Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Lists of Famous Homosexuals

Copyright © 1997, 2004 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.

I am sometimes asked, ‘But does it really matter that some historical figure, for example Tchaikovsky, was gay? Do we really need to assemble lists of the great queers of history?’ I realize that I am expected to make the liberal answer, ‘No, of course not. The important thing is that he composed great music, and his homosexuality is ultimately irrelevant.’ But I like to pose some questions of my own in response: ‘If it doesn’t really matter, why has society taken such great pains to conceal Tchaikovsky’s sexuality, maybe even murder him for it? If it doesn’t really matter, why has such an inordinate amount of effort been put into the censorship and suppression of queer history?’ Society is happy to benefit from outstanding gay and lesbian writers and artists and musicians, and then has the impertinence to evade the issue of what desire motivates their work.

When people say it really doesn’t matter whether or not some great artist or hero was homosexual, they should consider the attacks upon the Brazilian anthropologist and historian Dr Luiz Mott:

"He had his house and car daubed with graffiti and his windows broken after publishing an article suggesting that a black anti-slavery leader was gay. Mott, who is white and his lover, who is black, were shocked but unhurt and have now asked for police protection. The attack was attributed to anti-gay activists in the Brazilian black movement . . . The subject of Mott’s article, Zumbi dos Palmares, led a community of runaway slaves in the interior of Brazil in the 17th century. In modern Brazil he is a symbol of freedom and resistance for Afro-Brazilians and others. . . . In the past, Luiz Mott has received death threats from elements linked to the military for claiming that the aviation pioneer, Santos Dumont, was gay." (Gay Times, July 1995)

Mott’s historical research into the records of the Portuguese Inquisition has brought to light, for example, the story of the Brazilian woman Felipa de Souza who was convicted and tortured in 1591 for having sex with other women; and the queer love letters written around 1664 by Francisco Correa Netto (‘Francisquinha’), the sacristan of the Cathedral of Silves in southern Portugal, to his boyfriend the guitarist Manoel Viegas. Mott is concerned about the history of ordinary queers as well as the great queers, but his revelations about previously unknown figures have not provoked an outcry. It is the suggestion that an important historical figure is also a great queer of history that is felt to be threatening and subversive. Why? Because most people appreciate that a person’s homosexuality really does matter.

Rinaldo Hopf's illustration of Walt Whitman
Rinaldo Hopf's Walt Whitman. How many of the great queers of history
do you recognize in the background?

Great Queers of History

The best-known paradigm of queer cultural history is the list of famous homosexuals. Often this consists of merely a list of names, without any further details, such as a well-known cartoon by Rick Fiala in the 1970s showing a bearded man wearing a T-shirt on which are printed the words ‘Walt Whitman   Oscar Wilde   Sappho   Alexander the Great   Gertrude Stein   Cole Porter   Radcliffe Hall   Socrates   Leonardo Da Vinci   Colette   Valentino   George Sand   Tchaikovsky . . . and Me’. Fiala satirizes the slightly preposterous effect of ordinary gay people including themselves in the company of the great queers. Kate Charlesworth similarly parodied the idea of a gay ethnic/cultural identity in her large full-page cartoon titled ‘A Short guide to Britain’s gay heritage’ (in Gay News 170, 1979), prompted, I believe, by my column in Gay News headed ‘The Gay Heritage Guide to Britain’. Charlesworth draws a map of the United Kingdom with arrows pointing to gay sites illustrating, for example:

Bradford – Where Blondes Have More Fun. Birthplace of David Hockney, Artist

Sheffield – Edward Carpenter Lived near here. A must for all gays, socialists, vegetarians, playwrights & Thesis-Writers

Clouds Hill – T. E. Lawrence’s cottage

Reading – Scene of The Incarceration of Oscar

Chelsea – Home of Q. Crisp, noted Stately Homo

Cerne Abbas – Site of ‘Unabashed’ iron age chalk figure, Cerne Giant. Gay men will be fascinated by the proportions of their forbears.

It has to be admitted that the search for our forebrothers and foresisters can be a bit naive. One feels that Gay Men and Women Who Enriched the World (Cowan 1988) really ought to be complemented by a companion volume on Gay Men and Women Who Have Grown Rich from the World (e.g. William Beckford the plantation owner, Krupp the arms manufacturer, etc.), or even 100 Gay Monsters and Queer Serial Killers (e.g. Gilles De Rais, the Marquis de Sade, Countess Erzsébet Báthory, Fritz Haarmann the ‘werewolf’, etc.) One wonders how well these would fit into works such as Martin Greif’s The Gay Book of Names (1982) or the series of short biographies published by Chelsea House on gays who have made significant ‘contributions’ to society. When we look at the output today by Alyson Publications – The Alyson Almanac, Lavender Lists (Fletcher and Saks 1990), Lesbian Lists (Richards 1990), and the superb collections by Leigh W. Rutledge, The Gay Book of Lists (1987), The Gay Fireside Companion (1989), Unnatural Quotations (1988) – we may feel that such collections are a fairly modern product of popular queer culture.

But the assumption that these are entirely products of modern popular culture would be mistaken. Initially such homophile apologetics were seen as an important historical argument for the decriminalization and destigmatization of homosexuality. Freud himself objected to the simplistic definition of homosexuals as ‘sick’, and asked in 1905: ‘Should we not then have to classify many great thinkers and scholars of all ages, whose sound minds it is precisely that we admire, as sick men?’ Freud cites a list of famous homosexuals in his Letter to an American Mother (1935), to show that her son is in good company and therefore to reassure her that he is not ‘sick’. Benkert in 1869 pointed out that if the Prussian law had prevailed throughout Europe in the past, many leading figures would have been imprisoned, such as Charles IX, Henry II, James I, Pope Julius II, Napoleon I, Louis XVIII, Frederick the Great, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Bazzi (Il Sodoma), Shakespeare, Mazzarin, Molière, Newton, Winckelmann, Cambacérès, Byron, von Platen, and Eugène Sue (Lauritsen and Thorstad 1974).

Though we smile at the occasional odd entry in the list, the standard ‘homophile’ use of the list is neither naive nor irrelevant, as in this classic statement from a 1957 article by Jim Kepner in ONE Magazine: ‘If perhaps the proportion of degeneracy among homosexuals in our present society seems high, it is because society forces most homosexuals into the role. The names of Ruth and Naomi, Plato, Sappho, Erasmus, Michelangelo, Tennyson, Florence Nightingale, Carpenter, and Gide are testimonials to the fact that homosexuality is not synonymous with degeneracy’ (Legg 1994). Christopher Isherwood remembers seeing in 1930 the film Gesetze der Liebe (Laws of Love) (1927), a re-make of the banned Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others), a film about the blackmail of homosexuals made in cooperation with Hirschfeld in 1919 as a plea for repealing the German law against homosexuals, in which one dream sequence shows a ‘long procession of kings, poets, scientists, philosophers and other famous victims of homophobia’ moving sombrely across the screen, heads bowed, passing beneath a banner inscribed ‘Paragraph 175’. (The Nazis destroyed all copies of the film, though a partial print was discovered in the Ukraine in 1979 (Miller 1995)). The same reflection was made by Jeremy Bentham as early as 1774: ‘What would have become of Aristides, Solon, Themistocles, Harmodius and Aristogiton, Xenophon, Cato, Socrates, Titus – the delight of mankind – Cicero, Pliny, Trajan, Adrian, etc., etc. – these idols of their country and ornaments of human nature? They would have perished on your gibbets.’

