuzzFeed

Before Western colonization, different African cultures were more accepting of different sexual and gender identities. There are many examples of erotic and non-erotic same-sex relationships in African history. For example, the "mudoko dako," or effeminate males, of the Ugandan Langi people could play female societal roles and could marry men. Ancient cave paintings of the San people in Zimbabwe clearly depict two men engaging in some form of ritual sex. Africa is a huge continent with numerous different cultures, and many of the cultures feature some form of same-sex relationships (before Western influence invaded). 

13. "Big sisters" in the Forbidden Kingdom

Outstretched palms filled with candy and tokens of affection
Olivia Ott / BuzzFeed

Most literary accounts of homosexual relationships in China center around men, but today many scholars debate whether women enjoyed the same freedom to pursue their sexuality. "Golden Orchid Associations" functioned as quasi-marriage arrangements in Guangdong from the late Qing dynasty until the early 1900s. These associations offered a "sisterhood" alternative to women who chose not to marry. 

One woman would announce her intentions through a small gift of dates, candy, or other trinkets. If the recipient accepted the present, it meant they had accepted the proposal. They would swear an oath to each other and occasionally designate spousal roles. These married lesbian couples could adopt female children to legally inherit family property from the couples' parents. 

14. Same-sex marriage in Mesopotamia

Two male figures in ancient clothing, touching hands against a colorful backdrop
Brooke Greenberg / BuzzFeed

Situated in the fertile crescent, ancient Mesopotamia is known as the cradle of civilization. Apparently, diversity in human sexuality has been there from the cradle (although modern-day Iraq likes to claim otherwise). The Almanac of Incantations is a fundamental religious text from ancient Assyria, containing numerous "spells" and social codes — and prayers favoring love between a man and a woman and a man and a man equally. Sex in ancient Mesopotamian cultures was thought of as simply another part of everyday life, and there was none of the shyness, modern-day embarrassment, or taboo against pleasure-seeking. 

In an article for the Lowdown Hub, Bottero notes that "homosexual love could be enjoyed” without fear of social stigma, and texts mention men “preferring to take the female role in sex." The article also states, "Various unusual positions could be adopted: 'standing'; 'on a chair'; 'across the bed or the partner'; taking her from behind,' or even 'sodomising her' and sodomy, defined as anal intercourse, was a common form of contraceptive." 

15. Queering of Queen Nzingha Mbande

Charlotte Gomez / BuzzFeed

Queen (also known as a Female King) Nzingha Mbande (1583–1663) reigned over the kingdoms of Matamba and Ndongo in the North of modern-day Angola following the death of her brother and father. For four decades, Nzingha fought the Portuguese slave trade and is highly respected for her military brilliance, diplomatic tactics, and intelligence. Nzingha's sexual identity has long been cloudy, and there are various accounts pointing to female wives, heterosexual marriage, and a harem of effeminate men. While her flexible queer identity comes partially from her royal power and status, it also illustrates the reality of relationships between other African women based on desire and love during her reign. Her female husbandry highlights how gender roles in pre-colonial Africa were more fluid and less closely tied to biological sex. 

16. Homoerotic Persian poetry

Two persian men embracing, wearing historic fashion
Kevin Valente / BuzzFeed

Homoerotic tendencies in the Islamic Middle Ages was more accepted than people may think. Scholar Melanie Christina Mohr notes, "The division between hetero and homo is something Franz X. Eder describes as 'a phenomenon specific to modern, Western cultures...By implication, this means that individual love was not subject to the same social discourse in the Islamic Middle Ages, because it didn't have to be. It was only under colonial influence that the homoerotic poetry composed in the Islamic world was treated as something indecent and categorized in a correspondingly negative way."

Along with the widespread conviction that the masculine form was part of divine perfection, homoeroticism was even preferred over heterosexual metaphors as the result of societal separation between sexes. 

Mohr writes, "The 17-year-old Babur first describes his amorous feelings when, shortly after his marriage in around 1500, he catches sight of a beautiful boy named Baburi in a bazaar in Andijan.

A few lines previously, he details the aversion to intimacy with his new wife that is consuming him: '[...] from modesty and bashfulness I went to her only once in ten, fifteen or twenty days. My affection afterwards declined [...] my mother the Khanum used to fall upon me and scold me with great fury, sending me off like a criminal to visit her once in a month or forty days.'

By contrast, he became lovesick at the sight of the boy Baburi: Up till then I had had no inclination for anyone.' And when he finally stands before him, he is rendered speechless, crippled, and he notes: 'Desire overwhelmed me, made me reel / What every lover of a comely face does feel.'"