I'm not suggesting none of you will know that any of these 10 people are or were queer (gay or bi)—far from it. But I think a good number of them are people the public doesn't generally think of as gay in the way we do Ellen DeGeneres, Rock Hudson, Liberace, RuPaul or...the list goes on.
Enjoy, and let me know of some other historical/public figures who are or were queer but who don't seem to ping the gaydar as much as others...
Alexander Hamilton (1755 or 1757—1804)
Yes, this founding father exchanged swoony love letters with one John Laurens, who was also said to have been the apple (cherry?) of George Washington's eye:
"Cold in my professions—warm in my friendships—I wish, my Dear Laurens, it were in my power, by actions rather than words, to convince you that I love you. I shall only tell you that 'till you bade us Adieu, I hardly knew the value you had taught my heart to set upon you. Indeed, my friend, it was not well done. You know the opinion I entertain of mankind, and how much it is my desire to preserve myself free from particular attachments, and to keep my happiness independent of the caprice of others. You should not have taken advantage of my sensibility, to steal into my affections without my consent."
Historians don't like the idea that people from the past may be gay—even lots of gay people immediately assume it's almost always a case of wishful thinking. But I think more often than not the wishing is happening on the other side. People may not have had the word "gay" or the concept of it as an identity, but it was still the same—people of the same gender loving and desiring one another in what was then an even more unimaginably intolerant world.
James Dean (1931—1955)
One project we never got but deserved, as a culture, would have been titled something like An Oral History of Who Was Gay in Hollywood by Dame Elizabeth Taylor. The silver-screen queen was besties with all the silver-screen "queens"—Monty Clift, Rock Hudson, Roddy McDowall. And James Dean was no exception, as she casually confirmed when receiving a GLAAD Media Award for her lifelong support of LGBT issues:
Liz also revealed—but it was not printed until after her death, at her request—that Dean had been molested as an adolescent by his minister.
There are plenty of rumors about Dean's homosexuality, including the highly doubtful ones about his enjoying having cigarettes put out on him—Hollywood Babylon's Kenneth Anger (also gay) called him a "human ashtray."
Brando's biographer asserts that he had a rough-and-tumble relationship with Brando (also queer, admitting in People that "like a large number of men" he'd had homosexual relationships in his youth and "I am not ashamed"). What women did the supersexy Dean have sex with? Seinfeld mom Liz Sheridan says she was one in her memoir, but there are arguments on both sides as to whether Pier Angeli was another or was just a beard.
It seems, from many of his contemporaries, that James Dean was widely known to be gay.
Patsy Kelly (1910—1981)
Depending on your age and/or your awareness of 20th Century American pop culture, this may not be a case of, "Patsy Kelly was a dyke???" so much as, "Who was Patsy Kelly?" Kelly was a hilarious, brassy second banana who livened up dozens of Golden Age movie shorts and features and, later, TV shows.
Kelly was best known early in her career as part of "the female Laurel & Hardy," a three-person team made up of herself, "ice cream blonde" Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts. In particular, Kelly's chemistry with bombshell Todd is cinematic bliss.
Kelly's openness about being a lesbian (Tallulah Bankhead was one of her conquests, dahhhling, and she told one interviewer who asked if she had a crush on Jean Harlow, "The Pope Catholic?") was unheard of in the studio era, leading to a long dry spell on the big screen.
In the thirties, she was in the car with flamboyant "pansy craze" entertainer Jean Malin ("I'd Rather Be Spanish Than Mannish") and his lover when Malin accidentally drove it off a pier, dying at 25.
If none of this is ringing any bells, you may recall Kelly for cantankerous old broad parts in the Disney flicks Freaky Friday (1976) and The North Avenue Irregulars (1979), both of which came after a late-life comeback in the revivals of No, No Nanette (1971) and Irene (1973); Kelly even won the Tony for her supporting role in the former. (Rosie O'Donnell played Kelly's part in a recent Encores! revival of No, No Nanette.)
No? Then how about her role as part of the coven in Rosemary's Baby (1968)? And don't say you've never seen that or I'll give you hell for it.
Nell Carter (1948—2003)
Now should be the time when Nell Carter is enjoying roles in big movies or at least enjoying her own role as a television icon by attending the TV Land Awards. Instead, she's now 10 years in the grave, having died way too young from heart disease.
Carter is best known for her role on Gimme a Break! (1981—1987), on which she perfected a modern, anything but servile take on the familiar part of a black domestic in a white home. This maid was more like a substitute mother, very much a part of the family, and a true equal. She was nominated for Emmys and Golden Globes for her outstanding work on the series.
But she came to the show after winning a Tony for her amazing 1978 performance in Ain't Misbehavin' on Broadway—she was more than just a TV character, she had chops.
Sadly, Carter was dealt a lot of disastrous circumstances, including bankruptcy, miscarriages, a brother who died of AIDS, a suicide try and a lingering addiction to cocaine.
People don't seem to have absorbed the information that Nell was with a long-term female partner at the time of her death, Ann Kaser, a fact that only became public when Kaser inherited Carter's belongings and custody of her adopted children.
