10 Queer Writers from History
One thing many people decry these days is how many “queers” there appear to be. From the militant extremists to closeted homophobes and people who allegedly don’t care, the sentiment is often that there must be something going on! There must be some reason why all these people are “turning” queer. Why, just look at history! Nobody was queer back then.
Except, well, no. They totally were and we always have been. While cultural conceptions of “queer” have changed over time and most of the people on this list wouldn’t have understood themselves in quite the same terms we use today, the fact of the matter is people have always been queer.
Don’t believe me? Here are a few queer writers from the pages of history. Some of them you’ll know; others might just surprise you.
Let’s kick things off with the ancient Greeks. Pederasty, love between a younger man and an older man, was something revered in Greek culture. So some people today might say “no homo!” but the ancient Greeks were all about it.
What about when it came to women? Well, we actually derive the word “lesbian” from the name of the island of Lesbos, where an enclave of women-loving women lived. Most of them were also poets, and the most famous of them was Sappho, who lived about 630 BCE.
Sappho produced love poetry which was unabashedly about loving other women. If you’ve ever heard someone describe something as “Sapphic,” they’re referring to Sappho—and lesbianism.
2. William Shakespeare
Wait, Shakespeare? Hold up. Didn’t they teach us in school that good old Willy Shakes was a family man, married with two children?
Sure. Like many other people of his age, it’s likely Shakespeare did marry and have a family. It’s also likely he had male loves as well. His most famous sonnet is addressed to another man. Keep in mind it wasn’t unusual for men to have male lovers during this period. The influence of classical society and the philosophy of “you become what you love” was quite prevalent, even in Christian societies.
3. Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde is probably one of the least surprising entries on this list. Almost everyone knows Wilde was, for all intents and purposes, what we’d describe as a gay man. Wilde’s only crime, really, was living at a time when homosexuality was severely punished.
Wilde was flamboyant and rumors circulated about him. The father of his lover called him a “sodomite,” and Wilde sued him for libel, losing the case. Wilde was put in prison and eventually hanged. Seems somebody wanted to make an example of him.
4. Sir Francis Bacon
The 1600s were an interesting time. We’ve already talked about William Shakespeare, who lived and wrote in the 1500s and 1600s, under Elizabeth I and then under James I. James I himself had queer tendencies, taking on male lovers. Many members of European royalty did at the time, and it was actually considered somewhat acceptable or fashionable.
So it might not be entirely surprising that Sir Francis Bacon, King’s Counsel and Lord Chancellor for James I, defended and celebrated male love. While he’s most famous as an advocate for empirical science, his essay “Of Friendship” has much to say on the subject of male friendship and, perhaps, being more than “just friends.”
5. Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham is the inventor of the panopticon, the basis of the modern jail, wherein the guards can keep an eye on everyone at the same time, and all of the prisoners know it. This knowledge of someone “watching you” at any given time is often enough to coerce people to behave, even if the guards aren’t actually watching. The fear is deterrent, the possibility enough to encourage good behaviour.
Bentham wasn’t a fiction writer, so he’s probably less known. But he was both queer himself and an early advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights. Unfortunately, Bentham was so scared of accusations that he kept his defenses to himself, never publishing them during his lifetime.
6. Lord Byron
Lord Byron is perhaps one of the more infamous Romantic writers. Percy and Mary Shelley hung out with him, his daughter Ada was the first programmer, and he wrote some overwrought poetry. There are plenty of stories about Byron’s conduct, and one thing we can gather from these stories is that Lord Byron definitely swung both ways.
The Romantic movement encouraged people to move back to nature, to shun the Industrial Revolution and the notion of “progress.” The Romantics were somewhat like hippies and back-to-the-land advocates in the mid-twentieth century. You might call Lord Byron an advocate of “free love,” to some extents.
7. Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson was an American poet who never married. Instead, she was a recluse but kept strong friendships with various people through letters. One particular confidante was Susan Gilbert, her sister in law and a person historians usually assumed to be a “close personal friend.” That sound you heard was every queer person snickering.
Dickinson’s own letters and even her poetry to some extent reveal her relationship with Gilbert. While it’s easy to gloss over the language as being “typical” of Victorian-era women speaking to each other, it seems quite possible and even probably Dickinson was in love with her sister-in-law, and even that Gilbert was in love with her and married Emily’s brother Austin to stay near to her.
8. Langston Hughes
Nobody can confirm for sure how Langston Hughes would have identified in today’s LGBTQIA+ milieu. One biopic from the late 1980s tries to situate the poet as a black gay icon, but others have contested this portrayal. Some people suggest Hughes was more likely bisexual. The current leading theory, however, is that he would have identified most closely with asexuality.
Hughes was a writer, poet, and activist first and foremost. He was one of the foundational voices of the Harlem Renaissance, and his poetry still resonates today.
9. D.H. Lawrence
Nobody would suspect D.H. Lawrence, the author of the wickedly indecent Lady Chatterley’s Lover, of being queer—at least, not at first glance. After all, Lawrence’s novel was banned for its frank descriptions of female sexuality.
His other works include The Rainbow and Women in Love, both of which challenge ideas about gender. The theme of homosexuality is overt in Women, which some have speculated was related to Lawrence’s own sexual orientation. He’s quoted as saying the “closest” to love he ever got was with a young coal-miner, when he was sixteen. Nonetheless, nobody knows if he ever had a homosexual relationship. At best, we can characterize Lawrence as “bi-curious,” given that he was married and had an enduring relationship with his (ex-)wife.
Virgil is perhaps the best-known poet of ancient Rome. The Aeneid is still considered a classic, widely read and studied today. It tells the story of the legendary founder of Rome. Virgil is also known for his “pastoralist” poetry, being one of the first to write in this style, which was then widely copied throughout the ages.
The Eclogues is the classic work in this vein. It’s a homoerotic triumph: it celebrates the unrequited love of a shepherd, Corydon, who has fallen for the beautiful Alexis.
Whether or not Virgil himself would identify as “queer” or “gay” or something else is obviously up for debate. Applying modern identities to historical figures is something of a fraught process. These people wouldn’t understand themselves this way, so saying “Virgil was gay” isn’t an accurate statement. We can surmise Virgil likely engaged in practices we’d identify as “queer” or “gay,” as considered acceptable or even desirable in Roman society at the time.