Michelangelo is often considered one of history’s greatest artists, and his sexuality may have been part of what made him great, as that was certainly a factor in helping him break free of convention to create genius. The New Republic’s Jed Perl describes Michelangelo’s The Dream as his most haunting drawing, and it is fraught with homoerotic emotions.
The dreamer is a handsome young man, his naked muscular body decisively, dramatically posed. But the dream itself is tangled, ambiguous, dramatically confounding.
Amidst the tension between the calm of the central figure and the agitation swarming around it, Perl notes this may be a portrait of Michelangelo’s longtime lover, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. If true this offers an astonishing portrait of their often troubled relationship.
Whatever the source, The Dream inspires, disturbs, and challenges me, or as Perl puts it:
The Dream explodes the ordinary pleasures of allegory, which are the pleasures of piecing together a puzzle. Michelangelo’s puzzle, complete but still puzzling, is irreducible allegory—a whole thought to be grasped through the experiencing authority of the eye.
In 1966, three years before the Stonewall rebellion in New York, drag queens and others rioted against the police in San Francisco, a moment beautifully documented in the documentary Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria.
As the director states, “It was the first known instance of collective militant queer resistance to police harassment in United States history.”
At 24 minutes it is an enjoyable watch if you are interested in queer history or just love seeing how deliciously crazy, and defiant, we are here in San Francisco. And I say that as a proudly crazy native!
Sesame Street’s beloved Big Bird was created by two gay lovers who lived together for over 50 years, Kermit Love and his partner Christopher Lyall. They created the original Big Bird from a Jim Henson sketch of those glass toy drinking birds that rock back and forth as they drip their beaks in a glass of water.
After barbs were exchanged about Big Bird between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential election, The Daily Beast ran a lovely piece about Big Bird’s gay dads:
Lyall and Love were partners in work and life for half a century and in the 1980s traveled with Big Bird to the White House for the annual Easter egg roll. The most momentous results of that presidential nexus were the grass stains on Big Bird’s outsize feet. Nobody could have imagined that this puppet might someday play even the smallest role in deciding who would occupy the Oval Office. “We’ll see,” Lyall says. The possible political impact of this 8-foot-2 yellow plumed character takes a turn from the ridiculous to the delightfully apt when you consider this: Big Bird was the product of a profound partnership between two men that was in every way a marriage save for in the strictly legal sense that the law until very recently forbade.
Big Bird, left, and his creator Kermit Love, right. I think they both look like adorable muppets.
And hard as it is to believe, this lovely gay man who so influenced Sesame Street was in fact named Kermit Love. So. Cool.
Gay history was usually erased, but glimpses are preserved on the walls of Pompeii. One of the fascinating things preserved in Pompeii is the graffiti on the city walls where the thoughts of the people remain, uncensored by subsequent history. The walls of Pompeii read like a truck stop bathroom, including some colorful gay comments. As they appeared on August 24, 79 AD:
On the bar-brothel of Innulus and Papilio:
Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!
On the house of the Citharist below a drawing of a man with a large nose:
Amplicatus, I know that Icarus is buggering you. Salvius wrote this.
On the basilica:
Phileros is a eunuch!
On the Eumachia Building:
Secundus likes to screw boys.
On the house of Orpheus:
I have buggered men.
And who knows who wrote this one, male or female?
On the house of Poppaeus Sabinus: If you felt the fires of love, mule-driver, you would make more haste to see Venus. I love a charming boy; I ask you, goad the mules; let’s go. Take me to Pompeii, where love is sweet. You are mine…
Of course Pompeii wasn’t all gay. Most of the graffitti is straight, like these from the walls of a brothel where we get bragging men and a client’s review:
Celadus the Thracier makes the girls moan!
Gaius Valerius Venustus, soldier of the 1st praetorian cohort, in the century of Rufus, screwer of women
Myrtis, you do great blow jobs.
And it is not just graffiti, as the art of Pompeii tells a similar story. There is a frieze on the walls of the Suburban Baths showing sixteen sex scenes, including male-male and female-female couples and same-sex pairings within group sex scenes. Both men and women went to the bathe there, sharing a singular changing room, so it appears these kinds of images where common and acceptable to the people of the day.
