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17 Badass Historical LGBT Women Who Gave Absolutely No Fucks

Everyone should know about 1930s drag king Gladys Bentley. *Swoons*

1. Tallulah Bankhead (1902–68) / Creative Commons

Tallulah Bankhead was an American bisexual actor who was romantically linked to Greta Garbo, Billie Holiday, and Marlene Dietrich, also actor Patsy Kelly confirmed that she had a sexual relationship with Bankhead as well. In 1933, Bankhead nearly died following a radical hysterectomy to cure an STI. Afterwards she said to her doctor, "Don't think this has taught me a lesson." Badass.

2. Anne Lister (1791–1840) / Creative Commons

This British landowner kept extensive coded diaries detailing her personal life. Her first relationship was with a schoolfriend called Eliza Raine, and was followed by an affair with fellow pupil Mariana Belcombe. She then got married (although it wasn't recognised legally) to a wealthy heiress called Ann Walker, which caused uproar in polite society, but they were both rich and could do what they wanted so they DGAF.

3. Gladys Bentley (1907–60) / Creative Commons

Gladys Bentley was a blues singer during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s. She would appear onstage as an openly lesbian drag king, and was later backed by a chorus line of drag queens. Her act involved making up her own (much raunchier) lyrics to popular songs and singing them to women in the audience in a sexy, gravelly voice. *Fans self*

4. Hannah Snell (1723–92) / Creative Commons

After being abandoned by her husband, Snell disguised herself as a man and served in the British Navy from 1745 to 1750. While in Carlisle for manoeuvres, she was asked to find a prostitute for her commanding officer, but turned the tables and became intimate with the lady in question herself. She also reportedly slept with a bunch of women in Lisbon when her ship pulled into port there. Nice.

5. Marion Barbara "Joe" Carstairs (1900–93) / Creative Commons / Creative Commons

Joe Carstairs was the British daughter of a rich American heiress. Born in Mayfair in 1903, she used her money to build a career as a world-class powerboat racer. She was openly lesbian, dressed in men's clothing, and had a relationship with Dolly Wilde, Oscar Wilde's niece, who she lived with for a time in Paris. She also had affairs with Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and our good friend Tallulah Bankhead.

6. Alla Nazimova (1879–1945) / Creative Commons

Alla Nazimova was a wild, beautiful silent movie star and stage actor who openly conducted relationships with other women. She held lavish, sexy parties at her Sunset Boulevard mansion, and coined the phrase "sewing circle" to describe closeted lesbian and bisexual women in Hollywood, with whom she had multiple affairs. She lived with fellow actor Glesca Marshall from 1929 until her death.

7. Ruth Ellis (1899–2000) / Creative Commons

Ruth Ellis was the oldest-known "open" lesbian when she died at the ripe old age of 100. She came out when she was just 16, graduated high school in spite of considerable adversity, and set up a successful printing business. She met her partner of 30 years, Ceciline, in the 1920s, and their Detroit home became a welcome refuge for African-American gays and lesbians. What a legend.

8. Natalie Clifford Barney (1876–1972) / Creative Commons

Barney was an American playwright who lived in Paris, opposed monogamy, and devoted a lot of her time to getting it on with some of the most famous women of the era, including writer Γ‰lisabeth de Gramont, aka the duchess of Clermont-Tonnerre, and, once again, Dolly Wilde, Oscar Wilde's niece (proving the lesbian world was just as small in those days as it is today).

9. Vita Sackville-West (1892 – 1962) / Creative Commons

Although possibly best remembered for her affair with Virginia Woolf, English poet Vita Sackville-West had an even more passionate relationship with her friend Violet Trefusis, documented in a series of heated letters between the pair. They eloped several times, once to Paris, and created quite a bit of scandal. They also forbade each other from sleeping with their own husbands.

10. Cha-U-Kao (?) / Creative Commons / Creative Commons

This Parisian female clown and entertainer regularly performed at the Moulin Rouge in the 1890s. She was a favourite subject of artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who painted a variety of intimate scenes showing Cha-U-Kao with her female lovers. He was reportedly fascinated by her confidence, the fact she was so open about her homosexuality, and her decision to choose a "male" profession (clowning).

11. Roberta Cowell (1918–2011) / Creative Commons

Roberta Cowell was a British World War II fighter pilot and Grand Prix racing driver who was born male and became (in 1951) one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery. After her surgery she was no longer allowed to compete in Grand Prix racing, but she continued to be active in motor racing and won the 1957 Shelsley Walsh Speed Hill Climb. *Applauds*

12. The Ladies of Llangollen (1739–1831)

Wellcome Library, London / Creative Commons

The Ladies of Llangollen were two aristocratic Irish lovers, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who ran away from their upper-class households as teenagers. They set up home together in a Welsh mansion and devoted themselves to academic studies and gardening. Their fame gradually spread, and they were visited by writers like Byron and Shelley, as well as Anne Lister. Small world, etc.

13. Audre Lorde (1934–92) / Creative Commons

Audre Lorde was an African-American writer, civil rights activist, and thoroughly badass lesbian who worked to confront issues of racism in the fledgling feminist movement. She was outspoken in her approach and wasn't afraid to engage in open disagreements with notable white feminists, which led to some people labelling her an outsider, but she refused to be silenced and didn't give up.

14. Mary Benson (1841–1918) / Creative Commons / Creative Commons

Mary Benson was a well-known hostess and society darling who was married to the archbishop of Canterbury. She also had multiple affairs with women, including a four-year relationship with a young, pretty composer named Ethel Smyth, who (DRAMA KLAXON) was also dating Benson's daughter Nellie. But Benson magnanimously stepped aside in favour of her daughter. What a nice mum.

15. Jane Addams (1860–1935) / Creative Commons / Creative Commons

Jane Addams was a seismically huge and influential figure in the American women's suffrage movement. She was also romantically involved with several women over her lifetime, most significantly with Mary Rozet Smith (pictured left, above), who she shared a house with. The women wrote to each other constantly when apart, and the letters show they saw themselves as a loving married couple.

16. Lady Una Troubridge (1887–1963)

Fox Photos / Getty Images / Creative Commons

Una Troubridge was the equally talented artist partner of the better-known lesbian writer Radclyffe Hall. Hall was dating Troubridge's aunt Mabel Batton when they first met, but after Batton died they hooked up, lived together very openly, and remained a couple until Hall's death in 1943, despite some serious lesbo drama in 1934 when Hall had an affair with a Russian nurse called Evgenia Souline. Damn, girl.

17. Mercedes de Acosta (1893–1968) / Creative Commons

Mercedes de Acosta was a Spanish/Cuban-American poet and novelist who is possibly best-known for her deeply tempestuous, passionate, and long-term affair with Greta Garbo. De Acosta also proudly shagged her way around Hollywood during the silent movie era, was involved with Russian ballerina Tamara Karsavina, and is reputed to have said, "I can get any woman away from any man." Same.

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