What 7 Famous Historical Figures Said About Homosexuality

"If you look over the history of societies, you will find that some of the most highly intelligent people... were all homosexuals."

In recent years the once-taboo subject of homosexuality has come out of the closet, for both our allies and adversaries. But even before the LGBT rights movement gained momentum, historical figures addressed  the love that dare not speak its name.

Some of those people are thought of as progressives, but were a product of their times when it came to sexuality. Others are perceived now as reactionaries but were surprisingly compassionate.

Below, we look at seven transformative figures of the 20th century and their (surprising) views on homosexuality.


Mahatma Gandhi

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Though beloved as a peacemaker and the father of India’s independence, Gandhi was unfortunately unsupportive of same-sex relations.

“I venture to suggest that this is a most dangerous doctrine to preach anywhere,” Gandhi wrote of homosexuality in 1960’s All Men are Brothers. “If it somehow or other gains the stamp of respectability, it will be the rage amongst boys and girls to satisfy their urge among members of their own sex.”

Ironically the leader of India’s independence movement is believed by some to have been in a romantic same-sex relationship himself—with German bodybuilder and architecht Hermann Kallenbach.

“How completely you have taken ­possession of my body,” Gandhi wrote in a letter to Kallenbach. “This is slavery with a vengeance.”

The two men promised not to “look lustfully upon any woman,” and pledged “more love, and yet more love… such love as they hope the world has not yet seen.”

 


Martin Luther King, Jr.

MLK

MLK was another great civil rights leader who was still affected by the prejudices of his times: “The type of feeling that you have toward boys is probably not an innate tendency, but something that has been culturally acquired,” King wrote to a young gay man in a 1958 issue of Ebony. “You are already on the right road toward a solution, since you honestly recognize the problem and have a desire to solve it.”

Still, one of King’s closest advisors was an openly gay man, Bayard Rustin, who orchestrated the 1963 March on Washington.


Winston Churchill

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During a 1954 cabinet member, Churchill was informed that while crime had doubled in the United Kingdom, arrests for homosexuality had more than quadrupled. One advisor suggested limiting the scope of sodomy laws, but the Prime Minister balked—mostly on political grounds.

“The Tory Party won’t accept responsibility for making the law on homosexuality more lenient,” he insisted. “But could we not limit publicity for homosexuality, as was done for divorce?”

Churchill also suggested people convicted should have the opportunity to instead apply for “medical treatment.”

“Otherwise, I would’t touch the subject,” he insisted. “Let it get worse—in hopes of a more united public pressure for some amendment.

Britain’s law against consensual homosexual acts wouldn’t be repealed until 1967.


Sigmund Freud

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“Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of. No vice, no degradation. it cannot be classified as an illness,” the legendary psychiatrist wrote to a distraught mother seeking to cure her gay son in 1935.

Though he had varying views on sexuality, Freud believed that certain forms of homosexuality were immutable, though their causes could be ascribed to both biological and psychological factors.

“By asking me if I can help [your son], you mean, I suppose, if I can abolish homosexuality and make normal heterosexuality take its place,” Freud continued. “The answer is, in a general way we cannot promise to achieve it. In a certain number of cases we succeed in developing the blighted germs of heterosexual tendencies, which are present in every homosexual; in the majority of cases it is no more possible.”


Richard Nixon

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“I don’t want my views misunderstood. I am the most tolerant person on that of anybody in this shop,” President Nixon declared in a 1971 discussion with National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and Chief of Staff H.R. Halderman. “[Gays] have a problem. They’re born that way. You know that. That’s all.”

A recording of the the conversation, held in advance of a youth conference, only came to light last year. It shows Nixon to be surprisingly tolerant given the times.

“…If you look over the history of societies, you will find, of course, that some of the most highly intelligent people—Oscar Wilde, Aristotle, et cetera, et cetera—were homosexuals. Nero, of course, was, in a public way, in with a boy in Rome. By God, I am not going to have a situation where we pass along a law indicating, ’Well, now, kids, just go out and be gay,’ [but] they can do it. Just leave them alone. That’s a lifestyle I don’t want to touch.”

 


Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher

“Children are being taught they have an inalienable right to be gay,” Thatcher declared at a Conservative Party conference in 1987. “All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life.”
 

 
In 1967, England’s future prime minister supported decriminalizing consensual same-sex activity, but two decades later she endorsed Section 28, a law banning the “promotion” of homosexuality. It wasn’t repealed until 2000.

While Thatcher’s AIDS policy was more advanced than Ronald Reagan’s—embracing needle exchange programs and comprehensive sex education—she was still woefully slow to act.

“Gay men were widely demonized and scapegoated for the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s and Thatcher did nothing to challenge this vilification,” said LGBT activist Peter Thatchell upon her death in 2013.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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Though FDR is not on the record speaking about on homosexuality, his involvement in an anti-gay sting operation speaks volumes.

Hoping to crack down on gay activity at a naval station in Newport, Rhode Island, the then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy used decoys to entrap sailors. Roosevelt signed an order directing these gay-baiters to go “to the limit”—i.e. engage in actual sex acts with their victims. In all 17 sailors were court-martialed for sodomy and “scandalous conduct.”

FDR’s unorthodox methods led to an investigation by a Senate subcommittee—and the future president’s public embarrassment—with the media reporting the details of the case were “unprintable.”

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.
@ItsDanAvery