Gays of History / Gaze of History

For week 2 of #AcWriBloMo, we have been charged to finish a blog post that we started and gave up on. This suggested one thing and one thing only: Gertrude Stein. I’ve been getting really into Stein lately and had made a couple of attempts at a “Gertrude Stein and Detective Fiction” post — which kept going nowhere because I kept finding new and delicious nuggets. Anyway, I changed my mind and am cheating. Because the following post has nothing to do with Stein.

Instead, I reckon it’s high time I got the queer aspect of this blog off the ground — and this is something I thought about writing a few weeks ago (you know, when it was topical), but never even started. So, it sort of counts – right? 


Recently, PinkNews published an article by EJ Rossetta, “Five Famous Women History Has Outed as Lesbians.” I don’t wish to pick on this article specifically, but to use it as an example of a wider concerning trend.

Since Stonewall, and the increasing mainstream popularity of pride movements, historical figures have frequently been “outed” in LGBTQ+ media, general media, political initiatives, and even academic projects. We’ve all heard that Shakespeare was a shirt-lifter, that  Anne Lister was a lesbian, that Alan Turing was a gay rights martyr, and Virginia Woolf was 1920s Bloomsbury’s answer to Ellen de Generes (to coin a phrase form  Murder by Death, “that’s just tacky”). There are popular websites dedicated to gay heroes in history, and Schools Out, a charity, educates children about historical figures in LGBT History Month each year. It is, perhaps, a sign of the times, that Rictor Norton, once a laughing stock among gender theorists and historians for his anachronistic readings of gay male (and sometimes lesbian) history, is enjoying a resurgence of interest.

Rosetta’s article really riled me because of its glibness. She begins by insouciantly assuming that everyone today now enjoys total equality  and then proceeds to gesture towards real lives and stories because “it’s quite fun to hypothesis.” There is also the arrogant assertion that we can say with certainty what other people meant or were thinking; that we and we alone can read between whatever lines we perceive:

The only difference is that [we] are the first generation that are allowed to live openly […] We get to be authentic… lucky us

Of course, as Norton has pointed out, it is important for some LGBTQ+ people to have a history they belong to; to name important historical figures with whom they can claim something fundamental in common. But us this unfortunate phrasing indicates, it can become dangerous.

Since Rosetta’s article simply filches the most famous names she recognises from other websites, it’s hard to critique her methodology specifically. The women she outs are:

Marie-Antoinette[1]1. Eleanor Roosevelt (“someone we know for sure”)

2. Marie Antoinette (because she was Austrian and didn’t respond to a pamphlet alleging affairs with noble men and women)

3. Virginia Woolf (because of Vita Sackville West — “indisputable proof” of lesbianism!  Don’t get me started on bi erasure)

4. Marilyn Monroe (because she preferred masturbation to sex with men)

5. Florence Nightingale (the most convincing of all, apparently).

According to Rosetta,

Florence Nightingale lived and died a secret lesbian. [… She] was deeply religious and took a vow of celibacy which lasted her whole life. I am not suggesting that this woman engaged in lesbian activity (my favourite kind of activity)… only that there is evidence that, had she not committed herself to God, she may have preferred the company of women. And who can blame her? Plus, remember, you don’t have to have sex to be gay… but it probably helps.

So let me get this straight: you don’t have to have sex to be gay —  but you do. Or, you have to want sex. And that makes you gay. Not bisexual, not polyamorous, not anything else, not someone who hasn’t thought about their sexuality or never had the dichotomies we happen to have access to, but gay. The final line, incidentally, is plagiarised from’s page on Nightingale.

The evidence for this “desire for women” comes from a quote that is a mishmash of two different quotes, further altered, and out of context.

I have lived and slept in the same beds with English Countesses and Prussian farm women. No woman has excited passions among women more than I have.

The two sentences, in fact, come from different parts of Nightingale’s memoirs, and even today neither remark suggests a sexual or romantic desire for women. Certainly, as everyone knows, nurses slept in the same beds as those they attended. But all this is getting me away from my objections to more sophisticated outing projects.

Lists of historical figures can be inspiring, as mentioned above. Just think of Oscar Wilde, impassioned and theatrical in court, going back to the Bible and Aristotle to justify who he was. But what these lists do is draw upon available stereotypes and classify whole ranges of figures according to their behaviour — thus, circularly, endorsing the stereotypes as legitimate identity categories. And in a world which, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick once pointed out, is “constructed along the warp and woof of homophobia”, these stereotypes are always negatively weighted.

Outing historical figures also confirms that available identity categories themselves are somehow essential, immutable, and definite.  We smooth out life’s complexities enough before we evade the temporally specific nature of identity categories. Surely we should be looking for a future beyond gay and straight, beyond male and female. Surely we need to pay more heed to the needs of trans people, non-binary people, people who are neither gay nor straight, people whose queerness does not translate to homosexuality.  And surely configuring anything we happen to perceive from our own perspective as active, specifically defined and charicatured, homosexuality is the opposite of progressive.

A further concern, raised by a number of commentators in all the hysteria we had over Turing in 2012, is that such approaches assume that queer people only matter when they live as straight people, achieving great things for straight institutions. Turing, we kept being told, was the hero of the second world war. Significant use of language.

Is the current state of identity categories really the pinnacle of human achievement? I absolutely believe that we should look at people, stories, and moments from history, but to absorb them into our current understandings of gay and straight is to deny them their value in establishing a rich, juicy dialogue with infinite variety.

To conclude, the project of outing historical figures, unless handled with a great deal of sensitivity, inevitably imposes an anachronistic – and binarised – model of identity onto individuals. In this, it limits the scope of human sexual representation by suggesting that sexuality as we currently see it is the absolute, definitive, pinnacle of self-realisation; a fundamental and defining truth. It confirms negative stereotypes, discourages experimentation, exploration, and subversion, and assumes that one’s queerness can only be absolved in dialogue with one’s contributions to straight history. We’re doing our heroes wrong.


List of References

Fogg, Ally. “Alan Turing’s Pardon is Wrong.” Guardian (24 Dec. 2013).

Rosetta, E.J. “Five Famous Women History Outed as Gay.” PinkNews (12 Aug. 2014).

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet (Duke UP, 1990/2009).

Spears, Jay. Gay Heroes (last updated 20 Jan 2011).


  1. Fully agree with this entire post, to a fist-punping extent! Along with diagnosing past figures with illnesses, outing them as gay is one of the most frustratingly misguided and hubristic things, good to see this practise taken down so masterfully.

    However, one thing I would question is, did you really mean to say that Rosetta “lynches” her source material from other websites? Is this a typo? Cause, I mean, as far as I know the only meaning of that word is racist violence and killings (or the trivialising metaphorical tabloid sense of “attacking” someone, usually a white person and usually a completely non-violent attack like telling them they were wrong or verbally being mean or what have you). Sorry if I’m being dense, and I’m sure you’re not trying to compare plagurising website material to mob hangings! But I have no idea what you meant, and it’s a hell of a loaded word to have out of context.

    1. Thanks! The word I meant was ‘filches’ and I changed it within three hours of posting. Actually, I got out of bed unable to leave it until the morning because I felt so bad. Apologies for any distress caused.

      1. Ahh I see! No worries. I wasn’t distressed so much as completely baffled. But my brain does exactly that kind of silly replacing a word with the wrong one thing too — I’m always wanting to call people by the wrong name and stuff like that. I’m sorry to hear you felt so awful about it, I was sure it was bound to be some kind of weird mix up.

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