Top Five Queer Historical People Who Need Movies Made About Them

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Our occasional series about history’s most interesting people who have been overlooked by Hollywood. See also our articles about writersartistsRenaissance womenMedieval women, 18th-century women, and pirate women who need movies made about them. We’ve also also nominated Rose Bertin and several of Henry VIII’s wives for specific screen treatment.

Movies and TV are ridiculously heteronormative, and that goes doubly so for historical costume flicks. It’s not like people didn’t experience same-sex desires or have transgender experiences before the 1950s — but there was less societal approval before then in many places. Further complicating matters, various time periods and cultures had different ways to describe lesbian / gay / bisexual romantic and physical affections, as well as passionate non-sexual, non-romantic friendships. For example, the word “gay” didn’t automatically mean “homosexual” until 1971, and even “homosexual” as a word wasn’t created to mean same-sex desire until the 1880s in German and then English, around the time “lesbian” came to mean woman with same-sex desires.  And, of course, “queer” started with negative connotations and has been reclaimed by much of the LGBT community (myself included) especially since it can be an umbrella for the fluidity of human romantic and sexual experience. All of this can lead to confusion and endless interpretations about which historical figures were “really” straight or LGBTQ.

Some may say, what does it matter? But I say it does matter because, for one, it’s honest history. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people have existed forever, alongside heterosexual folk, and to exclude them from historical film and TV is just as wrong as only showing history from a white male perspective (and if you think that’s OK, buh-bye, this is not the blog for you!). Diverse history is interesting — check out the rest of our Forgotten History category for more people who we think Hollywood, the BBC, Starz, et. al., have missed as producers churn out yet another Henry VIII miniseries or Little Women remake. Today, here are our top five candidates for queer people who need frock flicks made about them, with thanks to author (and our friend) Heather Rose Jones for her Lesbian Historic Motif Project for invaluable research help.

 

Sappho (c. 630 – c. 570 BCE)

Sappho

Hailing from the island of Lesbos, her name is pseudonymous with lesbian love, yet there don’t seem to be any serious (read: non-porn) movies about the Greek poet Sappho. While little is known about her actual life, her poetry speaks eloquently of love and suggests this can be profound love between women. Why not attempt a biographic movie or TV show that gives context to these fragmentary poems? Was her love in vain or could she act upon her wishes? She may have been married to a man, who she outlived, and might have had a daughter — the scholarship is sketchy, but these elements could be used as the outline for a story.

 

Hadrian (January 24, 76 – July 10, 138)

Hadrian

Yes, of Hadrian’s Wall fame. Bisexuality was the norm among upper-class Romans in this period, and the Emperor Hadrian had a young boyfriend, Antinous, in addition to his official wife. While Antinous began as a Greek servant or possibly a slave in the emperor’s retinue, he gained an education and became a close companion and lover of the emperor, inspiring erotic poetry from Hadrian. Then, when Antinous accidentally drowned, the emperor created a religious cult around the man. It was typical to deify the emperor or his relations, but not a servant (or especially not a slave). Due to the emperor’s influence, at least 28 temples dedicated to the cult of Antinous were built around the Roman Empire, and games were held and coins were struck. How about a historical costume movie that leads up to this point and shows why their relationship was so important to Hadrian that he was compelled to memorialize his dead lover so dramatically?

 

Ruan Ji (c. 210 – 263)

Ruan Ji

Poet, musician, and scholar of the influential Taoist Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, Ruan Ji was determined to flout the conventions and artifice of the Chinese court. Together with this group of artists and political rebels, Ruan Ji valued independence, passion, and the wildness of nature. He and fellow Sage, the poet-philosopher Ji Kang had a relationship that was “stronger than metal and fragrant as orchids,” and their sexual stamina and prowess was remarked upon by others in their circle. The period of the Seven Sages is fascinating enough with their idea “to be together, not being together” and “act jointly, not acting jointly.” Adding in the uninhibited, equalitarian side of their queer relationships just makes it that much more interesting (it’s not like these concepts were invented in the free love 1960s). Films and TV series have been made with less to go on.

 

Laudomia Forteguerri (June 3, 1515 – 1555?)

Born into a powerful Sienese family at the height of the Renaissance, Laudomia Forteguerri had the advantages of wealth and status, along with beauty, wit, and intelligence. She was a dutiful, traditional woman of her age, marrying twice and bearing three children. But she also was an influential poet and outspoken on social and religious matters, almost considered heretical. But it’s the subject of her poetry that sparked interest in the 1540s, when her sonnets to Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Parma, were noticed. These homoerotic love poems were praised by contemporaries for their eloquence and depth of feeling. The women had met at various times, and rumors during their lifetimes and soon after pinned both “pure” friendship and “unsavory” sexual labels on their relationship. In addition to her writing, Forteguerri lead 1,000 women to help build fortifications during the Siege of Siena in 1554-1555. That would make for an exciting backdrop to a romantic costume drama right there!

