Does it matter who you love?

The people we love play a big part in our lives. Surely we should embrace our individuality rather than force ourselves into relationships that don’t feel right? But some relationships are illegal or frowned on in some places...

A tour of human sexualities: how much do you know?

Multi-cultural sexualities

From 'lesbian money' to false beards, the 'Out in Oxford' Project brings together items from Oxford University's museums, libraries, and gardens which focus on LGBTQ+ experience. Here you can see a shortened version of the original trail.

Out in Oxford logo

The 'Out in Oxford' project aims to celebrate diversity and highlight LGBTQ+ experiences. Each of the descriptions below were written by volunteers from Oxford's LGBTQ+ community and share the stories behind these remarkable items. Plus, the project logo above was designed by Jack Kearsley and Ren of Oxford's LGBTQ+ youth group., My Normal. To view the full trail, visit the Out in Oxford website. 

$50 US banknote counter-marked with the words ‘Lesbian Money’

Date: Late 20th century
Country of origin: United States of America
Location: Ashmolean Museum

The US gay and lesbian rights movements – which evolved throughout the 1970s towards the end of the 20th century – adopted many surprising and covert strategies of political protest and civil disobedience. One particular method of activism was to (illegally) stamp dollar bills with the slogans: ‘gay money’, ‘lesbian money’ and ‘queer $$$’. The circulation of the notes across the States draws on a long tradition of currency being defaced with political messages. As the notes are exchanged from hand to hand, they foster unexpected and intriguing encounters with the dissenting individual, who, in this case, stamped her money in purple – a colour broadly associated with 20th century women’s liberation movements – and the marginalised community of which she was a part. It is an understated, yet powerful, act of resistance, which makes it possible for lesbian voices, in particular, to be seen and heard.

By Adrienne Mortimer

Lesbian money

Seated figure of the bodhisattva Guanyin

Date: 13th century
Country of origin: China
Location: Ashmolean Museum, 

The image of the seated bodhisattva marks a transitional phase in the transformation of the male form of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara into the Chinese female deity Guanyin, the ‘Goddess of Mercy’. Avalokiteshvara was said to be the earthly manifestation of the Buddha Amitabha, whose figure can still be seen represented at the front of the headdress. Avalokiteshvara, often translated as "the Lord who looks upon the world with compassion", was said to be able to appear in 33 different physical forms, seven of these as a woman or young girl. It is thought that Avalokiteshvara, with Buddhism, was introduced into China around the 3rd century BC. From his introduction until the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234) images of the bodhisattva were increasingly androgynous, incorporating both male and female characteristics. In China, from the 12th century, Avalokiteshvara is entirely represented as the female white robed Guanyin.

By G R Mills


Manju netsuke showing the female warrior Tomoe Gozen and Wada Yoshimori

Date: 19th century
Country of origin: Japan
Location: Ashmolean Museum

This netsuke (根付), a carved toggle used to attach purses to traditional Japanese dress, shows Tomoe Gozen (巴 御前) and her lover Wada Yoshimori (和田 義盛). While this beautiful example dates from the 19th century, Tomoe lived in the 12th century. Tomoe was known for extreme feminine beauty on the one hand and unparalleled physical, masculine strength and courage on the other. She undertook the most male of professions by becoming a samurai (侍). In some tales, she is also a female entertainer, highlighting this contrast even more. 

Semi-fictionalised accounts of Tomoe’s life became popular along with other stories that play with the notion of gender as performative – decided by actions and not biological sex – such as Torikaebaya Monogatari (とりかへばや物語, ‘The Changelings). Many females across history have assumed elements of masculine dress, nomenclature or gender, for a variety of reasons. They have acted in contrast to the behaviour their cultures have expected for their biological sex, against a corresponding binary gender, which can be viewed as surprisingly modern. 

By Victoria Sainsbury

Manju netsuke showing the female warrior Tomoe Gozen and Wada Yoshimori

Bust of Prince Henry Lubomirski (1777-1850) by Anne Damer (1748-1828)

Date: c. 1787
Country of origin: England, UK
Location: Ashmolean Museum

This bust is typical of Anne Damer’s neoclassical sculpture, praised by contemporaries for its simplicity and purity. By contrast, her wealthy and aristocratic circle gossiped about the impurity they saw in her relationships with other women. From 1776, when her unsuccessful marriage ended in her husband’s suicide, accusations about her lesbian relationships appeared in print. For the rest of her life, rumours about her kept re-surfacing. Her social position helped her endure these attacks, but they threatened her relationships with less aristocratic women, anxious about the impact on their reputations. Anne was deeply pained by the libels and gossip about her, but she never chose to live safely out of the limelight. She refused offers of marriage and she appeared on stage in private theatricals attended by the whole of London society. She took up sculpture, a masculine pursuit, and exhibited her work publicly, asserting her identity as an artist.

