6 Gay or Bi Historical Figures Who Are Straight-Washed by History

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In my high school U.S. history textbook, the word “bisexual” wasn’t mentioned a single time. This is preposterous, especially given that my textbook was — and still is — one of the most commonly used in the country. It’s also a whopping 1,200 pages long.
It contained only a few mentions of homosexuality, and they were all abstract references (e.g., “gay rights”) — never describing a specific person as gay.
As a bisexual woman, these omissions impacted me personally. Partly because of our obnoxiously heteronormative education, most of my peers didn’t understand what bisexuality was. Many denied that it even existed.
From then on, I’ve found it important to acknowledge the queer identities of historical figures. After all, when I found out that my favorite painter Frida Kahlo was bisexual, I felt validated and less isolated in my identity.
So, rather than straight washing history, we should strive to make current LGBTQ youths feel validated and visible. In that spirit, here are six important historical figures who are egregiously straight-washed in most American history textbooks.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) was an Indian lawyer, nonviolent activist, and writer. As we all know, Gandhi accomplished the heroic feat of leading India to independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Although most history textbooks provide substantial details about his life, they rarely acknowledge his LGBT identity. Even when discussing his personal life, they usually mention that he had a wife, but they conceal the evidence indicating his attraction to men. Historians have concluded that Gandhi was either bisexual or homosexual based on his letters and other evidence. Such details of his life were famously publicized by a 2011 biography called “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle With India,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joseph Lelyveld. The book recounts that in 1908, Gandhi left his wife for Hermann Kallenbach, a German-Jewish architect, and bodybuilder. The two had established their relationship long before Gandhi split from his wife. Since Gandhi’s marriage to his wife was an arranged marriage, historians speculate that it may not have been based on mutual affection in the first place. Throughout their relationship, Kallenbach and Gandhi exchanged intimate love letters, in which Gandhi made his feelings clear: How completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance. In another letter, he said this: Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in the bedroom…the mantelpiece is opposite the bed. When the book was released, many were outraged, accusing the biographer of slandering Gandhi. India’s far-right prime minister Narendra Modi dismissed the book as “perverse. ”The book was even banned in parts of India. But regardless of people’s outrage, some queer folks in India viewed these revelations about Gandhi as a victory.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson is usually depicted as a reclusive spinster who desperately pined after men for her entire life. She’s considered one of the most important poets in American history, renowned for her reams of romantic poems exploring the many facets of love. But this straight washed portrayal of her is utterly inaccurate. Many of her romantic or sexually charged poems were dedicated to women — most prominently, Susan Gilbert, her longtime friend, and sister-in-law (meaning they were not blood relatives). As soon as the two met in 1850, Dickinson was captivated. Their friendship quickly blossomed into a lifelong love affair. Gilbert became Dickinson’s muse, inspiring much of her poetry. As Dickinson once told her, “We are the only poets, and everyone else is prose.” Some of Dickinson’s poems were explicitly addressed to Susan: To own a Susan of my own Is of itself a Bliss — Whatever Realm I forfeit, Lord, Continue me in this! The two lovers also had a romantic epistolary relationship, exchanging love letters for years. Here’s an impassioned passage from one of Dickinson’s: Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to?… I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you — that the expectation once more to see your face again makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast…


