As the grand high queen herself, Ru Paul, often declares:, ‘Knowing our his(her)story is fundamental’. However, gay history is often – quite literally – buried under the ages. The battle to uncover and reclaim the gay figures of old is a real one, with LGBTQ+ historians accused of imposing modern ideology on historical times. Yet why should a heterosexual assumption take precedence when historical evidence clearly points to the contrary – even if the word ‘gay’ was yet to be used.
We delve into the stories of six prominent gay figures – from emperors to poets, traveling through history from ancient times to the modern era.
Emperor Ai of Han (25 BC – 1BC)
Traveling all the way back to Ancient China, the older dynasties were surprisingly somewhat less conservative than the latter ones. Men weren’t expected to be monogamous and thus many emperors had “male favorites” alongside their wives – the most famous of which being Emperor Ai of Han.
The story of Ai’s affections for his lover Dong Xian is a most romantic tale. When he fell in love with the beautiful 19-year-old he invited him to live in his palace, taking him everywhere and bestowing Xain with positions like chief commander of the armed forces. One day Dong Xion was asleep on Ai’s sleeve and – rather than wake him – Ai cut his own sleeve off. Since then, “the passion of the cut sleeve” has become a euphemism used throughout later centuries to imply man-on-man love.
Elagabalus (218 – 222)
Roman emperors were also known for dabbling in a little man-on-man action, such as in the case of Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus – more commonly known as Elagabalus. Elagabalus remains controversial as debates rage about if he – or she – was in fact a trans emperor, as Elagabalus once famously proclaimed: “Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady”. Whatever side you fall, it is undeniable Elagabalus had many male lovers – alongside his/her six wives – and thus falls firmly under the queer bracket. Elagablus’s favorite lover was a charioteer called Hierocles, on whom he/she bestowed great favors and political influence.
It was far from an idealistic relationship though and the emperor was prone to infidelities and Hierocles jealous rages. Hierocles used his power to banish the emperor’s other lovers and even inflicted physical violence upon Elagabalus when he/she was unfaithful. Ultimately, Hiiercoles’s fate was tied to Elagabalus and both were assassinated when Elagabalus was deposed.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)
Jumping ahead to the modern era we encounter the Italian artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci, a historical figure whose queer sexuality is undeniable. Da Vinci is well known to have never embraced a woman, leading some to claim he was asexual. However, in Florence – during a period of sexual liberation in the city akin to that of the 1970’s – he was believed to have taken many male lovers without consequence.
Definitive evidence of Da Vinci’s sexuality came, however, when the political climate shifted in Florence and Leonardo moved to Milan. Here he met his long-term lover and apprentice, Giacomo Caprotti, who he nicknamed “Salai” – Tuscan slang for “little devil”. How playfully he meant the epithet was unclear, but Salai became his model, muse and lover – staying with him until the end of Da Vinci’s life. Take a tour with Quiiky to learn more and follow in Da Vinci’s footsteps through Milan.
King James 1 (1566 – 1625)
King James 1 of England was famous for being a bit of a drama king! Born in Edinburgh as the son of the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots, King James 1 was the first of the Stuart kings. He was married to Ann of Denmark, but it was no secret he had several male lovers. The first of these was Robert Carr, a “gentleman of the bedchamber”, who James favored to the extent he would even openly affectionately touch him in public and named him Earl of Somerset.
However, drama ensued when Carr shunned James by refusing to sleep in his bedchamber. After some – rather public – emotional outpourings from the flamboyant king, he eventually moved on to another lover in George Villiers. George was said to be the handsomest man in all England and the two remained lovers till James’s death in 1625.
Julie d’Aubigny (1670-1707)
Julie is perhaps the most eccentric character in all of history! The French bisexual crossdressing dualist was born in Versailles, as the daughter of a family who worked in the royal stables. During her colorful life she escaped her arranged marriage by traveling across France partying, singing, and beating men in duels for the hands of women. She joined the opera – where she had fisticuffs with men who harassed her fellow co-stars – and attended royal balls dressed in men’s clothing in order to court women.
How did she get away with all that during 17th century France you might ask? Well, King Louis the 14th’s own brother was gay, and he couldn’t enforce anti-homosexuality law without arresting his own sibling. That and the shifting political situation of the time allowed Julie to not just exist, but flourish as a woman before her time.
Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)
Oscar Wilde was an Irish playwright, poet, novelist and just all around witty gentleman. Wilde is one of the most celebrated writers of the 19th century, his satirical plays like ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ and novels like ‘The Portrait of Dorian Grey’ becoming timeless classics. He was also unashamedly gay, eccentric, and highly flamboyant. Wilde had openly gay relationships in a time in which it was highly illegal, leading to him being imprisoned for two years of hard labor. Sadly, after his release he was never the same and fled to France to live out his later years.
As well as his writing, his pithy expressions are some of the most quoted to this day. Wilde once said: ‘There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about’. This rings true to the gays of old – to whom we owe so much. Surely the least we can do is discover and tell their stories!
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