Queer History: April
For my fellow Texans, April hasn’t given us many “showers” the last few years, but we can still approach May with a bouquet of a thousand queer flowers blooming. Rain or shine, no month passes without us making history!
On April 18th, over 2000 years ago in 382 BCE, Phillip of Macedonia is born, who would go on as Phillip II to conquer all of Greece. While his lust for territory did not take him as far as his son, Alexander, his lust for young men was certainly equivalent.
Many centuries later, during the Italian Renaissance, April saw the birth or two other figures. The first, and far more famous, Leonardo da Vinci, was born in 1453, and 24 years later would already have an almost criminal reputation for preferring the intimate company of men. Literally criminal, of course, since such activities could lead to life imprisonment or death. Numerous attempts were made during his life to link him to other “sodomites”, including some as infamous to society then as he is famous to the world now, but it appears likely that the man (who described male/female intercourse as repellant) was under the protection of the powerful Medici family, and he never faced trial for these charges.
The second figure, Pietro Aretino, was born in 1492. Some time after “Columbus sailed the ocean blue”, Aretino would be charting new territory by writing wildly pornographic comedies, dialogues, even “sex manuals” like his satirical “School of Whoredom”. Popular accounts of his life and death say that he died after suffering a stroke from laughing too hard at a dirty joke. (credit to back2stonewall.com for these and other records)
April 14th saw the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, in 1865, then the birth of John Gielgud in 1904, with other interesting parallels. That Lincoln was shot in a theater, while Gielgud would make the stage his home for many decades is one coincidence, but it is that both men were very likely secret lovers of other men which interests us.
Less than secret, far more brassy, and the very next day on April 15, 1894, singer Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Mentored in performance by the queer as all get out Ma Rainey, Smith would go on the be known as “The Empress of the Blues”, influencing no end of jazz singers to come. Show business and her bisexuality made for two rocky marriages, but also a great American life.
So who will be our mentors, influences, famous or adored queer folk in years to come? As we hang on to their memory, may we all create new ones for the next generation and beyond.
(featured image is a portrait of Bessie Smith by Carl Van Vecthen, taken on February 3, 1936)