I easily made it through twelve years of formal state-sanctioned education without once hearing the word “lesbian,” let alone any other type of lesbian history or gay history instruction, and I imagine this remains true for most students today. Luckily, we’ve all grown up into beautiful, beaming humans who know how to use the internet and check out books from the library, therefore enabling us to confirm that pretty much everybody is gay.
Please note that the inclusion of a person on this list is by no means an endorsement of all of their ideas, actions or beliefs. It’s simply an indication that they were gay, lesbian, or bisexual. This is a list of acknowledgment, not celebration because history is messed up, man.
1. Willa Cather
Pulitzer Prize winner Willa Cather went by “William” as a University of Nebraska student in the early 1890s, and lived with editor Edith Lewis in New York City for 39 years, until her death in 1947. Cather’s male protagonists may have been “suspiciously autobiographical,” writes Lillian Fadermen in Surpassing the Love of Men, who also noted that, due to the stigma around homosexuality that Cather grew up in, “perhaps she felt the need to be more reticent about love between women than even some of her patently heterosexual contemporaries because she bore a burden of guilt for what came to be labeled perversion.” Like so many other closeted women in history, Cather was a “private person” who enjoyed seclusion and destroyed many of her old drafts and letters before her death.
2. Alice Dunbar-Nelson
The legendary activist and poet married journalist Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1898, but the relationship was both rocky and abusive, and Paul reportedly was very unhappy about Alice’s lesbian affairs. They separated in 1902. While teaching at Howard High School in Delaware, Dunbar had a long-term relationship with Edwina Kruse, the school’s principal. She then married fellow teacher Henry Arthur Callis but the marriage only lasted a year. She married journalist and activist Robert J. Nelson in 1916 and they were still married when she died in 1935. By reading her diary, Nelson discovered that his wife was having affairs with women, including artist Helene London and journalist Fay Jackson Robinson, but apparently “tolerated” them, despite “occasional fits of rage.” Alice was a revolutionary force in the women’s and African-American civil rights movement while also publishing poetry, stories and essays. Due to the overall status of African-American women at the time, she struggled to get paid for her work or even be adequately recognized for it.
3. Florence Nightingale
According to Superstars: Twelve Lesbians Who Changed the World, Florence had three women she loved passionately, beginning with her cousin, Marianna Nicholson, which is why Florence spent so many years pretending to like Marianna’s brother, Henry, and living with them… until he proposed, she had to say no, and Marianna stopped talking to her. She was devastated. Florence hated socializing, courting, and pretty much everything expected of women. She also loathed the women who played into those expectations. She fought for literal decades with her entire family regarding her refusal to meet their expectations, and eventually she got her way and went on to revolutionize the field of nursing and the military hospital conditions. She shared a close intimate relationship with her Aunt Mai, who moved in with Florence at one point when Florence was sick and claimed to be dying (whether or not she truly was dying or just wanted her family to leave her alone so she could work is up for debate). When Mai was summoned home after three years with Florence, she was replaced by Hilary, a cousin who adored Florence and stayed until her own family demanded her return. Always considered “one of the boys,” Florence died having changed the world, but never married, and, according to historians, completely “chaste.”
4. Babe Didrickson
Babe Didrickson, the co-founder of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, set world records in javelin throw and eighty-meter hurdles in the Olympics. Although Babe married Greek professional wrestler George Zaharias in 1908, by the 1950’s she’d moved on to a relationship with golfer Betty Dodd. They’d met at an amateur golf tournament in 1950 and hit it off immediately. They toured together and eventually Dodd moved in with Babe and her husband.
5. Emily Dickinson
The legendarily depressive poet met her beloved Susan Gilbert while studying as a teenager at Amherst Academy. Gilbert married Dickinson’s brother, Austin, but that had no impact on the passionate communication between the two — all of which was edited out when Sue’s daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, prepared the letters for publication. “Since love between women had become in her day an abnormality, if Emily Dickinson were suspected of lesbianism,” Lillian Faderman wrote in Surpassing the Love of Men, “the universality and validity of her poetic sentiments might even be called into question.” By all accounts, Austin and Sue had a terrible marriage, and Austin regularly cheated on his wife with the woman who’d end up editing many of Dickinson’s poems for publication after her death. Family!
6. Barbara Jordan
Civil rights leader and progressive politician Barbara Jordan was outed in her 1996 obituary, when she became the first black woman to be buried in the Texas State Cemetery. She was already the first woman to serve in the Texas House of Representatives, the first post-reconstruction African-American State Senator and the first black woman to keynote the Democratic National Convention. She met educator Nancy Earl, who would become her partner of over thirty years, on a camping trip, and Earl often helped Jordan write her speeches.
