Looking back with a queer tack


Hatshepsut (ca 1507–1458 BC)

Although it is not really accurate to apply modern constructs like gay, lesbian, bi, trans to historical figures, Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt is often described as being transgender. Not only did she call herself a king, she wore the clothes of a male monarch, even having a false beard made to fit her chin. In some temple reliefs, she is pictured with her feet wide apart in the striking pose of the king.

David and Jonathan (ca. 1000 BC)

You wouldn’t think there was much gay action in the Bible (besides those pesky sodomites), but the relationship between David (the one who slayed Goliath) and Jonathan has certainly been interpreted that way. Both from opposing tribes and rivals for the throne, such was their fondness for each other that they made a covenant that eventually led to King David seating Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth at his own royal table following his father’s death.

Sappho (620-570 BC)

Sappho was a Greek poet who wrote of her love for other women. Indeed, the term lesbian was adopted as a term for women who love women in reference to the poet’s island home of Lesbos. A permanent lesbian community lives in her hometown of Eressos, where a large statue of Sappho can be found. Lesvos (the Greek spelling) is also renowned for its ouzo should you fancy sampling the local tipple. Yes, lesbian ouzo is a thing.

Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC)

Alexander III of Macedon is known as being one of the most celebrated conquerors and strategists in history and, although he married several times, he was known for having a relationship with a man called Hephaestion. Portraits and sculptures of Alexander show that he was extremely handsome and, according to stories, he loved exercise and had a very pleasant smell – much like many (but certainly not all) gay and bisexual men.

Julius Caesar (ca. 100 BC – 44 BC) 

Caesar slept his way to power, spending a considerable amount of time at the court of King Nicomedes of Bithynia as a young man. While homosexual tendencies weren’t frowned upon in Roman times, being the submissive party was. Early taunts saw him being dubbed the “Queen of Bithynia”, while, following Caesar’s Gallic victory, his soldiers apparently jeered, “Caesar may have conquered the Gauls, but Nicomedes conquered Caesar.” Which is obviously very juvenile.

King Richard I (1157 to 1199)

Rumours of Richard the Lionheart’s homosexuality have been passed down over the years. Apparently, rather than spending any time with his wife, it’s been suggested that he was improving Anglo-French relationships by having a scandalous affair with Philip II of France. According to their royal secretary, they “ate every day at the same table and from the same dish, and at night their beds did not separate them.” And that’s how rumours start…

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)

There has been a lot of speculation that the painter of the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper was gay, with evidence taken from his own letters, as well as an accusation of sodomy with a young goldsmith and prostitute made against him. It is widely believed that this accusation, which carried a death penalty, may have led the Renaissance man to becoming celibate for the rest of his life – or at least incredibly discreet.

Michelangelo (1475 – 1564)

The legendary Italian sculptor and painter of the Sistine Chapel in Rome was almost certainly gay. You just need to look at the physical beauty of several of his monumental male nudes, including David, and The Creation of Adam. His sexuality was also revealed in his poetry, especially his infatuation with a young Roman patrician, Tommaso dei Cavalieri. Other male models took advantage of him, including one who asked for money in response to a love poem and a second who shamelessly stole from him. 

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)

There’s been much speculation about the sexuality of the Bard down throughout the centuries, even though he was married and had children with Anne Hathaway. The main arguments for him being gay or bisexual come from an analysis of his sonnets, which were published, possibly without his approval, in 1609. Of them 126 are love poems to a young man known as the “Fair Lord” or “Fair Youth” and contain lots of puns relating to homosexuality including a line describing the unfolding of “his imprisoned pride”.

King James I (1566 – 1625)

Even though James was married to Anne of Denmark, he is known for having affairs with several male courtiers. His most famous relationship was with George Villiers, who he made the Earl and later the Duke of Buckingham. Indeed, restoration work on Apethorpe Palace uncovered a secret passageway connecting James’ and Villiers’ bedchambers. An epigram of the time declared, “Elizabeth was King, now James is Queen.” 

