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Famous LGBT people: Historical icons who you didn’t know were queer

Josh Jackman February 28, 2019
Portraits of historical LGBT+ figures William Shakespeare, Florence Nightingale and King James VI and I

Historians think William Shakespeare, Florence Nightingale and King James VI and I were queer (all public domain)

Every LGBT History Month, we come together to celebrate queer culture and our many achievements.

But while it’s relatively easy to find icons and heroes to look up to nowadays, it can seem like there aren’t many queer figures to connect to who lived before the 20th century.

In many periods of history, LGBT people weren’t exactly welcomed out of the closet, so it can be difficult to find openly queer idols.

Fortunately, historians have done the hard work of uncovering lots of prominent figures’ sexualities, so you can have a whole new batch of wonderful stars to look up to.

Here are nine historical icons who you didn’t know were queer:

Leonardo da Vinci

Last year, a book by biographer Walter Isaacson called Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography showed the extent to which da Vinci lived as an openly gay man in 15th century Florence.

The text, which was based on thousands of pages of the artist‘s own notebooks, recounted how da Vinci had a string of younger male companions.

Leonardo da Vinci, one of many queer figures who could be remembered during LGBT History Month
Italian painter and sculptor Leonardo da Vinci was rumoured to have gay sex. (Hulton Archive/Getty)

He also repeatedly depicted male sexuality in his art and faced accusations of sodomy during his lifetime.

The artist was twice publicly accused of having gay sex, his youthful male protege was removed because of the “wicked life he had led” with Leonardo, and his own writings repeatedly mused on his own attraction to men—and borderline revulsion to sex with women.

Florence Nightingale

As well as being the founder of modern nursing, Nightingale also loved three women passionately, according to 1993 book Superstars: Twelve Lesbians Who Changed the World.

This reportedly included her cousin, Marianna Nicholson.

LGBT History Month: A picture of British nurse Florence Nightingale
Florence Nightingale had multiple intimate same-sex relationships. (Public Domain)

The 19th century British icon was apparently so in love with Marianna that she pretended to be her brother Henry in order to avoid the judgment of others.

Nightingale, who never married, also enjoyed intimate relationships with her aunt Mai and cousin Hilary.

King James VI and I

The king, who ruled from 1567 to 1625, is widely accepted to have had multiple same-sex partners over the course of his life.

James, who is best known for commissioning the King James Bible, often gave titles to his lovers, including Robert Carr, who he made the Earl of Somerset.

LGBT History Month: James VI and I had same-sex relationships with members of the aristocracy
James VI and I in 1586, aged 20 appears to have been queer. (Public Domain)

He also fell for George Villiers, making him a knight, an earl, and later Duke of Buckingham.

Though plenty of evidence exists to support a relationship between the king and Villiers, it was long airbrushed from public view.

In his letters to the king, Villiers wrote: “I naturally so love your person, and adore all your other parts, which are more than ever one man had.”

Selma Lagerlöf

Lagerlöf was the first female writer to ever be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, which she won in 1909.

In 1992, the Swedish author’s letters to her Jewish lover and fellow writer Sophie Elkan were published in a book Du lär mig att bli fri.

This Swedish title translates to: “You teach me to be free.”

“I have you with me everywhere, see you and hear you and live with you. Once I can’t do that anymore, I will long for you.”

— Selma Lagerlöf to her partner Sophie Elkan

The women started a relationship after meeting in 1894, and stayed together until Elkan died in 1921, writing thousands of letters to each other in the meantime.

In one of these, Lagerlöf tells her beloved: “I have you with me everywhere, see you and hear you and live with you.

LGBT History Month: Selma Lagerlöf had a long same-sex relationship with Sophie Elkan
Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Public Domain)

“Once I can’t do that anymore, I will long for you. In any case, I can’t thank you enough for these past days.”

Lagerlöf was also the first woman to ever feature on a Swedish banknote, gracing the 20 kronor note when it was created in 1991.

William Shakespeare

The idea that the most lauded British playwright of all time was queer has historically been seen as controversial, but has been endorsed by multiple experts and even legendary actor Sir Ian McKellen.

