An LGBT History Lesson: People Who Changed History

Thursday, May 17, is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) and this year Care2 is bringing you personal stories from around the world on the fight to eliminate anti-LGBT prejudice and discrimination. For our complete coverage, please click here.

What would the world today look like, without the contributions of LGBT figures throughout history? Depending on how inclusive you wanted to make that category, it might be entirely unrecognizable. After all, Ancient Greece, the cradle of Western civilization, considered at least male bisexuality the norm. Far more fluid attitudes towards sexual identity were also common in later Rome, plus China, Japan, and even the Arab countries, once upon a time.

Having said that, there is no shortage of LGBT game-changers on an individual level. And in celebration of this year’s International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, this post aims to be a not-even-remotely-exhaustive list of just a few of them.

Oscar Wilde: Even if you haven’t read any of the Irishman’s poetry, novels, or plays, you’ve likely heard more than a few clever lines from this eminently quotable writer. “Be yourself,” Wilde suggests, “everyone else is already taken.”

Considered simply for his literary contributions, Wilde was an important figure. To his credit are “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which examined constricting social mores of Victorian life. But he was also important in slowly changing attitudes about sexuality through his work and life.

Charged with gross indecency for his homosexual relationships, Wilde neither denied nor repented, but defended his life and his love. During the trial, he explained the meaning of the phrase, “the love that dare not speak its name”:

It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as “the love that dare not speak its name,” and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.

Wilde was sentenced to hard labor and died within a few years.

Gertrude Stein: Somewhat of a puzzle, Stein was a strong woman, but at times seemed to think of herself as simply stepping into the role of a man. Ernest Hemingway said that she would ignore his own wife, and often go into another room with him for “man talk,” leaving behind the wives to chat (her wife being lover, Alice).

She seemed to fully accept the gender roles of the time, with the proviso that she had every right to a man’s role since she was capable of it. It’s therefore uncertain whether she was a step backwards for the rights of women even as she may have been a step forward in gay rights.

With her unapologetic attitude to either her gender or her sexual orientation, she saw no problem contributing to and jumping right in the middle of the circle of the most important writers and artists of the day. And contribute she did, with a literary legacy that has long survived her death.

Leondardo da Vinci: The original “Renaissance Man,” da Vinci was an inventor, scientist and one of the greatest painters of all time. On the inventing side, he created all kinds of machines that would not exist for centuries, including several types of planes or helicopters. It was as if he had a window into the future. His artistic works include “The Last Supper,” “The Mona Lisa” and several other masterpieces that virtually everyone in the world would recognize.

When he was young, he was briefly involved in a trial with several other men involving a male prostitute. One of his co-defendants happened to have ties to the extremely powerful Medici family and the charges were dropped. After that, da Vinci was private about his personal life. But subtle homosexual themes in some of his artistic works have been much discussed in the centuries since.

Alan Turing: One of the founding fathers of computer science, Turing was also integral in cracking the Nazi’s Enigma code during World War II, which allowed intercepted messages to be read and enemy movements anticipated by the Allies. That’s right, a single man who was critically important to winning the most important war in modern memory, and creating the most transformative technology of our time. It’s no exaggeration to say the world might be very different were he to never have lived.

A hero to the free world, his own freedom was nevertheless taken away. Turing submitted to chemical castration, his government’s attempt to cure a happy man in a loving but socially unacceptable relationship. Unable to cope with the ordeal, he committed suicide by eating an apple injected with cyanide.

Bayard Rustin: This was the man behind the scenes of the Civil Rights movement. Rustin organized the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King made his most famous speech and was one of the main people responsible for the Congress on Racial Equality.

Why haven’t we heard of him? He was pragmatic. He chose to focus on the racial issues of his day and leave the battle for gay rights for later (and he did indeed join the battle in earnest the last decade of his life, in the 1980s). He was worried that if he became a public figure on civil rights, bigotry against his sexuality would hurt the cause for racial equality. So he happily stayed out of the limelight and let others take the credit, while he kept working away.

Conclusion: In every sphere of life, from politics to science to art to philosophy, it is impossible to find a field that would not be drastically different were we to discount the contributions of LGBT individuals. Some bigots claim they want to live in a world without gay people. If they realized what that might entail, I daresay they might reconsider simply getting over it.

Related stories:

Iconic Punk Rock Star Comes out as Transgender

‘Like Lincoln and Emancipation’: Obama’s Gay Marriage Evolution

Composer Aaron Copland — LGBT History Month Day 9

Photo credit: Notwist


JAMES HOLLEY4 years ago

(this was cut from the original entry)

Therefore, including them as justification for homosexuality is no better of an argument than using those very same cultures as justification for cutting off a woman’s nose because she wants to learn to read and write.

JAMES HOLLEY4 years ago

It’s not because I used to grade college papers that I still enjoy evaluating such; but because of all the cases that I used to win based upon the technicality of wording either in a policy, a law, a recorded statement, an interrogatory and/or a deposition. Sentence structure is important. (I once read a legal document wherein the entire first paragraph was just one sentence.) Having said that, Mr. Boyce, I was tempted to not read your article just because of your first three sentences. Your second and third sentences are not complete and actually should be joined to form one, complete sentence.

Having said that, let’s move on. One of my degrees is in history and I’d like to mention something that Mr. Boyce, for whatever reason (maybe history wasn’t his major and therefore not a group of classes he excelled in…) failed to include. Mr. Boyce points out several ancient societies wherein homosexuality was accepted. However, what he does not address, is that all of these societies/cultures (i.e., the areas mentioned in relationship to the time period wherein homosexuality was practiced…) also considered child abuse, child rape, slavery, forced marriage, physical abuse of wife and children and disfigurement as legitimate spousal punishment to be societally sanctioned. Therefore, including them as justification for homosexuality is no better of an argument than using those very same cultures as justification for cutting off a woman’s no

JAMES HOLLEY4 years ago


Okay, Boyce, you’re off to a bad start, your second and third sentences are not even sentences and your first supporting argument is invalid…moving on.

