A Brief History
On December 15, 1973, with a vote of 13-0, the American Psychiatric Association agreed to remove homosexuality from its list of psychiatric disorders. We marked this historical event with our article, “Is Homosexuality a Mental Disorder?” Today we take a look at some of the many famous or important historical figures that are known or believed to have been homosexual or something other than straight heterosexual. Some on the list you may be familiar with, while others may come as a surprise. Some on the list may only be the subject of conjecture, with no definitive historical “proof” one way or the other. As always, we invite your opinion about any of the conjecture or conclusions contained herein, or any additional information that could enlighten us and other readers.
1. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI.
It seems that many gay-bashers doth protest too much, and we have seen many instances of hypocritical politicians and prominent people that attack alleged LGBTQ people being covertly members of that community themselves. Corrupt political attorney Roy Cohn (attorney and attack dog for Senator Joseph McCarthy and later Donald J. Trump, Cohn died of AIDS in 1986) comes to mind, as does former Senator Larry Craig. J Edgar Hoover was the first and longest serving Director of the FBI (1924-1972) who built that organization into the premier crime fighting powerhouse in the world, Hoover, a lifelong bachelor (NOT an indication of homosexuality by itself, just as being married to a person of the opposite sex does not indicate or prove heterosexuality) had a long and close relationship with Clyde Tolson, a man that became an Assistant Director of the FBI, to the point of often taking meals together, going on vacation together and allegedly watching races at Del Mar from boxes exclusively used by gay men. One writer reported seeing Hoover painting Tolson’s toenails. Hoover left his estate to Tolson upon Hoover’s death in 1972, and Tolson moved into Hoover’s former home. Hoover seemed to be salacious in his interest of the sexual interests of other people, and is alleged to have used such information to blackmail other people, even US Presidents, as well as to ensure his own continued position with the FBI. He directed all seized pornography be turned over to himself, personally, thus amassing an enormous collection of pornography and sexual photos probably without parallel. Hoover is also alleged to have engaged in cross-dressing behavior, and his alleged sexual indiscretions are claimed to have been the basis for Mafia blackmail of the Director, an ironic twist, that is offered as a reason Hoover adamantly refused to admit the existence of the Mafia. Hoover abetted the “Lavender Scare” of the 1950’s perpetrated by Senator McCarthy and Roy Cohn, vilifying homosexuals to the point that politically President Eisenhower felt compelled to order that homosexuals be denied any Federal positions. On the other hand, some claim that Hoover actually dated at least a couple women, including actress Dorothy Lamour. Was Hoover a closet cross-dressing homosexual? Or was he a frustrated heterosexual afraid to express his sexuality due to the propriety demanded of his job? Or was he really asexual? Like many historical figures, the answers are not crystal clear.
2. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple.
In previous years and eras, a major industry leader failing to live up to expected standards of societal sexual norms may have been ruinous, but today the head of one of the most important companies in the world can express his sexuality without concern about business consequences. Employed by Apple since 1998, Tim Cook (or “Tim Apple” as President Trump called him!) is also a member of the Board of Nike, the clothing and sports equipment giant. Apple is perhaps the most valuable company in the world today, with a brand value of over $205 billion and brand revenue of over $265 billion. Market value of Apple is quite near to $1 trillion, slightly ahead of competitor Microsoft. When Tim Cook “came out” as openly gay in 2014, he became the first Fortune 500 CEO to do so.
3. Alexander the Great, Macedonian Emperor.
Also known as Alexander II of Macedon, this Macedonian/Greek leader and general was fantastically successful in conquering most of the known civilized world of his time. Despite taking 3 wives as well as mistresses and fathering children, Alexander is persistently alleged to have been homosexual, although something more like bi-sexual seems to be a more appropriate guess. His alleged homosexuality may stem partly from the popular notion of ancient Greeks as prone to homosexuality on a widespread basis, perhaps valuing relationships between men as more valuable than relationships between a man and a woman just as men were more valued members of the family and society. Greek concepts of “love” and relationships are not necessarily parallel to those we understand today. Speculation about Alexander’s alleged homosexuality centers on his relationship with his BFF, Hephaestion. The death of Hephaestion is said to have caused Alexander to descend into a deep melancholy. Though often referred to as homosexual, Alexander the Great was probably more of a situational sexual person that did not define himself in restrictive terms.
4. Abraham Lincoln, US President.
Considered by many to be our Greatest President or one of our Greatest Presidents (except of course by Donald Trump supporters who in 2019 ranked President Trump ahead of Abraham Lincoln!), Lincoln is a somewhat melancholy figure that was cut down while still serving as President, thus failing to provide further insight into his ideas, thoughts, and feelings that he may have later revealed had he lived. Believed to be a depressed person, Lincoln is often referred to as possibly having been a gay man, although the historical record notes that he indeed dated and courted women, married and had children, and even made jokes and references about sexual conquests. Rumors of homosexuality center on his sharing an apartment with Joshua Speed, a shopkeeper Lincoln befriended in Springfield, Illinois when Lincoln was starting his law practice. The 2 men shared the single bed in the apartment, an arrangement not unusual for the time due to economic necessity. When Speed decided to move to Kentucky, Lincoln was said to be distraught and even broke off his engagement to Mary Todd, his eventual wife. Speed also later married, though he fathered no children. Another man allegedly linked to Lincoln sexually was Captain David Derickson, the head of Lincoln’s personal bodyguard during his Presidency. The 2 men are supposed to have shared the President’s bed when Mary Todd Lincoln was away from the White House. Finally, a bit of comic poetry by The Great Emancipator seems to hint at homosexuality,
“For Reuben and Charles have married two girls,
But Billy has married a boy.
