In honor of Pride Month and celebrating LGBTQ+ Voices, we’ll be looking at a (non-comprehensive) list of famous classics writers who either identified as LGBTQ+ while they were alive, or would most likely have been perceived as belonging to the LGBTQ+ community when they were living. Also, only one of the ten writers mentioned is still alive today.
Some people disagree with assigning the following writers (or other historical figures) an LGBTQ+ identity because many of the terms we now use to identify ourselves did not exist at the time these writers lived, or the writers may not have known these terms. Also, many of the words/terms the following writers would have used (or been called) are now outdated or seen as derogatory. So, for the purposes of this list, we’ll be using modern-day LGBTQ+ identities to attribute to these writers based on the evidence we have from their letters, poems, novels, and relationships.
For a list on LGBTQ+ classics books, check out our recommendations here.
Despite her marriage to Leonard Woolf, Virginia Woolf is largely believed to have been bisexual. She met Vita Sackville-West in 1922, and the two women developed an intimate and romantic relationship with one another. Woolf suffered from various mental illnesses, including depression and “nervous disorders.” Sackville-West greatly supported Woolf in fighting her mental health issues and encouraged Woolf to continue writing even while combating her mental illnesses. Sackville-West even inspired one of Woolf’s greatest works: the novel Orlando.
2. E.M. Forster
E.M. Forster met Bob Buckingham at a party in 1930. Buckingham was already married to a woman named May at the time, but the two gentlemen quickly developed an on-and-off romantic relationship which lasted for years. Forster’s diaries described the relationship as “trying” and Buckingham actually considered himself heterosexual.
Despite his unstable relationship with Bob Buckingham, Forster developed a close friendship with Buckingham’s wife, May. Over the years, he offered the family financial support and introduced the couple to various cultural aspects and ideas. In Forster’s later years, Buckingham grew more distant and even denied their relationship. However, May reminded Buckingham of the generosity Forster had provided them with for years.
3. Willa Cather
Known for her beloved classic My Ántonia, Cather first met longtime partner Edith Lewis (a successful editor) in 1903 in Lincoln, Nebraska. The women bonded over writing, and just five years later were sharing an apartment together in New York, where they lived with one another for forty years. Lewis also lent her valuable editing skills to revising some of Cather’s fictional work. Although only one known letter exists among the two women (written by Cather to Lewis), other letters indicate that Lewis was consistently involved in Cather’s personal, familial life. The two women are buried together in Jaffrey, New Hampshire at the base of Mount Monadnock.
4. Amy Lowell
Today, Amy Lowell is regarded as one of the greatest female American poets. She is credited with helping bring the Imagist movement of poetry from Europe to the States. We know for sure that Lowell was a lesbian and we can thank her partner of thirteen years, Ada Dwyer Russell, for inspiring some of Lowell’s most beautiful poems, such as “Decade,” “Madonna of the Evening Flowers,” and “Summer Rain.” Lowell and Russell stayed in a relationship until Lowell passed away in 1925.
Other poetry about Russell and female-female relationships can be found in the poetry collection, “Two Speak Together.” As lesbian relationships were not at all accepted in society at the time Lowell and Russell were together, Lowell “used code words to communicate her sexuality. As time passed and her disguised reputation grew, she grew bolder in expressing her love.” Some of Lowell’s poems were unapologetically “erotic” in response to society’s laws and cultural norms.
5. Oscar Wilde
Known for his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and the play The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde remains one of the most popular English writers of the late nineteenth century. Wilde was gay, and as homosexuality was a crime in Britain at the time, he needed to hide his sexual identity so he actually married and had two sons. However, he had an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, a poet sixteen years younger than Wilde.
After Douglas’ father tried to expose Wilde, Wilde decided to sue the aristocrat for criminal libel and defamation. Sadly for Wilde, he lost the court case and was sentenced to prison due to the abundant evidence brought forth about his sexual preferences and relationships with other males. He spent two years in prison, then was exiled to France where he spent the last three years of his life.
6. Walt Whitman
Whitman never married, and scholars disagree on what Whitman’s sexuality actually was. The most common thoughts are that he was either bisexual or gay. In 1865, Whitman met Peter Doyle, a Confederate veteran and a streetcar conductor who was twenty-four years younger than Whitman. Although the two had stark differences, the men bonded quickly and formed a strong relationship that lasted until Whitman passed away in 1892. In Whitman’s magnum opus Leaves of Grass, the “Calamus” poems (found in later editions of Leaves of Grass) describe romantic and sexual relationships among men, and were inspired by Doyle.
James Baldwin’s sexuality has been a constant topic of conversation for those who take an interest in his personal life, literature, and civil rights participation. He is described as having been “unapologetically gay.” Along with his perceptions on racism, many of his novels focus on ideas about sexuality and sexual identity. Go Tell It on the Mountain even contains possible allusion to Baldwin’s own discovery of his gay identity. Baldwin met Swiss painter Lucien Happersberger in 1949. Baldwin was smitten with Happersberger and fell in love with the young artist. However, Happersberger married three years later, which left Baldwin brokenhearted.
According to the National Museum for African American History & Culture, Baldwin intentionally chose not to use labels to define his sexual identity. Instead, Baldwin wanted to be perceived as a person who had love to give, regardless of its recipient. While he had various relationships with women when he was younger, “his love was directed toward men” during the later years of his life. He also spent the remainder of his adult life “looking for a man with whom to settle down and build a home and family.”
8. Alice Walker
Alice Walker’s timeless novel The Color Purple, won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1983, making her the first Black woman to win the award. Race and gender are two of the various topics Walker focuses on in her writing. Walker is described as being bisexual. She was married to a Jewish lawyer named Melvyn Leventhal in 1967, but they divorced in 1976. During the mid-1990s, Walker had a relationship with singer/songwriter Tracy Chapman. About their relationship, Walker said, “It was delicious and lovely and wonderful and I totally enjoyed it, and I was completely in love with her, but it was not anybody’s business but ours.”
Despite the labels of “bisexual” and “lesbian” being attributed to Walker, she once stated, “I am not lesbian, I am not bisexual, I am not straight. I am just curious.”
Christopher Isherwood was forty-eight when he met eighteen-year-old Don Bachardy on a Malibu beach in 1952. The men kept an openly gay relationship for the next thirty four years, until Isherwood passed away in 1986. Bachardy was an artist, Isherwood a novelist. The pressures from their careers, the strong, conservative opinions of same-sex relationships during the time, and lustful attractions to other men while the couple was apart almost led to their breaking up in 1968. The couple wrote many letters for over ten years during this time, which provides great insight into the true nature of their relationship, as well as their beliefs about living through the times before gay marriage/relationships were legal. You can read these letters in The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, which was published in 2014.
Like Amy Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay is considered one of the greatest female American poets from the twentieth century. From an early age, Millay took a strong interest in feminism and women’s rights. She attended Vassar College, which was an all-female school at the time, and had romantic affairs with some of her classmates. During her later life, Millay lived as an open bisexual in New York City. Her work “The Lamp and the Bell” features female-female lovers, while her 1920 poetry collection A Few Figs from Thistles focuses on female sexuality.
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