Two men and a woman having sex, from the Suburban Baths of Pompeii circa 79 BC.
Shy, he stepped off into the cornfield. I could see
his back muscles under the damp shirt quiver and go slack.
Turning again to face the shade, he smiled at me, not
squinted, smiled, and finished tugging shut his fly.
Now, when the cornstalks in the night wind slide
like fire, I see him. He steps closer in my dream.
I don’t know, where he sleeps, if sleep refreshes him,
but here it works me like hot metal over a flame.
From the poem “The Idea Of Beauty” by Meleagros, 3rd century, translated by Brooks Haxton in The Atlantic.
One of the oldest depictions of sex we have ever found is a piece of homoerotic art. Carved into a Sicilian cave wall 120 centuries ago (!), the drawings of the Addaura cave depict men in bird masks with genitals displayed dancing in a circle. In the center of the circle two men with erections are poised one over the other, the erect penis of the male above connected by parallel lines with the buttocks of the man below. It is comical to read the tourist descriptions of these drawings as acrobatics, as if the men of 10,000 BC went deep into caves, pulled out their erections, and did cartwheels together. A more likely explanation came from the cave’s discoverer who described them as possible depiction of homoerotic initiation rituals, a likely possibility from a time when sexuality and the sacred where still merged.
Replica of the paleolithical drawings in the cave of Addaura from the Museo Regionale Archeologico in Palermo. (Photographer: Bernhard J. Scheuvens aka Bis)
If the caves of Addaura point to same-sex sexuality, the recent discovery of a male skeleton of a buried as a woman points to ancient gender variations. Five thousand years ago, a tribe of Stone Age humans lived near what is now Prague. We know little about them other than what we glean from their burial customs. Men were buried on their right sides with their heads facing east along with their weapons, flint knives, and tools like hammers. Women were buried with their heads facing west with their necklaces made from teeth, pets, copper earrings, and distinctive egg shaped jars. In 2011 scientists dug up a male skeleton buried in the female position without weapons but with household jugs and the egg shaped jar at his feet. There is no way to know how this man lived his life, if he was gay and loved men or transexual and lived his life as a woman. All we do know is that when he died his people gave him a respectful and traditional burial, as a woman.
Early gay man from around 2900-2500 B.C., found outside Prague.
On the 100th anniversary of the sinking of RMS Titanic, it is worth remembering that there were plenty of gay people on board that frightful night.
With passengers and crew of 2,223 people, and using the standard current guess of 4% gay, that would mean 89 gay men and women on board. However, knowing homosexuality was (and is) common in both marine and travel industries, we can guess the numbers below decks where significantly higher than that 4% figure.
Archie Butt (right) and President Howard Taft
There were certainly gay people among the gentry as well. Historians have looked most carefully at one pair of passengers, Archie Butt, an aide to President Howard Taft, and Frank Millet, a painter. After sharing a stateroom together in Berlin they traveled in separate berths on the doomed ship. Butt was a lifelong bachelor who courted rumors of interests in women but declared he would not marry. He was close to his mother, loved his flashy uniforms which he kept in top shape at all times, and took seven steamer trunks along with him for his six week trip to Europe. (Ahem.) Millet was older than Butt, and well known to be gay. He was married but lived apart from his wife. Millet was the man who convinced Butt to join him on the trip to Europe.
While people of that time didn’t spoke openly of homosexuality, the relationship between Butt and Millet was so well known their friends erected a fountain in the pair’s honor in Washington, DC after their deaths. As the Secretary of the American Civic Association, Richard Walrous, said in the New York Times of the April 17, 1912:
“No Damon and Pythias* friendship could have been closer than the friendship of Major Butt and Millet,” said Mr. Watrous. “The two kept quarters together and were inseparable when both were in Washington. They lived near the Metropolitan Club, Butt being, as is well known, a bachelor, and Mr. Millet’s family being quartered at his home in England… Among all of us who knew of the close friendship of Major Butt and Mr. Millet there has been the tensest of feeling since the news of disaster to the Titanic reached us.”