Bentham’s views are part of the rational Enlightenment tradition (Greenberg 1988). In the second year of the French Revolution a group that Hallam (1993) calls ‘the Sodomite Liberation Front’ published a pamphlet, Les Petits Bougres au manège (The Little Buggers’ Reply), which defended the taste for buggery according to the principles of individual liberty, demanding equal rights for ‘orders of being, to whom a kindly nature has given senses that they might use them in the way best corresponding to their tastes and inclinations. . . . my prick and my balls belong to me; and . . . whether I put them in a cunt or an arse, no one has the right to complain of the use I make of them.’ Though this last phrase defends sodomy rather than queers, the pamphleteer refers to a ‘class of creatures’ and ‘orders of being’, and illustrates these by an accompanying list of famous homosexuals, from Socrates through to modern French generals. A somewhat earlier pamphlet, Les Enfans de Sodome (1790), a petition addressed to the Assemblée Nationale containing proposed Articles of Association for a Society of Sodomites, also contains a list of prominent Sodomites.

Most of the modern English-language lists are traceable to two sources: Havelock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion (German 1896, English 1897), particularly the sections assembled by John Addington Symonds, a specialist in Renaissance art history and enthusiast for Greek art and literature; and Jonathan to Gide: The Homosexual in History by Noel I. Garde (pseudonym of Edgar Leoni) (1964). Jonathan to Gide has been rather unfairly characterized as naive, but it serves as a useful tool, in giving short biographies of some 300 important political or cultural figures cited in various books as having had homosexual relations. For every biography he gives, Garde is scrupulous to cite an exact reference containing the ‘allegation’. (Garde’s principal sources include Anderson and Sutherland’s Eros, An Anthology of Friendship (1961); C. J. Bulliet’s Venus Castina (1933); Sir Richard Burton’s Terminal Essay, Part D, ‘Pederasty’, in his translation of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (orig. pub. 1885 or 1886); Edward Carpenter’s Iolaus (1929) and The Intermediate Sex (1912); Allen Edwardes’, Jewel in the Lotus (1959); Havelock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion (1922 ed.); Dr Jacobus X’s Crossways of Sex (1935 ed., orig. pub. 1890s); the 1909 volume of the Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen, which ‘contained a compendium of various lists from various sources on famous homosexuals, the chief contributors being named Kertbeny, Ferner and Frey’; Otto Kiefer’s Sexual Life in Ancient Rome (1953 ed.); Hans Licht’s (pseud. of Paul Brand) Sexual Life in Ancient Greece (1953 ed.); Xavier Mayne’s The Intersexes (1908); and, last, J. V. Nash’s Homosexuality in the Lives of the Great (Girard, Kansas: Little Blue Book No. 1564, n.d.).) Most of the lists of the great queers of history are ultimately traceable to seven books: Albert Moll’s Berühmte Homosexuelle (Famous Homosexuals) (1910), Magnus Hirschfeld’s Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes (Homosexuality in Men and Women) (1914), Ivan Bloch’s Das Geschlechtsleben in England (3 vols, 1901–03, one-vol. trans. by M. Eden Paul as The Sexual Life of Our Time, 1908), Marc-André Raffalovich’s Uranisme et unisexualité (Uranism and Unisexuality, 1896), Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’ Forschungen zur mannmännlichen Liebe (Researches on Love between Males) (several volumes published from 1864 to 1870), Edward Carpenter’s The Intermediate Sex (1908), and Heinrich Hoessli’s Eros: Die Männerliebe der Griechen: Ihre Beziehunger zur Geschichte, Erziehung, Literatur und Gesetzgebung aller Zeiten (Eros: The Male Love of the Greeks: Its Relationship to the History, Education, Literature and Legislation of All Ages) (two volumes, 1836 and 1838; material for a third volume was not published).

Although full-length books about famous homosexuals seem to be a product of a homosexual emancipation agenda, non-book-length lists of the great queers of history go back much further than the nineteenth century. These lists are by no means limited to the modern period, nor are they found only in homophobic contexts (both of which would be required by the social constructionist premise). The pornographic poem Don Leon (c. 1836) cites Virgil and Alexis, Epaminondas and Cephidorus: ‘How many captains, famed for deeds of arms, / Have found their solace in a minion’s arms!’ Voltaire in the article on ‘L’Amour nommé Socratique’ in his Dictionnaire philosophique (1764) records a list of famous pederasts. Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin (1595–1670), self-styled ‘King of Sodom’ – usually called a libertine but more rightly called a proud and self-identified queer – defended homosexuality in his verse, based partly on imitations of Martial, and once sent Condé a poem declaring that ‘Caesar was as great a bougre as you, but not so great a general.’ In 1623 Théophile de Viau (1590–1626) – one of the most interesting premodern queers, unfairly called merely a ‘libertine’ – addressed an obscene poem ‘Au marquis du Boukinquan’, i.e. James I’s lover George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, relating that ‘Apollo with his songs / debauched young Hyacinthus, / Just as Corydon fucked Amyntas, / So Caesar did not spurn boys. / One man fucks Monsieur le Grand de Bellegarde [a friend of Viau], / Another fucks the Comte de Tonnerre. / And it is well known that the king of England / Fucks the Duke of Buckingham.’ Such a list is prima facie evidence of the existence of queer identity during the early seventeenth century: de Viau clearly uses here the conceptual framework of members of a group of people with something in common. Any argument that this establishes a group of sodomites rather than a group of queers quite misses the point: it is a group of persons rather than acts.

Carl Miller in Stages of Desire (1996) devotes an entire chapter to ‘the roll call of sodomites’ in various Tudor plays. The most famous example occurs in Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II:

The mightiest kings have had their minions;
Great Alexander lov’d Hephaestion,
The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept,
And for Patroclus stern Achilles droop’d.
And not kings only, but the wisest men;
The Roman Tully lov’d Octavius,
Grave Socrates wild Alcibiades.

In John Bale’s A Comedy Concerning Three Laws of Nature, Moses and Christ, Corrupted by the Sodomites, Pharisees and Papists Most Wicked (1530s) there is a long list of idolaters/sodomites recited by the allegorical figure of Sodomy on behalf of himself and Idolatry, including Noah’s son Ham, Onan:

We made Thalon and Sophocles,
Thamiras, Nero, Agathocles,
Tiberius and Aristoteles,
     Themselves to use unnaturally.
I taught Aristo and Fulvius
Semiramis and Hortensius
Crathes, Hyliscus and Pontius
     Beasts to abuse most monstrously.

