Each February, the United States celebrates Black History Month. For many Americans, this celebration consists of watching the public service announcements telling us of the achievements of African Americans. From these ads, we’ve learned that a black man invented the stoplight and that the first female self-made millionaire in the US was black. Indeed, the month-long celebration provides the public with lessons of the vast contributions blacks Americans have made to their country.
June is Gay Pride Month. However, you won’t be seeing similar public service announcements about the vast contributions gays and lesbians have made to American society. Well, maybe on Logo, Out!, or the gay network for straight people, Bravo. Sure, a couple of shows may work in gay-friendly stories and the movie channels will dig out Brokeback Mountain and All Over the Guy for a few more screenings, but largely the month will go unobserved by the mainstream media.
So allow me to step in and fill the void, only with more of an international flair, since Gay Pride is a worldwide event, not just an American one. Were American networks brave enough to highlight significant gays and lesbians, as well as important events in gay history, here are some of the stories you might see:
Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717 - 1768) is the “prophet” of modern archeology and “father” of art history. His approach to the field of archeology from a scientific standpoint changed the way archeologists work. Winckelmann took the knowledge gained from his excavations at Pompeii and the Herculaneum and applied it to the art world, for the first time producing a history of world art based in style and technique. He revived interest in ancient Greek and Roman art, and his book History of the Art of Antiquity is still used in college courses today.
In a scenario tragically repeated throughout history, Winckelmann was murdered by a young man he had befriended whom he caught trying to rob him, proof that young men don’t hang around old queens for the sparkling conversation and sex, despite what is depicted on the sides of ancient Greek pottery.
Jackie “Moms” Mabley
Jackie “Moms” Mabley (1894 - 1975) had four children, but she earned her nickname from her work fostering young talent on the “Chitlin’ Circuit”, a comedy circuit for black vaudevillians that she helped develop. Despite her racy routines in which her character of an old crusty woman lusted after young men, Mabley lived mostly as a lesbian.
She recorded 20 albums between 1961 and her death, and her appearances on talk shows made her one of the most popular comedians of the 1960s. Largely forgotten today, she is still one of the funniest women to work a stage.
Michelangelo (1475 - 1564), painter of the Sistine Chapel, designer of the Medici Chapel, and sculptor of David, was gay. You probably knew that, but it’s worth repeating.
Speaking of those associated with the church, meet James I of England, also known as James VI of Scotland, also known as Queen Swishy Pants (OK, I made that last part up).
Although married and a father, James’ dalliances with male courtiers were well-known; he frequently appointed to important positions those men who garnered his affections, even referring to one such conquest as his “wife” in letters. Which shows that young men will hang around an old queen if the queen is King.
Today, James is best known for commissioning the King James Bible, which put the Thees and Thous in Christianity.
America’s first gay Vice-President was William R. King (1786 - 1853), who lived for 15 years with America’s first gay President, James Buchanan (1791 - 1868). Their relationship inspired Buchanan’s Postmaster General, Aaron V. Brown, to refer to them as “Buchanan and his wife”. While there is no concrete evidence the men had a sexual relationship, the fact that their nieces burned their personal correspondence has raised questions about the contents of the letters and the depth of emotion expressed in them.
After a distinguished career as a Senator and ambassador, King served less than two months as VP before dying of tuberculosis. King also has the distinction of being the only VP or President sworn-in on foreign soil; he was in Cuba for his health when sworn-in.
If you’ve been in the Pennsylvania state assembly, and who hasn’t got that location on their “must see” list, you’ve seen the work of Violet Oakley (1874 - 1961), America’s first professional female artist. Oakley, who lived openly as a lesbian in a Boston Marriage, was one of three artists hired to paint murals in the state building, painting a total of 43. Oakley was also known for her prolific work as a magazine illustrator.
Another groundbreaker is Ian Roberts (1965 - ), who became one of the first active professional athletes to come out of the closet. Roberts had been playing professional rugby in Australia for nine years when he announced he was gay. He continued to play for another three years and found his fellow athletes largely accepting. After his athletic career ended, he went on to further fame by being runner-up on Australia’s Dancing with the Stars, where he lost to TV personality Tom Williams in a battle of the shirtless macho studs.
No doubt, the Roberts - Williams dance-off would have inspired a lovely homoerotic story were Ihara Saikaku (1642–1693) still alive. One of Japan’s most prolific writers, he published 40 such stories in The Great Mirror of Male Love. Before you rush off to buy a copy (available on Amazon), keep in mind that the 1600’s idea of homoerotic is mild for a generation used to PornoTube and Queer as Folk.
Saikaku would have also been inspired by the Sacred Band of Thebes, an army of 150 pairs of male lovers who battled Phillip II of Macedonia at Boeotia in 317 B.C. The army was formed with the belief that soldiers would fight harder if fighting alongside their lovers, not wanting to risk disgrace in front of the men who mattered to them most. This band of gay soldiers fought successfully for 39 years before being defeated and killed by Phillip’s army.
Upon learning that the 300 dead soldiers were lovers, Phillip reportedly cried, saying, “Perish any man who suspects that these men either did or suffered anything unseemly.” Perhaps Phillip was more culturally sensitive due to the PFLAG meetings he attended with his gay son, Alexander the Great.
And finally, let us not forget another great battle, the Stonewall Riots, when a bunch of queers and dykes had enough of getting pushed around by The Man and took to the streets. After three days of rioting in New York City in 1969, nothing really changed, but everything did. Laws were still oppressive, cops still hassled fags, and society was even more convinced that homosexuals were troublemaking deviants. Yet the gay community acted as a community, with a common purpose and drive, and the yearly celebration to commemorate that battle has evolved into the Gay Pride Month we celebrate today.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the riot that started the gay rights movement. We owe a dept to those men and women who said, “Enough!”, whether they were at Stonewall or Boeotia. There are a lot of individuals and events throughout history in which gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered can take Pride. So, go celebrate.
This has been a public service announcement.