* Damon and Pythias were used as a code for gay relationships as they where two male mythical figures who demonstrated their undying love for each other.
[Update, July 2012]
I recently dined with my buddy Kamran in the original dining room of the Titanic.
Kami and I were blessed with a cruise to Alaska with my family on the Celebrity Millenium. (Loved Alaska! Proof in our way-too-many pics here.) On top of being overstuffed daily, we booked a table one night in the ship’s upscale restaurant, the Olympic, a room originally built as the fancy dining room of the Titanic.
The Olympic was the sister ship of Titanic, and according to the story Celebrity tells the Olympic was finished first, so Cunard switched the names of the ships so the first shipped launched would be named Titanic. So this dining room was actually built to be the Titanic’s, but sailed with the moniker Olympic. After years of service the dining room paneling was dismantled and installed in a stately old English home, and then later sold off as a setting for fancy cruise ship dining.
Regardless. The food was unbelievable, the service impecable and fun, and we ate until we were bursting. Hard to imagine the Titanic’s passengers ate better, and if nothing else it makes for a great story. ;-)
Here’s a crazy association: Apple’s famous but enigmatic logo, the apple with a bite out of it, has been tied to the suicide of a gay man.
We know Alan Turing as one of the greatest men of the 20th Century and inventor of the computer, but he was persecuted for the crime of homosexuality and finally committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide.
Apple’s original logo was an apple, and rainbow stripped, a common symbol of gay diversity. So did Steve Jobs choose an emblem that represented this brilliant but tragic story?
No. But the famously secretive Steve Jobs never denied it either, leaving the question of the origin of Apple’s apple open to all our projections, and making Apple all the more interesting for it.
Scientific America discusses why our brains love a good story, regardless of the truth.
One of the most important people in the modern history was a gay man. He was the first person to conceptualize the “thinking machine” we now call a computer, and he was the single person most responsible for saving the world from the Nazis. Yet the story ends tragically.
In 1936, at twenty four, Alan Turing announced that, “It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence.” Taking advantage of Turing’s brilliance, the Allies made him a key member of the secret code cracking team at Bletchley Park where he and his thinking machines cracked the Nazi Enigma code. From that point on the Allies could intercept commands sent to German U-boats in real time, turning the course of the war. Sir Harry Hinsley, a veteran of the Bletchley Park team and the official historian of British Intelligence in World War II said that Turing’s work shortened the war “by not less than two years and probably by four years.”
Sadly, saving the world was not enough to prove a gay life acceptable in his day. Turing was convicted by a court for being a homosexual in 1952, a felony. Publicly humiliated and chemically castrated, his career and life destroyed, he committed suicide in 1954 at the age of 41.
The brilliance of Alan Turing remains current through the Turing Test, a challenge he developed to determine if machines can think. While it is dauntingly difficult to define thinking, Turning’s test proposed a profoundly human interaction. An interrogator asks questions of two unseen subjects using a keyboard. One of the subjects is human and the other a computer. The test is passed if the interrogator cannot tell which is subject is the machine. No computer has yet passed the Turing Test.
Now that we can see gay people as human beings, the world is seeing Turing for the genius he truly was. In 2000, Alan Turing was named one of the 100 most important people of the 20th Century by Time Magazine. In 2009 the British Prime Minister offered an official governmental apology to Alan Turing noting, “We’re sorry, you deserved so much better.” The science journal Nature recently devoted an entire issue to Turing, and there is a petition currently circulating to put Turing on the UK ten-pound note.
Turing said that when we build intelligent machines we are not creating souls, but rather building the mansions for the souls God creates. While touring Google a few years ago, science historian George Dyson noted:
I walked around and saw what they were doing and realized they were building a very large distributed AI, much as Turing had predicted. And I thought, my God, this is not Turing’s mansion — this is Turing’s cathedral. Cathedrals were built over hundreds of years by thousands of nameless people, each one carving a little corner somewhere or adding one little stone. That’s how I feel about the whole computational universe. Everybody is putting these small stones in place, incrementally creating this cathedral that no one could even imagine doing on their own.