Even in this example, which is intentionally insulting, we can see that the social constructionist view that before modern times there were only acts rather than people, sodomy rather than sodomites, is wide of the mark. The essence of any list is that it establishes the commonality of those included – otherwise there is no point in assembling a list. A list of apples, peaches, pears, lemons, etc. functions as a list precisely because it establishes or exploits the abstract or generic meaning of ‘fruit’. These Renaissance lists, and especially the more positive catalogues of Faithful Friends, establish queer identities in exactly the same way that medieval literary catalogues of Good Women or Wicked Women are designed to establish the character of certain personality types. Negative lists tend to create stereotypes, while positive lists tend to create amalgams or composites – the latter are specifically offered as models for behaviour.

We can slowly work our way backward in time. Sixteenth-century Spanish chronicles cite Juan II, Álvaro de Luna, and Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba as famous homosexuals. There is a list of homosexual pairs amongst the gods in Boccaccio’s Genealogia Deorum (1375), which influenced later writers. Several twelfth-century debates between Ganymede and Helen or Hebe cite the loves of Jupiter and Ganymede, Apollo and Hyacinthus, Silvanus and Cyparissus (Boswell 1980). When Benvenuto Cellini was called a ‘dirty sodomite’ by one Bandinelli, he humorously replied: ‘I wish to God I did know how to indulge in such a noble practice; after all, we read that Jove enjoyed it with Ganymede in paradise.’

Premodern defences of homosexual love were not limited to pagan precedents. When James I made his boyfriend George Villiers the Duke of Buckingham in 1617, he had to defend himself in response to the Privy Council’s remonstrations against such blatant favouritism:

I, James, am neither a god nor an angel, but a man like any other. Therefore I act like a man and confess to loving those dear to me more than other men. You may be sure that I love the Earl of Buckingham more than anyone else, and more than you who are here assembled. I wish to speak in my own behalf and not to have it thought to be a defect, for Jesus Christ did the same, and therefore I cannot be blamed. Christ had his son John, and I have my George.

It is possible that James was consciously using a queer tradition about Christ and St John the ‘beloved disciple’. St Aelred of Rievaulx, who had several same-sex unions, called the relationship of Christ and St John a ‘marriage’. The blasphemous view that Christ and John were lovers was consolidated during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; the view was claimed to have been held by Francesco Calcagno, investigated by the Venetian Inquisition in 1550, by Christopher Marlowe in an accusation of 1593, by Manuel Figuereido in a Lisbon Inquisition trial of 1618, and by others.

Cultural unification

So what is the purpose of these lists? The social constructionist argument is that lists of the great queers of history are compiled primarily, or even solely, by an oppressed minority in order to refute the stigma attached to homosexuality by mainstream heterosexual culture. In other words, a queer person’s sense of shame or inferiority is diminished by identifying a link with people widely admired by society, and the list is therefore constructed entirely in reaction to external society.

The most famous example of this kind of motivation is found in Oscar Wilde’s famous defence of himself during his trials, when he compared ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ to the love of David for Jonathan, and defended its nobility and beauty with reference to works by Plato, Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It was a theatrical tour de force, but did not stand up to the testimony of boy prostitutes. Wilde of course lied throughout much of his trials, and this particular line of defence was perhaps hypocritical and well-rehearsed, but Wilde really did believe himself to be part of the ancient and noble tradition of paederastia. Wilde used such lists to position himself in relation to queer culture, and this was really more important than any other motivation: Wilde was first and foremost culturally/aesthetically identified. In particular, he referred to past gay artists, thus declaring himself to be part of a cultural elite, as opposed to heterosexual modern philistines. In the last years of his life, exiled, bankrupt, with no more need to defend his character, he said to Frank Harris: ‘What you call vice, Frank, is not vice. It is as good to me as it was to Caesar, Alexander, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare. It was first of all made sin by monasticism, and it has been made a crime in recent times by the Goths – the Germans and the English – who have done little or nothing since to refine or exalt the ideals of humanity.’

The Wilde defence should also be seen in the context of queer cultural elitism that was an important factor in some branches of the gay emancipation movement in the 1890s. For example, Adolf Brand, who objected to the ‘third sex’ theory with its effeminate emphasis, edited Der Eigene: Ein Blatt für mannliche Kultur (The Exceptional: A Magazine for Male Culture) (which ran from 1896 through 1931), and in 1903 he founded the Gemeinschaft der Eigenen (Community of the Exceptional). Brand was a self-proclaimed ‘anarchist and pederast’ who celebrated the bonding of heroic young athletes in ancient cultures and in the Wandervogelbewegung, the German youth movement. His co-founder Benedict Friedlaender tried to split up Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee and emphasized the ‘physiological friendship’ of the ancient Greeks, as in his book Die Renaissance des Eros Uranios (1904). Both men were married, as, of course, was Wilde.

The idea that ‘homosexuality is exceptional by nature’ (Cowan 1988) is still current, usually related to the supposed insights of our status as outsiders, and a curious amalgam of ‘intergrade’ features: androgyny, creativity, shamanism. The ‘Uranian’ poet Ralph Nicholas Chubb in ‘Note on Some Water-Colour Drawings’ (1929) wrote ‘David and Jonathan, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, Christ and the youthful John, Plato, Socrates, Michelangelo and Shakespeare are company good enough for me.’ The bisexual writer Robert McAlmon (1896–1956), lover of the painter Marsden Hartley, once astonished a Paris bartender with a passionate defence of Plato and other ‘creative geniuses’ who celebrated masculine beauty: ‘I’m a bisexual myself,’ McAlmon shouted, ‘like Michelangelo, and I don’t give a damn who knows it.’ This sense of being part of an exceptional group is found among the working classes as well, as with a queer prisoner interviewed by a prison doctor in the early 1920s who listed ‘Shakespeare, Coleridge, De Quincey, Rosa Bonheur, Joan of Arc, Beethoven, Wagner and Napoleon’ to support his view that ‘most of the world’s geniuses can be traced directly to the homosexual’; the sex reformer Dr William Robinson said that very many gay men and lesbians in the 1920s made such claims in interviews with him: ‘they speak of Shakespeare, Byron and Whitman as belonging to their class, as if their homosexuality . . . were a well-established historical fact’ (Chauncey 1994).

But the use of the list to demand greater respect from society is a secondary result, not the primary purpose of the list, which is to banish a sense of alienation by rediscovering our own cultural traditions. The list of the great queers of history is compiled by queers in order to find a place for themselves in a historical tradition, to celebrate that they are part of a cultural unity. I think we commit a grave error in dismissing such lists as merely part of an apologetic agenda, i.e. as being designed to justify ‘us queers’ to ‘you normals’. One obvious fact about such lists is seldom remarked upon: the figures cited are almost invariably historical rather than contemporary. The list celebrates the fact not so much that queers are great, or even that they are creative, or even that they are good, but that queers are part of history: we have a unified historical cultural identity.

