Where are the most precious and important places in the world for LGBT+ people? The ones that symbolise our rich history and hopes for the future?
As GSN relaunches, we’ve been inspired by the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World to name Seven LGBT+ Wonders of the World.
Our seven wonders are spread across the Americas, Asia, Africa and Europe. And they span 2,500 years to bring us warnings from the past and inspiration for a better world.
Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli, Italy
Hadrian is one of the best-known Roman emperors and was either gay or bisexual.
He is best known for Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England to control the northern border of the Roman province of Britannia.
But his legacy is far greater than that. Unusually for Roman emperors, Hadrian was known as a just and popular ruler and his reign was a time of peace.
Beyond Hadrian’s wall, he ordered large scale building projects across the empire. One you can still visit is the Pantheon in Rome.
Fewer people know about Hadrian’s sexuality. But he had one famous male lover, called Antinous, a young man from Bithynia, in the north of Turkey.
While Hadrian and Antinous were sailing on the Nile in 130AD, Antinous drowned. Hadrian was overcome with grief and wept openly.
But the emperor mourned for his lover in lavish style. He had priests declare Antinous a god and built a new city near the site of his death, naming it Antinopolis.
The ‘cult’ religion of the god Antinous proved useful for the empire, associating a boy from the eastern provinces with Roman imperial power. People built temples for him, minted coins with his face and continued the cult even after Hadrian’s death.
Villa and imperial capital
Meanwhile Hadrian had turned the villa he built to the east of Rome into his official residence in 128AD.
The word ‘villa’ does the site an injustice. Think palace, not humble home. The entire complex took up 300 acres. It included Hadrian’s home and office, baths, temples, barracks, theatres, gardens, fountains and grottos.
While it included places for relaxation and lavish entertaining, it would also have bustled with the business of the vast Roman empire.
Even today, visitors can imagine Hadrian strolling the gardens with Antinous. And sculptures of beautiful, clean-shaven youth were found alongside those of the handsome, bearded emperor at the villa.
Today the site is called Villa Adriana in Italian and is a UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. And it is one of the best-preserved and most visited archaeological sites in the country.
Stonewall Inn, New York, USA
The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, New York is a monument to the modern LGBT+ movement – but it didn’t start out that way.
The original Stonewall Inn wasn’t gay and wasn’t in Christopher Street. And the first police raid wasn’t about LGBT+ people.
It was originally sited two minutes walk away on Seventh Avenue South. Back in 1930, it was a speakeasy masquerading as a tearoom and was raided by agents enforcing prohibition.
The bar moved to 51 to 53 Christopher Street in 1934 – a building which had previously been a stables and then a bakery. It burnt down 30 years later. But in 1966, the Mafia invested in it and it was at that point the Stonewall Inn became a gay bar.
The Mafia realised LGBT+ people would pay a premium for watered-down drinks and even blackmailed wealthier patrons.
But the Stonewall Inn had a jukebox and a dancefloor and was one of the places same-sex couples could dance together.
Despite the Mafia’s protection and envelopes of cash given to cops, police raids were common. Indeed, the bar often got tip-offs about upcoming raids, so was able to set up again quickly afterwards.
Then, around 1.20am on 28 June 1969, a police raid didn’t go as planned and changed history.
Tensions between LGBT+ people and the police were already high, the raid took longer than usual and a crowd gathered. One woman resisted arrest and shouted to the bystanders ‘why don’t you guys do something?’ Finally pushed too far, they acted.
The confusion of the street fight that followed means that eyewitnesses to this day disagree what actually happened at the Stonewall riots.
Stonewall and modern LGBT+ rights
But today that moment is widely viewed as the birth of the modern gay and LGBT+ rights movement.
In the years that followed the Stonewall riots, the bar stopped operating and the building was used as a bagel shop, Chinese restaurant and shoe shop.
But with increased interest in LGBT+ heritage, there is now a Stonewall bar on the site again. And in the small Christopher Park opposite, you’ll find a permanent memorial.
Both the US government and New York City have recognised the site as an historic monument. And last year New York hosted World Pride to mark the 50th anniversary of the riots.