Turing would be 100 this year.
The High Five is oh-so gay, and not in the disparaging teenage sense of the word. The high five is rightly associated with sports, and with one of the earliest out gay athletes, baseball player Glenn Burke.
On October 2, 1977, Burke was a charismatic and popular player for the Los Angeles Dodgers, where a crowded stadium watched… As ESPN tells it:
It was the last day of the regular season, and Dodgers leftfielder Dusty Baker had just gone deep off the Astros’ J.R. Richard. It was Baker’s 30th home run, making the Dodgers the first team in history to have four sluggers — Baker, Ron Cey, Steve Garvey and Reggie Smith — with at least 30 homers each. It was a wild, triumphant moment and a good omen as the Dodgers headed to the playoffs. Burke, waiting on deck, thrust his hand enthusiastically over his head to greet his friend at the plate. Baker, not knowing what to do, smacked it. “His hand was up in the air, and he was arching way back,” says Baker, now 62 and managing the Reds. “So I reached up and hit his hand. It seemed like the thing to do.”
Burke then stepped up and launched his first major league home run. And as he returned to the dugout, Baker high-fived him. From there, the story goes, the high five went ricocheting around the world. (According to Dodgers team historian Mark Langill, the game was not televised, and no footage survives.)
Burke was the hero of the Dodgers, and their charismatic soul, but he also had a relationship of unspecified intimacy with Tommy Lasorda’s embarrassment of an effeminate son. The Dodger’s traded Burke to the Oakland A’s in a weak trade designed mostly to get rid of him.
Burke retired in 1980, after some frustrating years. He then became a fixture in the Castro, known for sitting on whatever car was in front of the Pendulum bar giving high fives…a great image.
The full story from ESPN and another article in the Los Angeles Times.
I was watching Chris & Don: A Love Story a few weeks ago when one intriguing fact caught my attention: the author Christopher Isherwood rented a pool house in Evelyn Hooker’s backyard. Crazy!
A quick Wikipedia refresher reminded me of the profound contribution Evelyn Hooker made to my life. In 1957, at a time when homosexuality was widely considered a mental illness, Hooker devised a brilliantly simple way to test that assumption. She gave straight and gay volunteers a series of standard psychological tests, and then asked experts to identify the homosexuals based on the tests alone. They couldn’t.
In 1952, the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association labelled homosexuality a disorder. Hooker helped to prove that this assumption was based on social prejudice rather than scientific evidence. By 1973 the APA removed homosexuality as a disorder. Evelyn Hooker was a practicing therapist, largely for gay men, for most of her career. She died in 1996. Thank you, Evelyn.
* Movie Review: Chris & Don: A Love Story was a fascinating bit of history, telling the story of Christopher Isherwood and his much younger lover Don Bachardy. (Isherwood wrote the stories that became the movie Cabaret and more recent, and wonderful, A Single Man, a stunningly beautiful film by Tom Ford. Christopher and His Kind is his fascinating autobiography about gay life in Europe before and after WWII.) I sat watching Chris & Don with my much younger partner, Kamran, in mutual horror. There was so little love in the story, and so much twisting power dynamics of a famous man with his pretty “boy.” We found it educational, but sadly, not a overly heartwarming.
Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy
Recent books outed Gandhi and Malcom X as gay, but that may be the wrong word.
Malcom X may have “serviced” an older man when he was young. One of Gandhi’s great loves was a German bodybuilder. I am not sure either qualifies as gay. A poor black kid spreading talcum powder (and whatever) on an old white guy for pay does not make him gay. And while Gandhi was clearly smitten with his buddy (much like Abraham Lincoln, or David and Jonathan from the Bible) we also know he wrestled with attraction to women later in life, not a common affliction for gay men.
Gandhi, Sonja Schlesin, and Hermann Kallenbach in Johannesburg, 1913; and the ever-powerful Malcom X
So how can we think of these men’s sexuality? We currently view sexuality as two polarities, straight and gay, with bisexuals the muddle in the middle. This was not always so.