The list of the great queers of history is aimed primarily at and read primarily by queers themselves, rather than being aimed at straights; it has the essentialist purpose of establishing for queers themselves that they are not unique. Cultural unity comes first; from this comes the strength for the defence against society, which is secondary. How the list functions is illustrated in Richard Meeker’s novel Better Angel (1933). The central character feels ‘as if he had been initiated into some secret fraternity’ when he discovers the work of Plato, Cellini, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Shelley, Ellis, Carpenter and Wedekend, from whom ‘he learned that his sin . . . was not the unique sport he had believed it to be’ (quoted by Austen 1977); the last scene shows him reading about the myth of Hercules and Hylas: ‘Strength here against laughter and derision, strength here for the spectral years ahead, strength, and joy in strength.’ This seems to deliberately echo the German Labour Front slogan ‘Strength through Joy’. In the novel Goldie (1933) by ‘Kennilworth Bruce’, the hero discovers not only that there are ‘more than four million others in the United States who dwelt in that twilight realm of sex’ but that he is among the company of ‘Diocles, Achilles, Homer, Alexander the Great, Pythagoras, Demosthenes, Julius Caesar, Virgil, Benvenuto Cellini, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Francis Bacon, Leo X, Francis I, Henry IV, Louis XIV, Louis XV, the Marquis de Sade, scions of the House of Orleans, Oscar Wilde, William II, James I, and many others of the world’s great geniuses’ (quoted by Austen 1977). These great queers did not dye their hair golden and try to organize a homosexual rights group called ‘The Twilight League’, as does Goldie, but they, and he, are all conceived to be part of this historical and cultural unity. The queer literary canon is revealed for modern queers by Blair Niles in her novel Strange Brother (1931), whose protagonist reads Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Carpenter’s Love’s Coming of Age, Plato’s Symposium, Ellis’s Psychology of Sex, August Forel’s The Sexual Question, and others. Her list of the great queers of history includes Caesar, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Sir Francis Bacon, and King James I: ‘You find them all the way back, among the artists and intellectuals of their time. . . . Kings and Emperors [are] in the list, too.’

A consciousness of the cultural unity of queer history is still an important feature in recent gay novels, notably in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library (1988), in the historical fiction of Chris Hunt, and in the novels and plays of Neil Bartlett. In Bartlett’s Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall (1990) the continuity of queer history is itself the theme; the identity of the central character, simply called ‘Boy’, is historically constructed upon a collection of letters all beginning ‘My Dear Boy’ and signed by Oscar Wilde, John Addington Symonds, Baron Corvo, Robbie Ross, Reggie Turner, E. M. Forster; these are kept in a shoe box together with his collection of portraits of these men, and other cuttings of portraits from newspapers and pornographic or bodybuilding magazines, prized possessions which he regularly arranges in a circle around his bed like a pack of magic cards. Many of the characters function as archetypes, and much of the action is ritualistic, almost folkloristic, in accordance with the heritage of the drag-queen and queer-bar subculture from the 1930s through the 1950s. One chapter called ‘The Robing of the Bride’ consists of ceremonial charades in which Boy dresses and performs in the various roles of queer culture, such as drag queen, school boy, soldier looking for trade, small town queen, black man, and woman. By the end of the novel an exact queer equivalent to The Holy Family has been constructed.

Bartlett acknowledges that his novel ‘contains fragments from and reworkings of’ Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Corvo’s Hadrian the Seventh, Forster’s Maurice, Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, Rodney Garland’s The Heart in Exile, and the screenplay Victim. Boy and the Older Man are married in accordance with queer tradition, blessed by Madame (The Mother of Us All), the owner and hostess of The Bar, and when they set up home together the Older Man dreamily describes to Boy how he wants to redecorate their apartment in a fantasia of queer motifs:

In the centre of the floor I shall have painted a copy of the mosaic panel from Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli representing the Ascent of Ganymede, . . . and in the centre of each wall [will] hang a grisaille panel depicting scenes from the lives of great men: Antinous drowned and perfect at the age of nineteen . . .; Will Hughes playing the gilded boy mentioned by Piers Gaveston in Marlowe’s Edward the Second; Rimbaud in the house of glass which he built in Addis Ababa; Federico García Lorca on his first night in New York; Robbie Ross lifting his hat to the passing prisoner in the corridor of the Old Bailey. . . . From the centre of the ceiling hangs a recreation of the Pompeian lamp described by John Addington Symonds in his poem ‘Midnight at Baiae’ . . . . On our left, the small stained-glass window, . . . depicts the loves of David and Jonathan, Absalom and Saul, John and Christ, and the love of Eli for the Infant Samuel.

I believe that these imaginative examples illustrate that the primary reason for compiling such lists is to promote the cultural unification of queers among themselves, although the list is sometimes adapted or re-used to meet the homophobic insults of modern society. Even in a very contemporary American play by an angry AIDS activist, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1985), the primary purpose of the list as establishing a sense of cultural belonging is still explicit:

I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Byron, E. M. Forster, Lorca, Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Harry Stack Sullivan, John Maynard Keynes, Dag Hammarskjöld . . . These were not invisible men.

Pairs of lovers

The great queers of history usually appear in lists of individuals; but there is an important tradition which records pairs of lovers or ‘faithful friends’. If we examine this tradition we will appreciate even more clearly how the list functions as a kind of cultural incorporation.

Orestes and Pylades may be taken as the archetype of the queer pair; these two lovers are virtually indistinguishable from one another and no one has been able to determine who was the erastes and who was the eromenos (i.e. who was "active" and who was "passive"). There is a similar ambiguity about Achilles and Patroclus. Aristotle in Politics praised the lifelong love of the Theban lawgiver Philolaus and the Olympic athlete Dioclese, who ‘maintained a single household and arranged to be buried beside each other’, whose ‘tombs, at Thebes, were a tourist attraction in Aristotle’s day’ (Boswell 1994). The Sacred Band of Thebes, the military unit composed of 300 pairs of lovers formed in 368 BC, was cited in lists of famous homosexuals from an early period, for example by Plutarch, who likened their relationships to those of ‘the greatest heros of old, Meleager, Achilles, Aristomenes, Cimon, Epaminondas. Epaminondas, in fact, loved two young men, Asopichus and Caphisodorus. The latter died with him at Mantineia and is buried close to him’ (trans. Boswell 1994). Plutarch also mentions Hercules’ love for Ioläus, citing Aristotle’s statement that ‘the tomb of Ioläus was a place where same-sex lovers plighted mutual faith’ in the fourth century BC.

