11 women in history you may assume were straight due to queer erasure

Despite facing erasure, queer women have always existed throughout history and deserve to have their stories in their entirety.

The picture shows three women who's personal stories saw the erasure of their queer identity. From left to right: Marlene Dietrich, Billie Holiday, Eleanor Roosevelt.

Queer women in history have often seen their sexualities excluded from their stories, whether it be because the times they lived in forced them to remain closeted or they faced some form of LGBTQ+ erasure, intentionally or unintentionally, by historians. “Good friends”, “female companions”, “roommates”… all those terms served to remove LGBTQ+ identities.

Telling the stories of these women as a whole is important to remember their heritage and celebrate the queer culture they helped to build. Let’s look at 11 women in history who you may or may not have known were very, very queer.

Anne Lister (1790-1840)



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Ein Beitrag geteilt von Julia Bennet (@julia.bennet.writes)

Considered the first modern lesbian, Anne Lister displayed her sexuality shamelessly during the Regency era. Also known as Gentleman Jack due to her masculine and all-black clothing, the English industrialist and landowner had her first relationship with her roommate Eliza Raine, whom she met at boarding school at 13.

At that time, Lister started writing her endless diaries that resulted in 26 volumes and over four million words. In these, she described her day-to-day life and wrote explicitly about her lovers, notably Mariana Belcombe, who she described as the love of her life, and Ann Walker, who became her long-lasting partner. Lister did not leave any details out of her diaries, as she used a mixture of Greek letters and algebraic symbols to code the most salacious passages.

These diaries were found and decoded by John Lister, one of her relatives, who kept them hidden until they were released publicly in 1988.

Although Lister may be mostly known for her frank writings about homosexuality and identity, she also became the first woman to ascend Mount Perdu, and the first person to climb Mount Vignemale.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)



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Ein Beitrag geteilt von History Daily (@historydailypix)

British nurse and social reformer Florence Nightingale is well-known for founding modern nursing and revolutionising military hospital sanitary conditions.

She was known for not being very sociable and hating everything…well, except women. Nightingale allegedly has passionately loved three women, notably her cousin Marianna. She actually pretended to like Marianna’s brother, Henry, for years, so she could live with them and pursue her relationship with her lover. However, Marianna stopped talking to her when Nightingale refused Henry’s marriage proposal. The reformer was never married and enjoyed relationships with her other cousin Hilary, and her aunt Mai.

Her life’s work considerably influenced healthcare in the 19th and 20th centuries in Britain, as she also established St Thomas Hospital and the Nightingale Training School for Nurses in 1860.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)



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Ein Beitrag geteilt von Emily Dickinson Museum (@emilydickinson.museum)

American poet Emily Dickinson was often referred to as the “lonely spinster” as she lived a reclusive life as a prolific writer. Her work greatly influenced poetry in the 19th and 20th centuries with her original and challenging style.

She would write letters filled with humour, anecdotes, and sombre reflections to her many correspondents, one of them, Susan Gilbert. One of the best examples of queer erasure, the correspondence between both women is today interpreted by many historians as a romantic relationship.

The pair met at Amherst Academy, and Gilbert soon married Austin, Dickinson’s brother. They were known for sharing quick pecks on the lips and intimate moments in their bedroom, which have formerly been described as displays of “female companionship”, erasing the actual romantic relationship. Dickinson sent more than 270 letters filled with poetry to her beloved Gilbert.

Emily Dickinson became one of America’s greatest poets, gathering her work in a total of 40 booklets including more than 800 poems.

Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940)


The first female writer to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature, Selma Lagerlöf was very queer. The Swedish author’s writing and vivid imagination was honoured with the prestigious prize in 1909.

The work Du lär mig att bli fri (You teach me to be free), published in 1992, gathers the author’s love letters to writer Sophie Elkan. The thousands of letters share insights into their loving and passionate relationship from 1894 until Elkan died in 1921.

Lagerlöf is mostly known for receiving the Nobel Prize, but she was a queer trailblazer in the women’s suffrage movement in Sweden. She left behind a legacy for the movement, and she also became the first woman to be admitted to the Swedish Academy in 1914.

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)


The erasure of queer women also took place in the White House, as Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady from 1933 to 1945, challenged the traditional formal role. Human Rights and Civil Rights activist, UN lecturer, politician, writer, and mother to six children, Roosevelt did it all.

She described her marriage with Franklin Delano Roosevelt as “an intellectual and political partnership”. When she did her first interview as First Lady, Lorena Hickok, one of the country’s top reporters who was also publicly lesbian, happened to be on the other side. They both hit it off and soon did not leave each other’s sides. Although they were never in a relationship, they wrote each other daily love letters and stayed long-time friends after Roosevelt became more active.

Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992)



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Ein Beitrag geteilt von Art Deco Joe (@artdeco.joe)

You may already be aware of Marlene Dietrich’s bisexuality, as she was open about it. The German-born actor left a mark on Hollywood by kissing a woman on the lips, wearing a tuxedo and a top hat in the film Morocco.

Dietrich was known to enjoy gay balls and crossdressing in 1920s Berlin. She had affairs with both men and women, referring to her female lovers as her “sewing circle” and her male lovers as her “alumni association”. The public eye was well aware of her relationships with Cary Grant, John F. Kennedy and Frank Sinatra, while her relationships with Edith Piaf and Greta Garbo remain less known.

The actor starred in many iconic movies, like Blue Angel, and shifted away from Hollywood during the Second World War. In that period, Dietrich renounced her German citizenship as she became politically active, helping Jews and others persecuted to flee the Nazi regime, and selling American war bonds. Marlene Dietrich then returned to her cabaret career, performing in her top hat and tails, and is now an important LGBTQ+ icon.

 Greta Garbo (1905-1990)



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The private letters of the Swedish actor Greta Garbo were published in 2005, confirming the erasure of her queer story by revealing she had relationships with both men and women, such as actor Louise Brooks and writer Mercedes de Acosta. She was one of the most glamorous stars in the 1920s and 1930s, appealing to all genders with her androgynous looks.

Before the release of the letters confirming the actor’s queerness, she was believed to be in a relationship with Salka Viertel, a German stage star. They often enjoyed hikes and swimming nude in the ocean, discussing their common interest. Also known as the “Swedish Sphinx”, Garbo gave melancholic performances portraying confident heroines in movies such as Queen Christina (1933) and Anna Karenina (1935).

Billie Holiday (1915-1959)                                             



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The world’s greatest jazz vocalist and blues singer Billie Holiday was said to be bisexual. She moved to Harlem at 13 with her mom, where she discovered her passion for singing through the sounds of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.

Her most famous same-sex relationship was with actor Tallulah Bankhead, which can be traced through the harsh letters sent to each other after their breakup. It was a tumultuous relationship as they were on and off, with Bankhead joining the singer on tour whenever she had time. At one point the actor had to bail Holiday out of jail, as she was arrested for opium possession. Even if the jazz vocalist was married first to Jimmy Monroe and then to Louis McKay she allegedly had affairs with Hollywood stars and starlets.

 Anne Frank (1929-1945)



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Ein Beitrag geteilt von Anne Frank House (@annefrankhouse_official)


A German-born Jew, Anne Frank is famous for Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, which she wrote while she was hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam during the Second World War. In 1942, her family attempted to escape the Gestapo by staying in a secret apartment behind her father’s business. Despite their efforts, the Franks were found in 1944 and sent to concentration camps, where Anne tragically died at 15. Her father was the only survivor of the family.

Her diary is another example of the erasure of queer women. Censored materials were published in the new editions throughout time, it is possible to read about how the girl was questioning and reflecting on her sexuality. The following passages underline her queerness: “I remember that once when I slept with a girl friend I had a strong desire to kiss her, and that I did do so. I could not help being terribly inquisitive over her body, for she had always kept it hidden from me. I asked her whether, as a proof of our friendship, we should feel one another’s breasts, but she refused.”

Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965)        


A Raisin in the Sun writer and activist Lorraine Hansberry described herself as a “heterosexual married lesbian” as she was in a relationship with Robert Nemiroff, also a writer and activist.

In 1957, as she was writing the ending of A Raisin in the Sun, she started discreetly dating women. Her work allowed her to reflect on her sexuality as her central topics were intersectionality, racism, sexism and homophobia. Hansberry joined The Daughters of Bilitis, an essential lesbian organisation, for which she wrote two letters in its publication, The Ladder.

Hansberry also left her mark in theatre, as A Raisin in the Sun became the first play on Broadway to have been written by a Black woman and have a Black director.

Sally Ride (1951-2012)


The first American woman to travel to space was indeed queer.

Sally Ride was an American astronaut and physicist who joined NASA in 1978. She started out as a Capsule Communicator, an on-ground person contacting astronauts in space, and helped develop the space shuttle’s robot arm. She eventually left Earth for space in 1983 at 32 years old, becoming the youngest person to travel there.

Ride became a well-known public figure but kept her queer relationships private. Although her five-year marriage to astronaut Steven Hawley was well-known in the public eye, her long-lasting same-sex relationship of 27 years with Tam O’Shaughnessy was only revealed after her death, as O’Shaughnessy was listed as her surviving partner in her obituary.

Uncovering previously censored work and continuing to invest in historical research help to combat the erasure of queer women and their sexuality, allowing them to be celebrated and remembered as part of the LGBTQ+ community.

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