Oscar Wilde was a great writer, actually, he was more than just great. Granted, Alfred Lord Tennyson is still my favorite, with Robert Service and Robert Frost bringing up close seconds, but there is no argument that Wilde was a literary genius. However, had Wilde never lived and never penned his ideas and thoughts, my life would be no different.

Then there is the disturbing nature of the quote used by Boyce, “…and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him.” Personally, I wouldn’t use this quote in trying to legitimize homosexuality as the quote speaks of two individuals who are at different levels of emotional development, i.e., one is an adult while the other is either an adolescent or a child (another of my degrees is in psychology). Therefore, as I see it, yes, this quote supports homosexuality, but it also supports child abuse and coercive rape.


JAMES HOLLEY4 years ago


His next example is Gertrude Stein…sorry, nothing to say there, her life has had no impact on mine and her not being in my past would in no way change anything about the world I live in now. This is just a bad example.

Next Mr. Boyce mentions da Vinci, but misses the mark regarding life changing contributions. Granted, da Vinci envisioned flying vehicles, but was it da Vinci’s vision, or the vision of the Wright brothers, which has had the greatest impact on the development of manned flight? In other words, I would be hard pressed to have to write a paper claiming that da Vinci was the father or modern, manned flight. I believe that I could argue that it was not da Vinci’s belief that man could fly, nor his artistic genius, which has impacted my life the most, but instead, his impact on mankind’s reflection upon itself, and within that reflection the finding of a confidence that one person, individually and alone, can think independently, and still arrive at genius. Mr. Boyce, you have a potentially great example regarding Leonardo da Vinci, but you have not developed it very well.


JAMES HOLLEY4 years ago


And then we are given Alan Turing as an example. Well, honestly, there were a lot of people involved in the successful breaking of the Enigma, along with the capture of Enigma coding machines and the manuals that went with them. Arguably, had Mr. Turing not lived, the Enigma code would have been broken anyway…and the war definitely was neither won nor lost by the breaking of said code. Mr. Boyce is here, deliberately, adding worth where it is not due in an effort to “beef up” one of his weaker examples.

Which leaves us with the really odd example, the one that Mr. Boyce says our lives would be radically different had this person never lived, and then tells us right off the bat that we have probably never heard of this guy, i.e., Mr. Rustin. If I am to accept that someone I have never heard of has drastically impacted my life, I’m going to need proof. However, Mr. Boyce gives us a brief biography and acts as if that is sufficient…sorry Mr. Boyce, it’s not, and if I am to buy into the concept that this individual has significantly impacted my life on a personal level, I am going to need more proof.


JAMES HOLLEY4 years ago


The conclusion is not well developed and three sentences is a very weak closing. My biggest problem is with the second sentence, i.e., ”Some bigots claim they want to live in a world without gay people.” I honestly believe that Mr. Boyce used the term “bigot” to refer to people who are opposed to homosexuality, which is a very restricted use of the term and not really true to its overall definition; and he uses the term “some” in much the same way that Fox News does. In combining the two terms, the statement will always be true, just as, “Some bigots only eat health food,” or “Some bigots are politicians,” or “Some bigots are parents,” or “Some bigots believe in global warming,” or “some bigots believe in evolution,” and especially, and just as truthfully, “Some bigots claim they want to live in a world WITH gay people,” and considering that a bigot is someone who believes something strongly, most of my homosexual friends are bigots, and most of my homosexual, bigot friends do want to live in a world with gay people…duh.

Mr. Boyce, please take a serious college level composition class…actually, you may want to take two.

Linda McKellar
Past Member 4 years ago

This is the biggest non-issue on earth, or at least it should be. I don't care about other people's sexual practices so long as it's consensual. None of my business or anyone else's here. Grow up and move on.

Carole F.
Carole f.4 years ago

right on tracey s.
AMEN! does sexuality mean anything when individuals are contributing to society as those in this artical are contributing? this includes all individuals who work everyday to sustain and support our society. really, people are people. get a grip, America!

James Campbell
James Campbell4 years ago

Paul c. “How DF did DaVinci change history?

I am a doctor and my professional heroes include (amongst others) Avicenna and Leonardo Da Vinci - the first was a Physician, but the latter is best known as a painter. However, Da Vinci was more than an artist, he was an anatomist, engineer and inventor. Da Vinci worked with a Dr. Marcantonio della Torre and together they planned to publish an anatomical atlas entitled “Of the human figure”. Da Vinci wrote: “... if you want to know thoroughly the anatomical parts of man you must either turn him or your eye in order to examine him from different aspects, from below, from above, and from the sides, turning him round and investigating the origin of each part; and by this method your knowledge of natural anatomy is satisfied”. Da Vinci’s studies included defining the anatomy of the genito-urinary system including the previously unknown topography of renal vessels in relation to the proximal ureter (knowledge which could only be revealed by post mortem at a time when dissection of a human body was punishable by death). His knowledge of anatomy also enabled him to design the first robot in 1495 - we now use robots in surgery.

"Leonardo da Vinci was like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep" …….. SigmundFreud

Jez wildmoon
jayne turner4 years ago

while I think LGBT history should not be ignored, I don't think Wilde was a good role model. He repeatedly had sex with under age 'rent boys' and today would be considered a paedophile.