The catalogue of faithful friends is a major topos of the Renaissance homoerotic ‘friendship’ tradition (Norton 1974). Marsilio Ficino in his Commentary on Plato’s Symposium lists Achilles and Patroclus, Damon and Pithias, and Orestes and Pylades as parallels to Phaedrus and Lysias, Phaedrus and Socrates, and Phaedrus and Plato; Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier lists Orestes and Pylades, Theseus and Pirithous, and Scipio and Lelius; the unknown author of ‘Of Friendship’ in Tottle’s Miscellany (1557) lists Damon and Pithias, Orestes and Pylades, Theseus and Pirithous, Scipio and Lelius, Euryalus and Nisus, Gesippus and Titus, Achilles and Menetus, and Cicero and Atticus; Richard Edwards builds an entire play, Damon and Pithias (1564), around the most famous pair of faithful friends; Richard Barnfield in his patently homoerotic The Complaint of Poetrie lists Damon and Pithias, Orestes and Pylades, Theseus and Pirithous, and Hercules and Hylas; Robert Greene frequently uses the catalogue: in The Second Part of the Tritameron of Love (1587) he lists Damon and Pithias, Orestes and Pylades, David and Jonathan, Gesippus and Titus, Castor and Pollux, and Darius and Zopires; in Ciceronis Amor (1589) he lists Orestes and Pylades, Theseus and Pirithous, and Tully and Lentulus; in Mamillia (1593) he lists Orestes and Pylades, Theseus and Pirithous, and Eurylaus and Nisus. Marlowe, as we have seen, lists five pairs.

Virgil’s Aeneid is the primary source for the story of Euryalus and ‘his heart’s love’ Nisus; Cicero’s De Amicitia is one of the main sources for the story of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, to which Montaigne refers when discussing his love for Etienne de La Boètie. While it is true that many Tudor plays about Damon and Pithias are not plays about sodomites, it is nevertheless also true that the characters could be seen by contemporaries as sodomites, as in Thomas Dekker’s Satiromastix in which he puns: ‘they shall be thy Damans and thou thy Pithyass’ – a pun on ‘asse’. As Miller (1996) observes, Dekker in his play written for boys to perform ‘is quite aware that classical friendship can be used as a metaphor for contemporary sodomy. Indeed, it seems to mock those who cannot see the connection.’ A contributor to ONE magazine signed himself Damon Pythias in 1954. The tradition is certainly ‘rhetorical’, but it is a rhetoric full of meaning, a catalogue used specifically as a queer signifier. It is not generally appreciated that the word ‘friend’ was very important to real-life sodomites as revealed in the records of the Inquisition, and ‘friend’ has certainly been pronounced with a special queer intonation since at least the 1910s when members of the gay subculture referred to one another as ‘dear friends’ as well as ‘the girls’ (Chauncey 1985).

In L’Ile des Hermaphrodites (The Island of the Hermaphrodites), a contemporary satire on the effeminate Henri III (1551–89) and his mignons, the author describes the inner sanctum of the palace: ‘The walls of one room are hung with tapestries depicting Hadrian’s passion for Antinous, another with scenes from the life of Heliogabalus, a third chamber has a bed whose roof depicts the marriage of Nero and Pythagoras’ (W. Johansson, ‘Henri III’, EH). These famous male couples are obviously perceived as part of a specifically homosexual tradition in the late sixteenth century. This fictional palace was turned into a reality by Frederick the Great (1712–86), who had a bronze Hellenistic statue of Ganymede in his library at Sanssouci (given to him to the homosexual Prince Eugene of Savoy), a figure of Ganymede at the centre of the great ceiling fresco at his New Palace at Potsdam, and a Temple of Friendship which he had decorated with inscriptions in praise of friendship and portraits of Euryalus and Nisus, Orestes and Pylades, Heracles and Philoctetis, Peirithous and Theseus (Steakley 1989). The German poet Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim (1719-83) also established a Temple of Friendship at his home in Halberstadt, ‘containing more than one hundred portraits of passionate male friends’ (Conner 1997), which survives today as the Gleimhaus Museum.

Paired saints

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition several same-sex couples became archetypes in the queer cultural tradition, apparently from an early period, notably David and Jonathan, Jesus and John or ‘the Beloved Disciple’ and Ruth and Naomi. Boswell (1994) has charted the early homoerotic traditions of paired saints such as Perpetua and Felicitas, a Christian noblewoman and her female slave, martyred for their beliefs; Polyeuct and Nearchos, Roman soldiers of Greek ancestry who are described in a fourth-century biography as being ‘bound to each other by a friendship which was much stronger than blood or relationship, from which passionate union their souls were tightly bound together, each believing that he lived and breathed wholly in the other’s body’ – St Polyeuct became the patron of sworn oaths between brothers.

An important feature of the ancient Christian office of same-sex union – gay marriage ceremonies – discovered by Boswell (1994) is the recitation of a list of paired male saints and other male couples, particularly Peter and Paul, Peter and Andrew, Jacob and John, the apostles Philip and Bartholomew, Cosmos and Damian, Cyrus and John, and, the earliest, from the late third/early fourth century, the Roman soldiers Serge and Bacchus. From hagiographies since the early sixth century Serge was called ‘the sweet companion and lover’ of Bacchus, and ‘they became the preeminent "couple" invoked in the ceremony of same-sex union’. This catalogue always consists of pairs. Some of these pairs constituted genuine icons; the ‘two Theodores’, one a foot soldier martyred in the fourth century, and the other a general invented in the ninth century to form a pair, are often depicted with their arms around one another, and they are paired together with Serge and Bacchus in Kievan icons dating from before the twelfth century. Other paired saints include Marcellus and Apuleius, Cyprian and Justinus, Dionysius and Eleutheris, George and Demetrius. Just as in the pagan lists, most of these paired Christian saints had military connections, though Boswell refrains from speculating on the survival of a military homoerotic subculture. Typical is an eleventh-century Old Church Slavonic ‘Order for Uniting Two Men’:

Lord God omnipotent, who didst fashion humankind after thine image and likeness and gavest unto them life eternal, whom it hath pleased that thy holy and glorious apostles Peter and Paul, and Philip and Bartholomew, be joined together not by the bond of blood but of fidelity and love, who didst deem it meet for the holy martyrs Serge and Bacchus to be united together, bless Thou also these thy servants, [Name] and [Name], joined together not of birth, but of faith and love. Grant unto them to love one another, let them continue without envy and without temptation all the days of their lives, through the power of thy Holy Spirit and the prayers of the Holy Mother of God and all thy saints who have pleased Thee throughout the ages. (Boswell 1994)

The function of the list is very clear: to bless same-sex pair-bonding. In other words, it is an act of benediction, which I believe even today is invoked in order to establish that same-sex lovers are part of a historically continuous line of queer culture.

Chinese tradition

We have been discussing classical and Christian models, but reference to famous homosexual lovers of the past is also characteristic of Chinese literature. As Hinsch (1990) has amply demonstrated, China has a continuous historical and literary homosexual tradition going back from the nineteenth century to the Bronze Age. The reverence of the Chinese for culture and literature meant that ‘Even the conceptions of "homosexuality" as a distinct realm of experience had roots in tradition. In general, homosexuality came to be described through reference to famous individuals of ancient times associated with same-sex love.’ The intellectual Xi Kang (223–62) and his lover the poet Ruan Ji (210–63) were so famous that we even have archaeological evidence of their love, in the form of incised stone portraits showing them sitting side by side. Ruan Ji composed an encomium listing pairs of male lovers in the Zhou and Han periods, and his work – already in the third century – is full of stock homosexual imagery relying upon history. ‘In days of old there were many blossom boys’ begins one poem, invoking the tradition of the past, then it goes on to cite the famous couple Lords An Ling and Long Yang who, like Mizi Xia and Dong Xian, ‘formed the core of a pantheon of figures seen by later generations as symbols of male love. Literate Chinese throughout dynastic history looked to these ancient icons of homosexuality much as medieval Europeans did to Ganymede.’

