12 Notable Same Gender Couples from History

12 Notable Same Gender Couples from History

D.G. Hewitt - February 26, 2018

“Behind every great man, there is a great woman,” or so the saying goes. But, in some cases, great men in history have been supported – and loved – by members of the same sex. Similarly, over the centuries, women have not always played second fiddle to men, with numerous examples of two ladies of literature or science forming loving bonds with fellow females.

Of course, people weren’t always as accepting of same-sex relationships as they tend to be today. In many cases, such unions might have been kept secret or covered up to protect an individual’s reputation. However, some loves were just too great to be lost in the passages of time. Thanks to the clues they left behind, including diaries and letters to the objects of their affection, we can be pretty certain that some of the most notable figures of times past gave their hearts to members of the same sex. Here are just a few of those men and women:

12 Notable Same Gender Couples from History
Emperor Hadrian was besotted with his young lover Antinous. Wikimedia Commons

Hadrian and Antinous

Hadrian, who ruled over the Roman Empire from AD117 to 138, was hardly the first – or indeed the last – emperor to take a male lover. In fact, it was relatively commonplace for the elite of ancient Roman society to enjoy sexual relations with male slaves while also having a wife and family. What made Hadrian unique, however, was the intensity of his relationship with Antinous, a slave of Greek origin who would be his partner, and in many ways his equal, for decades.

Very little is known about the early life of Antinous – hardly surprising given his lowly origins. However, once he caught the eye of the Emperor, he became one of the best-known figures in the whole of the vast Empire. The couple were regularly seen together, including at affairs of the state, much to the disapproval of certain elements of the Roman elite. What’s more, while most Emperors chose to leave their loved ones in Rome as they traveled the world inspecting the Empire over which they ruled, Hadrian broke with tradition and had Antinous accompany him across large swathes of Europe, Asia and northern Africa. So, while Hadrian was indeed married to a woman from a good Roman family, there was little doubt about the nature of his relationship with Antinous, which is what makes the ending of the love story even more tragic.

In the year 130, the happy couple were sailing along the River Nile in Egypt when Antinous fell in and drowned. Quite how this happened has been the source of much debate over the centuries: was it simply a tragic accident, or was he murdered to save the Emperor’s reputation or did he even kill himself to ensure his lover would go down in history as a ruler and statesman rather than being remembered for his sexuality?

What isn’t in doubt is how much the tragedy shook Hadrian. In his grief, the Emperor established a city, named Antinopolis, close to the site of his lover’s demise, and he even decreed that Antinous be worshiped as a god in temples across the Empire. Even though such religious reverence was first frowned upon and then banned by latter Emperors, most notably by Christian rulers, to this day, dozens of the statues Hadrian ordered made to honor his partner survive, an enduring testament to their love.

Hadrian, whose unhappy marriage ended to his death, was to remain childless, a situation which ensured a complicated transition of power when his end came. He is regarded as one of the ‘Five Good Emperors of Rome‘ and, while undoubtedly guilty of harsh feats of tyranny and even cruelty, is also remembered for being one of the era’s most loving rulers, not least thanks to the closeness of his deep and passionate relationship with his beloved Antinous.

12 Notable Same Gender Couples from History
Oscar Wilde and his lover Lord Alfred Douglas scandalized Victorian society. The Independent

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

When the playwright Oscar Wilde met Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas amid the dreaming spires of Oxford, he was immediately smitten. Despite the fact that Wilde was not only 16 years the young undergraduate’s senior but was also married with two sons, the pair soon embarked on a passionate affair. Almost from the start, Douglas served as Wilde’s muse and was famously the inspiration for the acclaimed novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The couple’s relationship was often turbulent, due in no small part to the younger man’s decadent lifestyle. Douglas was a known dandy, a fan of good times and parties, and shunned the sedate, literary life Wilde craved. On several occasions, they even separated only to be reunited shortly afterward. One of their most notable spats came when Wilde gifted Douglas the chance to translate one of his works, only to then criticize the job he did. But even this spat failed to keep them apart for long.

