Our Gay Greats

Searching for LGBTQA women and men to model herself after, UW–Madison senior Amanda Hunter finds the importance of visible role models.

Searching for LGBTQA women and men to model herself after, UW–Madison senior Amanda Hunter finds the importance of visible role models.

The first person I knew to be gay was Matthew Shepard. I was 13. I remember watching a Barbara Walters Special with my grandparents, I remember the images: a photo of Matthew and his assailants at a bar, a wooden cross marking the spot on the deserted Wyoming highway. I remember my grandparents’ reaction, horror that a life had been so coldheartedly ended, while almost justifying it, a sort of “that’s what you get.” I remember vaguely understanding what gay meant, “a man who loves other men,” but not how this had painted a bulls-eye on Matthew’s forehead, how something as innocuous as a capacity to love could provoke murder, how my pro-life, anti-death penalty grandparents weren’t outraged.

This connotation stayed with me; for years, in my mind “gay” equated Matthew Shepard. As I’ve grown up and become more aware, and as the media pay more attention to all things queer, there hasn’t really been a strong positive counterbalance. To anyone born after 1985, George Michael is better known for getting caught in public than for his music. After Ellen DeGeneres came out on her sitcom in 1997, I was no longer allowed to watch; ratings dropped and the show was canceled the following year. Rosie O’Donnell came out publicly in order to challenge Florida state law barring gay couples from adopting. After the media frenzy died down, she lost her daytime talk show, her magazine, and the aforementioned law stands.

The image of gays is changing. Ten years later, Ellen has made a comeback. She hosts an Emmy Award–winning talk show, voiced the unforgettable Dory in Disney/Pixar’s Finding Nemo, hosted the Oscars, the Emmys and Grammys—twice. Elton John throws lavish parties that raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for AIDS research. Following reports of on-set homophobic remarks by Isaiah Washington, Grey’s Anatomy star T. R. Knight comes out with the support of castmates, notably best friend Katharine Heigl and Patrick Dempsey, who reportedly stood up to Washington. Ratings continue to soar, and Washington was ultimately fired.

This is all a great start, but it’s just that: a start. We need Gay Greats in every arena of public life; their work must be known and respected in their respective fields, whatever they may be, their sexuality should be nothing more than an interesting biographical note—“and X is queer,” not “but.” At present, we have this level of awareness to a limited degree. You can run a search for “LGBT people” on Wikipedia and find a list of queers of note, but this kind of information is more restricted on more respected sites. No offense to Wikipedia, I’m a huge fan, but you can’t exactly live or die by it.

For example, Eleanor Roosevelt. Most websites devoted to her life and work, her home, her library, or more generally, to First Ladies, will discuss her advocacy, her role as the president’s “eyes and ears,” even his affair with her secretary, but they ignore her long-term, romantic relationship with female journalist Lorena Hickok. This comes to light only on websites devoted to LGBT history.

Historians argue that such information is not worth mentioning. I disagree, for two reasons: (1) sexuality is an aspect of identity, which in turn influences the decisions one makes, decisions which may be monumental, and (2) we, as a community, and our young and/or newly out members in particular, need positive role models. It’s important for the same reason that February is now Black History Month; for the same reason that, in the 1970s, female writers such as Virginia Woolf were added to the English literary canon. We need people to look to as people who have achieved great things, who had an impact in the course of events, and who are like us.

Adlai Stevenson described Eleanor Roosevelt as someone “who would rather light a candle than curse the darkness;” there is wisdom in those words. As a community, we do a lot of cursing the darkness, complaining about various inequities that certainly deserve complaint. We don’t, however, light enough candles. We need to advocate for the inclusion of sexuality in biographies, particularly those historical. We need to applaud those in the spotlight who are out, to encourage closeted individuals to come out. We need to become the role models we wish we had, as per the oft-quoted Mahatma Gandhi, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”