The girls he had tried on every side,
But none he could get to agree;
All was in vain, he went home again,
And since that he’s married to Natty.”
Any definitive analysis of whether or not Abraham Lincoln was gay, straight, or whatever, is elusive.
5. Michelangelo, Artist.
One of the great artists of all time, Michelangelo (1475-1564) was a devout Catholic, more or less mandatory in the Italy (or what later became Italy) of his day. He may have been somewhat monk-like, and possibly asexual, as he led a life of simple food, clothing, and activity despite no economic or cultural need to do so. Likewise, he is not known to have engaged in any serious sexual pursuits of men or women. The possibility of his homosexuality revolves around Tommaso dei Cavalieri, a young man of only 23 years old when Michelangelo met him (Michelangelo was 57 at the time). The pair hit it off spectacularly, and the only effusive written record by Michelangelo about any person refers directly to his love of Tommaso. Likewise, Tommaso returned the adoration, saying, “I swear to return your love. Never have I loved a man more than I love you, never have I wished for a friendship more than I wish for yours.” Does this indicate a sexual type of love, or are we reading into the mere expression of mutual respect and admiration? The word “love” does not always connote romantic love. (Example: I do NOT wish to have sex with a pizza, although I do “love” pizza!) Michelangelo was more than a painter, architect and sculptor, as his creative nature also ranged into the written word, specifically poetry. His poetry is described by some to be somewhat “homoerotic,” lending to the speculation about his sexuality. Regardless of speculation, we have no evidence of any sort of physical relation between Michelangelo and any person, male or female.
6. Leonardo da Vinci, Scientist and Artist.
Born in 1452 and died in 1519, Leonardo is somewhat of a contemporary of Michelangelo as far as being an Italian Renaissance artist goes, although Leonardo was also a leading scientist of his day, as well as weapons designer and inventor. His scientific pursuits concerned such diverse subjects as anatomy, botany, biology, math, engineering, astronomy and just about every field of science that existed at the time. His artistic pursuits were likewise many and varied. Born out of wedlock, Leonardo spent his career in the service of wealthy patrons, both in Italy and in France. His greatest artistic achievement is probably the “Mona Lisa” painting, possibly the most famous and valuable (close to $1 billion in 2019 dollars) painting in history. The subject of whether or not Leonardo was homosexual has been offered for discussion for many years, including by Sigmund Freud. In fact, the rumors of Leonardo being gay go back to his own lifetime. Leonardo was also accused of sodomy during his lifetime, all of which contributes to the popular assumption that he was homosexual. Of course, he also never married, though as we keep saying, that fact means next to nothing. As with many historical figures, there is little absolute proof one way or the other, and one must decide for oneself what the most likely truth is about this great man’s sexuality.
7. James Buchanan, US President.
Our only lifelong bachelor President (in office 1857-1861), Buchanan’s sexuality is a matter of conjecture rather than established fact. Some writers, such as James W. Loewen, opine that Buchanan was indeed a homosexual, while other such as Jean Baker state a belief that Buchanan was really asexual. Either way, Buchanan is often listed as one of our worst Presidents, largely for his inability to deal with the contentious issue of slavery preceding the American Civil War. As a young man, Buchanan is known to have courted women and to have sought marriage, further muddying the waters of conjecture. After the untimely death of a woman courted by Buchanan, the future President never courted another woman. Was he heartbroken by the loss of a love, or was he merely done keeping up a pretense of heterosexuality? Another factor in the rumors about Buchanan stem from his relationship with William Rufus King, a politician that had (briefly) served as Vice President under Franklin Pierce and shared a boardinghouse with Buchanan. The social situation of the time (1834-1844) was such that men sharing a room was not uncommon, though some references to the relationship imply more than mere roommates, and the pair attended social functions together. Were they a “couple” or just friends? Correspondence between the 2 men is believed to have been destroyed by the nieces of King. What letters do survive indicate a close relationship but are not definitive. Note: Buchanan is the only US President from Pennsylvania, kind of surprising considering that Pennsylvania was one of the original 13 states and has historically been among the most populous US states. Speculation about the sexuality of US Presidents is not limited to Lincoln and Buchanan.
Question for students (and subscribers): What historical figure would you add to this list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Gentry, Curt. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Lunday, Elizabeth. Secret Lives of Great Artists: What Your Teachers Never Told You About Master Painters and Sculptors. Quirk Books, 2008.
Nikel, Jim. The First Gay President? A Look into the Life and Sexuality of James Buchanan, Jr. Minute Help Press, 2011.
Renault, Mary. The Nature of Alexander. Pantheon, 1979.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of members of The Frente de Liberación Homosexual (FLH; “Homosexual Liberation Front”) in 1973, is in the public domain because the copyright of this photograph, registered in Argentina, has expired. (Both at least 25 years have passed after the photograph was created, and it was first published at least 20 years ago, Law 11.723, Article 34 as amended, and Berne Convention Article 7 (4)).