World

6 brilliant, brave and inspirational LGBT+ Nobel Prize winners from history

Emma Powys Maurice October 8, 2021
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Nobel Prize winners

Nobel Prize winners Selma Lagerlöf, Thomas Mann, and Jane Addams (Getty)

Since 1901 the Nobel Prize has been honouring the best and the brightest whose achievements have brought “the greatest benefit to humankind”.

Two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, were named joint winners of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize Friday (8 October) for their work defending freedom of expression in the Philippines and Russia respectively.

The Nobel prizes are the world’s most prestigious awards in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace and economics – and throughout history the works of queer people have been central to each of these fields, whether society knew it or not.

It’s possible there are many more LGBT+ Nobel Prize winners than we realise, as some may have been forced to hide their sexuality in order to excel at a time when their sexuality wouldn’t have been accepted. Some of the world’s most brilliant minds – like the gay war hero Alan Turing – are notably left off the Nobel list.

But we do know of some laureates who were certainly queer, and who achieved honour and acclaim in spite of society’s prejudices.

Coincidentally almost all of them won the Nobel Prize for Literature, this being a field that was perhaps more accommodating to queer people than the others. Here are their stories.

Selma Lagerlöf

Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf, circa 1939. (Imagno/Getty)

Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909 in appreciation of “the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterise her writings.”

Her work was deeply rooted in the legends and folk tales from her native Värmland, which her grandmother used to tell her as a child.

Lagerlöf had several romantic relationships with women throughout her lifetime, and dedicated her acclaimed work Jerusalem to one “Sophie Elkan, my companion in life and letters.” Their intimate letters, which tell of their passionate love story from 1894 until Elkan’s death in 1921, were published in 1992.

Jacinto Benavente

Jacinto Benavente in 1922 (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty)

The prolific playwright was one of the foremost Spanish dramatists of the 20th century, best known for such plays as La Gobernadora (1901), Rosas de otoño (1905) and Señora ama (1908).

He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1922 “for the happy manner in which he has continued the illustrious traditions of the Spanish drama”.

Benavente’s homosexuality was fairly common knowledge in theatre circles at the time and was said to be “the gossip of Madrid”, though he always refused to acknowledge the rumours.

Jane Addams

Social reformer Jane Addams pictured in 1914 (Getty)

Jane Addams was an American settlement activist, reformer, social worker, sociologist, public administrator and author. In 1931, she became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and is recognised as the founder of the social work profession in the United States.

Addams had relationships with several women who are said to have offered her the time and energy to pursue her social work while being supported emotionally and romantically.

Her longest love was Mary Rozet Smith, with whom she lived as a married couple for 40 years. As her biographer Victoria Bissell Brown puts it, “Mary Smith became and always remained the highest and clearest note in the music that was Jane Addams’ personal life”.

Vicente Aleixandre

Vicente Aleixandre, winner of Nobel Prize for Literature 1977, pictured Madrid, Spain. (Gianni Ferrari/Cover/Getty)

Vicente Aleixandre was a Spanish poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1977 for his the totality of his creative poetic writings, which were said to “illuminate man’s condition in the cosmos and in present-day society, at the same time representing the great renewal of the traditions of Spanish poetry between the wars”.

Aleixandre’s bisexuality was reportedly well known among his circle of friends, but he never admitted it publicly. He had several relationships with women and men, according to El Mundo, though predominantly dated men after the age of 28. Among his great loves was the renowned poet Carlos Bousoño.

Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann sits at his desk in New York in 1943. (Fred Stein Archive/Archive Photos/Getty)

Thomas Mann was an acclaimed German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist and essayist, who was inspired by the works of philosophers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and the composer Wagner.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929 for his breakthrough novel, Buddenbrooks, which the Nobel committee praised for winning “steadily increased recognition as one of the classic works of contemporary literature.”

Mann’s diaries extensively detail his struggles with his repressed homosexuality. Homoerotic love, often unrequited, was a significant feature in much of his writing, including the works Death in Venice and Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man.

Patrick White

Patrick White at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 21 December 1981(Fairfax Media/Getty)

Patrick White was a gay Australian author who published 12 novels, three short-story collections, and eight plays, from 1935 to 1987.

He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973 for a body of work that the Swedish Academy described as “an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature”.

Like many gay men of his era he dared not speak of his sexuality and feared that it would doom him to loneliness, but this wasn’t the case. White would have many rich friendships and relationships during his lifetime, including the Greek army officer Manoly Lascaris, whom he met in the Middle East.

The couple lived happily together for the rest of their lives.

Related topics: Nobel Prize

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