By Debra L. Stang
One of the banners frequently flown at LGBTQ pride parades reads, “Unfortunately, history has set the record a little too straight.” The following historical cases seek to rectify that mistake by opening the closet doors on a few notable LGBTQ people throughout history.
Richard I of England (1157-1199)
King Richard, known as the Lionheart, ruled England from 1189 until his death in 1199. He is perhaps best known as the king who led the Third Crusade which tried—and ultimately failed—to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims.
Although King Richard was married to Berengaria of Navarre, the marriage was without love and the couple spent almost no time together. Romantically, Richard has been linked to the King of France (with whom he shared a bed) and various soldiers who fought with him in the Crusade.
Even though the Encyclopedia Britannica states of Richard, “. . . he was, there seems no doubt, a homosexual,” some historians have argued that Richard’s relationships with men were no more than “diplomacy.”
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)
Florence Nightingale, who modernized and revolutionized nursing, rarely said much about her personal life.
However, several sources including Parted Lips: Lesbian Love Quotes Through the Ages, credit her with the following statement: “I have lived and slept in the same bed with English countesses and Prussian farm women . . . no woman has excited passions among women more than I have.”
Although that statement seems unambiguous, there are still biographers who declare that there is no evidence of Nightingale having any same sex relationships.
Herman Melville (1819-1891)
Herman Melville was an American novelist who also wrote short stories, essays, and poems. Although largely unknown in his time, he is now famous for prose such as Moby-Dick and Billy Budd.
Melville was married, but the relationship was not a happy one, and he preferred to spend his time in the company of men. Whether he actually had physical relationships with men is unknown, but many of his stories center around the themes of close friendship and “unnatural crimes” between males.
He formed a close friendship with fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne and seems to have had a crush on him, but Hawthorne, whose interests lay strictly in women, did not reciprocate these feelings.
Biographer Rictor Norton states bluntly that Melville was “confused.”
Bessie Smith (1894-1937)
In her day, Bessie Smith was one of the most famous blues singers. According to biographer Chris Albertson, who spoke extensively to Smith’s niece, Ruby Walker, Smith was comfortable with both male and female partners.
Like many of the female blues singers, she also made positive references to lesbianism in her music.
Smith married Jack Gee in 1923, but they separated in 1929, partly because he could not cope with her bisexuality. Later, Smith formed a common law relationship with a man named Richard Morgan, and the two stayed together until her death.
Anderson Cooper (1967- )
Anderson Cooper is an American journalist and a well-known television personality who has frequently spoken out in favor of LGBTQ rights. Several witnesses say that they have seen him with male companions at gay functions.
For many years, Cooper himself did not publicly acknowledge being gay, declining to talk about his personal life and saying that he wants the news stories he covers to be about the issues, not about his sexuality.
He ended years of speculation on July 2, when he sent an email to Andrew Sullivan, a blogger for the Daily Beast: “The fact is, I’m gay.” He also described himself as happy and proud.
Jodie Foster (1962- )
Jodie Foster is an American actress, director, and producer. She was unwillingly thrust into the spotlight in 1981 when John Hinckley Jr. became obsessed with her and shot then-President Ronald Reagan in an effort to gain her attention. Since then, however, it has been Foster’s talent that has gotten her recognized for her performances in films such as Silence of the Lambs and The Accused.
Foster has long been suspected of being a lesbian by celebrity-watchers, but she has been fiercely protective of her personal life.
In December 2007, she referred to her longtime companion Cydney Bernard as “my beautiful Cydney.” The relationship ended shortly thereafter. Since then, fans have urged her to come out of the closet and comedian Ricky Gervais “outed” her publicly with a crude joke, but Foster herself has remained silent on the matter.
Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Peter Tchaikovsky was a Russian composer famous today for many pieces including The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and Romeo and Juliet. Although brilliant in his work, Tchaikovsky suffered from severe bouts of depression and nervous breakdowns. His mental health became even more fragile after his marriage.
He also developed a passionate crush on an adult nephew, but it is not clear whether this relationship was consummated.
Towards the end of his life, Tchaikovsky is quoted as saying, “Only now, especially after the story of my marriage, have I finally begun to understand that there is nothing more fruitless than not wanting to be that which I am by nature.”
In recent years, revisionist historians have claimed the composer killed himself to cover up a same-sex affair. The research, however, indicates that he died from cholera after unknowingly drinking bad water.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
Eleanor Roosevelt was married to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and was the First Lady between 1933 and 1945. But her place in history would be assured even without her husband. She was passionate about racial justice and worked closely with the NAACP to improve conditions in the United States for African Americans. During World War II she became involved in the war effort by encouraging volunteerism and founding the Office of Civilian Defense. Later, she became a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly and wrote several books about her life and experiences.
Letters and eyewitnesses show that Eleanor Roosevelt had a long-term intimate relationship with journalist Lorena Hickok. There is no proof that they were lovers, but passages from their correspondence strongly suggest that they were.
In one letter, for instance, Roosevelt wrote, “Funny, everything I do my thoughts fly to you. Never are you out of my heart.” In another, “I want to put my arms around you. I ache to hold you close.”
Sadly, little information remains about their relationship because both Roosevelt’s family and Hickok’s family destroyed letters and pictures in an attempt to keep the affair private.
J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972)
J. Edgar Hoover was the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Although he certainly helped build the FBI into a strong, crime-fighting agency, he also used his power to harass those he didn’t like.
Hoover was openly homophobic and persecuted anyone he knew or believed to be gay. Yet at the same time, according to Queers in History: The Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Historical Gays, Lesbians, and Bisexuals by Keith Stern, Hoover was reportedly seen at gay parties thrown by Roy Cohn. Some witnesses even reported he was dressed in women’s clothing.
More telling, Hoover conducted a 44-year relationship with FBI Special Agent Clyde Tolson. They were together until Hoover died in 1972. At the funeral service, Tolson was given the flag draped over Hoover’s coffin.
Some historians have tried to argue that the relationship between Hoover and Tolson was platonic and “fraternal,” but there can be little doubt that, whether or not he considered himself gay, Hoover was a man who had sex with men.
Jane Addams (1860-1935)
Jane Addams is credited for founding the profession of social work. She was a Nobel Peace Prize winner (the first woman in the United States to win that award) and she worked closely with those who were poor and underprivileged. She also founded Hull House in Chicago to help immigrants to the United States become adjusted and find work.
Although Addams never spoke about her sexuality, historian Lillian Faderman has noted that Addams spent all of her adult life in relationships with women. Her longest relationship, with Mary Rozet Smith, lasted for 40 years. The two owned property together, slept in the same bed, traveled together, and were acknowledged by friends as a couple. Addams frequently called Smith “dearest” and said “I am yours ‘til death.”
If you’d like to read about more famous people who had same-sex relationships, the following resources are a great place to start:
• Queers in History by Keith Stern
• Out of the Past by Neil Miller
• The Gay 100 by Paul Russell
• Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers by Lillian Faderman
• Hollywood Gays by Hadleigh