Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories

Desire love identity badges (1970s to the present)British Museum

Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories

Many objects from across the British Museum's collections can offer glimpses into LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer) histories, experiences and lives. Here you find a selection, which we have labelled in the Museum's galleries. From prominent figures of the classical world like the Roman emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinous to the gender fluidity of an early 20th century N'domo mask from Mali, this selection presents stories that have often been overlooked or underrepresented. If you are reading this on your mobile device inside the galleries of the British Museum, scroll down until you find the object you are looking for. 

Discus-thrower (discobolus) (100/199)British Museum

of a discus thrower. Room 1.

The discus thrower (‘discobolus’ in
Latin) may have been part of a larger mythological group rather than an
individual athlete. The beautiful youth Hyacinth was the lover of the god
Apollo, struck and killed by a discus thrown by his lover. In one version of
the myth, it is the jealous god of the West Wind, Zephyr, who blows Apollo’s
fatal discus towards Hyacinth. Within certain boundaries, sexual
relationships between men were accepted in ancient Greece and Rome. In Greek
mythology the gods experience the same desires as mortals, but their behaviour
is not bound by the same constraints. Ancient Greek artists often depicted their
gods, heroes and men nude. A beautiful body was regarded as a sign of virtue and excellent moral condition. 

In the 1800s and early 1900s, museums provided one of the few places where members of the public could openly and respectably gaze at representations of naked bodies.

The novelist E.M. Forster used the British Museum’s classical galleries as the setting for an important scene in his novel Maurice. Here the sexual attraction between the two main male characters develops into romance and an enduring relationship.

Maori treasure box (1700/1800)British Museum

Maori treasure box. Room 1.  

Maori people of high status kept treasure boxes containing prized possessions, such as greenstone ornaments and feathers to wear in their hair. The boxes and their contents were passed down through families or exchanged as important gifts between chiefs. Every surface of this box from New Zealand has been covered with intricately carved male and female figures, intertwined in various types of sexual union. Maori carvings often included representations of sexual intercourse, as an evocation of fertility and the continuity of life, but this example is unusual. The face at the centre of the front panel is shown with a penis in its mouth, while its tongue reaches out to the vagina of the female figure next to it. The blurring of sexual boundaries and gendered roles is rarely shown on objects from the Pacific. In the early 1700s, European explorers recorded sexual practices between males in the eastern Pacific region. European missionaries and colonial officials in the following centuries strongly discouraged such activities. The box pictured here is on loan, as part of a collection of objects with LGBTQ connections touring the UK until September 2019. 

Ganymede (0100/0200)British Museum

Statue of Ganymede. Room 1.   

This Roman sculpture in Room 1,  is of the youth Ganymede, naked except for a cap and a shawl draped over one shoulder. Leaning on a tree stump, he looks up towards the god Jupiter in the form of an eagle. In mythology Jupiter, overcome with desire, abducted Ganymede to have sex with him.   In Greek mythology the gods felt the same desires as humans. Zeus (Jupiter to the Romans) in particular took on various forms in order to satisfy his lust for men and women. Ancient Greece exerted a heavy influence over Rome, including an acceptance of sexual relationships between men within certain boundaries. The adoption of Christianity marked a significant change in attitudes. During the medieval period the term Ganymede became a term of abuse. The Renaissance led to a renewed interest in classical mythology, including subjects that offered a legitimate way to depict sexual stories. Statues such as this were popular with wealthy European collectors during the 1700s and 1800s.

Maya stela. Between Room 1/27.

The figure on this cast is wearing a netted jade skirt, usually worn by elite women in Maya imagery, and early researchers assumed this was a royal Maya woman. But from the inscriptions, and a better understanding of Maya myths, the figure has been identified as the male ruler Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil. He is dressed as the youthful maize god, a divine being that sometimes combined male and female aspects, connected to agricultural fertility, renewal of life and creation. This gender duality may reflect his power as a ruler, both in his duty to perform successful fertility rituals to nurture his people, and in his ability to communicate with divine beings.There is always scope for confusion or misunderstanding when gender is being read cross-culturally. There are many instances of European explorers, researchers and collectors initially being unable, or perhaps unwilling, to make sense of values that differed from their own. The case can be found between Rooms 1 and 27.

Mask (1900/1950)British Museum

N’domo mask. Room 25.

In many societies, gender and gendered roles are culturally reproduced and fixed through rituals, including initiation ceremonies. The N’domo initiation ceremony of the Bamana people from Mali, for example, has male masks, female masks and androgynous masks: the gender is indicated by the number of horns. The ungendered status of uninitiated children relates them to mythical ancestors, who are often represented as androgynous figures or a pair made up of a male and female figure, such as those carved by the Dogon of Mali.   Gender and sexual diversity was suppressed by colonial administrators and has often been forgotten, creating the impression that it never existed. Partly as a result of this colonial history and the introduction of Christianity, ‘homosexuality’ was made illegal in many African countries. Anti-apartheid and civil rights movements have often run parallel to those for LGBTQ people around the world. In 2012 Archbishop Tutu commented: 'I have no doubt in the future, the laws that criminalise so many forms of love and human commitment will look the way apartheid laws do to us now – so obviously wrong.'

