By Hannah Wisterman
Blog Content Contributor
About a year ago, I learned that Christopher Marlowe, one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, was gay. My British literature professor mentioned it in the day’s lecture with a level of matter-of-fact-ness that was completely disproportionate to my reaction: I froze in the middle of taking notes and started tearing up. Not because my dream of time-travelling to 17th century England and marrying Kit Marlowe was destroyed (though it was), but because I immediately felt a sense of deep personal loss. While Marlowe probably didn’t consider himself an LGBT icon, I have no doubt that his sexuality informed much of his work (Doctor Faustus, anyone?), giving it deep meaning for the modern LGBT community—and yet that integral part of his identity has been for decades brushed aside, even intentionally hidden. I wanted to cry because by not knowing that Marlowe was gay, the world both loses appreciation for his work and vital representation for the LGBT community.
This happens to nearly all LGBT historical figures, but there’s a particular damage done when we ignore the sexualities of historically significant men. Portraying all male figures of history as comfortably straight perpetuates the hegemonic idea that heterosexual men are the only ones who contribute to society, and that if an LGBT man does something historically important, it’s just one of a few rare cases. This is why, when we’re faced with the first LGBT football player-senator-inventor-award winner-whatever, we tend to hyperfocus on their sexuality instead of on their sexuality and their accomplishments. We believe them to be unprecedented, and in many ways they are; but would we react as strongly if we knew that LGBT men had been making history all along?
Take Leonardo da Vinci, for example, a towering figure of the Renaissance period and a genius in his own right. We all know that da Vinci was brilliant, and if you’re a little nerdier (me) and dig a little deeper, you may also know that he had a wicked sense of humor. Da Vinci was notoriously private in his personal life, however– most of what scholars know about him comes from legal records, including a charge of sodomy when he was 24. The charge was dismissed, but this coupled with the fact that da Vinci never married and never had children sends a strong indicator that da Vinci wasn’t attracted to women. But his sexuality doesn’t change how we should talk about him, right? Sort of. Of course, we should still praise his accomplishments, but we should also understand that if da Vinci was gay (as we would put it now; there were no such distinctions then), that could have played a huge role in what he painted and why. And wouldn’t that enrich how we enjoyed his art? Couldn’t that reassure modern male LGBT artists that gay men have been making great work for centuries?
Same goes for the iconic composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Most biographers and historians believe that Tchaikovsky, who composed Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, was homosexual—he was only married once, and only lived with his wife for about two and a half months, and much more tellingly, both his (also gay) brother and himself wrote about his sexuality in letters and diaries. Of course Tchaikovsky’s mother country, Russia, has tried to suppress this truth, but turning a blind eye does him a disservice. Just like with da Vinci, it’s important to remember that for most artists, personal life motivates their work. It’s almost more important to recognize Tchaikovsky as gay because his country won’t—we need to make it clear that being gay doesn’t take away from how talented and historically important people are.
Other famous LGBT men in history? Walt Whitman. Oscar Wilde. The economist John Maynard Keynes. William Shakespeare. Alexander the Great. The list goes on and on. Only semi-recently have scholars really started digging into the possibility of historical figures not being heterosexual, and as more evidence comes out, the list grows longer. It’s about time. LGBT men deserve to know that people like them have existed, and beyond that, they need to know that the whole world can remember them with pride. This International Men’s Day, take some time to remember that some men’s legacies are hidden or dismissed, and strive to inform yourself of how we can make sure that we appreciate the identities of the modern LGBT community.
Featured illustration by Lily Connor.