Queen Anne (1665 – 1714)

Anne met Sarah Churchill when the two were small girls and when she became queen in 1707 she made her and her husband the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. She also appointed Sarah the Keeper of the Privy Purse (which isn’t a euphemism). Rumours of a secret romance between the two women circulated, although the Queen eventually cooled towards her and became drawn to Sarah’s cousin Abigail, leading to a huge falling out that is fictionalised in the film, The Favourite.

The Ladies of Llangollen

Eleanor Butler (1739 – 1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755 – 1831) 

were two upper-class Irish women who moved from Ireland to a Gothic house in Llangollen, North Wales, to live an unconventional life together. Their lesbian relationship was considered to be both scandalous and fascinating amongst their social class, with everyone from Queen Charlotte to Shelley, Byron, Wellington and Wordsworth visiting their cottage. They had a succession of pet dogs, all called Sappho.

Anne Lister (1791 – 1840)

Lister was a Yorkshire diarist, who was involved in multiple lesbian love affairs, about which she wrote in code. Due to her masculine appearance and the fact she was highly educated and dressed only in black, she was later known as “Gentleman Jack”. Her final and most significant relationship was with Ann Walker, to whom she was “notionally” married in a church in York. Her highly revealing diaries were finally deciphered in the 1930s. 

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

It’s been suggested that the founder of modern nursing may have held a torch for women throughout her life. She never married and turned down multiple proposals from men, including one who pursued her for nine years. She also developed a very strong attachment to an aunt and a female cousin, while she once wrote, “I have lived and slept in the same beds with English countesses and Prussian farm women. No woman has excited passions among women more than I have.”

Boulton and Park Thomas Ernest Boulton (1847 – 1904) and Frederick William Park (1847- 1881)

were two Victorian cross-dressers, both from upper middle-class families. In 1870, dressed as their drag characters, Fanny and Stella, they were arrested after leaving a London theatre and charged with conspiracy to commit sodomy, which carried a maximum life sentence with hard labour. They were acquitted after the prosecution failed to prove they had anal sex, and they continued performing on stage for years to come. 

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)

Wilde was an Irish playwright, poet, writer and wit, known for his pithy putdowns and observations. He suffered a dramatic downfall after being convicted of “gross indecency” with other men including Lord Alfred Douglas and was sentenced to two years in Reading Gaol. He died bankrupt in France, but today his plays are as popular as ever.

Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929)

Bates was a Massachusetts author who wrote the words to the patriotic anthem America the Beautiful, as well as popularising the figure of Mrs Santa Claus in the poem Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride. However, she wasn’t into old men with beards herself, and had a 25-year relationship with Katherine Conman, with the two sharing a house together. She wrote a whole book of poetry about her lover after her death, some of it very passionate in nature. 

Colette (1873-1954)

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, better known as Colette, was a French author, actress and woman of letters, who lived an openly bisexual lifestyle. She had relationships with a number of high-profile women including Napoleon’s niece Missy, with police being called to the Moulin Rouge in 1907 when the two shared a kiss on stage. Her novels include Gigi, about a young Parisian girl groomed as a courtesan, and the “Claudine” series with lesbian themes.

Gertrude Stein (1874 – 1946)

Stein was an American novelist, poet, playwright and art collector who moved to Paris in 1903 where she lived with her life partner Alice B. Toklas for the rest of her life. She hosted a famous Paris literary salon, where the likes of Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Henri Matisse would meet. She wrote several cult books including one of the earliest coming-out stories, QED, published in 1950.

Lili Elbe (1882-1931)

Elbe was a Danish painter and transgender woman, who transitioned in 1930 making her one of the earliest recipients of sex reassignment surgery. After beginning a relationship with French art dealer Claude Lejeune, she wanted to get married and have children, but her final surgery involving a uterus transplant saw her developing an infection that led to her death from cardiac arrest aged 48. Eddie Redmayne played her in the film, The Danish Girl. 

Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941)

Even though they were both happily married, Virginia Woolf exchanged flirty poetic letters with fellow writer Vita Sackville-West. The correspondence ran from when they met at a dinner party in 1922 right up to Virginia’s suicide almost 20 years later. When writing about the affair, Woolf said in her journal, “The truth is one has room for a good many relationships.” Her novel Orlando is said to be a love letter to their Sapphic relationship.