7. Katharine Lee Bates
The famed composer of “America the Beautiful” never married, but lived in Wellesley with Katharine Coman, the founder of the Department of Economics at Wellesley College. The two had what we now know as a “Boston Marriage,” a co-habitational relationship between two educated unmarried women. When asked by a colleague if she minded being a “free-flying spinster” and a “fringe on the garment of life,” Bates remarked that she “always thought the fringe had the best of it. I don’t think I mind not being woven in.”
8. Lorraine Hansberry
Lorraine Hansberry, author of Raisin In The Sun and the first black playwright to win a “Best Play” award from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle, spent the entirety of her short life (she died at the age of 34 from Pancreatic Cancer) in the closet — but that didn’t stop her from lending her voice to the movement. She published several letters anonymously in lesbian magazine The Ladder, identifying herself as a “heterosexually married lesbian” and an essay, in 1961, called “On Homophobia, the “Intellectual Impoverishment of Women’ and a “Homosexual Bill of Rights.” By that time she’d already “quietly separated” from her husband Robert Nemiroff and was living alone in Greenwich Village. They eventually divorced but stayed close and wrote together. So much of Hansberry’s writings have been found after her death, including incredible lists like the I AM BORED TO DEATH WITH list on which she included “lesbians,” “A RAISIN IN THE SUN!” and “silly white people.” Tellingly, she included “my homosexuality” on both “I Like” and “I Hate.”
9. Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor’s same-sex relationships definitely weren’t part of the curriculum, but there’s a pretty good chance you’ve been made aware of her bisexuality since. Roosevelt, the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt, married her distant cousin, future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1905. She was always politically active, advocating for civil rights and having a huge behind-the-scenes influence as First Lady. Eventually her marriage became “an intellectual and political partnership” and that’s when she dove head-first into her lesbian social circle and developed a long-term relationship with Lorena Hickok. “Hick,” as she was known to friends, was the first woman to get a byline on the front page of The New York Times. Her relationship with Eleanor had a major impact on Hickok’s career, however, as her “objectivity” was questioned the closer she got to Eleanor.
10. Margaret Mead
Anthropologist and academic celebrity Margaret Mead had a relationship with Ruth Benedict, who’d been a professor of Mead’s at Barnard. The two worked together and apparently Benedict, the first American woman to gain status in a male-dominated academic field, was cured of her depression through her relationship with Mead. Mead believed that sexual orientation could be fluid and shift throughout one’s life. Mead married three times: Luther Creesman from 1923-28, Reo Fortune from 1928-35, and Gregory Bateson from 1936-1950. From 1955 until her death in 1978, Mead lived with and had a romantic and professional relationship with anthropologist Rhoda Metraux.
11. Billie Holiday
One of the world’s greatest jazz vocalists of all time, the bisexual blues singer had quite a few relationships with women. Holiday had a tragic and difficult childhood and struggled with drug abuse, drinking and abusive relationships with men, and her most storied same-sex relationship was that with actress Tallulah Bankhead. They were on and off for a while, and in 1948, Bankhead would come to Holiday’s shows at the Strand Theater after curtain at her play (Private Lives, on Broadway), and Bankhead would tag along on tour whenever she had the time. At one point, Bankhead bailed Holiday out of jail, after she’d been arrested for opium possession. They had a stormy breakup and later exchanged harsh letters regarding the representation of the other in their respective biographies.
12. A’Lelia Walker
Walker’s mother, Madam C. J. Walker, was the first woman to become a self-made millionaire in America, developing a best-selling line of hair and beauty products for African-Americans. Her daughter, A’Lelia, was a vivid presence during The Harlem Renaissance, throwing lavish parties attended by princesses and dykes from Europe and Russia, New York socialites and the well-known intellectuals and writers of the Harm Renaissance. “A’Lelia Walker probably had much to do with the manifest acceptance of bisexuality among the upper class in Harlem,” wrote Lillian Faderman in Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, “those who had moral reservations about bisexuality or considered it strange or decadent learned to pretend a sophistication and suppress their disapproval if they desired A’Lelia’s goodwill.” A’Lelia inhereted her mother’s fortune but also ran the business herself, opening training centers for Walker agents and the Walker Hair Parlor. She married three times and has been linked to the legendarily hilarious Mayme White (daughter of the 19th century’s last black Congress Member), stage actress Edna Thomas and Mae Fane, about whom little is known.