Know Your Queer History Part Two: Artists
Know Your Queer History
Part Two: Artists
by Grace M.
Queer history was probably not included in your grade school curriculum—but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist! Part of being a good ally (that’s you, parents!) is learning about the history, hardships, and celebrations that the LGBTQ community has experienced, and remembering all the contributions made by queer folks throughout history.
This week, we are highlighting important LGBTQ artists and writers whose work has made an important, lasting impact on our culture and society today. For some, their sexuality played an important role in informing their work. For others, it was kept private or even erased by history altogether in order for their work to be accepted by the mainstream. In both cases, it is important to remember and celebrate the long history of LGBTQ creatives and the impact they made.
Michelangelo 1475 - 1564
It may come as a surprise to you that the artist behind Rome’s famous Sistine Chapel was thought to have been gay. Michelangelo was an Italian painter, sculptor, architect, and poet of the Renaissance. In addition to the Sistine Chapel, he was also the artist behind the famous David sculpture and many other great artistic and architectural works. He was considered one of the greatest artists of the time while he was alive and remains one of the most influential people in the development of Western art today. Although the language of sexuality was very different in Michelangelo’s time and he was not “out” by any modern sense of the word, his poetry contains blatant references to the romantic relationships between himself and other men in his life. The homoerotic nature of much of Michelangelo’s work caused enough discomfort that when his nephew posthumously published the collection of writing, he had the gender pronouns in the work changed from male to female to erase the overt homosexual desire. It was not until over 100 years later when art historian John Addington Symonds went back to the original works to translate them into English that the change was discovered and the original pronouns were restored.
Surprised? It is not uncommon for the queer sexual orientations of historical figures to be dismissed or left out of history books. Other well-known historical figures that are thought to have been gay include Leonardo Da Vinci, Donatello, and Shakespeare.
Romaine Brooks 1874 - 1970
Romaine Brooks was a queer 20th century American painter whose portraits depicting female androgyny contained a critique of gender well ahead of her time. Her inherited wealth meant that she was freed from many of the obligations that women and female artists faced at the time. Her work was largely done in grayscale, with very minimal, muted coloring. Her subjects were almost exclusively women, and her work included portraits of her acquaintances as well as the women she had romantic relationships with. In addition to the androgynous or masculine attire of her female subjects, she is notable for treating the women in her art as the subject, rather than the object, of the piece. Brooks’ own style mirrored that of the women she painted—her self portrait (pictured in part above), is one of her most well known works, and depicts the artist in a collared shirt and riding jacket with a black high hat and cropped hairstyle. Such attire was popular in the early 20th century as a signal of queerness to other queer women. As a female artist—and a queer female artists at that—Brooks’ work was largely overlooked until the rise of feminist scholarship and queer art history brought her work back into the spotlight. Today, gender and sexuality are on the cutting edge of the art scene, and Romaine Brooks’ legacy stands as an early exploration of gender fluidity, identity, and sexual orientation.
James Baldwin 1924 - 1987
James Baldwin was an American novelist and essayist whose work is noted for its social critique and exploration of race, sexuality, and class in the Western world. Growing up black and gay in America, Baldwin experienced frequent discrimination, which greatly impacted his literary work. One of his early novels, Geovanni’s Room, caused great controversy for its unapologetic depiction of same-sex relationships. His subsequent novels, including Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, openly portray queer and interracial relationships, both of which were incredibly controversial in that time. Baldwin was also greatly inspired by and active in the Civil Rights Movement in America during the 1960s; he travelled to the South where he interviewed people who experienced the movement, and wrote several essays about what he saw. He became involved in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), where he travelled across the American South lecturing on his views on racial equality and analyzing the ideologies of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Baldwin was open about his sexual orientation, which was still rare at the time, and his legacy lives on as both an inspiring gay figure and as an impactful literary voice of the Civil Rights Movement.
Audre Lorde 1934 - 1992
Audre Lorde was an American writer, a daughter of immigrants, and a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Her writing is most well known for its social justice framework and discussion of feminism, racial injustice, and queer identity. From powerful, emotionally expressive poetry to social critique and queer feminist theory, her work spanned multiple genres, always with the underlying themes of identity, intersectionality, and oppression. Her writing on identity and intersectionality established Lorde as a pillar of the feminist movement, notably penning the well-known essay “The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House,” a critique of the racism that was pervasive in much of the feminist movement. Lorde was also a social activist; she was active in the civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements during her lifetime. She co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, dedicated to helping queer women of color get published in a time where the industry was dominated by white men, and was an associate of the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press, a non profit publishing organization. Lorde’s fierce and powerful work and legacy continues to impact the literary and feminist communities today.
Keith Haring 1958 - 1990
Keith Haring was a gay American artist, and a prominent figure in the New York East Village Art scene in the 1970s and ‘80s. He is well-known for his pop art graffiti and the political and social commentary in his work, especially relating to sexuality and the AIDS crisis. His work utilized bold lines and vivid colors and his early work was done graffiti-style on unused advertising boards in the New York subway stations. His work made overt references to his sexuality as well as social issues such as the anti-apartheid movement, the AIDS crisis, and the crack cocaine epidemic. He also created the Keith Haring Foundation to provide funding and imagery to AIDS organizations, specifically to educate disadvantaged youth and individuals about HIV and AIDS. Haring himself died of AIDS-related complications at the age of 31, but his legacy lives on in his iconic work and advocacy. His mural Crack is Wack (1986) can still be seen along FDR Drive in Manhattan today.
It is important to remember that LGBTQ people have always existed and contriubuted to our culture and society. Throughout history, queer artists often faced rejection of their work based not on its merit, but because of their sexual orientation. Therefore, it is even more important now to look to the past to celebrate the lives and creative works of the queer community and credit them for how their work continues to influence and inspire people today.
Want to learn more but don’t know where to start? We recommend checking out:
The podcast Making Queer History
And in case you missed it, Park One: Activists can be found here!
Stay tuned for next week, when we’ll highlight historic LGBTQ politicians. Happy Pride! <3 <3 <3