7 of history’s greatest queer couples

7 of history’s greatest queer couples
Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo at the Key West House. Photo: Mississippi Library Commission

We all have a favorite queer couple, one that melts our hearts and makes us believe in love and happy endings – but what about the queer romances through history that unknowingly paved the way for LGBTQ+ people today?

Honoring those before us is so important, as it allows us to reflect on how far we’ve come as a community while celebrating the bravery of those who lived as their queer selves, whether publicly or behind closed doors before there were any protections for people like them.

So, let’s travel back in time and remember some of the most fabulous queer couples, some of whom you might never have heard of…

Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West

Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West met at a 1920s dinner party, with Woolf offering to publish a book Sackville-West had been working on with her husband.

They quickly bonded over their love for literature and past emotional trauma, forming a strong emotional connection, which blossomed into romance. Their husbands were aware of their affair, but never did anything about it and remained respectful.

The two were lovers for ten years, with fellow poet and novelist Sackville-West and her tumultuous family history becoming the inspiration behind Orlando: A Biography. The gender-shifting protagonist became one of Woolf’s most popular creations.

After enjoying a sexually satisfying relationship for the first time, Woolf’s affair with Sackville-West ended in the late 1920s, but they remained close friends.

Anne Lister and Ann Walker

If you’re a fan of the HBO series “Gentleman Jack,” you’ll certainly know who Anne Lister and Ann Walker are.

Lister is often referred to as the first modern lesbian, living totally without shame and presenting as far more masculine than the other ladies around her in the 1800s. She also made no secret of her desire to only spend her life with another woman.

She met Walker in the 1820s and they connected on various occasions over the years. In a monumental moment in queer history, landowner Lister and young heiress Walker took the sacrament together in 1834 in what is thought to be the first lesbian marriage.

Now, the Holy Trinity Church in Goodramgate, York, displays an official blue plaque on the wall outside to mark the occasion.

Lister and Walker did a great deal of traveling together, and they cohabited in the Lister estate, Shibden Hall, until she died in 1840.

It was only hundreds of years later that her story could be shared after coded diaries were discovered that documented her romantic relationships with other women.

Michelangelo and Tommaso de Cavalieri

Italian sculptor Michelangelo and nobleman Tommaso de Cavalieri met in 1532 in Rome, and they remained close throughout their lives.

Then 57 years old, Michelangelo was instantly infatuated with Cavalieri’s appearance, as he fit the artist’s notions of ideal masculine beauty. In fact, Michelangelo described him as the “light of our century, paragon of all the world.”

Cavalieri became the object of Michelangelo’s passion, his muse, and the inspiration for letters, numerous poems, and works of visual art.

They were devoted to one another until the painter’s death, at which Cavalieri was present, in 1564.

Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo

Tennessee Williams was an openly gay author/playwright, writing plays such as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Meanwhile, Frank Merlo was a working-class Italian American from New Jersey who performed on stage occasionally but was primarily Williams’ personal assistant.

The pair met in 1948 at a bar, and they soon hit off a relationship that lasted for 15 years. Describing the first time he clasped eyes on Merlo in his memoirs, Williams wrote: “… he leaned smoking against the porch railing and he was wearing Levis and I looked and looked at him. My continual and intense scrutiny must have burned through his shoulders, for after a while, he turned toward me and grinned.”

Williams and Merlo lived together in Manhattan, and they were some of the star’s most productive and happy years. Alas, their relationship became strained due to Williams’ promiscuity and his drug and alcohol abuse.

Despite this, Williams remained by Merlo’s side in 1962 when he was diagnosed with lung cancer; Merlo died the following year. It’s known that his last words to his lover were: “I’m used to you now,” which the actor accepted as a declaration of love.

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Writer Jean Cocteau met Jean Marais when Cocteau was 48 and Marais was 24. Marais had seen drawings by Cocteau, and they reminded him of himself. 

After they managed to meet, they were lovers for many years, and they even made several films together, with Marais having starred in most of Cocteau’s most well-known projects, including “Beauty and the Beast” and “Orpheus.”

It’s known that their relationship was extremely passionate and intense, with Marais officially becoming his lover’s muse.

It’s also worth noting that the couple made the conscious decision to stay in Nazi-occupied Paris, despite the fascists’ attitudes towards homosexuality. They were openly gay and often ridiculed in the Nazi press.

Marais outlived Cocteau, who died of a heart attack in 1963. But, Marais described the late writer as the love of his life, wishing their paths had crossed sooner.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok

Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and reporter Lorena Hickok first met on a Presidential campaign in 1932, with Hickok, the most famous woman journalist of her time, able to convince her editor that Roosevelt deserved her own reporter.

After growing close, it’s widely believed that they embarked on a love affair that lasted for several years. Hickok helped Roosevelt become more outspoken, and they worked together in her campaigns for democracy and human rights.

The nature of their very close relationship has been debated for years but in the 1970s, around 3,000 letters between them were discovered. They were warm, passionate, and typical love letters. They wrote to each other for three decades, sometimes twice a day.

Lili Elbe and Gerda Gottlieb

You might know of Lili Elbe and Gerda Gottlieb if you’ve seen the movie “The Danish Girl.”

Elbe was a Danish painter and transgender woman, amongst the earliest recipients of gender-affirming surgery in 1930.

She met fellow painter and illustrator Gottlieb while attending the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. They dated for a few years and married in 1904 when Einar was 22 and Gerda was 19. They traveled through Italy and France, eventually settling in Paris in 1912.

During this time, Elbe began experimenting with her gender expression, wearing women’s clothing and changing her name and persona.

Sadly, as Danish law at the time did not recognize marriage between two women, their marriage was annulled in October 1930 by King Christian X. Elbe then died the following year due to complications from surgery.

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