What are some things that come to mind when you think about Eleanor Roosevelt? Most people probably think “First Lady”, “humanitarian,” and “activist.” What you probably wouldn’t think? She was likely in a romantic relationship with a woman. Her letters to lesbian reporter Lorena Hickok strongly suggest that the two were in love. However, almost no one today would suspect that Eleanor Roosevelt was anything other than straight. She was married to a man, after all.
This is just one example of how LGBT identities have been erased from history. Other examples include Abraham Lincoln, Alexander the Great, Frida Kahlo, and Virginia Woolf. Despite the fact that there is ample evidence supporting their queer identities, most people assume that they are straight. Many ignore evidence to the contrary and insist that there is no way that historical icons could have been anything other than heterosexual.
Examples of suppression of gay and lesbian culture can be found throughout history, not just in academic settings today. For example, some South American artifacts depicting same-sex relationships survive, but the majority were destroyed by Christian missionaries. Other artifacts displaying similar themes have been destroyed in India and China, and most Greek plays and manuscripts depicting homosexuality have been lost. As a result of destruction of artifacts and a refusal to discuss sexuality frankly, the majority of our history is viewed through a very specific and narrow lense: Christian, Western, white, male, and heterosexual. This is damaging and harmful, both to the contemporary gay community and to these figures.
This erasure completely dishonors the identities of these historical figures, who deserve to be represented as their full and complete selves. Who they were and who they loved should not be withheld because it is deemed too “controversial” to be discussed in an educational setting. It is blatantly disrespectful to paint them as something they were not.
Historical erasure isn’t just disrespectful to queer historical figures; it hurts the modern LGBT community as well. As a gay teenager, it’s easy to feel like a new phenomenon. Not so long ago, it was illegal to show affection to the same sex in public, and homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder. Being able to see figures like themselves, who did amazing things, can be incredibly validating and reassuring in a society that can feel profoundly isolating and scary. Discovering a hero who was like you can bring so much hope.
This matters, because history has been critical in representing marginalized groups. The assumption that historical figures are all straight is damaging to the identities of queer historical icons and to the teenagers reading about them. It makes a world of difference to have someone like yourself to look up to, and to know that someone who lived and loved like you did great things. It’s time that we stop making these harmful assumptions and replace erasure with openness and honesty in our study of history.