From da Vinci to Malcolm X, these icons are straight-washed in most history books
I’m embarrassed to admit that up until a few days ago, I was completely unaware that Angela Davis is a lesbian. It made me think — if I, a bisexual leftist and passionate devotee of Angela Davis, was not aware, how many other people must be unaware?
I was partly upset at myself for being oblivious. But I was more upset reflecting on why my history textbooks never once mentioned her sexuality. What does that mean about our society? How deeply has homophobia hijacked the way we teach history in the US?
So I did some research to find out if there were other prominent queer historical figures whose sexuality had been swept under the rug in my history classes at school.
Here are just a few of the ones I found.
As we all know, Malcolm X was a prominent human rights activist and advocate for black empowerment and socialism. He became a leader of the Nation of Islam in the early 1950s, though he later renounced it while still remaining a committed Muslim. In 1965, he was tragically assassinated at the young age of 39.
But most history books stop there, neglecting to mention his sexuality. That’s why most Americans have no idea that historical research has revealed that he was most likely bisexual.
Most notable is Bruce Perry’s biography Malcolm — The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America. According to the American Institute of Bisexuality, Perry “dissected over 400 interviews, interactions, and written accounts from Malcolm X’s close friends and family about everything from his childhood to his assassination,” arguably making his book “the most complete and well-rounded account of Malcolm X’s personal life.”
It appears based on the interviews referenced in the book that Malcolm X was not heterosexual — the question is whether he was bisexual or gay. According to Perry, in his teens and 20s, he frequently had casual sex with men and had at least one sustained sexual relationship with a man. And when he was living in Flint, Michigan, his roommate at the time noticed that he would often leave the room they shared to spend the night with a gay man who lived in the same building. These sexual encounters may have even continued after he married Betty Shabazz, to whom he remained married until his death.
Perry also investigates why he never came out publicly or opened up to his loved ones about his attraction to men. He concludes that it may have been due to the expectations of his religion, internalized homophobia, or a fear of the many repercussions that openly queer Black men face.
As I mentioned earlier, Marxist Black feminist activist and scholar Angela Davis identifies as a lesbian. There’s no mystery around this because she publicly acknowledged her sexuality in 1998 in an interview with Out magazine.
But historians aren’t sure whether that was the first time she publicly came out. They do know that although she was extremely vocal about her support for LGBTQ issues, she liked to keep her private life out of the limelight.
Here’s what activist and archivist Lisbet Tellefsen said about this:
The glaring spotlight on her public life was contrasted by the privacy in which she conducted her private life — and we understood. While we could and often did debate what exactly constituted her public coming out, her unwavering and vocal support for LGBTQ rights was always visceral and crystal clear.
It’s a shame that even though Davis is an extremely important historical figure, and even though she’s commonly included in the Civil Rights Movement sections of history textbooks, her sexuality is rarely acknowledged. For instance, my high school history textbook The American Pageant — one of the most commonly used in the US — completely glossed over her sexuality. This is inexcusable, especially given that her LGBTQ identity is highly relevant to the topic of civil and human rights.
Leonardo da Vinci
Any serious Western history textbook will include a decent amount of details on Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci. He was a seminal painter, inventor, and intellectual of the High Renaissance in the late 1400s and early 1500s. He’s considered one of the greatest artists of all time (at least in the Western canon), and he made notable discoveries in a broad range of fields including civil engineering, geology, hydrodynamics, anatomy, etc. Some historians even credit him with inventing the helicopter, the tank, and the parachute.
But an important detail that’s almost always omitted is his sexuality. This has recently been rectified by a biography by Walter Isaacson, who describes da Vinci as “illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical.”
Iscaacson tells us that among da Vinci’s many erotic relationships with men, some of the most intimate were likely with his male students Salai and Melzi. And in 1476, when da Vinci was 24, he was charged with sodomy for engaging in homosexual acts with a well-known male prostitute.
After detailing his relationships with men, the book ultimately claims that it’s likely that he never had any romantic relations with women — contradicting Sigmund Freud’s theory that da Vinci was bisexual rather than gay.
Eleanor Roosevelt is most commonly known as the wife and first lady of president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She’s often lauded as one of the greatest first ladies in US history, alongside one of the greatest presidents in US history.
But her marriage to FDR was not as rosy as it was usually portrayed at the time — they both had adulterous affairs, of which they were mutually aware. And Eleanor, far from being the heterosexual woman Americans presumed her to be, had some notable affairs with women.
Historians who have closely studied her life believe she may have been a lesbian, using her marriage with FDR to maintain her “clean” image. Documented in the most detail is her long-term romantic relationship with journalist Lorena Hickok. For years, they exchanged love letters that conveyed a great deal of longing and passion. Here one’s one example in a letter she wrote to Hickok, whom she lovingly called “Hick:”
All day I’ve thought of you & another birthday I will be with you, & yet tonite you sounded so far away & formal. Oh! I want to put my arms around you. I ache to hold you close. Your ring is a great comfort to me. I look at it and think she does love me, or I wouldn’t be wearing it.
And here’s what she wrote in another letter:
Funny, everything I do my thoughts fly to you. Never are you out of my heart. I wish I could lie down beside you tonight & take you in my arms.
It’s unclear to historians to what degree she and Hickok were physically intimate. But what is clear is that Eleanor was brimming with desire for that intimacy.
Frida Kahlo is a well-known and highly celebrated Mexican artist. In the US, she’s been revered as a feminist icon at least since the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s. But most historical materials that highlight her influence in the art world completely overlook her sexuality. Although her marriage to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera is usually addressed, even many of her fans are unaware that she was bisexual.
Kahlo and Rivera’s relationship was notoriously tumultuous — they both had frequent adulterous affairs. Rivera’s affairs often left Kahlo feeling heartbroken and despondent (this emotional trauma was the subject of many of her paintings) Her famous fling with Leon Trotsky was partly driven by a desire to retaliate for her husband’s betrayal.
But her erotic escapades didn’t just involve men — a good number of them were with women.
Two of the most famous women she had passionate sexual relationships with were artist Georgia O’Keefe (who she “made love” with) and French nightclub sensation Josephine Baker.
Even though Rivera was jealous of Kahlo’s affairs with men, he was titillated by her sexual encounters with women — so he encouraged them, making them even more frequent.
I first learned about Anne Frank in elementary school, when I read parts of her diary. I remember learning that she was Jewish and that she and her family had attempted to escape Nazi persecution by hiding in Amsterdam. I learned that she had been captured by Nazis and transported to a concentration camp after years in hiding. And that, tragically, she had died at the tender age of 15.
But I never learned that she wrote passionately in her famous diaries about her desires for girls.
Here’s one section that makes it glaringly obvious:
I remember that once when I slept with a girl friend I had a strong desire to kiss her, and that I did do so. I could not help being terribly inquisitive over her body, for she had always kept it hidden from me. I asked her whether, as a proof of our friendship, we should feel one another’s breasts, but she refused.
In another passage in her diary, she said this:
I go into ecstasies every time I see the naked figure of a woman, such as Venus, for example. It strikes me as so wonderful and exquisite that I have difficulty in stopping the tears rolling down my cheeks.
These passages make it clear as daylight that she was attracted to women, whether she was bisexual or homosexual. In one passage, she made it even more explicit, lamenting — “If only I had a girlfriend.”
My biggest takeaway from all of this is that our society’s discomfort with queerness is even more deep-rooted than I thought.
I realized I shouldn’t blame myself for not knowing about the queer identity of some of my favorite historical figures. It’s not because I’m simply too ignorant about history. Instead, it’s a symptom of the LGBTQ erasure that is so pervasive in the way we teach history. Of how we censor discussion of queer issues under the dangerous notion that it’s “inappropriate” to expose children to these facets of history.
So if we truly want to destigmatize LGBTQ identities in our society, the history classroom is a good place to start.