Li Yu (1611–79/80) in his stories regularly alludes to the great queers of Chinese history such as Lord E and Emperor Ai. An ancient story from the Zhou period (1122–256 BCE) tells of two students, Pan Zhang and Wang Zhongxian, who ‘fell in love at first sight and were as affectionate as husband and wife, sharing the same coverlet and pillow with unbounded intimacy for one another’ (trans. Hinsch). When they died they were buried together, and from their grave immediately sprang a tree whose long branches and twigs entwined with one another, a miracle called the ‘Shared Pillow Tree’, which became one of the icons of Chinese queer literature – a metonym denoting something innate and essential about the relationship. Liu Yiqing (403–44) in one of his works has a complete section on noted male beauties, and his description of the ‘sworn brothers’ the poet Pan Yue (247–300) and Xiahou Zhan (243–91) as ‘linked jade discs’ provided another common motif in the homosexual tradition. By the first century there was already a tradition of anthologized biographies of famous homosexuals, e.g. The Biographies of the Emperors’ Male Favourites by the Grand Historian Sima Qian. The sixth-century History of the North contains forty biographies of favourites, and other scholarly and official records are similar. These are genuine biographies, not stereotypes. Looking to the models of antiquity is an integral part of being queer.

Queer icons

Many gays and lesbians collect the iconography of queer culture. In particular they collect literal icons: essentialized archetypes of identity.

Walt Whitman distributed thousands of photographs of himself to all of the men with whom he corresponded, and they became treasured icons hanging in their rooms. A large circle of ‘Calamites’ in England in the 1880s and 1890s became proud owners of a Whitman photograph. The iconicization of Whitman increased after his death, and was not limited to intellectuals. Jeb Alexander (pseudonym), a non-literary middle-class fairy in Washington, DC, in the 1920s ‘frequently invoked Whitman in his diary and in his conversations with other gay men. When a former lover confessed to pursuing women as well as men, Alexander reacted negatively. "I don’t like his interest in girls", he noted in his diary. "The ‘manly love of comrades’ is nobler and sweeter and ought to be sufficient." After reading the Calamus poems in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, he added: "What a noble, lovable man old Walt was! Often I yearn toward Walt as toward a father, look up at his picture, then close my eyes and feel him beside me, rugged and strong with his gentle hands caressing and comforting me"‘ (quoted by Chauncey 1994).

The exchange of Whitman photographs seems to have been part of a ‘living gay tradition’. For example, in 1905 the painter Marsden Hartley met a circle of Whitman admirers in his native Maine, including William Sloan Kennedy, ‘who gave Hartley a signed portrait of Whitman which Whitman had given him just before he died’ (Lynch 1976). When Hartley’s lover, the German soldier Karl von Freyburg, died in battle in 1914, Hartley painted him as an icon of male beauty with expressionist symbols, and in the 1930s and 1940s he painted all-male holy families and pietas consisting of bare-chested Maine lobstermen holding the dead Christ. The American photographer F. Holland Day was notorious for having had himself photographed as Christ on the cross, surrounded by sheepish-looking Male Physique Roman soldiers.

Jean Genet’s personal icon was a newspaper photograph of Eugène Weidmann on the day of his arrest, a handsome young German who murdered six people, who was tried in 1937 and executed in 1939, whose name is the first word of Our Lady of the Flowers. Genet called it ‘the image of a bloodied archangel trapped by earthly policemen’. ‘Lola Mouloudji recalls that when Genet would settle into a new hotel room ... he would immediately hang the photo on the wall. Genet said to her, "The angel, for me, is Weidmann."’ Wherever Genet lived with his lover Java, off and on from 1947 to 1954, usually in hotels, he would hang his photo of Weidman on the wall. He gave similar photos to his friend Olga Kechelievitch and to Cocteau (White 1993).

Camille Paglia’s personal icon is a picture of Francis Possenti, Saint Gabriel of the Sorrowing Mother (1838–62, canonized in 1920), which she inherited from her grandmother. Here is how Paglia describes him:

He is one of the pretty boys who are everywhere in Italian art, notably in the creamy-skinned, homoerotic Saint Sebastian and Saint Michael statues that seemed to me, from my toddler’s perspective in the church pew, far more interesting than those of Jesus, Mary, or Joseph. My grandmother’s saint locks eyes with the Madonna, typifying the intense relations of mothers and sons in Mediterranean culture. As a monk, he will not marry; like the priests of Cybele, he will remain the son-lover of the goddess. As the years passed, the saint’s picture accumulated more and more meaning. It became one of my personal icons, representing not only the sacred omphalos-spot of my grandmother’s house but the essence of Italian Catholicism itself, which is both a religion and the nation’s cultural identity, descending from pagan antiquity. (Paglia 1995)

Shortly before his death by hari-kari, Yukio Mishima had himself photographed posing as Saint Sebastian pierced with arrows; the first time he ejaculated occurred after looking at a reproduction of Guido Reni’s painting Saint Sebastian. The popularity of the great queer icon of Saint Sebastian is partly due to the fact that Sodoma’s painting Saint Sebastian was printed on holy cards for the Vatican (Conner 1997). The conjunction of male beauty, desire, and suffering proved a powerful image, but this is not simply a matter of appropriation, for the source was the queer painter Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (1477–1549) who rejoiced in the name Il Sodoma. The contemporary queer artist Matthew Stradling concentrates on wounds in his paintings:

The first wounds I started using were in a self-portrait as St Sebastian. Throughout the history of Western art, I’ve found that a shocking image: a passive male being penetrated by spears and shafts. It has a lot of sexual echoes. I read somewhere that the wound in Jesus’s side was symbolic of his universal sexuality, representing a male vagina. I wanted to bring femininity to male figures. Figures in my paintings also show their wounds with pride. (Stradling 1995)

Physical male beauty is central to queer male culture, and most culture queens have possessed an icon of the beautiful youth. One day in 1860 Henry James ‘found his cousin, Gus Barker, posing naked on a pedestal in the large studio [of his friend William Morris Hunt] while the advanced students sketched his "kinsman’s perfect gymnastic figure" . . . . He was dazzled both by the beauty of his cousin’s body and by William’s drawing . . . which he obtained and kept for a long time.’ James himself drew a copy of Michelangelo’s Dying Captive. Dozens of gay artists and photographers have reworked Flandrin’s painting Nude Boy Near the Sea (Aldrich 1993) (thousands of gay men must possess copies of it, and it is even used as the basis of a soft-porn scene in the 1995 Pride Video’s Desertion). This appropriation/deconstruction/subversion of an image from ‘heterosexual’ art has also been applied to Manet’s Olympia (1863), ‘the most quoted classical icon’ in Smyth’s (1996) study of contemporary lesbian art.