Khajuraho Temples, Madhya Pradesh, India
Historical evidence of gay sex is often censored or buried – but in India it is carved into stone on temple walls.
Hinduism is probably the world’s oldest religion. And it has celebrated homosexuality and gender variance as natural and joyful throughout history.
The Khajuraho Group of Monuments is a group of Hindu and Jain temples in Madhya Pradesh, India. The Jain and Hindu ruling dynasty, the Chandelas, built them around 1,000 years ago. And while there once were 85 temples across 20 square kilometers, today 25 remain.
The whole complex is richly decorated with beautiful carvings symbolising a Hindu view of how to conduct your life.
Today, the Khajuraho Temples are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And they are particularly famous for their carvings of sexual acts, including same-sex activity.
But, in fact, the erotic sculpture is just 10% of the total. It is mixed in with depictions of everyday life. In other words, in India sexuality – gay, bi and straight – was considered a fact of daily life rather than an extreme. Moreover, desire was a legitimate life goal.
Spotting the LGBT+ art
The scenes showing same-sex and bisexual activity are pretty explicit.
For example, one sculpture at the Kandariya Mahadeva temple shows a man reaching out to touch another’s erect penis.
On the southern wall of the Kandariya Mahadeva temple you’ll find an orgy including three women and one man. One of the women is tenderly caressing another.
And there’s another orgy on the Lakshmana temple with a seated man giving oral sex to another male.
All kinds of sexual and gender minorities have long been a part of Indian cultural life. Now the Indian Supreme Court has struck down British colonial rules that outlawed homosexuality, this authentic Indian culture is gradually reasserting itself.
The Greek island of Lesbos and it’s most famous poet Sappho are literally synonymous with gay women – giving us the words lesbian and sapphic.
Sappho lived from around 630 to 570BC and composed lyric poetry. Her poems were sung while playing a lyre, a kind of small harp.
Much of her poetry has been lost and words are missing from some of the remaining pieces. However, it is still considered extraordinary and influential on modern writers, more than 2,500 years later.
Romantics will still find her words resonate. For example in this poem, she calls on the goddess of love, Aphrodite, for help:
Immortal Aphrodite, on your intricately brocaded throne,
child of Zeus, weaver of wiles, this I pray:
Dear Lady, don’t crush my heart
with pains and sorrows.
As time went on and people became more homophobic, experts tried to suggest Sappho was actually heterosexual to rescue her reputation. But experts today widely accept she was a writer of homoerotic poetry and as a lover of women.
Lesbos or Lesvos, a World Heritage site
Modern Lesbos – more correctly called Lesvos – is a hidden gem of Greece’s islands. It boasts sapphire waters, picture-perfect towns and a laid-back vibe which hasn’t been ruined by commercial tourism.
In fact, it is so stunning that the whole island is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Naturally, gay and bi women and other LGBT+ tourists are drawn to the island. In particular visitors flock to Eresos, Sappho’s birthplace.
The Castro, San Francisco, USA
If the Stonewall Inn was the place the modern LGBT+ movement was born, The Castro was where it grew up.
Its most famous resident was the openly gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk who galvanised the city’s LGBT+ community.
But The Castro had attracted queer life long before Milk moved to California.
The area’s birth as a gay district started in the 1940s. The US military discharged thousands of gay and bi servicemen during World War II because the armed forces didn’t accept their sexuality. Many of them settled in San Francisco.
Later, in the 1960s, families left The Castro to move to the suburbs. That opened up large amounts of real estate for LGBT+ people to move into.
The first official gay bar in the district, Missouri Mule, opened in 1963. But The Castro’s heyday started when the Summer of Love of 1967 brought androgynous hippies to the area.
By 1973, when Harvey Milk arrived, it was a well-established gay area. He opened a camera store, Castro Camera, and used it as his political headquarters as he ran for public office.
He ran the risk of violent death threats to encourage the community to stand up for itself. And he even helped inspire the Rainbow Flag.
Tragically, Milk served less than a year in office as a City Supervisor, before fellow politician Dan White assassinated him in 1978.