First of all, gay is a modern invention. The scientific revolution unleashed by Darwin sorted everything into a rational taxonomy, and Freud applied that logic to our psychologies. The idea that someone was “gay” as a category of human being did not exist before the Victorian era. There were, of course, homosexual acts since the beginning of time, and there were people who partnered with people of the same sex, but the idea that this constituted a different category of human is recent. (That’s part of why the idea the Bible is against gay people is nonsense. The concept of gay as we now understand it did not exist in biblical times, so it couldn’t speak to it.)
Even after Freud, we had not really settled on categories. In pre-WWII New York, they divided homosexuals into three categories: fairies, queers, and trade. Fairies were the overtly effeminate men, also referred to as pansies and fags. Queers were homosexuals who were more masculine so they could pass as straight, a double life we now call living in the closet, a more modern term in itself.
Note that these categories were not describing sexual attraction, which is how we think of sexual identity today. These terms described effeminacy, not sexuality, indicating the degree of deviation from the public norms of masculine behavior.
Trade is the really interesting category, as it has disappeared in our modern language. Trade was a man who had sex with other men, but only in the active role. A classic example of trade was the sailor on shore leave, drunkenly hanging out in an area known for fairies, and letting another man suck his cock, or even more intimate sex play, without questioning his straight identity. The word only survives in the antiquated phrase “rough trade,” which derives from trade who were abusive, not necessarily a negative for the fairy with low-self esteem. (See teh literature on abused women to make sense of that dynamic.)
In his book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, George Chauncey quotes a man lamenting the loss of trade in America:
Most of the crowd [in the 1930s and 1940s] wanted to have sex with a straight man. There was something very hot about a married man! And a lot of straight boys let us have sex with them. People don’t believe it now. People say now that they must have been gay. But they weren’t. They were straight. They wouldn’t look for [it] or suck a guy’s thing, but they’d let you suck theirs. If you want to say they were gay because they had sex with a man, go ahead, but I say only a man who wants to have sex with a man is gay.
Addison’s complaint also suggests that “trade,” as a practical matter, had become harder to find in the 1960s, a change in sexual practice that suggests “straight” men as well as gay had redefined the boundaries of normalcy.
As Chauncey says, “It had become more difficult for men to consider themselves ‘straight’ if they had any sexual contact with other men, no matter how carefully they restricted their behavior to the ‘masculine’ role.” In that way, gay liberation caused trade to go away. There used to be a middle gray zone that was not “bisexual.”
One reason this concept is important is that the gay-bi-straight categories may not be accurate. They don’t apply to women so well, who turn out to be more fluid than men, the subject of a future post. It also doesn’t apply to a lot of other cultures. Places like Brazil and the Muslim world are famous for men being available for same-sex experiences without considering themselves gay in the slightest.
My favorite description of this phenomenon is from the gay pornographer Kristen Bjorn. Bjorn tends to film exotic casts from around the world, so he’s worked with many men who call themselves straight but are willing to have extensive sex with other men for the paycheck, or “gay for pay.” Filming men having sex certainly makes him a keen observer of male sexuality.
In response to a question about the gay-for-pay phenomenon, he offers his perspective on male sexuality:
I suppose that after having worked in this field for so many years, I have long ago reconciled myself to the fact that straight identified men can and do have sex with other men when they have the right motivation to do so, such as money. This is probably difficult for us as gay men to understand because we envision (or try not to envision) ourselves having sex with women, and can’t. However, I think that, from everything that I have witnessed over the years, that “gay” men have a far narrower scope to their sexual nature that “straight” men do. “Straight” men have much more bisexual tendencies than “gay” men do. So are they “really” straight? Well, as far as I know, that is the lifestyle they lead, and their behavior during filming is different from that of the gay models. One of the basic differences I see between the gay and straight identified models while filming is this: the “straight” models get turned on if anyone sucks their dick. The “gay” models get turned on only when they are sucking someone else’s dick. I suggest that everyone just get used to the idea that sexual categories aren’t as defined as we seem to think. That is the reality.
Amen, Brother Bjorn.