Lucy Hicks Anderson (1886–1954)

Hicks Anderson was an African-American socialite and chef who was assigned male at birth but wore dresses from a young age. She married a man called Clarence Hicks in 1920 and ran a boarding house and bordello in California, but, following an STI outbreak that saw the authorities testing everyone, her “truth” was discovered. The couple were charged with perjury, since it was “illegal for two ‘men’ to marry” and spent time in separate jails, before once again living as a couple for the rest of their lives.

Mercedes de Acosta (1892 – 1968)

As a poet, playwright, and novelist, de Acosta achieved limited success, but she was far more successful when it came to pulling women. An unabashedly out lesbian, she once bragged “I can get any woman from a man,” and it appears she was right. She dated everyone from dancer Isadora Duncan to Hollywood personalities including Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. She lost a lot of friends when she published her candid memoir Here Lies the Heart in 1960. 

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

Wilfred Owen was an English poet and soldier whose poetry described the horrors of trenches and gas warfare in the First World War. Like his mentor Siegfried Sassoon, he was gay and homoeroticism can be found in several of his poems, including Shadwell Stair, which is about a once notorious cruising area of the London docks. Owen was killed in action aged 25 on 4 November 1918, one week before the signing of the Armistice which ended the War. 

Billy Haines (1900 – 1973)

Haines was a silent movie actor and is regarded as the first Hollywood star to come out as gay. He met his life-long partner Jimmie Shields in New York, before the couple moved in together, becoming a well-kept secret in Tinseltown. However, Haines was arrested at the YMCA after getting frisky with a sailor and, following the media storm, Louis B. Mayer demanded he marry a woman and denounce his homosexuality. He refused in order to stay with Shields, had his contract cancelled and became an interior designer for the stars including Joan Crawford.

Quentin Crisp (1908 – 1999)

Crisp was an English writer, raconteur and provocateur who lived as a defiantly effeminate exhibitionist, known for his lilac hair, eye shadow, painted nails and the capes, scarves and blouses he liked to wear. His first memoir, The Naked Civil Servant and the subsequent film, allowed him to live as a celebrity in the States, even inspiring the Sting song, An Englishman in New York. Often controversial in his beliefs, he is still known for defying convention at a time few would dare.

Alan Turing (1912 – 1954)

Rather than being declared a war hero for his codebreaking work and being the father of modern computing, Turing was prosecuted in 1952 for homosexual acts and accepted estrogen injections (chemical castration) as an alternative to prison. He committed suicide two years later. As Prime Minister, Gordon Brown made an official public apology, with Queen Elizabeth II granting him a posthumous pardon in 2013. He is now the face of the £50 banknote.

Billie Holiday (1915-1959)

It was fairly well known that the legendary jazz singer was bisexual and, although she had many relationships with men as her career blossomed in the 1920s and 1930s, they were often fraught with substance abuse and physical violence. Her true love was said to be actress Tallulah Bankhead, who didn’t mind talking openly about her own sexuality, once answering the question, “What do you do?” at a party with the reply, “I’m a lesbian.”

Laurence Michael Dillon (1915 – 1962)

Born to English nobility as Laura Maud Dillon, Laurence Michael Dillon was a British physician and believed to be the first trans man to undergo gender-affirmation surgery. Such was the controversy at the time, his family disowned him and he lost both his peerage and career in medicine. The unwanted attention led to him fleeing to India, where he became a Buddhist monk and author of books about spirituality. His autobiography, Out of the Ordinary, was finally published in 2017. 

Roberta Cowell (1918 – 2011)

In 1951, Robert Cowell, a World War II fighter pilot and professional racing driver, became the first known person in the UK to undergo gender reassignment surgery. She befriended Michael Dillon, a British physician (who was the first trans man to get a phalloplasty), and he carried out a then illegal surgery on Cowell. After getting a document from a private Harley Street gynaecologist stating she was intersex, she was able to have a new birth certificate issued with her sex recorded as female.