The collecting of queer icons is illustrated by the case of John Addington Symonds, whose professional cultural studies gave him the opportunity to indulge his central aesthetic preoccupation with healthy naked men. What attracted him most in Greek poetry were descriptions of nude youths in the gymnasia; what attracted him most in Renaissance painting were the male nudes of Signorelli, Michelangelo, and a host of others. He was fascinated by the male nude, and collected numerous representations of it. He had twenty-one photographs of original drawings by the homosexual painter Simeon Solomon sent to him from London in 1868, ‘chiefly classical subjects’, and in 1885 he was trying to get a copy of Solomon’s Sintram, a work (now lost) meant to symbolize homosexuality. Mme Marville the French photographer was enlisted to photograph Ingres’ drawings of the male nude in the Louvre and send them to him. He commissioned Edward Clifford to copy paintings for him, and encouraged Clifford’s endeavour to paint ‘heroic male beauty’. He wrote to Henry Scott Tuke praising his Perseus for its delicate yet vigorous handling of the nude, and asked him for photographs of his pictures of the nude fisherboys of Falmouth. He asked the critic and poet Edmund Gosse if he did not agree that Tuke’s Leander had ‘the aura’. He collected an enormous quantity of photographs of Greek and Roman statues, especially representations of Hadrian’s beloved Antinous, about whom he wrote a lengthy biographical study, and photographs of the complete works of Michelangelo, which all curled up due to damp weather and covered the floor of his study like a nest of vipers. He engaged a German artist to photograph models posed in the impossible positions portrayed by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. He had heard that William Hamo Thornycroft’s Mower was ‘a Hermes in the dress of a working man’, and he eventually acquired photographs of several statues by Thornycroft including the Teucer and Warrior Bearing a Wounded Youth, which were ‘the delight of my eyes & soul’. In November 1872 he sent a bronze statue of a gladiator as a gift to Cecil Boyle, former boyfriend of the classics master of Clifton College Henry Graham Dakyns, to both of whom he was attracted; on his own desk was a reproduction of The Dying Gladiator, possibly a return gift from Cecil. Horatio Forbes Brown gave him a reproduction of Cellini’s Perseus, which also went into his study at Am Hof in Davos. He advised Vernon Lee to look at ‘photographs from the nude published by Giraudon, which proves how little correction is needed ... to convert a soldier or mechanic into a hero or ephebus’. For more private uses he collected nude photographs by Wilhelm von Gloeden, and he was a personal friend of Guglielmo Plüschow whose plein air photographs of nude boys he would send to friends such as Charles Kains-Jackson: ‘The model you seem to have liked best is a Roman lad called Luigi.’ He exchanged packets of these photographs with Gosse, who kept stealing glances at one all through the funeral service held for Browning at Westminster Abbey. In March 1890 he proposed to the Julian School of Art in Paris a prize competition for drawings of the male nude, for which he would contribute three prizes of 200 Francs each, and for which he would retain the right to publish the winning entries together with photographs of the live models. He drew after models whom he hired to pose for him as he convalesced, and he photographed them in poses from famous statues or paintings such as the study by Hippolyte Flandrin which formed the subject of his essay on ‘The Model’. He made impressionistic photo studies of the Venetian porter Augusto Zanon dressed in various shades of blue against different coloured backgrounds (described in In the Key of Blue); ‘Of things like this, I have always been doing plenty, and then putting them away in a box. The public think them immoral’.

Lesbian culture

The British lesbian painter Gluck’s (Hannah Gluckstein, 1895–1978) mannish Self-portrait With a Cigarette (1925) was used for the cover of Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) – thus the icon of the mannish lesbian was created by a mannish lesbian, not foisted upon lesbians by the sexologists. Gluck’s famous Medallion portrait of her and her lover Nesta in 1937 also became a dyke icon, and is still being referenced by contemporary lesbian art such as Sadie Lee’s Narcissi (1991). Veronica Slater’s Soul Identified as Flesh (1988) ‘positions a black and white realist life portrait of her lover, in front of a grid construction of multi-coloured reproductions of the Gluck self-portrait, painted in oils to resemble silkscreen. Subverting Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe piece, Slater sets up Gluck as a sex goddess for lesbians and her lover as her descendant, the guardian of the image, extending Gluck’s lineage to the present’ (Smyth 1996). The image of Gertrude Stein is also important for contemporary lesbian artists; Deborah Kass ‘twists Warhol’s Chairman Mao into an hilarious Chairman Ma 1993 featuring Gertrude Stein, making the rather inscrutable image of Stein comic and friendly, and acknowledging her significant role as a literary icon to generations of lesbians’. (The Uncommon Clout Card, a gay Visa credit card in the USA, shows in its advertising a card on which the signatory is Gertrude Stein.) Millie Wilson’s Fauve Semblant: Peter (A Young English Girl) is an imaginary ‘retrospective’ based on the work of Romaine Brooks, with wry allusions to Radclyffe Hall and Rosa Bonheur. ‘The metaphor of masquerade is heightened in a large photograph of Wilson in drag as Peter, in her studio, easel at the ready, dressed in a shirt and bow-tie, a cigarette in her hand’, recalling both Brooks’ and Gluck’s self-portraits (Smyth 1996).

Nicki Hastie in her evocatively titled essay ‘Lesbian Biblio-mythography’ (1993) has described how reading provides the first connection with lesbian culture, and how ‘Libraries are a primordial scene of lesbian activity.’ Like many lesbians, Hastie says ‘I had a way of scanning a page or an entire book, . . . able to sense the printed word "lesbian" even before my eyes could properly focus.’ Many lesbians have ‘cruised the library’ for evidence of lesbian culture. Hastie is afraid of being labelled an essentialist and she does not wish to ‘support a theory of a universally-shared "lesbian intuition"’, but the personal narratives she collates nevertheless almost all tend towards the essentialist position. Audre Lorde’s autobiography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name reclaims the continuity of black identity and lesbian identity: ‘Audre recognises that her mother is a very powerful woman, somehow quite different from any other women she knows, and "that is why to this day I believe that there have always been Black dykes around – in the sense of powerful and women-oriented women".’ For Hastie, ‘The journeys into literature taken by Alison Hennegan, Lee Lynch, Maureen Brady, Judy Grahn and Audre Lorde were stimulated by the desire for literary manifestations of selfhood, a quest for identity and a historical basis for that identity.’

Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle was inspired by a reading of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. A large group of ‘pathfinder books’ or the ‘bookmarks’ of lesbian history, ranging from Sappho’s poetry to Christine Crow’s Miss X, interpenetrate one another, seeming to form a mythological ‘homeland’ of lesbian experience. ‘We tell stories which both derive from and help to maintain a collective lesbian "myth of origins". . . . Sappho is primary source material for the lesbian. . . . This inheritance underlines the importance of naming the source. Yes, I need Sappho’ (Hastie).

