Homosexuality in history

Kings, poets and politicians


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

Nowadays, even Republicans argue against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation

Breaking through the binary

Weird sex laws in the U.S.