Wilde, Whitman, Woolf

Why a Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer-Plus (LGBTQ+) Focus?

That’s a question which many people, of all orientations, have asked. It seems a good, provocative topic for discussion. I’ve been working on this essay for years, and it’s still a work in progress… like each of us and myself.

Not to get all grandiose, but a really short answer, about why focus on LGBTQ+ experience?, is because it’s a way of highlighting, and celebrating, the amazing diversity of one, sometimes muted, part of our shared humanity.

Also, considering the LGBTQ+ dimension does make a difference in understanding a given work, artist, and society.

While a person’s sexual orientation is not the sole basis for their life, it is an integral part of who they are and of what they create. Experiencing literature, film, the visual arts, or music in this context can reveal more levels of a work’s meaning: aesthetic, biographical, even historical and cultural.

A related question is, What defines an artist, or any person, as LGBTQ+? I think the rigid definition held by the U.S. military, before the 2010 repeal of the discriminatory and wasteful “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, is right on target. Someone is LGBTQ+-identified if they have “homosexual tendencies,” that is, profound emotional connections to persons of the same gender, whether or not they act on those feelings.

Our sexual nature is at the core of our being. It informs not only how we live, whether openly or in some form of hiding, but how we perceive ourselves, the world, and what we create.

Virtually every society has made an issue of sexual identity, whether holding LGBTQ+ people in esteem (classical Greece and Rome, many Native American cultures, feudal Japan, an increasing number of modern societies) or opprobrium (Europe from the Dark Ages until the latter 20th century, parts of the United States, the Middle East, Africa). No one can escape a connection to their culture, whether they embrace its values or struggle for change. One such response is art.

Fassbinder, Kahlo, Beethoven

LGBTQ+ artists have produced works as diverse as the scintillating, and socially conscious, wit of Oscar Wilde’s comedies and Leonard Bernstein’s musicals and Andy Warhol’s canvases, the brooding mysteries of Dickinson’s poetry and Murnau’s films and Francis Bacon’s paintings, the ambiguous beauties of Tchaikovsky’s ballets and Woolf’s novels and Cocteau’s fantasies, and the celebratory visions of Michelangelo’s architecture and Handel’s music and Whitman’s poetry. Beginning almost 5,000 years ago with Gilgamesh (a profound male-male love story showing the path from toxic masculinity to mututal caring, enlightenment, and justice), there is an ongoing, and expanding, conversation between LGBTQ+ creators in all forms of expression, their audiences, and society. That conversation touches on such timeless questions as, Who am I?, and Who are we?, and What is essential and best, in human nature and cultures?

Sadly, even some people who admire these and other classics (or at least their cultural cachet) simultaneously mandate silence, or obfuscation, about LGBTQ+ lives. A substantial number of the creators highlighted at this site are bisexual, but while their opposite-sex relationships are given prominence – by some scholars, the popular press, Hollywood – their same-sex relationships are kept in the closet, “straightwashed.” So the need simply to identify those artists as LGBTQ+ still exists.

The Case of Washington Allston & “Straightwashing”

Washington Allston’s “Hermia and Helena” (after A Midsummer Night’s Dream – III.ii “So we grew together, / Like to a double cherry—seeming parted / But yet an union in partition— / Two lovely berries molded on one stem”)

Just one example of straightwashing, obscuring LGBTQ+ identity, is Washington Allston (1779–1843), the multi-talented – and now unjustly neglected – American painter, poet, and novelist, as well as teacher of artist/inventor Samuel F.B. Morse. Geographically, Allston was admired on both sides of the Atlantic, by his lifelong friends Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and with memberships in both Britain’s Royal Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; he’s the namesake of the Boston neighborhood; and he lies buried at his alma mater, Harvard. Allston created a beautiful and evocative pre-1818 painting of two women intimately reading together, Hermia and Helena from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On one level, you could see this “double cherry” work as a hidden tribute by a gay/bi man to lesbians, and perhaps even all same-sex love, by way of queer Shakespeare. Allston was connected to several prominent southern and, through marriage, New England families including the Channings, Flaggs, and Danas. But NOTE how differently his biography is handled by the usually reliable Wikipedia, that “closets” Allston, in contrast to the glbtq encyclopedia entry (downloads as a PDF), where he’s profiled in the opening section, “Guilt and Fear,” in the entry on American Art: Gay Male, Nineteenth Century. There we learn about, among other things, Allston’s use of same-sex imagery (hiding in plain sight), as well as how, while painting in England, he was blackmailed under the new 1810 laws that made “sodomy” a death-penalty offense.

An LGBTQ+ focus can promote a deeper understanding both of a work of art and the person who created it, as well as of their particular culture. That can increase our appreciation of their achievements, perhaps even expand the bounds of empathy. Such a focus can also help empower LGBTQ+ people, even as it shines a light on our shared humanity.

Two individuals once wrote, back in the 2010s, to express their appreciation for the information at this site. From across the world, one was a young man from the American Midwest who was just coming out, the other a woman from China, who somehow found this site despite censors. Each said how important it was for them to learn about these many extraordinary creators, and to feel connected to their works. The LGBTQ+ tradition is diverse, proud, and sometimes complicated, encompassing our shared globe and extending across millennia, from Sappho to Shakespeare to Susan Sontag, and hundreds of others, with countless more to come.

We’re all in this together, working for a better world for everyone!

Begun 1997 / Updated January 7, 2022

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