Given the scarcity of satisfactory LGBTQ representation, one might be inclined to think that LGBTQ people haven’t existed for the bulk of human history. Nothing could be further from the truth. Queer folks have been around since the dawn of time, and we aren’t going anywhere. Discrimination, violence, and oppression have contributed to the erasure of queer individuals who have been blazing the trails since before your grandparents’ grandparents were born, and here is just a small drop in the ocean of queer writers throughout history.
1. Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
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Walt Whitman was a American, poet, author, essayist, and journalist. His prolific career is perhaps best remembered for his epic poems Leaves of Grass and Song of Myself. Biographers have continually debated Whitman’s sexual orientation; his poetry, particularly Leaves of Grass, which faced serious censorship after its publication, contains several homoerotic images, however others argue that this was unintentional. Whitman himself was cagey (to say the least) about the queer tones in his work. He often denied that there was any homoerotic subtext in his writing, yet those who knew him claimed that in their relationships, he was rather frank about his sexuality.
Oscar Wilde (who also appears on this list), after meeting Whitman in 1882, was adamant that Whitman was gay, and even told the activist George Cecil Ives, “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips.” Whitman suffered from poor health later in life, and eventually passed away in 1892 of several lung-related illnesses.
2. Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
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You knew this was coming. Oscar Wilde was an Irish novelist and poet, and is often remembered for his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the drama that surrounds its publication. Dorian Gray was originally published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, and drew such harsh criticism for its depiction of “immorality,” (one character in the novel expresses a potentially romantic infatuation for another male character) that when it was later re-published as a book, Wilde toned down the novel’s homoerotic subtext.
In 1895, Wilde became embroiled in a libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry; this case did not turn out in Wilde’s favor, and led to his arrest and conviction on charges of sodomy and gross indecency. It was during this trial that Wilde was called upon to make his famous “the love that dare not speak its name” speech, during which he said, “It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it…. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.” After his conviction, Wilde spent two years in prison, and his final work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, was inspired by this imprisonment. After release, Wilde spent the rest of his life in exile and died destitute in Paris in 1900 (possibly due to complications from an injury incurred while in prison).
3. Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
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Virginia Woolf was an English writer and poet, best known as the author of Mrs. Dalloway and A Room of One’s Own. Woolf was a member of the Bloomsbury Group, a group of prominent English literary figures, who, among other things, encouraged a liberal conception of sexuality. This encouragement may have been what allowed Woolf to feel secure enough to have a long-term relationship with poet, writer, and garden designer, Vita Sackville-West. Virginia Woolf’s queer feminist classic Orlando (which you may know from the excellent film adaptation starring Tilda Swinton) is inspired by the events of Sackville-West’s life, and Woolf’s son Nigel Nicolson said of the novel:
The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her.
Woolf struggled with her mental health her entire life, and eventually succumbed to suicide in 1941.
4. Alain Locke (1885-1954)
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Alain Locke was an American writer, philosopher, and educator, known as the unofficial “Dean” of the Harlem Renaissance. His influence was so pervasive that Martin Luther King is quoted as saying, “We’re going to let our children know that the only philosophers that lived were not Plato and Aristotle, but W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke came through the universe.”
In 1925, Locke edited The New Negro: An Interpretation, a collection of short fiction, poetry, and essays on African and African-American art and literature; this text was a major landmark in Locke’s expression of his philosophy of “The New Negro,” a belief that African-Americans must reject white standards of behavior and invest in the concept of black advancement and equality. Locke was gay, and acted as a mentor and role model to several other gay members of the Harlem Renaissance, including Countee Cullen, who appears on this list. Locke died due to heart disease in 1954.
5. Frederico García Lorca (1898-1936)
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Frederico García Lorca was a Spanish writer, poet, and dramatist; he, along with Salvador Dalí, was a member of the Generation of ‘27, a group of influential Spanish artists (primarily poets) dedicated to avant-garde forms of expression. Some of his works include Poem of the Deep Song, Gypsy Ballads, and The Butterfly’s Evil Spell. García Lorca was gay, and due to his inclusion of homoromantic themes in his work, he was heavily censored during his lifetime—his work was generally banned in Spain until 1953.
He was a target of Spain’s Franco-era government; official reports describe García Lorca as a “socialist” and participant in “homosexual and abnormal practices.” García Lorca was shot in 1936, likely by members of a Nationalist militia. The precise identity of García Lorca’s assailants is unknown, and his body was never found.
6. Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
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Langston Hughes was an American writer and poet, best known for being a leader of the Harlem Renaissance and a pioneer of jazz poetry. As a child, Hughes had a difficult relationship with his father, a relationship that inspired his story “Blessed Assurance,” which describes a young man struggling to get along with his father due to the son’s perceived effeminacy. Biographers are unsettled on the issue of Hughes’ sexuality.
