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Thursday, June 30,2011

Homosexuality in history

Kings, poets and politicians

By David Accomazzo

The alphabet soup associated with queer activism, GLBT, or its heftier cousin, LGBTQIA, is a mouthful even for those sympathetic to gay rights.

For those not in the know, those letters stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, intersex and asexual. It’s a set of terms that attempts to cover the complex spectrum of sexual identities and attraction. But many still believe the world is a much simpler place, with two groups of people: gay and straight.

But sexual attraction is a spectrum, shades of gray rather than black and white, and therefore, academics, particularly those studying queer theory, have problems with that simplified dichotomy. The terms homosexual and heterosexual weren’t coined until the late 19th century, and it’s not like same-sex attraction didn’t exist before then. In fact, history is populated with famous people who fancied members of the same gender. But can you call them gay?

There are two schools of thought on this, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. On one side are the essentialists, who feel that homosexuality is a “specific, natural kind rather than a cultural or historical product.” On the other side are the social constructionists, who say that homosexuality is a “modern, Western concept” and that “the acceptance of the contemporary heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy is conservative … and forecloses the explorations of new possibilities.”

Basically, you have one side saying homosexuality is natural and genetic, while the other says the labels “homosexual” and “heterosexual” are oversimplifications. So, in order to keep the academics happy, here is a list of famous people in history who, from time to time, enjoyed the “company” of the same gender.

No lesser a figure than Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror of Persia, is said to have preferred the company of his bodyguard, Hephaestion, to that of his wives and harem.

Sappho, one of the great Greek lyrical poets, wrote glowing poems about women, causing many scholars to infer an attraction to the same sex. She hailed from the isle of Lesbos, which eventually became the etymological basis for the term “lesbian,” and her works were censored and repressed in the 7th century for, according to William Harris, their “supposedly aberrant sexual preferences.”

Leonardo Da Vinci was charged with sodomy at the age of 24, and though he was acquitted, the charge, combined with some other circumstantial evidence, including the fact that he never married, has led many to conclude that Da Vinci preferred men.

In the modern day, many famous figures have self-identified as gay. Jazz great Billy Strayhorn, who penned some of the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s most famous tunes, was openly gay. Poet Walt Whitman was almost certainly gay, at least according to openly gay beat poet Allen Ginsberg. He wrote a poem in which he imagined Walt Whitman in the modern age, writing, “I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking / among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.”

Estimates of homosexuality in the general population range anywhere from 3.5 percent to 10 percent, and once you apply those figures to the 43 presidents of the United States, that leaves at least one and maybe as many as four presidents who were probably gay. One likely candidate is James Buchanan, who preceded Lincoln in office. He maintained a very close friendship with a Senator King from Alabama, prompting one political colleague to refer to the pair as “Buchanan and his wife.”

As attitudes towards homosexuality have become more liberal and tolerant, many openly queer people now hold positions of power in politics (Massachusettes Rep. Barney Frank, Colorado Rep. Jared Polis), media (Rachel Maddow, Ellen Degeneres, Anderson Cooper), business (Apple COO Tim Cook), sports (Phoenix Suns president Rick Welts) and more. With marriage equality and civil rights victories coming every year, it seems openly gay people in power will only continue to become more numerous and visible.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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