Miriam Margolyes (1941—)
Yay! One who's still alive! This veteran actress has made a huge impression in innumerable films. Right off the top of my head, I recall her visual impact in Immortal Beloved (1994) and Being Julia (2004) and she was Oscar-worthy in The Age of Innocence (1993), but the list is endless. She's ideal in taciturn roles, but is actually quite hilarious, as this appearance with Graham Norton proves:
It was news to me as of a few years ago that this familiar screen presence—she's most recently identified with her role in the "Harry Potter" films—was openly gay, but she's certainly not shy about it—nor is she shy about much. Prior to meeting up with her Australian partner Heather (a history professor), with whom she's spent the last 45 years, Margolyes has said she specialized in giving boys oral sex at college:
"Jewish girls don't get fucked—you do oral sex. What's the point of giving any other sort? I mean, I want you to know the real me...and my shit doesn't stink."
With her distinctive and instantly recognizable speaking voice, she could fairly be called the voice of the gay movement, even if she'd never spoken a word about gay issues.
The "Arrow Collar Man" aka Charles Beach (1886—1952)
The famous face (and body) of many Arrow ads from the early 20th Century, Beach was 17 when he hooked up with illustrator J.C. Leyendecker (pictured at left). Leyendecker was one of the most famous and successful commercial, with very few other than Norman Rockwell himself around to displace him as the #1 illustrator of all time. The illustrator was closer to 30 and infatuated with the handsome teen, who was readily available to pose for what would become an iconic advertising character—especially available after moving in with Leyendecker and his brother.
Pre-figuring The Village People, Leyendecker also did enistment posters for the U.S. Army—we want you, we want you, we want you for a new recruit!
The life partners threw lavish parties but eventually became quite reclusive; Beach died within a year of Leyendecker in the early '50s.
There is something wickedly amusing about their ruse—selling the male ideal to heterosexuals everywhere using a gay man, with no one the wiser. Or were they simply being pre-post-gay, never seeing the irony in their endeavor since, after all, Beach was a sexy man who definitely looked good in and out of a shirt?
Maria Schneider (1952—2011)
Though this talented actress, who was discovered by Brigitte Bardot, worked with some interesting directors and played some challenging parts, she will always be remembered as the chick Marlon Brando had anal sex with—thanks to some butter—in Last Tango in Paris, a scene that wasn't in the script and that she later admitted left her feeling "a little raped."
In real—and tumultous—life, Schneider was bisexual, which incidentally precipitated the demise of her film career when she quit the set of the René Clément movie The Baby Sitter (1975) and checked into an asylum in order to be closer to her female lover, Patty Townsend.
She did stick around long enough to appear in yet another sexually controversial film, Savage Nights (1992), in which an HIV-positive bisexual man has unprotected sex with his male and female lovers.
Most poignantly, Schneider said of her Tango role:
"Brando later said that he felt manipulated, and he was Marlon Brando, so you can imagine how I felt. People thought I was like the girl in the movie, but that wasn't me."
"Perry Mason" aka Raymond Burr (1917—1993)
An icon for playing both "Perry Mason" and the wheelchair-bound "Ironside," Raymond Burr had a body of work behind him on the big screen that was already quite distinguished before ever setting foot/wheel on a TV set. For one thing, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) wouldn't be quite the same without Burr as the gray-haired heavy, a man who secretly murders his wife and removes her, bit by bit, from his apartment, all while snoopy James Stewart peeps on him.
And let's not forget he was the Anglo in Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956).
Like Andy Griffith, Burr had a huge, Middle-American fanbase. Unlike Griffith, Burr was gay. His fans are unlikely to have accepted him as the gay man he was, or even to have believed he might be gay had he been outed.
But gay he was. Burr was married in the '40s briefly, but unmarried thereafter. Instead, he became life partners with an actor, Robert Benevides (pictured), from the late '50s until Burr died in 1993. The original Beekman Boys, they ran a vineyard and sold orchids between Burr's acting gigs.
And what an actor he was! Off-screen, too; he told countless fabricated stories about his life, many of which were believed right up until his death, including one about a son he had who died of leukemia at age 10. One has to wonder if Burr, already lying about his sexual preference, saw his public image as a sham anyway, and therefore one to be manipulated as if it were a game.
And really, that's what it is with closeted actors—it's not real life.
For more on the real Burr, check out the definitive biography, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Secret Life of Raymond Burr by Michael Seth Starr.
"Jimmy Olsen" aka Jack Larson (1928—2015)
Jack Larson was best known as "Jimmy Olsen" on the early TV classic Adventures of Superman (1952—1958). His cherubic, aw-shucks quality made the character an enduring favorite among fantasy fans, and never in any viewer's wildest fantasy would he or she have dreamed that the man behind Jimmy might be gay. Keep in mind, this was during the '50s!
Larson, whose name elicits warm comments among his peers, was involved with Montgomery Clift in the '50s, then from 1958 on was the partner of James Bridges. Bridges would go on to be an important screenwriter and director of such films as The Paper Chase (1973), The China Syndrome (1979), Urban Cowboy (1980) and Mike's Murder (1984) with Debra Winger and Bright Lights, Big City (1988). Sadly, Bridges died young of cancer in 1993.
Larson was out for decades, and was just as game to relive his Superman glory, too, appearing on DVD commentaries, at conventions and at numerous public appearances to discuss it.
Larson waxes nostalgic about his '50s career starting at 3:29
I thought he'd be a fitting person with which to end this short list thanks to his status as a gay person who lived his life openly and with generosity and warmth.