In 2012, the decorated star said: “I’d say Shakespeare slept with men. The Merchant of Venice, centring on how the world treats gays as well as Jews, has a love triangle between an older man, younger man and a woman.”

“And the complexity in his comedies with cross-dressing and disguises is immense. Shakespeare obviously enjoyed sex with men as well as women,” he added.

LGBT History Month: English poet and dramatist, William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616), circa 1610.
The sexuality of William Shakespeare has been debated for many years (Hulton Archive/Getty)

Gregory Doran, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, explained in 2017 that Shakespeare “wrote a cycle of 154 sonnets, which were published in 1609, and 126 of those sonnets are addressed to a man and not to a woman.

“It wasn’t somehow quite kosher for the great national bard to possibly have affections for his own sex and therefore that process, to kind of whitewash through the sonnets,” he added.

And Stanley Wells, the chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, commented in 2016 that “when a poet whose name is William writes poems of anguished and unabashed sexual frankness which pun on the word ‘will’—13 times in [Sonnet] No 135… it is not unreasonable to conclude that he may be writing from the depths of his own experience.”

Roberta Cowell

Roberta Cowell was a British World War II fighter pilot, racing car driver—and one of the first people to ever undergo gender confirmation surgery.

The trans woman spent five months in a German prisoner-of-war camp after being captured, where she resorted to killing and eating cats to survive.

Roberta Cowell is a pioneer and the sort of icon people can learn about during LGBT History Month
Roberta Cowell was a trans World War Two pilot (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1951, groundbreaking plastic surgeons Sir Harold Gillies and Ralph Millard performed one of the first successful vaginoplasty surgeries on Cowell.

Richard I

King Richard, who hardly spent any time with his wife and had no children, was rumoured to have enjoyed a scandalous affair with Philip II of France.

His royal secretary Roger Hovedon wrote that the two “ate every day at the same table and from the same dish, and at night their beds did not separate them.

LGBT History Month: King of England Richard I (1157 - 1199), known as Richard the Lion-Hearted, wearing a helmet and a cloak fastened with clasp.
The King of England Richard I was rumoured to have enjoyed a scandalous affair with Philip II of France. (Hulton Archive/Getty)

“And the King of France loved him as his own soul; and they loved each other so much that the King of England was absolutely astonished at the vehement love between them and marvelled at what it could mean.”

Caroline Spurgeon

The first ever female university professor at the University of London—and only the second in England—asked to be buried next to civil servant Lilian Clapham, who was made an MBE for promoting job opportunities for women.

LGBT History Month: A picture of Caroline Spurgeon from a 1920 publication
Caroline Spurgeon was the second ever female university professor in England. (Public Domain)

Spurgeon designed the gravestone which memorialises Clapham—who was also captain of the England women’s hockey team—and left a message remembering their “happy life together” when she died in 1935, according to LGBT history charity Brighton Ourstory.

They can be found buried next to each other in Alciston churchyard, East Sussex.

Julius Caesar

The Roman dictator was often mocked by opponents for his rumoured queer relationships.

He reportedly engaged in an affair with King Nicomedes IV, who ruled over an Asian province of Roman territory called Bithynia, and was mocked for taking on a submissive role in their sexual relations.

Julius Caesar, who is usually a subject during history class, not LGBT History Month
Julius Caesar had multiple rumoured queer relationships. (Public Domain)

According to one historian, during Caesar’s Gallic triumph his soldiers sang: “Caesar may have conquered the Gauls, but Nicomedes conquered Caesar.”

The emperor was mocked by some political adversaries as the “Queen of Bithynia,” which shows that the history of homophobic taunts is long and undistinguished.

As well as ruling a vast republic, Caesar also had rumoured affairs with his engineer Mamurra and Octavian, who ultimately became Augustus, the first Emperor of the Roman Empire.

More: Caroline Spurgeon, Europe, Florence Nightingale, History, Italy, Julius Caesar, King James VI and I, leonardo da vinci, lgbt history month, Richard I, Roberta Cowell, Selma Lagerlöf, Sweden, UK, William Shakespeare

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