For many, it is seemingly convenient to believe that queer figures have only just started to venture into the history books within this millennium. Indeed with figures such as David Bowie, Tim Cook, Ellen Degeneres and Caitlyn Jenner being deeply supportive of the LGBT+ community, it is easy to forget those that came before.
There is a need to understand the lack of recognition of queer figures from before the 1970s or 80s, the gaping hole filled by the stories of past queer figures, who contributed to shaping their own worlds and the world we live in today.
Shakespeare: The Bard’s sexuality has been a contested topic for a long time. This debate originates from the references to the fair youth in his first 126 sonnets. Although the love expressed for the ‘fair youth’ is arguably platonic, that in Sonnet 20 Shakespeare addresses the ‘Master-Mistress’ of his passion, “A man in hue” who is superior in every way to womankind, would seem to suggest a more romantic love. That said, this apparent homoerotic declaration of love has been dismissed by some as a clever attempt by Shakespeare to subvert the heterosexual nature of the Elizabethan Sonnet.
Nevertheless, the enormity of this ‘Fair Youth’ collection and the fact that, perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet, ‘Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s Day’, is addressed to a man provides a strong argument for Shakespeare’s bisexuality.
Billie Holiday: Best known for her unmistakable voice and potent lyrics, the soul icon is not known for her sexuality. While she rarely referred explicitly to her bisexuality in her music, it is claimed she had numerous affairs with women. This included the actress Tallulah Bankhead, who, describing herself as ‘ambisextrous’, was linked to further names such as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich.
Not only bailing Holiday out of jail after she had been arrested for opium possession, the actress would attend every night of Holiday’s performance at the Strand Theatre in New York. However, in later years the relationship dissolved and while Holiday was not mentioned at all in Bankhead’s autobiography, Bankhead became angry when Holiday described her at great length in her own memoir. After a furious exchange of letters, Bankhead was mentioned simply as a “friend who sometimes would come around to the house and [eat] spaghetti”, erasing any traces of romance from their relationship.
Eleanor Roosevelt: The pioneering first lady, advocate for the Civil Rights of African Americans, Asians and WWII refugees, was also most likely bisexual.
Evidence for this is demonstrated by her incredibly close relationship with Lorena Hilcock, a lesbian reporter who covered her on the Presidential campaign. In daily letters that often amassed 10 to 15 pages, the two describe the kissing and embracing of one another, as well as heartfelt endearments. This was so extensive that J Edgar Hoover, who disliked Eleanor and her politics, allegedly had a file on the pair’s relationship which he was prepared to use as blackmail.
Personally, I find it incredibly empowering to know that people who experienced love the same way as me have been around for hundreds of years, changing culture, history and politics for the better. That the modern concepts we have of sexuality did not exist in the past (bi, pan and homosexual to name a few), as well as the fact that the people I mentioned may have not categorised themselves under those terms, it is undoubtedly affirming to for us today to see ourselves reflected in history. Yet, though it remains frustrating that they were forced to hide their feelings in some way, it is truly a mark of how far we’ve come that we can now celebrate our love for them. History is queer, get over it.