As a bisexual art historian, I have taken part in many senseless debates in which people have tried to erase parts of a historical figure’s life to fit their own narrative. They have denied documented historical facts because it challenges their homophobic rhetoric. They have gone on to write books, and influence people, spreading their rubbish like a conservative plague.
What do you mean Alan Turing was gay? I own a computer! He can’t be gay.
This is my way of standing up to these hateful, snobbish academics. I intend to make this a series of articles, with no end in sight. Hopefully, it will also help anyone struggling with their identity. Representation isn’t only necessary in Netflix shows: it is also essential in history. We have always existed. We are not a “trend” or a “modern disease” or whatever else bigots will come up with.
We have always existed. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. Here are four historical figures who, although the term “gay” did not exist at the time, were very, very, very much involved with members of the same sex.
Italian painter, sculptor, architect and poet, and one of the most influential figures in the history and development of Western art, Michelangelo’s sexuality has been widely debated, but it is generally accepted that he only had relationships with men. He even used male models to paint female figures in his paintings. His obsession with depicting unrealistically muscular half-naked men in various sensual poses already draws a good portrait of the artist, but if you want concrete proof, you only have to look at his poetry. He wrote over three hundred sonnets dedicated to a young man called Tommaso di Cavalieri, whom he called “the paragon of all the world.” Tommaso loved him until his death. Michelangelo’s love poems were not always well received by the young men whose affection he sought: most of them demanded money in return, and stole from him shamelessly.
JOSEPHINE BAKER 1906–1975
Dancer, singer and actress, who became the first Black international superstar. She is mostly known for moving from the United States to Paris, where she found fame and success, and was the first black woman to act in a film. During WWII she acted as a spy for the French Resistance, and after the war became a civil rights activist, only performing for integrated audiences. Josephine is widely recognized as being bisexual. She married several men, and had relationships and affairs with American dancer Ada Smith, French novelist Colette, and Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY 1840–1893
Russian composer, known for the 1812 Overture, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and many other symphonies, concertos, operas, and ballets. His attraction to other men is widely accepted by historians, although Russia is still trying to deny it. Who’s surprised? But here is the simple truth. He had openly gay friends, and had a number of same-sex affairs, which he detailed in letters to his (also gay) brother Modest. According to Modest, his brother’s “strongest, longest and purest love” was Sergey Kireyev, a fellow student at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence. He did try to get married, and lasted two whole months before running away, struggling with depression and acute writer’s block. He remained a confirmed bachelor after that, eventually dedicating his final work — his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique — to the nephew with whom he had fallen in love.
MARLENE DIETRICH 1901–1992
Dietrich was a German-American actress and singer, known as one of the greatest actresses in classic Hollywood cinema. Additionally, she is known for her humanitarian efforts during WWII, housing German and French exiles and providing financial support. She was bisexual, and was known to wander around the gay bars and drag balls of 1920s Berlin. She openly had several affairs with men and women, and famously wore men’s clothing. Some of her better-known female conquests include writer Mercedes de Acosta and famed Parisian cabaret manager Frede, who was an out lesbian and the first to allow women to dance together in a classic cabaret.