In many countries ‘lesbian’ continues to be an acceptable self-applied label because of its cultural reference to Sappho of Lesbos. Lesbians in India, though they are reclaiming the terms jami, twins, and sakhiyana, women-to-women bonding, have also adopted ‘lesbian’ without much sense of uneasiness, precisely because it does establish a continuum with an ancient historical/cultural lesbian identity that goes beyond the West/East partition (Thadani 1996). Let us generously acknowledged that the dykes of Des Moines have no greater claim on this distant Greek island than the dykes of New Delhi.

The idea of a lesbian cultural tradition having an unbroken continuity back to the time of Sappho was perhaps made explicit in William King’s anti-lesbian satire The Toast as early as 1736. He gives an etymology for his semi-fictionalized lesbian character Myra of Dublin: ‘Myra is a Corruption of Myrrhina a famous Courtesan of Athens, who first practis’d and taught in that City Sappho’s Manner and the Lesbian Gambols’; and he claims a lesbian folk tradition in the use of the phrase ‘fires of Aetna’ (used in Ovid’s ‘Sappho to Phaon’: ‘Since the Days of Sappho, this Expression hath been familiarly used by all Tribads’; and he implies that modern lesbian networks use hierarchy and titles. Donoghue (1993) has established the icons and motifs of the lesbian literary tradition: the pair of female doves, associated with Venus or Diana; Diana the Huntress and the hind or female deer; paired nymphs in pastoral poetry; references to works of Sappho and to the explicit lesbian stories retold by Lucian, Juvenal and Ovid; the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi and the parable of the wise virgins; the ‘tender passion’ of romantic friends; ‘friendship’ used as an exact antonym for ‘marriage’: ‘For the most part lesbians were thought of as connected not over space, in a social network, but over time, as a secret cultural tradition.’

Griffin (1993) is worried that books of lists such as Richards’ Lesbian Lists (1990) ‘in some respects continue a tradition of display of curios, . . . inviting the reader to contemplate their content with surprise, pandering to the reader’s desire to marvel. Richards’s section on "Amazon Queens and Other Exotics", for instance, by its very title seems to stimulate such wonder.’ Griffin fears that they tend to present the lesbian as a rare and endangered species, and are therefore part of the ‘pathologizing’ of lesbianism. I agree that such lists emphasize difference but I feel that such difference is treated in a wholly affirmative manner, and that such lists fulfil the same functions as lists of the great queers of history noted above. Many lesbians in the twentieth century believed they were the only ones of their kind – besides Sappho. No lesbian could read Richards’ book and continue to feel isolated. I agree with Lee Lynch’s response to Lesbian Lists as an important ‘resource and a validation. We can never record too many facts about lesbian culture; the act of listing is one of handing down, of passing on, a joyous we are!’

Christine Crow’s remarkable novel Miss X, or The Wolf Woman (1990) is full of the ‘Symbols, codes, hieroglyphs, secret metaphors, cyphers’ which mark the boundaries of queer culture. (I should make it clear that the following interpretation of the novel is my own, and differs significantly from that offered by Hastie.) The novel is divided into fourteen ‘pieces’ rather than chapters, corresponding to the fourteen pieces into which Osiris’s body was dismembered. Throughout the novel there are numerous analogies to Osiris, Pentheus, Orpheus and Dionysus and other dismembered deities in the mythology central to gay men. Miss X occupies a ‘perky turret’ surrounded by pine trees, obviously the tip of Dionysus’ thyrsis. The narrator’s quest is to stitch together all these pieces to recreate Osiris in the person of Miss X. Significant revelations occur beside the river Isis in Oxford. Mrs X is Demeter, Miss X is Persephone, and Mary Wolf is Cerberus.

The lesbian sources are also evident: Mary and Miss X – Head Girl and Head Mistress – spend a night together in Oxford at what she mistakenly thinks of as the ‘Radclyffe Hall Hotel’ near the ‘Radclyffe Camera’, which "I at once assumed to be spelt with a ‘y’ after the author of a dull-looking novel in a brown-paper wrap recently discovered in the Parlour one Sunday".’ Other novels alluded to include Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Orlando, André Gide’s L’Immoraliste and Corydon. Miss X wears a ‘wedding’ ring set with the sapphire of the secret sapphist, but she has grown up in a repressive era and tries to conceal her homosexuality from others in the school:

On one occasion violently tearing to shreds in front of her, both literally and metaphorically, an eXcellent essay on Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’. Seven credits, sorry, detentions, and lines in the ‘dinner hour’, for suggesting his love poems were addressed to men. (Shakespeare’s sonnets too, my Love, what of them? Gide, Proust, Sappho, Vita Sackville-West – must have been ‘bi-seXual’ like Orlando in her case? So many Great Artists, come to that. . . . Lawrence of Arabia, André Gide again, Proust, Miss Hilbert [a character in the novel who is discovered in the closet with her female lover], Vita Sackville-West, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Sappho, Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde and, hélas, Radclyffe Hall (though just because she wrote a Novel about it, you can’t be sure).

Crow draws a marvellous satirical portrait of the social constructionist in the person of the lesbian feminist teacher Annabel, who reads an early draft of the novel and criticizes it:

Apparently I had failed disastrously to distinguish between ‘lesbianism’ as an active erotic drive . . . and ‘lesbianism’ in the political sense . . .: a mode of eXistence devoted to subverting the whole set of oppressive, phallic assumptions at large in heteroseXist society. . . . Far from interpreting the whole thing as the passionate Defence of HomoseXuality I intended . . . she has taken the whole thing to be an attack! . . . in fact the very opposite of the ‘Feminist Lesbian Novel’ she apparently lectures on in her ‘Women’s Writing Course’ . . . where she once told me they also hi-jack, eXplode and dismember certain rabidly ‘decadent’ nineteenth-century teXts on grounds of heteroseXist hypostatization, phallocentricity, pre-post-modernist recuperation and the like. . . . Yes, come to think of it, a white paperback by someone called Monique Wittig – couldn’t see the title – was poking upside down from her rucksack.

But after working through all the contradictions of employing a stigmatized label in defining oneself, in the last chapter, or ‘piece’, the narrator inscribes her name together with that of Miss X on the window-ledge of Miss X’s study after her death. ‘Miss X and Mary Wolfe "Come Out" at last. The love that dares to speak its name? In joining our names together like that in Public – well, almost – I had broken at last the pledge of secrecy between us, cracked the last ice of the terrible interdict, broken the last taboo on naming the god.’ Also carved on the window-ledge is the school motto Ad astra, and the novel ends with Mary looking up at the starry constellation of the Goat. Many images of the archetypal scapegoat occur throughout the novel; the narrator says the goat is ‘a form of totem representing the name of the tribe or clan’ who becomes the sacrificial scapegoat. By taking the scapegoat role upon herself, by accepting the lesbian labels, whether homophobic or lesbian-feminist, Mary exorcises their destructive and reductive powers, but nevertheless reaffirms the essential nature of lesbian desire as her birthright.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton, "Lists of Famous Homosexuals", 1 May 2004, updated 13 June 2008 <>.

Return to The Great Queers of History

For my own list, see The Great Queers of History