Liberace (1919 – 1987)

Wadziu Valentino Liberace was a flamboyant pianist, singer, and actor who enjoyed a career spanning over four decades. At the height of his fame he was the highest paid entertainer in the world, with residencies in Las Vegas and international tours. Despite his blatantly obvious homosexuality, which he denied throughout his career, his conservative housewife fanbase seemed completely oblivious to it.

Tom of Finland (1920-1991)

Touko Valio Laaksonen was an erotic artist who became better known as Tom of Finland. Over his career, he produced some 3,500 pieces of homoerotic art that depicted highly stylised and masculine scenes featuring muscled men with huge sexual organs. These were featured in beefcake magazines, available by mail-order. He also created a character called Kake, a leatherman who became known for his influence on gay leather subculture. 

Dirk Bogarde (1921 – 1999)

Bogarde was the star of 1961 neo noir suspense film Victim, which was the first English-language film to use the word “homosexual”. The film is set in 1960s London, where a man’s death leads the film’s gay main character, played by Bogarde, to discover a blackmail scheme against several gay men at a time when homosexuality was illegal. Bogarde kept his own sexuality and his four-decades relationship with fellow actor Anthony Forward a secret till his death.

Rock Hudson (1925-1985)

Hudson was a heartthrob back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, appearing in a string of romantic comedies alongside Doris Day. Born Roy Harold Scherer Jr., he was given the name Rock by his manipulative gay talent agent, Henry Willson, who encouraged him to marry Willson’s secretary, Phyllis Gates, to cover his homosexuality. Hudson become the first high-profile celebrity to die from an AIDS-related illness, donating a large sum of money to an AIDS charity shortly before his death.

Allan Horsfall (1927 – 1912)

Horsfall is often known as the grandfather of the British gay rights movement, whose campaigning for the Homosexual Law Reform Society to implement the findings of the Wolfenden Report led to homosexual acts between men over 21 being decriminalised in 1967. In the 1970s, he even attempted to set up “Esquire Clubs” for lesbians and gay men based on working men’s clubs.

Johnnie Ray (1927 – 1990)

Johnnie Ray was a popular singer, songwriter and pianist in the 1950’s and has been described as the “father of rock and roll”. Becoming deaf in one ear due to a childhood accident, he wore hearing aids during his performances, which were known for their over-the-top theatrics. Although closeted throughout his career, he was once arrested for cruising public toilets, while he also toured Europe with Judy Garland and was best man at her wedding. (He’s the Johnnie Ray from the opening lines of Come on Eileen.)

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

Warhol was an American artist, film director and producer and a leading figure in the pop art movement. He lived an out and gay lifestyle, while his New York studio, The Factory, became a hangout for everyone from drag queens to Bohemian street people, and from celebrities to homosexuals. Throughout his career he produced erotic photography and male nudes, whilst his most famous portraits feature gay icons like Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe.

Harvey Milk (1930 – 1978)

Harvey Milk was a visionary civil and human rights leader who became one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Famed for political rallies, his career was cut tragically short when he was assassinated just a year into taking office.

Tab Hunter (1931 – 2018)

Tab Hunter was an American actor and singer, known for his all-American blond good looks, becoming a heartthrob for girls (and gay boys) around the world. He had relationships with both Psycho star Anthony Perkins and figure skater Ronnie Robertson and was arrested in 1950s for his rumoured homosexuality. In his 2005 autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential, he opened up about his closeted Hollywood lifestyle. He later appeared in John Waters’ Polyester opposite Divine. 

Little Richard (1932 – 2020)

The influential performer was known for his flashy clothes and make-up and was rocking androgyny way before the glam rock scene came along. He even performed as a drag queen called Princess LaVonne, while the original lyrics of his song, Tutti Frutti explicitly referenced sex with a man, “Tutti Frutti, good booty / If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy.” Although one of the first rock stars to come out, due to his religious beliefs he later denounced homosexuality, calling it unnatural. 

David Hockney (1937 – present) 

Bradford artist David Hockney came out as gay in 1960, seven years before homosexuality was decriminalised. Enjoying a transatlantic lifestyle in the 1960s and 1970s, he flew between London and California, where he was friends with the likes of Andy Warhol and Christopher Isherwood. His art also explored gay themes, including We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961) and Domestic Scene, Los Angeles (1963), which shows two men showering together, with one washing the other’s back. 

