LGBTQ+ relationships and/or people have been accepted in many cultures through history—different parts of the spectrum in different times and places—but only one culture I know of has considered some LGBTQ+ relationships *better* than heterosexual ones. And that is ancient Greece, where relationships between older and younger men that combined mentoring with romance were widely considered the very best kind of romantic relationship—and the basis for the education of young men in virtue and excellence, particularly (so different from the modern world!) courage in battle. And it is possible that similar relationships between women were viewed positively as well, though there is less evidence for that.
Featured Image Credit: LCS – Cosmorama Panagiotis Iliadis
People (and gods) who had these relationships are everywhere in Greek history and mythology, from Zeus, king of the gods, to Herakles, the greatest hero, to Sappho, the greatest lyric poet, to Sophocles, one of the three great writers of tragedy, to Socrates, the founder of philosophy, and Alexander the Great—possibly the greatest general ever! And these relationships are frequent themes in ancient Greek literature and art.
As a result, there are sites and artworks on LGBTQ+ themes all over Greece. In Athens you can follow the story of Harmodios and Aristogeiton. Forgotten today, they could not have been more famous in antiquity: together they were the Uncle Sam of the Athenian democracy. That is, they were a couple who assassinated the younger brother of a dictator who was ruling Athens in 514 BC, and when the democracy was founded four years later, the Athenians saw them as the founders. They were memorialized in many ways, but one of the principal ones was a paired statue smack in the middle of the Agora (town square). The best remaining copy of these statues is in the Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy, but you can see a part of the base of the original statue in the Agora Museum—an amazing survival. You can just make out the letters HARMODI. And in the nearby Kerameikos excavation (ancient Athens’ main cemetery) you can see where the couple carried out their great deed, and where they were buried—and worshipped by later Athenians with cult sacrifices.
There are LGBTQ+ stories to follow in the major archaeological sites outside Athens as well. In Delphi, for instance, one of the main sights in the museum is a beautiful statue of the divine Antinous—the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s Greek lover, who was declared a god after he died. There are about 150 statues and busts of Antinous in the world’s museums, but I think this is the most beautiful one (and he was a good-looking guy!). Olympia is even gayer, because the foundation myth contains an LGBTQ+ story: Pelops, the mythical founder (from whom we get the name of the southern peninsula of Greece, the Peloponnese, meaning island of Pelops) was the lover of Poseidon, god of the sea. And in the museum, there is a wonderful statue of Zeus with his boyfriend, the Trojan prince Ganymede. In our culture, we have traditionally hidden the LGBTQ+ side of stories. But in ancient Greece, the opposite was true: this statue was on the peak of the façade of the Temple of Zeus in archaic times—kind of like the statue of Armed Liberty on the US Capitol. Oh, and let’s not forget that ancient Greek athletes competed in the nude….
An LGBTQ+ traveler might of course also want to go to Lesbos, an island close to the Turkish coast. Many people are nervous about Lesbos, because waves of refugees from Syria have arrived there, but that situation is largely under control now (for better or worse). Sappho was a couple of centuries earlier than the other people in our list, and there is nothing specific on Lesbos connected to her—but you still might want to go to the island where she lived. There is a lesbian community in the beach town of Skala Eressos, where many people believe that Sappho was born.
I want to add that there was also a category of people in ancient Greece called kinaidoi (singular kinaidos) who may have been trans or gender-queer people. And, of course, there are LGBTQ+ people in Greece today. Famous modern Greek LGBTQ+ people include the poet Constantine Cavafy and the painter Yannis Tsarouchis. You can find a nice, relaxed, mixed LGBTQ+ crowd at the Rooster café in Athens’ historic Plaka, not far from the Acropolis.