What they couldn’t overcome, however, was the disapproval of Douglas’ family. In Victorian England, homosexuality was a crime and Alfred’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, keen to preserve the reputation of his family name, plotted against Wilde. Ultimately, his condemnations led to the writer’s arrest for “gross indecency”. At the height of his fame and popularity, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor and was forced to write behind bars from 1895 to 1897.

Upon his release from prison, Wilde understandably wanted to leave England behind for good and start a new life in Europe. Accompanied by Douglas, he spent some time in Rouen, France, and then the couple moved to Naples to enjoy an Italian summer. This was far from a happy time, however. Wilde’s imprisonment had left him virtually penniless and, despite the support he himself had offered Douglas over the years, the younger man declined to help his lover financially. Indeed, it was money matters that finally brought the whole relationship to a close, with Douglas returning home to England under pain of losing his inheritance if he stayed in Italy.

Wilde chose to live out his years, still penniless and, to a certain element of English society, disgraced, in Paris. He died and was buried in the French capital in 1900. After his death, Douglas would go on to marry a woman and then convert to Catholicism. He would soon express his regret at ever having met his former lover and condemned the homosexual adventures of his youth.

12 Notable Same Gender Couples from History
Screen icon Greta Garbo liked to keep her private life private. Biography.com

Greta Garbo and Mercedes de Acosta

Swedish-born Greta Garbo may have been one of Hollywood’s greatest ever stars, but she was notoriously reserved in her private life. She shied away from publicity and, while she was adored by millions, preferred to live on her own. Despite having been in several relationships with men, she remained unmarried and childless and her sexuality was and continues to be, the source of much speculation. Above all, her relationship with the writer Mercedes de Acosta, an out and proud lesbian, was almost certainly more than simply platonic.

The pair met in 1931, four years after the end of Garbo’s most famous romance, her relationship with actor and frequent co-star John Gilbert. Over the course of three decades, the two women enjoyed a romance that was volatile, to say the least. However, for every fight, there was a reconciliation. It’s possible one reason for such volatility was the colorful love life of Acosta. As well as Garbo, she counted numerous Hollywood leading ladies among her lovers and eventually became known more for her affairs of the heart than for her prose. Moreover, while Garbo and many other Hollywood stars of the time preferred to keep their private lives out of the newspapers, Acosta openly flaunted her sexuality.

Despite Acosta showing no sign of wanting to settle down, Garbo continued to be infatuated with her. In fact, she sent more than 180 cards, letters and telegrams to the writer over the years, many of them believed to be romantic or even raunchy in nature. However, while these items of correspondence have survived and are housed in a special archive, the families of both women have only made fewer than half of them available, further fueling speculation that Acosta was far more than a friend and occasional professional collaborator.

Mercedes De Acosta died in 1968, having endured several years of ill health and financial struggles. Tragically, her later work was widely shunned by the literary world due largely to its alleged promotion of homosexuality. Garbo was to survive her former partner by 22 years, dying fabulously wealthy but alone. More than a decade after the screen icon’s death, relatives of the Swedish actress and theater director Mimi Pollark released correspondence she received from Garbo, letters which suggest that the two women also enjoyed a romantic relationship that lasted for several years. In one, Garbo lamented: “We cannot help our nature, as God has created it. But I have always thought you and I belonged together.”

12 Notable Same Gender Couples from History
Virginia Woolf and Rita Sackville-West enjoyed a long affair despite both being married. Vulture.com

Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West

The Bloomsbury Group of writers and thinkers dominated the London cultural scene in the years between the wars. But despite their undoubted literary talents, at the time they were sometimes better known for their colorful private lives as they were for their novels, essays or poems. And few lives were as colorful as that of the author Virginia Woolf, widely acknowledged as one of the most important British writers of the twentieth century.

Born into an upper-class family and benefitting from an elite education, Virginia Stephen followed convention and married fellow writer Leonard Woolf, a key member of the Bloomsbury set, in 1912. By her own admission, the marriage was a happy one, though in true bohemian style, it was a relaxed union, with both free to pursue other romantic adventures. So, when Virginia met the gardener and aspiring writer Vita Sackville-West in 1922, she sensed they could be more than good friends.