Worse still was to follow. The AIDS crisis of the 1980s hit The Castro particularly badly. But the community fought back, promoting safe sex and testing.
Moreover, it continued to grow and thrive as a beacon for LGBT+ people around the world.
Recognition for The Castro
The Castro LGBTQ Cultural District was officially established in 2019. And a Rainbow Honor Walk remembers inspirational LGBT+ people from around the world.
Most importantly, The Castro continues to be the heart of San Francisco’s LGBT+ life. It attracts global visitors to enjoy its events, museum, bars, restaurants and more.
Alexandria’s LGBT+ history is shrouded in mystery. But the greatest enigma of all is the disappearance of the tomb of the city’s founder – bisexual Alexander the Great.
Alexander was the king of Macedon, in Ancient Greece. Alexandria in Egypt is just one of the many cities he founded and named after himself as he conquered much of the known world.
His armies swept across Persia and as far as India. His conquest established the world’s biggest empire yet seen. But Alexander died, aged just 32, in 323BC.
While Alexander married at least twice to have an heir, historians think he preferred men. We know he had two significant male relationships – both more long-lasting than his marriages.
The first was Hephaistion, his childhood best friend. And the second a Persian eunuch, Bagoas. Interestingly, Bagoas had also been a lover of the Persian emperor Darius, who Alexander overthrew.
After his death, Alexander’s childhood friend Ptolemy took over the rule of Egypt, establishing a long dynasty. To prove his legitimacy to rule as pharaoh, Ptolemy kidnapped Alexander’s body.
Eventually Ptolemy’s dynasty moved Alexander’s tomb to Alexandria. And today modern archaeologists are still searching for it. Nobody can be sure where it is in the city.
Two other lost treasures have also made Alexandria famous.
It’s Pharos, or lighthouse, was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World before it collapsed.
Ptolemy also created a Temple of the Muses in Alexandria, which became the world’s largest library and gave us the English word museum. Generations of knowledge were lost when it burnt down.
Alexandria grew to be a thriving port city. For hundreds of years it was a cosmopolitan place with many languages and cultures where citizens considered homosexuality quite normal.
Today, it remains popular with tourists who enjoy the bustle of this busy city and the faded grandeur of its seafront Corniche. It is one of the biggest cities in both Africa and the Arab world.
It is the only one of our wonders in a country that still criminalises homosexuality. As such, we have chosen it as a modern pharos – a beacon – to a more enlightened past and a brighter future.
Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism, Berlin
Berlin in the 1920s was one of the most tolerant places on Earth if you were openly gay or lesbian.
A subculture of nightclubs, bars, theatre shows and gay magazines flourished, despite the fact Germany criminalized homosexuality.
But when the Nazis came to power they cracked down. And in 1935 they revised the law which made gay sex illegal, Paragraph 175. Prosecutions rocketed to 10 times their previous numbers.
For as little as a kiss, gay men could be castrated and imprisoned in concentration camps. The Nazis sent tens of thousands to the camps, many without trial. Most died. They had a pink triangle on their clothes and the guards treated them particularly harshly.
Meanwhile the Nazis also saw lesbians as ‘anti social’ and they sent them to the camps too. The camps had official brothels and historians believe officials would have forced many of lesbians to work as prostitutes there.
Of course, countless thousands of other victims of the Nazis, including Jewish people, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Roma people and political opponents, were also LGBT+.
After Nazi Germany collapsed in 1945, Paragraph 175 remained in place. Gay men still ended up in prison. Shockingly, Nazi judges remained in place and even presided over these trials. Homosexuality did not become legal across Germany until 1969.
Visiting the memorial
The Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted under Nazism is in Berlin near the main Holocaust memorial.
It is a large concrete box. But if you peer in the through the window, you can see a short film of a same-sex couple kissing. A plaque nearby explains the history and how that means Germany has a special duty to oppose LGBT+ persecution.
The design, by artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, still divides opinion. Some visitors find its starkness moving, others feel it is nondescript.
However, it is one of the few monuments in the world to commemorate countless generations of LGBT+ people who have suffered persecution. As well as a memorial to the fallen, it is also an important reminder that rights can go backwards as well as forwards.