Sal Mineo (1939 – 1976)

Mineo was one of the first Hollywood actors to ever come out as gay. He co-starred inRebel Without a Cause with reputedly bisexual James Dean, in what has been described as being the first mainstream film to depict homosexual desire. Mineo played Plato, a new boy in school, who has a photo of hunky Alan Ladd taped inside his locker and looks adoringly at Dean’s character of Jim Stark throughout the movie.

Dusty Springfield (1939 – 1999)

Born Mary O’Brien, Dusty was hugely successful on both sides of the Atlantic, with hits including I Only Want to Be with You, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, and Son of a Preacher Man. With her mezzo-soprano sound and trademark blonde beehive and heavy make-up, she was an icon of the Swinging 60s. Throughout her career, she had relationships with many women, saying that “I know I’m perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy.”

Jackie Shane (1940-2019)

Shane was a transgender woman who sang soul and rhythm and blues in the clubs of Nashville and Toronto in the 1960s. At a time when transgender people were almost universally vilified, she managed to headline clubs and appear on TV, even having a hit record with a ballad called Any Other Way, which contains the line ,“Tell ‘em I’m gay”. She turned down an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show when they tried to insist that she presented as male for the recording.

Bugs Bunny (1940 onwards)

There’s a strong argument that the hare-brained cartoon rodent may have been the first animated drag queen, never missing the opportunity to slip into women’s clothes. This includes yellow silky lingerie in The Wabbit Who Came to Supper (1942), a blue bra, tutu and ballet shoes in A Corny Concerto (1943) or a sultry geisha-get up in 1944’s Master of Disguise to escape the clutches of Elmer Fudd, or was Bugs a bit of a qween?

Lou Reed (1942 – 2013)

Lewis Allan Reed was an American musician, singer and songwriterwho gained fame with his band The Velvet Underground, managed by Andy Warhol. Reed went on to great solo success, especially with his second album, Transformer which was produced by David Bowie. It’s most successful single, Walk on the Wild Side, touched on topics including sexual orientation, gender identity, prostitution and drug use. Reed was almost certainly bisexual, but remained illusive on the topic throughout his career.

Marsha P. Johnson (1945 – 1992)

Marsha was an African-American transgender-rights activist, who RuPaul has called “the true Drag Mother.” She was one of the key figures who stood up to the police at the Stonewall riots and led a series of protests demanding rights for gay people. She was a founder member of the Gay Liberation Front and a co-founder of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, and later became an AIDS activist with ACT UP. The documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson looks at the suspicious circumstances around her death. 

Doctor Zachary Smith (1965 – 1968)

Doctor Smith was a camp and dastardly antagonist on Lost in Space, a science-fiction update of the Swiss Family Robinson. The character was actually a saboteur who caused the Robinson’s family ship, Jupiter II, to veer off course, although he found himself trapped inside the craft with them. Played by Jonathan Harris, the actor was actually from New York, but adopted the persona of a classically trained British actor. When asked if he was from England, he would reply, “Oh, no, my dear, just affected.” 

Bert and Ernie (1969 to present day)

There’s been a lot of speculation about the relationship between Bert and Ernie since they first appeared in the pilot episode of Sesame Street, back in 1969. While we wouldn’t want to out anyone, the unmarried pair do share the same apartment in the basement of 123 Sesame Street and also share the same bedroom, but sleep in separate beds. Ernie also has a tendency to sit on Bert’s lap, while they have also been spotted watching each other take baths. You make your own mind up…

Velma Dinkley (1969 – present)

The sexuality of the geeky ghost hunter from Scooby Doo has been the stuff of speculation since she first appeared on screen in her orange jumper, red skirt and comfortable shoes. It’s been suggested that her character has been queer but coded from the start, with her constant worries for Daphne’s safety but not so much the boys. In the 2010 reboot of the series, the producer announced her sexuality in an Instagram post that featured her and her friend Marci standing in front of a Pride flag.