While both women were married, they embarked on a sexual relationship. Interestingly, both of their husbands were aware of the affair but raised no objections. Indeed, the men even encouraged their partners to pursue their own happiness. As Sackville-West’s own letters testify, the relationship was only fully consummated on two occasions. However, the connection was more than merely sexual. At this time, Sackville-West was by far the better-known and more successful writer and she encouraged Woolf to believe in herself. She also offered emotional and practical support when Woolf suffered one of her many episodes of serious depression.

The romance came to an end at some point towards the end of the 1920s. However, the pair remained firm friends, with their bond only broken with the death by suicide of Woolf in 1941. After her death, Woolf was to receive the popular and critical acclaim many believed she deserved during her lifetime and is now regarded as a true literary pioneer. She is also held up as a pioneer in feminism. Sackville-West, meanwhile, died in 1962 at the age of 70. Their romance lives on, not just through the correspondence they shared, but also in the shape of theatre works and even movies telling the tale of their deep love.

12 Notable Same Gender Couples from History
Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas enjoyed one of literature’s great romances. NewYorker.com

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century was the epitome of the bohemian good life. Among those American writers who made their home on the Left Bank was the novelist, poet and playwright Gertrude Stein. It was to the City of Light that Toklas, herself an aspiring artist, moved to in 1907. Just one day after arriving in the French capital, Toklas met Stein and one of the most celebrated romances in modern American literature was born.

The pair soon became a central part of the avant-garde movement. They hosted regular literary salons at the flat they occasionally shared, attracting such figures as Ernest Hemingway (who referred to Toklas as Stein’s ‘wife’) and the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. After two years together, while they spent time back in the United States and summered in Italy, Toklas moved in with Stein, adding a new level of commitment to the relationship. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, they were hardly ever apart, traveling Europe and the world together, as well as working side-by-side.

While for more than two decades Toklas was happy to remain in the background, serving as her lover’s cook and secretary as well as her muse and best critic, she was thrust into the limelight herself with the publication of her memoirs, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933. From then on, the pair were both literary darlings and capitalized on their fame and fortune to travel extensively and lecture across America. With the outbreak of the Second World War, the pair were forced to relocate to a country house in the French mountains. While they were both Jewish, they escaped persecution thanks to the connections a mutual friend boasted in the Gestapo.

Toklas and Stein remained a committed couple right up until the latter’s death in 1946. Sadly, while Stein left the majority of her estate to her partner, their relationship was not recognized in French law, meaning Stein spent her remaining years struggling from financial troubles as well as from ill-health. In the 1980s, Yale University Library made public hundreds of love letters exchanged between the pair over the decades, revealing the true depth of their affection as well lots of smaller details, such as the cute nickname each had for the other.

12 Notable Same Gender Couples from History
Despite the age difference, Whitman and Doyle shared a deep love. Pinterest.com

Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle

In 1865, Walt Whitman was 45 and making a name for himself as one of America’s finest wordsmiths. Irish-born Peter Doyle, meanwhile, was just 21 and worked as a streetcar conductor on the streets of Washington DC. But, while they may have been poles apart, when their paths crossed, there was an immediate spark. So much so, in fact, that Whitman didn’t get off at his stop but carried on riding the streetcar so he could spend more time with Doyle. The pair even spent that first night together in a Georgetown hotel.

While Whitman might have enjoyed numerous relationships with boys and men during his colorful life, his connection with Doyle was altogether more intense. For a full eight years, after they first met, the pair were inseparable, walking the streets of the capital and spending the nights in the city’s hotels. Though for understandable reasons, Whitman declined to make the relationship public, or even acknowledge his homosexual tendencies, his contemporaries had little doubt of the lifestyle he secretly led. Oscar Wilde was reportedly among those who, having met Whitman in America in 1882, believed the great poet to be gay.