By Katie Hambrook

Bust of Prince Henry Lubomirski (1777-1850) by Anne Damer (1748-1828)

False beards

Date: 1936-37
Country of origin: Southern Angola
Location: Pitt Rivers Museum

Traditionally Kwanyama girls of marriageable age go through a five-day initiation ceremony called the efundula. Towards the end of the ceremony, the girls wear false beards and eyebrows to become ‘bridal boys’ who spend around 25 days living freely in the bush ‘as men’. During this period the girls assume ‘male’ gender attributes which are complemented by the ‘female’ behaviour of the men or future husbands. The false beard and eyebrows are part of the gender shifting of this ritual, with the girls’ dances mimicking the men, and the girls being well-armed and permitted to beat their future husbands. Any resulting pregnancies from this time are considered legitimate and result in marriage. The false beard is part of the elaborate costume that marks the culmination of her wanderings, the return to the village and the start of a new life in her husband’s home.


False beard

Pink plastic recorder of Bressan design

Date: Early 21st century
Location: Bate Collection

Europe has a long history of using bright colours and symbols to represent LGBTQ+ people. In the late 19th and early 20th century, gay Londoners and Parisians wore a green carnation; Oscar Wilde is a famous example. Under Nazism, gay prisoners in concentration camps had to wear a pink triangle as a sign of shame. This symbol was reclaimed in the 1970s as a symbol of gay rights and protest. Since 2000, the Independent on Sunday has published the Pink List to celebrate influential LGBTQ+ people in the UK. It was renamed the Rainbow List in 2014 and the rainbow flag is now the most popular LGBTQ+ symbol. The first rainbow flag had eight stripes and was designed by Gilbert Baker in San Francisco in 1978. The flag is a symbol of unity between all people and a celebration of diversity.

By Beth Asbury

Pink plastic recorder of Bressan design

Shiva and Parvati

Date: Probably late 19th century (collected before 1910)
Country of origin: India
Location: Pitt Rivers Museum 

This object depicts the Hindu deities Shiva and Parvati as a couple. There are a variety of Hindu legends detailing the events leading to their eventual marriage, but a common theme throughout is that their courtship was not plain sailing. However, their marriage has since been viewed as a model relationship in Hinduism and there is a sense of equality implied between the two in this object as they are both of a similar size, seemingly two equal halves of a whole. Shiva and Parvati, combined, create the god Ardhanari (translated literally as “the Lord who is half woman”), a god containing both male and female elements, which challenges monotheistic gods who are traditionally wholly male. Ardhanari is a patron of hijras, a term which, in some South Asian countries, refers to transgender people or people whose gender identity is not necessarily male or female. Some of these countries’ governments have now legally recognised hijras as a third gender.

By Olivia Aarons

Shiva and Parvati


5 ‘out’ there plants and animals

From transgender trees to necking giraffes, the natural world is not held back by sexual or gender categories and labels. Here are a few examples taken from the 'Out in Oxford' project. 

  1. Snakes and Lizards 
    1. There are many organisms capable of reproducing without fertilisation of egg cells by sperm. This process, known as parthenogenesis, is rare in vertebrate animals, but it is found in some species of reptiles. In particular, some species of Whiptail Lizards are entirely female – there are no males. This is thought to be due to hybridisation between different species of Whiptail Lizards. As there are no males, there is no exchange of gametes or male-female sexual behaviour. Nonetheless, sexual behaviour is observed in these lizards, even though it does not contribute to sexual reproduction. This makes the Whiptail Lizard one of the few animals with well documented same-sex sexual behaviour. This behaviour goes beyond displays or occasional occurrences – ‘mating’ between females is regularly observed. Whiptail Lizards are therefore an important part of the study of same-sex behaviours in the natural world - written by JW.

  2. Bluehead Wrasse fish
    1. The Bluehead Wrasse fish is an important example of non-standard biological sex in nature. When aging, even after sexual maturity, some females may transition to become breeding males. The Bluehead Wrasse is not the only fish species to change sex. Some species of clownfish exhibit similar behaviour, with individuals changing from male to female. (Nemo’s father should have become his mother in the popular Pixar movie!) The Wrasse are not born with both male and female anatomy, but they change from one sex to the other in order to maintain a gender balance necessary for population stability. This process is called sequential hermaphroditism. As with the human transgender population the transition is neither a decision nor choice they make. These sex changes are due to the levels of hormones in the environment, based upon the ratios between the sexes of Wrasse. A similar process is thought to be responsible for transgenderism in humans, but in this case due to the hormonal environment in the womb during development - written by Clara Barker.