Like Whitman, it is believed that he worked homoromantic subtext into many of his works, but some biographers argue that Hughes may have been asexual. However, others point out that in order to secure the support of certain churches for his activism, Hughes would have had to be very careful not to disclose his sexuality if it had been anything other than heterosexual. Hughes never married, and died in 1967 after complications from surgery for his prostate cancer. Hughes’ ashes were interred under a cosmogram at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
7. Countee Cullen (1903-1946)
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Like Hughes, Countee (pronounced coun-TAY) Cullen was a poet, children’s writer, novelist, and a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. Unlike Hughes, Cullen was far more candid about his sexuality. Cullen was a mentee of the Harlem Renaissance’s “Dean,” Alain Locke, who guided Cullen towards queer-positive material that encouraged him to embrace his identity.
In a letter to Locke, Cullen wrote, “It opened up for me soul windows which had been closed; it threw a noble and evident light on what I had begun to believe, because of what the world believes, ignoble and unnatural.” Cullen’s career was devoted to the advancement of African-American literature and civil rights. He died in 1946 due to complications of high blood pressure, he was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
8. Michael Dillon (1915-1962)
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Michael Dillon was a British physician and author, as well as the first man in England to undergo gender-affirming surgery (a surgery that was performed in secret by a trusted colleague). In 1946, Dillon published Self: A Study in Ethics and Endocrinology. The book is about the experience of “masculine inverts,” people we now refer to as men who were assigned female at birth.
In the book, Dillon argued for medical transition as a treatment for gender dysphoria, rather than conversion “therapy,” writing, “Where the mind cannot be made to fit the body, the body should be made to fit, approximately at any rate, to the mind.” Tragically, Dillon was publicly outed against his will, and in order to escape the undesired press, he spent the rest of his life in Buddhist communities in India, where he eventually died.
9. James Baldwin (1924-1987)
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James Baldwin was an American novelist and prominent figure in the civil rights movement. Baldwin grew up in Harlem, and on that experience, he said, “I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use.” Frustrated by the discrimination he faced in the U.S., Baldwin emigrated to France when he was twenty-four, and spent most of his later life there.
In 1956, Baldwin published Giovanni’s Room, a novel that drew intense attention and criticism for its portrayal of homosexuality and bisexuality and is often cited as one of the most important queer novels ever written. In the 70s and 80s, Baldwin boldly and openly wrote about homosexuality and homophobia in several essays. Baldwin died of stomach cancer in France in 1987, his remains were interred in Hartsdale, New York.
10. Truman Capote (1924-1984)
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If you love true crime writing, you owe a lot to Truman Capote, who, in 1966, published In Cold Blood, which revolutionized the form and style of crime writing. Capote is also responsible for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Other Voices, Other Rooms, and A Christmas Memory. Capote was openly gay, and while he was never much of an active participant in the gay rights movement, the openness with which he expressed his identity in conjunction with his level of celebrity was an important milestone in queer history.
Capote was known for his sharp wit and searing humor; several years before his death, he said, “Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.” Capote died at the age of fifty-nine of liver disease and drug intoxication.
11. Yukio Mishima (1925-1970)
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Yukio Mishima, widely considered to be one of the most important Japanese writers of the 20th century, was an author, poet, playwright, actor, model, and film director. His first novel, Confessions of a Mask, is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young man who must deal with concealing his homosexuality in Imperial Japan.
Mishima was a nationalist and in 1968, he founded the Tatenokai right-wing militia, which in 1970 initiated a coup d’ėtat of the Japan Self-Defense Forces. The coup failed, and in shame, Mishima committed ritual suicide. Six years after his death, Mishima’s novel, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, was adapted into a British film.
12. Jan Morris (1928-)
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Jan Morris is a Welsh author, best known for her travel writing, especially the Pax Britannica trilogy. For this work, she was honored with a CBE by Queen Elizabeth 1999. Morris is transgender, and in 1974, she detailed her transition in her book Conundrum, which was one of the first autobiographies to describe a person’s gender transition.
In the book, she writes about growing up and discovering her gender dysphoria as a child, saying, “Perhaps one day, when I grew up, I would be as solid as other people appeared to be; but perhaps I was meant always to be a creature of wisp or spindrift, loitering in this inconsequential way almost as though I were intangible.” Morris still writes and lives mainly in northern Wales.
13. Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965)
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If you went to high school in the United States, you are probably familiar with Lorraine Hansberry. Hansberry is the American playwright behind A Raisin in the Sun, the very first play by a black woman to be performed on Broadway. Based on private journals and letters, as well as her enthusiastic advocacy for gay rights, it is believed that Hansberry was attracted to women.
Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer when she was only thirty-four, leaving behind a legacy of powerful activism, and throughout her life, she encouraged those on the furthest margins of society to push back against systemic oppression as hard as they can; “They must harass, debate, petition, give money to court struggles, sit-in, lie-down, strike, boycott, sing hymns, pray on steps—and shoot from their windows when the racists come cruising through their communities.”