For Whitman and Doyle, the age difference eventually began taking its toll. After Whitman suffered a stroke, Doyle helped nurse him back to health. After a second stroke, however, Whitman left Washington to live with his brother in New Jersey. Despite regular, often steamy letters, the relationship slowly came to an end.

Doyle did manage to see Whitman before the writer’s death and their partnership has been preserved for posterity through his homoerotic verses and the letters the pair exchanged over the years. In his own writings, Whitman would describe the decade he spent in Washington DC as the happiest years of his life, almost certainly due to this being the time he spent with Doyle, the love of his life.

12 Notable Same Gender Couples from History
British novelist W. Somerset Maugham had a colorful personal life. Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Somerset Maugham and Gerald Haxton

Forget Hemingway or Fitzgerald; William Somerset Maugham is credited with being the highest-earning author of the 1930s. Certainly, he was one of the most interesting characters of this literary period, with much of his work influenced by his time serving as a Red Cross ambulance driver in France during the First World War. It was here, in the midst of the unimaginable carnage of the Western Front, that Maugham met Gerald Haxton, a San Francisco native almost 20 years his junior. The pair embarked on a romantic relationship almost immediately.

The partnership was far from straightforward. As Maugham exclaimed to his nephew. ‘I tried to persuade myself that I was only three-quarters normal and only a quarter of me was queer – whereas really it was the other way around’. However, this was no time to be ‘queer’. From the very start, both men had to remain guarded. The trial of Oscar Wilde, arrested and imprisoned for his homosexuality in England, meant that gay men were living in fear and stayed very much in the closet. Despite this being a time of extra caution, Haxton was arrested for engaging in ‘indecent behaviour’ with another man while on leave in London in 1915. He was ultimately deported from Britain back to his native California, bringing his relationship with the English writer to an abrupt end.

The bisexual Maugham, meanwhile, met Syrie Wellcome and persuaded her to leave her pharmaceutical magnate husband and wed him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the eventual union was an unhappy one and the pair divorced after 13 years together, leaving Maugham free to travel and reunite with Haxton.

The pair settled on the French Riviera and were inseparable until the latter’s death in 1944. Thereafter, Maugham embarked on several same-sex relationships before settling down again with his long-time private secretary Alan Searle. This was to be the last affair of the great writer’s life and only ended when Maugham died in 1965.

12 Notable Same Gender Couples from History
James I was dazzled by the handsome looks of George Villiers. TheTimes.co.uk

James I and George Villiers

When Elizabeth I died without having produced an heir, it was up to James I of Scotland to assume the throne and thus unite the two kingdoms. Evidently, serving as the self-styled ‘First King of Great Britain and Ireland’ was more than a little demanding, so to ease the pressure, James had a habit of enjoying the company of handsome young men. Indeed, though the monarch’s precise sexuality has been the source of much historical debate throughout the centuries, there’s no doubt he had his favorites. And of these favorites, none enjoyed the affection of the king more than George Villiers.

The son of a minor gentleman from middle England, Villiers was reported to have been an incredibly good-looking young man, with a sharp mind and a way of getting what he wanted. He became a courtier and his ascent within the inner circle was rapid, especially once caught the eye of James I while the pair were both at a hunt in 1614. Villiers was soon knighted and made a ‘Gentleman of the Bedchamber’. The besotted monarch showered the younger man with lavish gifts, including more land and greater influence on affairs of the state.

As was expected of him, James took a wife, Anne of Denmark. The Queen Consort herself was evidently not jealous of her husband’s relationship with Villiers and even befriended the younger man herself. And while the King’s health declined rapidly in his 40s, with his teeth falling out and body succumbing to the effects of alcoholism, Villiers remained loyal and was even by the bed when the monarch died in 1625.

While there is no concrete evidence of a sexual relationship, letters exchanged between the pair are testament to a deep love and affection, one that would only come to an end with the king’s death in 1625. To make matters more intriguing, in 2004, work being carried out on Apethorpe Hall, a country house that was a favorite of the King’s, revealed up a fascinating secret: a hidden passage connecting the bedchamber of the monarch and that used to accommodate Villiers.