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hans Christian Andersen

Andersen is known for writing some of the most beloved stories in the history of Western literature. Many of his stories have been adapted into children’s films, such as The Little Mermaid, The Emperor’s New Groove, Thumbelina, and Disney’s hit movie Frozen, which was based on his story The Snow Queen. Centuries after his death, Andersen has millions of fans, but very few of them are aware that he was bisexual. Historians have found textual evidence that throughout his life, he was infatuated with both women and men. One of the notable men he fancied was Edvard Collin, the son of one of his patrons. He once wrote to Collin, I languish for you as for a pretty Calabrian wench … my sentiments for you are those of a woman. The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery. Additionally, any Disney fans will be interested to know that scholars suspect that The Little Mermaid is a queer allegory. It was inspired by his painful rejection by Edvard, with whom he was deeply in love for a long time. That explains why, unlike in the Disney fairytale, the original version has a tragic ending — the mermaid’s love for the prince is unrequited, and she dissolves into the ocean, unloved and eternally alone.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman, who lived from 1819 to 1892, was an American poet, essayist, and journalist. Some historians regard him as the quintessential American poet. He’s best known as the “father of free verse” and for writing Leaves of Grass, which is required reading for many young students. He’s also known for his poem O Captain! My Captain!, which laments the death of Abraham Lincoln. Even though students are taught extensively about him, they’re usually never taught that he was queer. This is odd given that many of his romantic and sexual poems were about men. Students are also rarely taught that his poetry was deeply homoerotic and that his contemporaries were scandalized by the “unwholesome carnality” of his writing. Even Leaves of Grass itself is filled with sexual innuendo and extensive romantic content that concerns men. Those parts are usually censored in modern editions. Arguably the most homoerotic portion of Leaves of Grass is the Calamus poems. Scholars note that Whitman intended for Calamus to symbolize the human phallus. Not coincidentally, Calamus is a type of grass with a phallic appearance — Whitman wrote fondly about its “pink-tinged roots.” Calamus is also known for its mind-altering effects and its association with same-sex love in Greek mythology. His sexuality was not only obvious in his writing — his contemporaries were keenly aware of it. In 1882, bisexual writer Oscar Wilde told a journalist that he had no doubt about Whitman’s attraction to men, even adding, “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips.”

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Alexander the Great

Alexander III of Macedon, who later came to be known as Alexander the Great, was the king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon. He lived from 356 BC until 323 BC, dying at the young age of 32. There are many conflicting theories about how he died, ranging from natural causes to assassination. Based on the records available, historians have concluded that he had sexual relations with (and sexual attraction to) both men and women. There’s substantial evidence that Hephaestion, his friend, bodyguard, and general, was one of his long-time male lovers. He also appears to have had a fervent sexual relationship with Bagaos — a very young eunuch with whom he was infatuated. Historians describe multiple accounts of Alexander and Bagaos passionately kissing in public. Additionally, in contrast to some modern depictions of him, Alexander did not always live up to masculine stereotypes. His parents, King Philip and Olympias, were concerned that he was too “womanish” and uninterested in women. So they made frequent attempts to set him up with female suitors. Although he expressed no interest in many of these particular women, there is evidence that he had sexual relationships with at least a few women throughout his life — including the three women whom he married.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was an extremely influential African-American poet who lived from 1901 to 1967. He’s perhaps best known as the leader of the Harlem Renaissance, which was an artistic explosion that emerged out of Harlem, Manhattan in the 1920s. He was one of the key innovators of a new poetry style called jazz poetry. According to the University of Illinois Springfield, Langston remained pretty private about his personal life, but it has been agreed by many academics and biographers that Hughes was homosexual and included gay codes in many of his poems, as did Walt Whitman, whose work Hughes cited as an influence, most directly in the short story ‘Blessed Assurance.’ Blessed Assurance was about a father’s unwillingness to accept his son’s queerness and effeminate expression. Scholars believe that some elements of the story were autobiographical. His poem Cafe: 3 AM also conveys his solidarity with the queer community, indicating a personal connection to queer issues: Detectives from the vice squad with weary sadistic eyes spotting fairies. Degenerates, some folks say. But God, Nature, or somebody made them that way. Hughes’ biographer Arnold Rampersad had no doubts about his attraction to men, writing, “Hughes found some young men, especially dark-skinned men, appealing and sexually fascinating.” Rampersad also notes that many of his unpublished poems were addressed to a male lover.

When we, as a society, recognize prominent historical figures who were LGBTQ, it helps to humanize, normalize, and legitimize queer identities. This makes it easier for LGBTQ people to navigate the world today with less shame and stigma.
It also helps to combat our culture’s homophobic notion that LGBTQ identities are somehow less “natural” or that queerness is simply a modern phenomenon.
Neither of those is true whatsoever — LGBTQ people have always existed, across all periods and cultures. That’s why it’s so crucial to not gloss over their existence in history textbooks.

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Author:Stephanie Leguichard