An LGBT History Lesson: People Who Changed History

Posted on 16 May 2012


by Joel Boyce
May 15, 2012

Photo credit: Notwist

Thursday, May 17, is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) and this year Care2 is bringing you personal stories from around the world on the fight to eliminate anti-LGBT prejudice and discrimination. For our complete coverage, please click here.

What would the world today look like, without the contributions of LGBT figures throughout history? Depending on how inclusive you wanted to make that category, it might be entirely unrecognizable. After all, Ancient Greece, the cradle of Western civilization, considered at least male bisexuality the norm. Far more fluid attitudes towards sexual identity were also common in later Rome, plus China, Japan, and even the Arab countries, once upon a time.

Having said that, there is no shortage of LGBT game-changers on an individual level. And in celebration of this year’s International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, this post aims to be a not-even-remotely-exhaustive list of just a few of them.

Oscar Wilde: Even if you haven’t read any of the Irishman’s poetry, novels, or plays, you’ve likely heard more than a few clever lines from this eminently quotable writer. “Be yourself,” Wilde suggests, “everyone else is already taken.”

Considered simply for his literary contributions, Wilde was an important figure. To his credit are “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which examined constricting social mores of Victorian life. But he was also important in slowly changing attitudes about sexuality through his work and life.

Charged with gross indecency for his homosexual relationships, Wilde neither denied nor repented, but defended his life and his love. During the trial, he explained the meaning of the phrase, “the love that dare not speak its name”:

It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as “the love that dare not speak its name,” and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.

Wilde was sentenced to hard labor and died within a few years.

Gertrude Stein: Somewhat of a puzzle, Stein was a strong woman, but at times seemed to think of herself as simply stepping into the role of a man. Ernest Hemingway said that she would ignore his own wife, and often go into another room with him for “man talk,” leaving behind the wives to chat (her wife being lover, Alice).

She seemed to fully accept the gender roles of the time, with the proviso that she had every right to a man’s role since she was capable of it. It’s therefore uncertain whether she was a step backwards for the rights of women even as she may have been a step forward in gay rights.

With her unapologetic attitude to either her gender or her sexual orientation, she saw no problem contributing to and jumping right in the middle of the circle of the most important writers and artists of the day. And contribute she did, with a literary legacy that has long survived her death.

Leondardo da Vinci: The original “Renaissance Man,” da Vinci was an inventor, scientist and one of the greatest painters of all time. On the inventing side, he created all kinds of machines that would not exist for centuries, including several types of planes or helicopters. It was as if he had a window into the future. His artistic works include “The Last Supper,” “The Mona Lisa” and several other masterpieces that virtually everyone in the world would recognize.

When he was young, he was briefly involved in a trial with several other men involving a male prostitute. One of his co-defendants happened to have ties to the extremely powerful Medici family and the charges were dropped. After that, da Vinci was private about his personal life. But subtle homosexual themes in some of his artistic works have been much discussed in the centuries since.

Alan Turing: One of the founding fathers of computer science, Turing was also integral in cracking the Nazi’s Enigma code during World War II, which allowed intercepted messages to be read and enemy movements anticipated by the Allies. That’s right, a single man who was critically important to winning the most important war in modern memory, and creating the most transformative technology of our time. It’s no exaggeration to say the world might be very different were he to never have lived.

A hero to the free world, his own freedom was nevertheless taken away. Turing submitted to chemical castration, his government’s attempt to cure a happy man in a loving but socially unacceptable relationship. Unable to cope with the ordeal, he committed suicide by eating an apple injected with cyanide.

Bayard Rustin: This was the man behind the scenes of the Civil Rights movement. Rustin organized the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King made his most famous speech and was one of the main people responsible for the Congress on Racial Equality.

Why haven’t we heard of him? He was pragmatic. He chose to focus on the racial issues of his day and leave the battle for gay rights for later (and he did indeed join the battle in earnest the last decade of his life, in the 1980s). He was worried that if he became a public figure on civil rights, bigotry against his sexuality would hurt the cause for racial equality. So he happily stayed out of the limelight and let others take the credit, while he kept working away.

Conclusion: In every sphere of life, from politics to science to art to philosophy, it is impossible to find a field that would not be drastically different were we to discount the contributions of LGBT individuals. Some bigots claim they want to live in a world without gay people. If they realized what that might entail, I daresay they might reconsider simply getting over it.