Five LGBTQ People from History You Should Know

November 15, 2012

Pablo Picasso was an artist. Everyone knows this. He revolutionized modern art. Pablo Picasso, just the name, brings to mind images of distorted features, of sideways noses, bold lines. Maybe a specific work comes to mind. Maybe the term Cubism.

In college art history, with the right teacher, you might have learned he was also a womanizing prick, that he burned through wives, that he was violently jealous. You might even have learned that Picasso the sort of cheap bastard who paid for meals with checks because café owners would rather frame his napkins than ever cash something with his signature on it.

But Pablo Picasso, just the name, doesn’t bring to mind images of an arrogant, self-centered man. Only the genius remains, until you start digging.

Here’s another example: Helen Keller was deaf and blind, and is used as an inspiration. Her story is one of triumph over extreme adversity.

She was also a socialist,1 an anti-war pacifist, and so far to the left she’d hit you from the right if you put her on a sphere. But those aspects of her life are rarely talked about, just like the less genius aspects of Picasso’s life.

There’s a reason for this, a justification, and it goes like this: Why sully their legacy? Defining traits are erased by history to make the past more palatable. People and stories are modified so as not to offend the modesty of those that follow. Credit is reassigned. Roles are downplayed. Anything deemed “unsavory” by the majority is whitewashed away.

For example, the non-straight sexual orientation of someone whose touch changed the course of history is pushed to the cutting room floor, and that’s the gentler approach. That’s the approach that leaves them credit for their work, instead of erasing them completely.

So setting out to find historical queers is… Challenging. Sometimes it’s a stab in the dark to try to discern sexual preference so long after the fact. Sometimes the only reason we know that a historical figure wasn’t heterosexual is the fact they were caught, persecuted, and prosecuted.

Here are five you probably either didn’t know were queer, or didn’t know even existed.

1. Maurice Sendak (June 28, 1928–May 8, 2012)

Maurice Sendak was a beloved children’s author and illustrator who passed away this year. He’s the most contemporary person on this list.

It’s a gamble using a phrase like ‘beloved children’s author.’ Are they really beloved? Would people disagree with that assessment? Is there likely to be a debate?

Maurice Sendak was a genuinely beloved children’s author.

It’s not actually possible to get through childhood without hearing Where the Wild Things Are read aloud for the benefit of pre-readers. There are people reading this article right now nodding along, saying ‘Oh, him,’ which was more or less the intent of this list in the first place.

He wrote books that children love to read, without trying to write books aimed at children. As he reportedly said in an interview, “You cannot write for children. They’re much too complicated. You can only write books that are of interest to them.” It’s the difference between Sesame Street and Blues Clues

Maurice Sendak lived with his same sex partner of fifty years, Dr. Eugene Glynn. When Glynn passed away in 2007, Sendak made a one million dollar donation in Glynn’s memory to the Jewish Board of Family & Children’s Services, where Glynn had served as a psychiatrist for over 30 years.

2. Gladys Bentley (August 12, 1907–January 18, 1960)

Gladys Bentley was an African American blues singer and piano player in Harlem in the 1920′s.

She wore top hats and tuxedos in an age when women did not wear trousers in public. Bentley sang the latest hits with improvised racy lyrics. Searching for examples, all that can be readily found now is anecdotal evidence, but according to legend, turning a Jazz-Age chart-topper into a ballad about anal sex was a regular pastime for this woman. History is less rich for the lost lyrics of Gladys Bentley.

She used drag queens as backup singers, and she was vocal in her preference for women. She hit on the female audience members unabashedly, and she claimed to have had a public wedding ceremony to her white female lover, getting that much closer to blacking out her bingo card of scandalous behavior of the time.

She was alive recently enough that she made television appearances. This was later in her career, hence the more conservative dress instead of her usual trademarks.

After prohibition was repealed, Bentley’s popularity waned, and during the McCarthy era she eventually claimed, under pressure, to have been cured of her lesbianism with female hormone treatments. Gladys Bentley died at the age of 52 from complications of the flu. Not all of these stories have happy endings.

And speaking of brilliantly talented people punished for their sexuality…

3. Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954)

This entry was very nearly Oscar Wilde, but if there’s anyone who doesn’t know Wilde’s sexual preferences at this point, they’re deeply buried under a rock and won’t be reading this, anyway. Besides, one of the goals of this list was to be diverse, and Alan Turing wasn’t a writer or a performer: he did math, and he did it well. The work he did helped build the basis of modern computing.

Anyone who has ever seen Blade Runner has heard of the Turing Test, used to determine how human-like a machine intelligence is, and, yes, it’s the same Turing. He was the first to suggest that to make an artificial intelligence, instead of trying to make an adult, make a child and give it an education. (A more well-rounded approach to HAL’s upbringing in 2001: A Space Odyssey might have led to a different movie.) Turing also wrote one of the first chess-playing computer programs—one which was too complex for the computers of his day to execute.

So to recap, Turing was thinking up the rules for artificial intelligence and computer programming when computers used vacuum tubes and took up entire buildings. But that’s not the best part. That’s not the reason you should know who this person is.

The reason that Alan Turing should be mentioned in history books is this: his work during World War Two lead to the cracking of the German Enigma code, which turned the tide for the Allies. Alan Turing saved lives with that. It was a major wartime breakthrough.

But instead of being hailed as a hero, in 1952 Turing was convicted of indecency for committing homosexual acts, which were still illegal in the United Kingdom. Given the choice between prison and hormone “castration”, he picked the injections. They left him impotent. He also lost his security clearance and his ability to continue working with the government.

He was dead two years later. Suicide.

As added insult to injury, in response to a public petition to pardon him in 2011, the British government’s official position was that since it was a crime at the time, Turing was still guilty. Even if the prime minister did publicly apologize for his treatment.

Alan Turing2 was also a ridiculous long distance runner, which is just an interesting footnote in an already interesting life. During the Second World War it was a regular occurrence for him to run the forty miles from Bletchly to London to participate in high level meetings. So he was both smarter and in better shape than just about anyone around him. And gay.

4. Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès. (1753–1824)

Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès was a French lawyer who helped to write the Napoleonic code, the basis of modern French law. He was well liked, respected at court, and gay as springtime. He was out, he never bothered to marry, and even Napoleon was aware of Jean Jacques’ preferences.

According to French pre-Revolution law, homosexuality was illegal, but the law wasn’t enforced with any great degree of enthusiasm. Jean Jacques was not directly responsible for homosexual acts being decriminalized, but it’s worth mentioning that they were officially taken off the table as prosecutable offenses during his lifetime. He occasionally gets credit for the change in the law, but there’s nothing to back this up. Maybe it was just the effect of being both a respected government figure and out of the closet—Harvey Milk’s predecessor by nearly two centuries, and without a life cut tragically short by an assassin: he died an old man living comfortably in Paris.

5. Emperor Gaozu of China (256 BCE–195 BCE)

Emperor Gaozu (personal name Liu Bang) was the first of the Han dynasty emperors. He rose from the peasant class, one of the few emperors to do so, ending up on top after the overthrow of the Qin dynasty. He’s remembered for, among other things, his military campaigns, privatizing the minting of coinage, and reducing and stabilizing taxation.

He was also the first in a series of emperors to have a prominent male lover in addition to his empress and his female concubines, making him a bisexual trendsetter. His male lover, Jiru, was Gaozu’s constant companion—anyone granted audience with the emperor could expect to find Jiru there as well. Gaozu maintained a bevy of mistresses and was known for being on the coarse side. In contrast, Jiru was refined and elegant: the class act who handled court matters for the rough-cast emperor.

Nine male Han-dynasty rulers followed Gazou’s lead in elevating their male lovers to positions of courtly prominence

So there you are! Five not-straight historical figures you now know about. If anyone ever asks you why there’s a need for a gay history month, tell them because gay kids need heroes, too. Much of conventional history tells the story of deeds done by by straight European men, because much of history is written by straight white men. Credit is redistributed, and in some cases outright stolen from the non-white, the non-male, and the non-straight. Finding historical queers in history that were appreciated for their contributions is a almost as thankless as task as being a historical queer. (by Morgan DeVoe)

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