The Queen of the Night (-1899/-1700)British Museum

Gender fluidity in Mesopotamia. Room 56

This baked clay panel shows a female figure wearing a headdress usually associated with Mesopotamian deities. Research suggests she may be an embodiment of Ishtar, a goddess of sexual attraction and war, known in ancient Sumer as Inanna. Ishtar had the power to assign gender identity and could ‘change man into woman and woman into man’. The goddess Ishtar was at the centre of a cult in ancient Mesopotamia, whose followers included a group of men called kurgarrus. In one epic poem they are described as people: 'Whose masculinity Ishtar has turned into femininity to make the people reverend,

The carriers of dagger, razor, scalpel and flint blades,

Who regularly do [forbidden things] to delight the heart of Ishtar'. Although their gender identity was regarded as in some way irregular, they were still part of a divinely ordained world order of state religion. Ishtar is one example of many gods and goddesses from different cultures thought to have the power to change or assign gender, or who combined gender attributes. The panel can be found in Room 56.

Epic of Gilgamesh Room 56

The famous Epic of Gilgamesh exists in different versions, each of which tells us about a friendship between King Gilgamesh and a wild man called Enkidu. Before they meet, Gilgamesh has a dream that is interpreted to mean:                                                                                                                  A strong partner will come to you,

One who can save the life of a friend…

You will love him as a wife, you will dote on him.                                                                                                                    The men have various heroic adventures, including killing a demon called Huwawa. The image here made between 1800–1600 BC in Mesopotamia, represents the intestines of a sheep examined for divination that look like the face of Huwawa.    

Granite stela of Hor and SutyBritish Museum

Same-sex desire in Ancient Egypt. Room 61.   

Written evidence shows that the ancient Egyptians recognised the existence of same-sex desire, such as a tale of King Pepy II having a liaison with his general. Archaeological evidence is far more challenging to interpret. It is difficult to look back at the distant past and find definitive insights into personal and individual realities of love and desire. The damaged funerary inscription on this stela is dedicated to two officials Hor and Suty, who were architects on the temple of Amun at Luxor. Some scholars have suggested that Hor and Suty were a male couple. Though possible, this interpretation is highly unlikely. The stela can be found in Room 61.

Warren Cup (-15/15)British Museum

The Warren Cup. Room 70.   

This silver drinking cup is decorated with two scenes of a man and a youth having sex. In Roman society a difference in age between male lovers was part of what made such relationships acceptable. The reality will almost certainly have been more varied.The cup reflects the culture of the Greek world that the Romans admired. The cup is said to have been found at Bittir, close to Jerusalem, in the early 20th century. It was bought by the American art collector Edward Perry Warren. In the decades after Warren’s death, at a time when homosexuality was illegal in the UK, it was impossible to find a buyer for the cup. In 1999 the British Museum acquired the cup and it has been on public display ever since - it can currently be found in Room 70.

Hadrian and Antinous busts (0125/0140)British Museum

Busts of Hadrian and Antinous. Room 70.

Roman concepts of sexuality differed greatly from those of modern western societies.  A Roman man was free to choose sexual partners of either gender.  The idea that men should be dominant socially and sexually was central. If a man remained the active partner in sexual encounters his masculinity was not questioned. The emperor Hadrian (AD 117–38) was in his late 40s when he met Antinous, a Greek youth from Bithynia (modern Turkey). Antinous became the emperor’s lover. During an imperial tour of Egypt in AD 130, Antinous drowned in the Nile and Hadrian’s outpouring of grief was unlike anything seen before. The emperor publicly commemorated Antinous in statues across the Roman empire, an almost unparalleled public memorial to a lost love. The two busts in this image can both be found in Room 70, but were not made to be displayed together.

Athenian wine amphora Room 69

Close, intimate relationships between men and male youths were culturally approved in some city-states in ancient Greece. Sexual relationships between males were most famously celebrated in Athens between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. These relationships were expected to respect accepted boundaries.This amphora, a vessel for holding wine, is decorated with a scene of aroused men seducing younger athletes. It was made in Athens but exported to the Etruscan city of Vulci in Italy, where it was found. When the amphora came to the British Museum it was considered unsuitable for display, was added to a collection of restricted material known as the Museum Secretum (or Secret Museum). 

Kylix (drinking cup) (-0485/-0480)British Museum

Love and desire in ancient Greece. Room 69.

