October is LGBTQ+ History Month, and what better way to celebrate than learning about famous people from history, some who were openly queer and some who might fit our present day understanding of queerness! For centuries, straight, cisgender historians have erased non-normative and non-conforming genders and sexualities from our history textbooks and our grade school lessons. In the second decade of the 21st century, we are only just now coming to learn of the queerness of countless people from history we grew up learning about and had as our childhood role models. As a way to combat this erasure, here are 5 famous historical figures important to the queer community.
1. Langston Hughes
You may know Langston Hughes as the famous poet and playwright of the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote children’s books, plays, essays, and poems, all raising awareness to the struggles of racism as well as displaying in full glory the beauty of Black history and culture. (Find his list of works online.) But what you may not know was that he was also widely believed to be asexual and romantically attracted to men.
Hughes’ sexuality is still widely debated, as he never openly talked about it himself. He was likely deeply closeted due to the severe homophobia in the Black community as well as within his own family. Some historians initially labeled him as only asexual—partially because he never seemed to return any sexual feelings from others, but also partially out of bigotry and unwillingness to admit his romantic attraction towards men. Hughes’ poem “Poem (To F.S.)” was widely believed to be a love poem to a sailor named Ferdinand Smith (and if you read it, it seems pretty clear that it’s about more than just a “friend”); his poem “Café: 3 a.m.” is very explicitly about queer oppression: “Degenerates/ some folks say/ But God, Nature/ or somebody/made them that way.” Hughes also exchanged letters with Black queer writers Alain Locke and Countee Cullen, both of whom attempted to create a sexual relationship with him.
2. Emily Dickinson
Did you know Emily Dickinson was a lesbian? At a time when sapphic attraction was unheard of, Dickinson was having an affair with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert, who many believe was “the love of her [Dickinson’s] life.” Dickinson and Gilbert exchanged countless love letters to each other. In one of them, Dickinson even says to Gilbert, “Come with me this morning to the church within our hearts, where the bells are always ringing, and the preacher whose name is Love—shall intercede for us!” They were also known to give quick kisses to each other in passing, and get intimate in the bedroom under the guise of “female companionship.” It was a very obvious romantic relationship, so much so that homophobic historians today are struggling to prove Dickinson heterosexual (and yes—they are still doing that).
If you want to learn a little more about Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert’s relationship, Apple TV has a great show about Dickinson’s life, plainly named “Dickinson.” It is a very accurate and open portrayal of Dickinson’s sexuality and goes in-depth with her relationship to Gilbert.
3. Eleanor Roosevelt
Yes, Eleanor Roosevelt was queer! After she found out FDR was having an affair, she began to develop close “friendships” with multiple lesbian women. She met Nan Cook and Marion Dickerman, a lesbian couple, in 1922, and they became so incredibly close that they lived together, co-parented all of their children, and even had blankets and sheets with all three of their initials on them; FDR himself called their house “the love nest”—it seems pretty clear that this was a polyamorous relationship. Later on, Roosevelt also had a relationship with a woman named Lorena “Hick” Hickock, “a journalist who wore pants and boots years before it was widely accepted for women to do so.” (“The Queer Truth Behind Eleanor Roosevelt’s Feminism”) They became lifelong partners and wrote thousands of love letters to each other until Roosevelt’s death.
4. Malcolm X
Although there is no certain declaration of queerness from Malcolm X, according to bi.org, interviews of Malcolm’s closest childhood friends described him as sexually fluid, saying he did have sexual relationships with other men. That being said, despite the perceived queerness from those close interviewed friends, Malcolm X himself never publicly identified as queer. Even though Malcom X fits modern definitions of queerness, we must respect self-identification, and so even though Malcolm’s actions may be seen as queer, we should be careful as to not assign labels to people who did not claim them for themselves.
5. Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker was a very proud bisexual woman. Although there was no term for bisexuality at the time, she was openly attracted to both men and women, and had multiple lovers of both sexes. In the biography of Josephine Baker’s life, titled Josephine Baker’s Hungry Heart (trigger warning: sexual abuse and pedophilia), Maude Russel explicitly says, “I guess we were bisexual, is what you would call us today.” Baker was sexually involved with multiple other Black female performers, including Clara Smith, Evelyn Sheppard, Bessie Allison, and Mildred Smallwood. The sexually progressive and swinging 1920s was a great time for queerness in the performance world, although it was certainly not the greatest time to be a woman of color; Josephine Baker was a pioneer for gender and racial justice, normalizing women’s sexuality and fighting segregation by refusing to perform for segregated venues.
Written by Sarah Reinkraut ’23, College of Arts and Sciences, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs