Windy City Media Group Frontpage News
Celebrating 30 Years of Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Trans News
home search facebook twitter join
Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2020-01-08
About WCMG Publications News Index  Entertainment Features Bars & Clubs Calendar Videos Advertisers OUT! Guide    Marriage



Dead Ends and Discoveries:
The search for our GLBT ancestors
by Victor Salvo

facebook twitter pin it stumble upon digg google +1 reddit email

The notion of a collective tribute to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender ( GLBT ) people who have been overlooked by history ( or obscured by historians ) is not new.

Numerous works of scholarship, with meticulously researched detail, have been written; they are the cornerstone of GLBT studies coursework in college, serve as source material for additional research by other historians and, as is often the case, inspire people who like to explore history on their own—which is how The Legacy Project got its start in Chicago.

With many of the people who are encompassed under "GLBT history" there is ready agreement as to who was who, who did what, and when they did it. And, in many cases, why they did what they did is readily discernable, as well. But, in some others, when motives and intentions are less clear, speculation ( or complete avoidance ) often takes over where the facts leave off. When it comes to non-hetero-normative sexuality, history itself can become quite subjective, no matter how many potentially influential factors are otherwise uncovered.

As a result, our concept of historical "accuracy" necessarily becomes fluid, as greatly influenced by the methods, personality, disposition and beliefs of the person doing the research—and the era in which it was done—as it is by the aims and interests of the people who judge whatever conclusions are drawn. The only thing one can be certain of is that new revelations inspire new scholarship and, as a result, one must never rely on any single source. Nowhere is this more important than when discussing GLBT historic figures.

At the risk of being deemed facetious, it seems that without direct video confirmation of sexual activity there is a curious propensity on the part of many historians to regard individuals rumored to be homosexual as being most likely non-sexual. This is usually justified because the individual in question left no written declaration that they were actually homosexual, no personal, unambiguous manifesto, without which numerous corroborating aspects of the individual's personal relationships, social habits and anecdotal information are dismissed as circumstantial.

Even inarguably romantic missives between persons of the same gender, when uncovered, are deemed "inconclusive" if they lack graphic sexual content ( not a common feature of 18th- and 19th-century correspondence ) . Leaving aside the observation that no one is expected to declare their heterosexuality to be regarded as such, operating under these assumptions, any hope of gleaning some truth about these complex lives is lost if an historian fails to at least acknowledge in their accounting that same-sex relationships—which existed quietly ( and, in many cases, openly ) within the matrix of older societies—could not be "documented" without the benefit of institutionalized marriage available to them … making it impossible to arrive at any realistic assessments, even when faced with the evidence. Hewing to the academic rigors of their profession, many historians sum-up their forays into such undocumentable terrain with an obfuscating declaration that the individual had "no known romantic attachments"—a conclusion drawn with alarming alacrity—and, thus, "history" is written.

Some regard this reluctance to apply labels as acting with restraint, foregoing the temptation to impose contemporary behavioral suppositions out of context. Though, on its face, such restraint may seem reasonable, drawing a conclusion of non-sexuality—instead of the more likely one—has led to a bias ( be it intentional or benign ) that has colored historical interpretation for centuries. This trend is most noticeable ( and disturbing ) when the historic significance of the individual in question makes any intimation of their being homosexual problematic for those who would seem to prefer certain individuals' accomplishments not be used to validate homosexuality by association. The safest away around this is to minimize—or, in some cases, delete altogether—any reference to behavior that is not certifiably heterosexual; or to consider only the individual's few known opposite-sex coupling ( s ) to support the conclusion of an exclusively heterosexual life, rather than suggest they may have been bisexual.

To compound matters, those whose homosexuality cannot be denied ( Bayard Rustin, Alan Turing and Dr. Margaret Chung come to mind ) are routinely relegated to obscurity instead of being given proper recognition in the pages of America's textbooks where their good works might be known. This practice has gone largely unchallenged until recent times. And, since virtually all historical research builds upon previous research, an endless loop of oversight and dismissal has been set up that argues for a more logical and enlightened treatment, without which substantial misinformation about GLBT people will continue to be recycled.

When one considers that, for the average person, their only awareness of history comes from what they can recall of their high school education, it is small wonder GLBT people have remained so easy to marginalize as a modern social aberration—willful "deviants" who consciously eschew heterosexuality—instead of being accepted as fully integrated, whole people who, though somewhat different, have been around for a very, very long time.

Historical Context

Being GLBT cannot be understood without considering the era and cultural context of the lives we celebrate—the term "homosexual" wasn't even coined until 1869.

The Legacy Project has taken this into account. Though we can never fully know the particular sexual proclivities of many of the people whose lives we honor, we are adult enough to allow that they were, indeed, sexual beings, as all people are entitled to be, whether or not we ever know the graphic details. For there is much more to human sexual identity than the sex act itself: the totality of one's interests, their personal writings, their life's work, the company they kept—and deep personal relationships that endured for decades—all help define a person, even if they chose not to have sex at all.

We extend this logic to those who, once all aspects of their life story have been considered, were most likely not exclusively heterosexual, even if the appellation "GLBT" ( so infused with contemporary political meaning ) would not correlate given the era in which they lived. This is especially important if their discernable circumstances kept them understandably closeted or if the social conventions of the time dictated marriage was the only way to produce a legitimate heir or establish property-rights—a path chosen by GLBT figures as diverse as Alexander the Great, Oscar Wilde and Vita Sackville-West—the latter of whom lost her family's ancestral home because England's laws of Primogeniture denied inheritance to unmarried women.

To ignore these subtle—but significant—factors is to disavow the realities of these lives, rendering all people generically heterosexual in the process. This is a serious presumptive oversight that perhaps one has to be GLBT themselves to fully understand and appreciate. Invisibility is a life-crippling, legacy-stealing thing—particularly when there are so many who deliberately capitalize on it for their own benefits.

This is of gravest concern when addressing the environment our children are forced to endure in our nation's school systems. The lack of historically significant GLBT role models—and the complete absence of GLBT contributions to world history and culture in today's textbooks—forces GLBT youth to grow up in a void, without historic relevance, subject to the political and cultural biases of our society, vulnerable to the violence such ignorance can incite.

It is precisely because sexual minorities have so often been rendered invisible by historians that a new paradigm must be adopted by any researcher who expects to effectively study a people whose only hope for living in peace through much of the last few centuries required them to conceal evidence of their own existence.

However, the challenges facing those who must cull through vast resources of varyingly accurate and often incomplete data to find GLBT role models are huge:

1 ) Selective editing done by many historians whereby certain individual's non-hetero-normative sexuality has been minimized, altered or deleted has resulted in gaping inconsistencies in the historic record;

2 ) The bulk of GLBT history, having been written from a Western-European/U.S. perspective, has made information about Asians, Hispanics/Latinos/as, Eastern-European/Russian, Middle-Eastern and Native/Indigenous peoples more difficult to come by, skewing the tenor of the available scholarship toward the dominant culture;

3 ) The general obscurity of many GLBT individuals ( especially those who were transgender, about whom little has been written ) , because they either kept a low-profile during their lives or were overlooked ( consciously or unconsciously ) by historians, has meant that there is, over all, less scholarship to consult;

4 ) A lack of explicit personal writings or the willful editing or outright destruction of what documentation did exist at one time—either by the individuals themselves ( such as Lorena Hickok ) or on the part of family members who tried to control what information was allowed into the public realm ( as was the case with Michelangelo ) —has contributed to false information being taken as fact—in some cases for centuries;

5 ) Long-held cultural biases, which continue to dictate that deep religious convictions and homosexuality are somehow mutually exclusive, have led many historians to conclude that individuals who were renowned for their religious devotion ( such as George Washington Carver ) could not also be gay—summarily resulting in evidence to the contrary being ignored; and

6 ) The unavailability of marriage across all cultures, which has prevented same-sex relationships from being socially codified alongside opposite sex couplings, has made it impossible to draw a clear-cut conclusion about whether an intense, decades-long relationship between two persons of the same gender was sexual—even when all the evidence points in that direction—a burden which is borne by gay people alone.

Taken together, the bar to "prove" homosexuality has been set vastly higher than that required to support the common assumption of heterosexuality made of everyone. Also, because over much of the last two centuries, any suggestion an individual may have been anything other than heterosexual would have been considered libelous, few researchers have been willing to make the claim or include the inference in their work—especially if the historic figure still had living decedents who were prone to denial, as is the case with Federico Garcia Lorca and Langston Hughes.

Thus, it has become exceedingly difficult to see through biographical data that, quite often, serves to obscure the truth rather than to illuminate it … leaving the general public to believe that everything good and decent and important that has ever happened in this world was accomplished by heterosexuals alone.

That there may be difficulty ( or potential controversy ) in any effort to identify our GLBT ancestors is no reason not to do it, however. The explosion of a collective "Queer Consciousness" that has come about since the days of the Mattachine Society in the 1950s has produced an understandable yearning to learn the unwritten history left by our exclusion from humanity's story: from Alexander the Great, who established the Ottoman Empire, to Baron Friedrich von Steuben, whose military strategy during the American Revolution led to the birth of a nation … from John Maynard Keynes, whose economic policies became the road map out of the Great Depression, to Alan Turing, who cracked the Nazi's "Enigma Code" to bring down Adolph Hitler … from Benjamin Sumner Welles, the founder of N.A.T.O., to Dag Hammarskj√∂ld, the Secretary General of the United Nations who invented the use of "U.N. Peace-Keepers" during the Cold War … from social justice pioneer Jane Addams, who founded the A.C.L.U., to renown First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who co-wrote the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights … from Pulitzer-Prize winning author James Baldwin to Bayard Rustin, Dr. Martin Luther King's speechwriter … from the tragic life of Sister Luc-Gabrielle, "The Singing Nun," to the heroic death of Father Mychal Judge, the first recorded casualty of 9/11 … everywhere you look in history—every era, every milestone—there is a GLBT person whose story deserves to be told.

We may never be able to fully certify the non-hetero-normative sexuality of some historically sensitive people to everyone's satisfaction—for some no amount of evidence will suffice. But to stand by and quietly continue giving credence to conclusions that routinely ignore the latest research which—were it any other subject matter would at least be talked about in today's classrooms—is an intellectual dishonesty that can no longer be indulged simply to avoid controversy.

The price of our invisibility is too high to sustain. And the truth of the matter is there are dozens of books gathering dust on library shelves that contain within them all the information needed to illuminate the duskier corners of our history—the problem is most people don't know they're there to look for them and, as a result, their knowledge remains inaccessible to the average person.

The Legacy Project intends to bring that information down off those shelves—cast it in bronze—and put it right out on Halsted Street. THE LEGACY WALK, the only outdoor museum in the world to celebrate the many roles we have played in the advancement of world history and culture, will give to us what our high school text books could not: the knowledge that people like us matter—and always have—even if no one bothered to tell us. GLBT people have started charitable foundations; served in the military with distinction; discovered technological breakthroughs; created magnificent art and sculpture; penned renowned literature and music; won Olympic gold medals; and helped shape world diplomacy. We have made an immeasurable difference in the world we share. It's about time everybody knew it.

Victor Salvo is the Founder and Executive Director of The Legacy Project—a non-profit corporation committed to the creation of public memorials recognizing the contributions of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people to world history and culture, beginning with "The Legacy Walk" on North Halsted Street in Chicago, which will be dedicated on October 11, 2012. To learn more, to volunteer, or to donate, please call 312-608-1198 or visit

facebook twitter pin it stumble upon digg google +1 reddit email

Windy City Media Group does not approve or necessarily agree with the views posted below.
Please do not post letters to the editor here. Please also be civil in your dialogue.
If you need to be mean, just know that the longer you stay on this page, the more you help us.


First woman coach in MLB history hired 2020-01-17
'She Shot Him Dead' among newest Newberry offerings 2020-01-13
Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame kicks off 30th year, seeks nominees, sets ceremony 2020-01-09
Sidetrack's New Years Eve Party to benefit the Legacy Project 2019-12-27
World AIDS Day events happening in Chicagoland 2019-11-27
AIDS Garden to unveil Haring sculpture 2019-11-26
AIDS Quilt moves to National AIDS Memorial, archives to Library of Congress 2019-11-21
ALMA marks 30 years of activism by opening archives 2019-11-18
Historians seek LGBTQ responses for next work 2019-11-15
Exhibit examines contributions of refugee, immigrant writers 2019-11-12
LGBT HISTORY MONTH Pete Buttigieg on LGBT history, historic campaign 2019-10-30
Jeanne Balke on career, WWII, life as a lesbian pre-Stonewall 2019-10-30
Halloween unmasks our troubled history with race 2019-10-30
LGBT HISTORY MONTH Diaries reveal hidden worlds for museums 2019-10-30
Events planned around LGBTQ veterans and Veterans Day 2019-10-25
State treasurer commemorates LGBT History Month 2019-10-25
SHOWBIZ George Michael, Billy Porter, Michael Hutchence, LGBTQ-history film 2019-10-22
NATIONAL Matthew Shepard, recall falls short, Out & Equal, Scotty Bowers dies 2019-10-22
Artemis Singers workshop Oct. 30 2019-10-21
BOOK REVIEW Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater 2019-10-16
SPORTS NFL player makes history by coming out 2019-10-16
LGBT HISTORY MONTH The rise of the ballroom scene through the ages 2019-10-15
Legacy Project hosts '[un]Gala' 2019-10-15
Gerber/Hart opens lesbian history exhibit 2019-10-15
Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame calls for 2019 nominees, announces ceremony date 2019-10-14
"Lavender Women and Killer Dykes" to launch Oct. 12 2019-10-09
LGBT HISTORY MONTH Pete Buttigieg on LGBT history, historic campaign 2019-10-08
LGBT HISTORY MONTH For museum curators, garments offer stylish storytelling 2019-10-07
LGBT HISTORY MONTH Alfred Kinsey "was our Stonewall." - Samuel Steward 2019-10-07
LGBT HISTORY MONTH For celebrities, an off-screen journey to on-screen equality 2019-10-02
LGBT HISTORY MONTH Charlotte Cushman: A flawless Romeo 2019-10-02
LGBT HISTORY MONTH Stonewall 50 finally gets our history right 2019-10-02
LGBT HISTORY MONTH Authors and activism: A history of LGBT bookstores 2019-10-02
Quigley co-sponsors resolution denouncing Carson's transphobic history 2019-10-01
Takei, Elling at Oct. 14 'Galaxy' concert 2019-09-24
Gerber/Hart benefit brings awareness of Midwest LGBTQ history 2019-09-22
REELING FILM FESTIVAL Lesbian director highlights queer history in 'The Archivettes' 2019-09-18
Ralphi The Razz Rosario street dedicated 2019-09-18
NATIONAL Trans officer dies, James Baldwin, Edmund White, Trevor Project 2019-09-17
James Baldwin Residence added to National Register of Historic Places 2019-09-12

Copyright © 2020 Windy City Media Group. All rights reserved.
Reprint by permission only. PDFs for back issues are downloadable from
our online archives. Single copies of back issues in print form are
available for $4 per issue, older than one month for $6 if available,
by check to the mailing address listed below.

Return postage must accompany all manuscripts, drawings, and
photographs submitted if they are to be returned, and no
responsibility may be assumed for unsolicited materials.
All rights to letters, art and photos sent to Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago
Gay and Lesbian News and Feature Publication) will be treated
as unconditionally assigned for publication purposes and as such,
subject to editing and comment. The opinions expressed by the
columnists, cartoonists, letter writers, and commentators are
their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual and Transegender News and Feature Publication).

The appearance of a name, image or photo of a person or group in
Nightspots (Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times
(a Chicago Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender News and Feature
Publication) does not indicate the sexual orientation of such
individuals or groups. While we encourage readers to support the
advertisers who make this newspaper possible, Nightspots (Chicago
GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay, Lesbian
News and Feature Publication) cannot accept responsibility for
any advertising claims or promotions.







About WCMG Publications News Index  Entertainment Features Bars & Clubs Calendar Videos Advertisers OUT! Guide    Marriage

About WCMG      Contact Us      Online Front  Page      Windy City  Times      Nightspots      OUT! Guide     
Identity      BLACKlines      En La Vida      Archives      Subscriptions      Distribution      Windy City Queercast     
Queercast Archives      Advertising  Rates      Deadlines      Advanced Search     
Press  Releases      Event Photos      Join WCMG  Email List      Email Blast     
Upcoming Events      Todays Events      Ongoing Events      Submit an Event      Bar Guide      Community Groups      In Memoriam      Outguide Categories      Outguide Advertisers      Search Outguide      Travel      Dining Out      Blogs      Spotlight  Video     
Classifieds      Real Estate      Place a  Classified     

Windy City Media Group publishes Windy City Times,
The Bi-Weekly Voice of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans Community.
5315 N. Clark St. #192, Chicago, IL 60640-2113 • PH (773) 871-7610 • FAX (773) 871-7609.