Queers in History: Book, App for Android and IOS

Author Q&A

An interview with Keith Stern, author of Queers in History

Q: Why did you call it Queers in History?

A: It’s a funny title for a funny book. Some people think queer is a bad word, but it’s all in how you use it. I don’t mean to insult or offend anyone, though the word has sometimes been used that way by other people.  But one of the best ways to neutralize a slur is to appropriate it for yourself.  It’s been used by gay people to describe themselves for at least a hundred years. William Burroughs wrote a book called Queer in the early 1950s. In the 1990s gay activists called themselves Queer Nation.  And then there were Queer as Folk and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.  I named my book after a book that was published in 1976 called Homosexuals in History. I just updated that to Queers in History.

Q: How do you define “queer”?

A: Almost everyone in my book has been identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered in widely published sources.  Their sexual orientation is known by their choice of romantic partners, their apparent desires, the content of their work, and their personal history.  Almost all had at least one serious, intimate, sexual relationship with a person of the same sex.  A few may have suppressed their sexuality to the extent that they had few or no sexual experiences, though their orientation – their desire – was to some extent homosexual.

Q: Who is your favorite person in the book?

A: I find something fascinating about people who were very famous in their own time but who have been kind of forgotten, for instance Deborah Sampson. She was a young woman during the Revolutionary War who dressed up in men’s clothing to join the Continental Army.  She fought heroically and none of her fellow soldiers ever suspected she was a woman.  While she was in uniform she reportedly carried on flirtatious affairs with several women and even purchased the freedom of one white woman who had been a captive of Indians to take her as a wife.  Sampson was wounded in battle but refused to let the doctor treat her because she was afraid he’d find out.  So she took a pen knife and a bottle of wine into the woods and removed the musket ball from her own thigh.  After the war she continued to live life as a man, until a doctor discovered her secret.  After that she settled down, put on a dress and married a farmer.  When she applied for her pension she was turned down because she was a woman.  She gave lectures and borrowed money from her friend Paul Revere to support herself.  Eventually, with Revere’s help, she started receiving a pension which, after she died, her husband continued to collect as the only Revolutionary War soldier’s widow.

Q: Who was the biggest surprise?

A: I was most surprised as I learned about the private life of Abraham Lincoln. I thought I knew a lot about the 16th president, and when I first started hearing stories about him being gay I figured they were exaggerated.  It’s well known he had a terrible marriage with Mary Todd. But as I looked into it, the story emerged of a man who was not only gay, but relatively comfortable with his sexuality. In fact when he was young he wrote one of the earliest explicitly gay poems in American literature.

Q: Who are the oldest in the book?

A: About 15 years ago, archaeologists were exploring a newly uncovered tomb in Egypt dating back about 4500 years. The walls were painted with images of two men living their lives together, hugging and kissing like a married couple. And indeed there were two male mummies named NiankhKnumh and KnumhHotep. Inscriptions tell us they were manicurists to the pharaoh. So some things never change.

Q: Who is the youngest?

A: That would be Lindsay Lohan.

Q: Who’s the most controversial?

A: For some people, this whole book is controversial.  I probably went furthest out on that limb by including John Travolta. His sexuality is an issue because it’s been the subject of countless rumors and a couple of lawsuits.  Plus there’s a famous photograph of him in an unguarded moment kissing a male friend on the lips.  Now, people in Hollywood, even guys, kiss a lot, but unless they’re acting I think only the gay ones do it full on the lips. Whether the rumors are true or not, Travolta has never denied it and he doesn’t seem concerned about what people think.

Q: What difference does it make that these people were gay?

A: That was another surprise for me as I researched this book. I started out thinking maybe it was interesting but usually didn’t affect their work. Turns out being gay always had a major impact on their lives and success.

If he hadn’t been gay, Hans Christian Andersen would not have written his fairy tales about ugly ducklings and mermaids in impossible love affairs. Little Richard wouldn’t have had his first hit, "Tutti Frutti," which was originally a hot number about gay sex that he performed in gay nightclubs. And, as Rita Mae Brown has said, if Michelangelo were straight, he would have painted the Sistine Chapel basic white with a roller.

Q: What qualifies you to write about this?

A: I guess I was the only one with enough spare time. Actually, I’ve always been fascinated by history and people, and since the Internet started up I’ve been writing official biographical websites, mostly for movie stars and musicians. So I’ve had a lot of practice getting the facts right and presenting them in an entertaining way.

Q: Why a book, not a website?

A: In fact, it started out as a CD-ROM. But there’s nothing like a book you can hold in your hands, or leave on the coffee table. And laptops are never a good idea in the bathroom.

Q: What about outing?

A: I don’t out anybody in my book. There are lots of surprises but all of my subjects have had something previously published about their sexuality. And if a living person has gone on the record denying they’re gay, I’ve left them in the closet and out of the book.

Q: How long did it take?

A: I started working on this in 1993 so it’s more than 16 years. I took a break to work on websites from 1999-2004. I did a lot of work for Lord of The Rings so I had to put this to the side. Then when all that was over I picked it up again.

Q: How do you know they were gay?  What are your sources?

A: Homosexuality has usually been a deeply private or even secret aspect of people’s lives.  Even so, some historical records exist.  Over the years, people have written each other letters.  It’s in their correspondence that many of my subjects revealed their innermost thoughts and private experiences.  Diaries and memoirs, often published posthumously, are another important source of information.

People in the past were more open about their sexuality than we might expect, especially with their close friends and associates.

Q: What got you interested in this?

A: In 1993, I happened to read a magazine article about Leonardo da Vinci.  It mentioned, as an aside, that he was believed to have been gay.  This was no great shock.  I’d already read other articles that alluded to rumors about the original Renaissance Man.   Something clicked in my mind that day.  Sure, I knew something about Leonardo and Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Marlowe, Alexander the Great and Walt Whitman.  But I didn’t know for certain why these people were thought to have been homosexual.  I wondered how many other famous historical figures might also have been gay.  I thought if I really applied myself to the task, I might come up with a list of 50 prominent people who I could prove were gay, lesbian, or bisexual.  Now, that would be interesting!

It took me about a week in the library to uncover fifty.  By the time I had 100, I was excited, and started sharing with friends the startling information I was digging up.  Now I have 900 true stories about thousands of people.


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