12 Notable Same Gender Couples from History
Alexander the Great had his lover by his side throughout his rise to power. Wikimedia Commons.

Alexander the Great and Hephastion

Alexander the Great’s romantic conquests were almost as legendary as his military ones. For the most part, the strategic genius preferred to seduce women, bedding beauties by the hundreds as he took control of much of the known world. That said, some historians of the period do believe that Alexander enjoyed trysts with men too, and even had two great same-sex relationships during his turbulent life. Of these, his bond with Hephastion, a Macedonian nobleman who served as a general in his huge army, was the strongest of all.

According to most accounts, the pair grew up together and were inseparable from an early age. As boys, they both learned about the world under the tutelage of Aristotle. And, in fact, the great philosopher was among the first to notice the close bond the two shared, commenting that they were essential ‘one soul abiding two bodies’. This wasn’t lost on the young men themselves, and they even publicly made offerings at shrines devoted to Achilles and Patroclus, the two great friends and alleged lovers of Greek myth.

After their education, as Alexander started making a name for himself as a strategist and warrior, he kept Hephastion close by, with the latter becoming a respected cavalry commander in his own right. Fittingly, it was on the field of battle where the deep bond was ultimately broken: Hephastion was mortally wounded at Ecbatana at the age of just 32. Alexander was, by all accounts, truly devastated by his soulmate’s demise. He called on an oracle to grant his deceased companion divine status and, with Hephastion’s ashes taken to be scattered in Babylon, the military leader started to build lasting monuments to his legacy, including temples and even a new city.

Alexander himself died just eight months later, with some sources believing that his deep grief over his lover’s death led him to neglect his own health. Did the greatest military leader of all time end up dying of a broken heart?

12 Notable Same Gender Couples from History
James Buchanan and James King enjoyed a close relationship for many years. LiveJournal.com

James Buchanan and William Rufus King

A lifelong bachelor, James Buchanan appointed his niece, Harriet Lane, to be his unofficial First Lady while he held the position of President of the United States from 1857 to 1861. But that doesn’t mean the Commander-in-Chief was a singleton. Indeed, according to many historians, Buchanan was America’s first gay President and William Rufus King his lover.

Certainly, Buchanan’s close relationship with the Alabama Senator was widely remarked upon at the time. So much so, in fact, that many of their contemporaries, including Andrew Jackson, dubbed the pair ‘Miss Nancy’ and ‘Aunt Fancy’. For King, however, his relationship with Buchanan was a ‘communion’ of two spirits rather than a marriage in the traditional sense.

However their partnership should be described, what is known for sure is that the two men lived together in the same house for 15 years while they both served in the Senate. What’s more, they indulged in each other’s passions, interests and political ambitions, and they were regularly seen out together at social events. Moreover, Buchanan was reported to be distraught when King finally moved to Paris to take up the role of American Ambassador to France.

Ultimately, however, whether the relationship between Buchanan and King was sexual or simply fraternal is likely to remain the source of speculation. Upon his death, Buchanan’s private letters, including his correspondence with King, the possible love of his life, were destroyed by his nieces, possibly in a bid to ensure he was remembered for his politics rather than his personal life. The United States still waits for its first confirmed homosexual leader.

King, meanwhile, died of tuberculosis in April 1853, just 25 days after being sworn in as Vice President. Like his lover’s, King’s letters were also destroyed by his surviving relatives, only adding to the mystery of one of America’s most fascinating political figures.

12 Notable Same Gender Couples from History
What turned out to be the first same-sex marriage in Spain shocked the nation. bbc.co.uk

Marcela Gracia Ibeas and Elisa Sánchez Loriga

In 1901, a young man and his bride stood before a priest in a Catholic church in Galicia, northern Spain, to be wed. So far, so normal. However, in a twist that would scandalize the deeply conservative Spanish society of the time, it turned out that, while the bride was indeed a young lady by the name of Marcela Gracia Ibeas, the groom ‘Mario’ was in fact Elisa Sanchez Loriga.

