Gay History 101: March 18, 2015

A letter writen by Alan Turing

Alan Turing (1912 –1954) The family of code breaker Alan Turing visited London’s Downing Street on February 23, 2015 to demand the government pardons of 49,000 other men persecuted like him for their homosexuality under the Gross Indecency Law. Turing, whose work cracking the German military codes was vital to the British war effort against Nazi Germany, was convicted in 1952 of gross indecency with a 19-year-old man, was chemically castrated, and two years later committed suicide.

Turing’s great-nephew, Nevil Hunt, his great-niece, Rachel Barnes, and her son, Thomas, handed over the petition, which carried almost 500,000 signatures, to the Prime Minister's Office. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of Turing has brought the pioneering scientist’s story to a worldwide audience. The 2014 film “ The Imitation Game” follows him from his days as a second world war code breaker at Bletchley Park to his work at Manchester University, which saw him hailed as the father of modern computing, and to his public disgrace and ultimately tragic death. Private consensual acts between adults, including same-sex sodomy, were decriminalized in England in 1967. He was given a posthumous royal pardon in 2013.

Gertrude Stein (1874 –1946) was an American writer of novels, poetry and plays. Stein moved to Paris in 1903, making France her home for the remainder of her life. A literary innovator and pioneer of Modernist literature, Stein’s work broke with the narrative, linear, and temporal conventions of the 19th-century. In 1933, Stein published a kind of memoir of her Paris years, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written in the voice of Toklas, her life partner. The book became a literary bestseller and vaulted Stein from the relative obscurity of cult literary figure into the light of mainstream attention. Her essay "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene" is one of the first homosexual revelation stories to be published. The work contains the word "gay" over one hundred times, perhaps the first published use of the word "gay" in reference to same-sex relationships and those who have them and, thus, uninformed readers missed the lesbian content. A similar essay of homosexual men begins more obviously with the line "Sometimes men are kissing" but is less well known.

Truman Capote (1924 –1984), was an American author, screenwriter, playwright, actor, many of whose short stories, novels, plays, and nonfiction are recognized literary classics, including the novella Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958) and the true crime novel In Cold Blood (1966), which he labeled a "nonfiction novel." At least 20 films and television dramas have been produced of Capote novels, stories, and plays. Capote was openly homosexual. One of his first serious lovers was Smith College literature professor Newton Arvin, who won the National Book Award for his Herman Melville biography in 1951 and to whom Capote dedicated Other Voices, Other Rooms. However, Capote spent the majority of his life until his death partnered to Jack Dunphy, a fellow writer. In his book, "Dear Genius: A Memoir of My Life with Truman Capote,” Dunphy attempts both to explain the Capote he knew and loved within their relationship and the very success-driven and, eventually, drug and alcohol addicted person who existed outside of their relationship. Although Capote and Dunphy's relationship lasted the majority of Capote's life, it seems that they both lived, at times, different lives. Their sometimes separate living quarters allowed autonomy within the relationship and, as Dunphy admitted, "spared [him] the anguish of watching Capote drink and take drugs." Although Capote seemed never really to embrace the gay rights movement, his own openness about homosexuality and his encouragement for openness in others makes him an important player in the realm of gay rights nonetheless.

Allen Ginsberg (1926 –1997) was an American poet and one of the leading figures of both the “Beat Generation” of the 1950s and the counterculture that soon would follow. He vigorously opposed militarism, economic materialism and sexual repression. Ginsberg is best known for his epic poem "Howl" in which he denounced what he saw as the destructive forces of capitalism and conformity in the U.S. In 1957, "Howl" attracted widespread publicity when it became the subject of an obscenity trial, as it depicted heterosexual and homosexual sex at a time when sodomy laws made homosexual acts a crime in every U.S. state. "Howl" reflected Ginsberg's own homosexuality and his relationships with a number of men, including Peter Orlovsky, his lifelong partner. Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled that "Howl" was not obscene, adding, "Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms”? One contribution that is often considered his most significant and most controversial was his openness about homosexuality. Ginsberg was an early proponent of freedom for gay people. In 1943, he discovered within himself "mountains of homosexuality." He expressed this desire openly and graphically in his poetry. He also struck a note for gay marriage by listing Peter Orlovsky, as his spouse in his Who's Who entry. Subsequent gay writers saw his frank talk about homosexuality as an opening to speak more openly and honestly about something before only hinted at or spoken of in metaphors. In writing about sexuality in graphic detail and in his frequent use of language seen as indecent, he challenged—and ultimately changed—obscenity laws.


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