This wine cup was made for and illustrates all-male drinking parties known as symposia. Men recline on garlanded couches and are served wine by naked youths. In this all-male gathering the atmosphere is charged with desire and the possibility of sex. The cup was made in Athens but exported to the Etruscan city of Vulci in Italy, where it was found. 

Amphora likely depicting Sappho (-0450)British Museum

Sappho. Room 69.

Evidence of real female sexuality is difficult to find in ancient Greek and Roman objects. In ancient Greece women were generally excluded from public life and politics, but they did take part in domestic and religious rituals. The poet Sappho (630–570 BC), who lived in Mytilene on the isle of Lesbos, gave a voice to women and female desire that has resonated throughout history. She is probably the seated figure on this Hydria which can be found in Room 69.  By the 19th century her poetry had made the word for an inhabitant of Lesbos a term for a woman who loves women. The brilliance of Sappho's poetry and its expression of female love and desire continues to inspire readers.

Woodblock print of St Sebastian (1820/1840)British Museum

Print of St Sebastian. Room 40.

In this print on display in Room 40, Saint Sebastian is shown bound to a tree, his body pierced by five arrows, with archers standing on either side. He is believed to have been martyred around AD 288 during a period of Roman persecution of Christians. He recovered from the events depicted here, but was then clubbed to death and his body thrown in a sewer. More recently, Saint Sebastian has become a gay icon. The playwright Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) owned a painting of him. Wilde adopted the name Sebastian after his release from prison following a conviction for ‘gross indecency’. St Sebastian features in Yukio Mishima’s novel, Confessions of a Mask (1949) and inspired Derek Jarman’s film Sebastiane (1976). The now famous image of the saint, stripped, tied and shot with arrows, developed during the medieval period. 

Ladies Llangollen cups (1779/1781)British Museum

The Ladies of Llangollen. Room 47

Sarah Ponsonby (1755–1831) and Eleanor Butler (1739–1829), known popularly as the Ladies of Llangollen, ran away in 1778 to set up home together, leaving their old aristocratic lives in Ireland behind them. They lived happily for 50 years in North Wales, challenging the conventions of their era and acquiring a celebrity-like status. These chocolate-cups, displayed in Room 47, are decorated with a view of their house on one side, and their coats of arms on the other. During the 1700s, the concept of romantic friendships between women became common. Friends often wrote to one another using passionate language that to modern readers would imply a sexual relationship, but which may largely have reflected social convention. 

Ain Sakhri lovers figurine (-10000/-10000)British Museum

from Ain Sakhri. Room 51

This intimate sculpture is the earliest known of a couple making love. It is usually assumed to be a man and woman, but should that be assumed so readily? The genders of the figures are ambiguous, and the overall shape of the object is phallic. 

Bronze figure of Nataraja (1100/1100)British Museum

Shiva. Room 33

The male god Shiva embodies creative and destructive principles that can be represented by the image of a cosmic dance. Displayed in Room 33, this figure from Tamil Nadu, superbly cast in copper alloy, is not an erotic work of art, but would have been paraded through the streets in festival processions. The deity's sexual inclusiveness is subtly indicated by his differently shaped earrings (one is masculine in style, the other feminine). Hindu sacred texts exalt same-sex friendship, as well as 'heterosexual' desire, as an image of the relationship between a god and his devotee, and include myths of gods changing gender and of same sex divine couples giving birth to children.

Assume Nothing badge (1990/1999)British Museum

What makes an object LGBT or Q?

The objects here have been selected because the subject or owner has an LGBTQ connection or has been adopted by the LGBTQ community. Many other selections and juxtapositions are possible. Ongoing research is identifying further objects in the collection with previously unrecorded LGBTQ histories. The Museum is beginning to update its collections database so that objects with an LGBTQ connection are more easily identifiable, and language used is more suitable and relevant. Please share with us your own selection of objects from the Museum that you feel have an LGBTQ connection. Help us with our ongoing exploration of LGBTQ narratives in the collection by sharing your thoughts and images using #LGBTQ_BM. 

Wear with Pride: LGBTQ badges at the British Museum | Curator's Corner Season 2 Episode 3British Museum

Credits: Story

This selection of objects was inspired by Richard Parkinson’s book A Little Gay History – Desire and Diversity Across the World, and was originally developed to accompany a display and trail in the British Museum from the 11 May-15 October 2017 entitled Desire, Love, Identity: exploring LGBTQ histories. The display was supported by Stephen and Julie Fitzgerald.

This work would not have been possible without the help of many individuals internally and externally who shared their knowledge and experience with the project team.

The Museum would particularly like to thank the representatives of the following organisations who joined members of staff from across the Museum to help develop the display: Camden LGBT Forum, Gendered Intelligence, LGBT History Month, London Metropolitan Archives, the Network, Schools Out and Untold London.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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