The wedding was far from an impulsive affair. The duo had been dating for years, having first met in teacher training college. Before too long, Marcela’s mother found out and sent her daughter to Madrid to put an end to the affair for good. However, upon qualifying as teachers, the pair managed to get jobs in schools close to one another. The relationship was back on, and now they wanted to find a way to get hitched.

The plan was simple enough. Marcela would return home and announce she was engaged to be wed to Mario, a cousin from London. And it looked like the plan would work. Mario was baptized into the Catholic faith and the wedding went ahead, with the happy couple even posing for photos after the ceremony. But, sadly for the newlyweds, a local journalist soon got wind that something was up. The story, revealing the truth, was soon published, and the pair became infamous right across Spain.

So great was the scandal they caused that Marcela and Elisa were forced to flee to neighboring Portugal. But even here, they feared they would be arrested, so they booked tickets on a boat to Argentina. But not just two tickets. Marcela walked down the aisle while pregnant with an unknown man’s baby. The infant was born in Porto and joined the duo in their transatlantic crossing. Sadly, that’s where the story ends, with historians unable to determine what happened to Spain’s illicit lovers.

12 Notable Same Gender Couples from History
Literary giant Gore Vidal was with his partner Howard Austen for 53 years. nytimes.com

Gore Vidal and Howard Austen

For more than 70 years, Gore Vidal wrote extensively on religion, politics and sex. Being from a traditional and political family, he knew a lot about the first two, while his colorful personal life helped inform his often-controversial observations on human sexuality. Speculation about his romantic affairs continues to this day: was he involved with Anais Nin or even father a child with the actress Diana Lynn? But what’s not in doubt is the veracity of his love for Howard Austen, the man to whom he was committed for more than half a century.

Vidal was already an established wordsmith when he met advertising executive Austen in 1950 in an infamous gay bathhouse in New York City. It was love – or at least lust – at first sight. The pair were to stay together for 53 years, with only Austen’s death tearing their love asunder. And the secret to their happiness? Keeping some distance. As Vidal famously argued: ‘It’s easy to sustain a relationship when sex plays no part, and impossible, I have observed, when it does.’

But that doesn’t mean that the pair were celibate. Indeed, Vidal once claimed to have he had enjoyed sexual relations with more than 1,000 men. Nevertheless, he remained devoted to Austen, with the pair traveling the world together and frequently spotted out and about in Washington enjoying each other’s company. To their contemporaries in the art world, Austen and Vidal were like an ‘old married couple’, albeit a couple who enjoyed numerous extra-marital affairs between them. And, though Vidal rose to prominence as a celebrated intellectual, by all accounts, theirs was a partnership of equals.

Austen died in 2003, leaving his partner alone and bereft for almost a decade. Vidal and Austen now rest side-by-side in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington DC, in a joint plot Vidal purchased for them.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Hadrian the Gay Emperor”. Arifa Akbar. The Independent, January 2008

“He betrayed Wilde. But that wasn’t the worst thing Bosie did”. Philip Hoare, The Guardian, June 2000.

“Who the F is…Fabled lover Mercedes de Acosta”. Trudy Ring, Pride.com, June 2014.

“The Steamy Love Letters of Virginia Woolf and Rita Sackville-West (1925-1929)”. OpenCulture.com, July 2016.

“Strangers in Paradise: How Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas got to Heaven”. Janet Malcolm, The New Yorker, November 2006.

“Peter the Great: A Biography of Peter Doyle”. Martin G. Murray, The Walt Whitman Archive.

“The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham”. David Leavitt, July 2010.

“The Politics of Desire: George Villiers, James I and courtly entertainment”. Medium.com, August 2015.

“Ancient Greek grave for ‘Alexander the Great’s friend Hephaestion'”. The Telegraph, October 2015.

“Who Was Our First Gay President?” Katherine Cooney, Time, May 2012.

“The lesbian couple who fooled Spain’s Catholic church into performing its first same-sex marriage”. Amanda Cashmore, Daily Mail, February 2018.

“Howard Austen: Gore Vidal’s Partner in All But Name”. Tim Teeman, Huffington Post, February 2016.