14. Larry Kramer (1935-)
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Larry Kramer is an American playwright and author best known for his passionate activism on behalf of AIDS victims, which most of his books and plays are written about. In 1980, he co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which is now the largest private organization that works to provide assistance to people living with AIDS. Kramer became disillusioned with the pace of GMHC’s progress, and based his best-known play, The Normal Heart, on these experiences.
To counter the frustration he experienced with GMHC, Kramer helped found ACT UP, a direct action advocacy group dedicated to fighting the AIDS plague. Kramer still writes and advocates for AIDS victims, and in 2014, The Normal Heart was adapted into film by HBO.
15. Pat Parker (1944-1989)
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Pat Parker was an American poet, activist, and writer known for her heartbreaking poetry on the experience of being a gay black woman in the U.S. From 1978-1988 she was the executive director of the Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Center, and she was also somewhat involved in the Black Panther movement. She spent her life advocating for the rights of LGBTQ people, victims of domestic violence, people of color, women, and the intersections among those groups.
One of her best known poems, Womanslaughter, is about the murder of her older sister at the hands of her husband, and the lack of justice that followed. Parker died of breast cancer in 1989; she is survived by her long-term partner, Marty Dunham, and their two daughters.
16. Angela Davis (1944-)
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Angela Davis is and American activist, educator, and author, known for being a superstar of the Black Panther movement. In 1997, she identified herself as a lesbian in an issue of Out magazine. She is a prolific writer, and her work has taken on issues that face the black community in the United States, specifically black women. Some her works include Women, Race, & Class, Are Prisons Obsolete?, and The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues.
Davis still writes and teaches, and was recently featured in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th. Davis’ activism and writing has mainly been oriented around using education as a method of promoting social change; “We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.”
17. Jackie Curtis (1947-1985)
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Jackie Curtis was an American actress, writer, and singer. She is best known for being one of Andy Warhol’s superstars, but she was also a prolific playwright, having written Glamour, Glory and Gold, Amerika Cleopatra, Femme Fatale, among others. Several notable people starred in productions of her plays, such as Robert de Niro, Harvey Fierstein, and Patti Smith.
Curtis is also one of the figures named in Lou Reed’s Take a Walk on the Wild Side. Curtis was transgender, and cast several trans actors in her plays to counter the lack of trans representation on stage. Throughout her life, Curtis struggled with drug addiction, and died of a heroin overdose in 1985 at thirty-eight years old.
18. Kate Bornstein (1948-)
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Kate Bornstein is a gender non-conforming trans author and performance artist, who has published several queer-oriented books, including, Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws, and My New Gender Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Achieving World Peace Through Gender Anarchy and Sex Positivity. Bornstein is still working and you can follow her excellent Twitter account at twitter.com/katebornstein.
Bornstein’s work has been primarily concerned with changing the way we understand gender, and transforming our understanding of gender as a binary system into one that acknowledges gender identities other than male and female. She is quoted as saying, “Gender is not sane. It’s not sane to call a rainbow black and white.”
19. Leslie Feinberg (1949-2014)
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Leslie Feinberg was an American author and activist. In 1993, Feinberg wrote Stone Butch Blues, a memoir about hir experience as a butch lesbian in the United States in the 1970s. Known for hir gender non-conforming expression, Feinberg adjusted hir pronouns in different contexts, noting, “I like the gender neutral pronoun “ze/hir” because it makes it impossible to hold on to gender/sex/sexuality assumptions about a person you’re about to meet or you’ve just met.” Feinberg’s work was generally oriented around the progression of gender studies discourse; hir 1996 book, Transgender Warriors, was crucial in advancing gender studies discourse in mainstream outlets.
Feinberg passed away in 2014 due to complications related to Lyme disease. Ze was survived by hir spouse, Minnie Bruce Pratt, also a writer and activist.
20. Lou Sullivan (1951-1991)
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Lou Sullivan was an American writer and editor who published several resources for transgender men, both independently and as the editor of The Gateway, a San Franciscan newsletter circulated amongst the local queer community. As a gay trans man, Sullivan was met with obstacles to his transition, for at the time he was seeking medical attention, heterosexuality was a criterion for recognition of medical necessity for transition. This put Sullivan on the path of lobbying the American Psychiatric Association and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health to remove the orientation requirement, so that all transgender Americans could have access to life-saving dysphoria treatment regardless of sexual orientation.
Sullivan was diagnosed with HIV in 1980, and later passed away from AIDS-related complications in 1991. Known for his grim and often brutal sense of humor, Sullivan once wrote, “I took a certain pleasure in informing the gender clinic that even though their program told me I could not live as a Gay man, it looks like I’m going to die like one.”
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