  3. Giraffes 
    1. Out of the approximately 1500 species of animal that have been identified as displaying same-sex behaviour, the giraffe is one of the most studied. Males have been documented rubbing their necks on one another’s bodies (‘necking’), heads, necks, loins and thighs before engaging in same-sex mounting. In fact, these engagements occur more frequently than male-female mounting, which only accounts for 7% of all observations. One in 20 male giraffes are believed to be necking another male at any given time. Observing their interactions helps us understand that homosexuality is not just prevalent in humans. Sexuality is just as non-binary or fluid in animals. The sexual behaviour of giraffes shows us that homosexuality is a normal occurrence in our world - written by Aaron Worsley. 
  4. European Yew trees
    1. Have you heard about the “transgender tree”?  In a church graveyard in Fortingall, Scotland, there is a European Yew thought to be several thousands of years old. This type of yew has a clear distinction between the sexes as the males produce pollen and the females produce bright red berries. It was something of a surprise when, after many years of displaying male characteristics, this ancient tree suddenly sprouted berries from a branch. In reality, rather than being a transgender sex-change, this is actually a display of intersex behaviour and is not uncommon in other conifers. The reason for this is thought to be a change in the tree’s hormones, creating another example in nature of non-binary sex and showing that such things are not always black and white. The yew tree here in the Botanic Garden is also male. However, in the 1980s and in 2012 it too started to produce female cones on some of its branches - written by Clara Barker.
  5. Saucer Magnolia plants
    1. The Saucer Magnolia is one of many hermaphrodite (intersex) plants, which have both male and female organs in their flowers. Other examples growing around the Botanic Garden include roses, lilies and asters. Hermaphroditism allows these plants to reproduce by themselves, as well as with other plants. This is gives them a great survival advantage, as it means they can reproduce frequently, even in isolated environments. In the early 19th century, French army officer Etiene Soulange-Bodin created the Saucer Magnolia by cross-breeding two different Magnolia species (Magnolia denudata and Magnolia liliiflora). The Saucer Magnolia is hardier than its parent plants and blossoms during the early spring time. It has delicately coloured flowers, with petals that turn from pink to white at the tips. Given that the Saucer Magnolia has two-tonal petals and two sex organs in each flower, it is a perfect example of how non-binary living things can be beautiful. It is prized as an ornamental shrub and is often used to adorn gardens or outdoor spaces - written by Hetty Mosforth.

The first rainbow flag was designed by Gilbert Baker in San Francisco in 1978. The flag is a symbol of unity between all people and a celebration of diversity.

Where did the idea that homosexuality is wrong even come from?

Dr. Nigel Warburton interviews Janet Radcliffe Richards (Professor of Practical Philosophy, University of Oxford) about the ethical, religious and philosophical arguments surrounding sexuality.

The world’s most unusual marriages


  1. Rock star love
    1. British artist Tracey Emin – best known for winning the Turner Prize for her unmade bed – married something sure to stick around… a rock. The ceremony took place in her garden in France in summer 2015. We don’t know whether her new rock-bund is much help with the chores, but Tracey described it as ‘an anchor, something I can identify with’ and ‘not going anywhere’. 
  2. Marry your one and only
    1. If you’ve ever felt like your one and only is looking right back at you in the mirror, you aren’t the only one. The practice of ‘sologamy’ or ‘self-marriage’ is growing in popularity, especially in Japan where a travel agency offers a two-day package for single brides including a gown, hair styling, flowers, limousine ride, hotel stay and photo album. It isn’t just for ladies either. Liu Ye from China married a foam cutout of himself in 2007.  
  3. Digital romance
    1. Nintendo DS gamer, Sal9000 married a virtual character he met playing a dating simulation game called ‘Love Plus’. 40 of Sal’s real-life friends attended the ceremony, and 3,000 people watched on the Japanese YouTube. He then went on a real-life honeymoon to the Pacific island of Guam. Hopefully, he packed his NintendoDS for the journey! 
  4. My Big Fat Roman Wedding
    1. Roman Emperor Nero’s second wife died in 65 AD in suspicious circumstances. Some claimed she died when Nero kicked her during a quarrel. Soon after, Nero met a young former slave boy called Sporus who supposedly resembled his former wife. An ideal replacement! Before marriage, Nero had Sporus castrated. After their marriage in 67 AD, Nero called Sporus by his dead wife’s name.
  5. La ville de l’amour
    1. They say Paris is the city of love. It definitely was for Erika La Tour Eiffel who was in the US Air Force and the US National Archery Team. She met the Eiffel Tower in 2004 and it was love at first sight. Erika often feels love for objects, but the 324 metre tall tower was first in her affections and so she married it in 2007.

Sexuality education in schools: life since Section 28

Writer Matthew Todd takes a look at the impact of the local government act, Section 28 (now repealed) which tried to stop councils promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality. Some schools now have LGBT societies or mark LGBT History Month - this would have been unthinkable 30 years ago. But how far has the UK really come?