 

Anne Seymour Damer (November 8, 1749 – May 28, 1828)

Anne Seymour Damer

For a queer frock flick featuring plenty of fabulous costumes and beautiful historical settings, it’s hard to beat the life story of this 18th-c. aristocratic artist. She had married young to a foppish spendthrift, who committed suicide after seven years of marriage. Widowhood freed her pursue the art she had studied and loved, and between 1784-1818, Anne Seymour Damer exhibited her neoclassical sculpture in London’s Royal Academy to great acclaim. She had an active social life among the era’s glitterati including Whig politicians Horace Walpole and Charles James Fox, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, and many writers and actors. She traveled to Europe frequently, befriending Marie-Antoinette and the Princesse de Lamballe in France. And Damer was rumored to have had affairs with author Mary Berry and actress Elizabeth Farren (the later relationship is the subject of a novel by Emma Donoghue).

 

 

Who else in queer history do you want to see on film?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

35 Responses

  1. LadySlippers

    💖 Yes. Yes! And YES!!!! 💖

    I’d also like LQBTQ historical characters not have that aspect ‘airbrushed’ out of their stories. And that’s the current way we frame their stories…. 😠

    We have plenty of people that were, very interesting people, only to have every interesting and/or controversial part glossed over in order to make them more “palpable” to the general public. People then and now, are complex and intricate, by airbrushing and creating simplistic caracatures, we do them and history, a great injustice. We also do ourselves a disservice because we need to see human beings a fully developed human beings, else we fall in the same bad habits storytellers do. 😕

    I’d like to add that a great many historical people had a much more diverse relationship history than most know about. Many people in the British aristocracy are, and were, polyamorous. This included men and women. And it isn’t just limited to the British aristocracy either.

    In general, the Puritanical straight jackets (laced with an extra emphasis on SHAME) need to come off. History, unlike what most people think, is interesting as hell but we’ve been viewing it through a very, very, very restrictive and conservative lense (damn you Prince Albert! Lol).

    🦋

    Reply
  2. Brandy Loutherback

    I would like to see a movie about Archibald Butt, a military aid to Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and his relationship with Francis Millet who shared a house together in D.C. They were also passengers on Titanic, where they both drowned. Millet also had a wife.
    P.s. Documentary evidence suggests that Millet had at least one homosexual affair with Charles Warren Stoddard in Venice! Those two stories right there would make damn good Frock Flicks, add Archibald trying to hide his gayness from both presidents and you’re golden!

    Reply
  3. Susan Pola Staples

    It’s now working. Loved the selections.

    I would add Alexander of Macedon and Hephaestion

    Reply
    • Peacoclaur

      The 2004 Oliver Stone movie about Alexander tried to go there about Alexander and Hephaestion’s amours but instead Roxanne got to be the main love interest instead. Besides that movie was shit so as far as im concerned it doesn’t count. :p

      Reply
      • Susan Pola Staples

        I didn’t mention it for same reason. I remember reading Colin Farrell who played Alexander May have made anti-gay comments and was lambasted for being tentative in his portrayal.

        Reply
  4. Peacoclaur

    I vote for James VI & I (son of Mary Queen of Scots & Lord Darnley and the King James of King James Bible fame). I know he often makes cameo roles in movies and TV shows about Elizabeth I, or about his mother, or the gunpowder plot, and even comes up animated in Pochahontas II. However, more often than not he’s usually the punchline of some joke about his physical appearance/disabilities (Ableism, Grrr!), or his sexuality. It’s a pity as James was a very successful king, especially compared to his mother (please don’t hurt me Trystan), or for that matter his son Charles I, whose heavy handed, bellicose, and overtly macho approach to being king was in many ways a homophobic backlash against his father. A pacifist and a eucumenist in a time period obsessed with war and sectarian violence, and one of the finest intellectual minds of his time (belief in witches not withstanding). I will be the first to acknowelgde that James’s judgement in personal matters often left a lot to be desired, but I want to see the issues his queerness posed explored in a sympathetic and non-judgemental way as a lot of the issues are still relevant to the modern day regarding sexuality, public figures and masculinity.

    Here’s a book to help any would be screenwriter get started:

    https://books.google.co.nz/books?id=KczqAQAACAAJ&dq=michael+b+young+king+James+and+the+history+of+homosexuality&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      True, true! He doesn’t get a fair portrayal (we shall not even speak of Gunpowder, Treason, & Plot — yes, we’ve snarked it A LOT, & it makes my teeth itch, it’s SO bad). Either as a monarch or his personal life, James tends to be a sad caricature on screen.

      Reply
      • Peacoclaur

        The same about the degrotory queer coding and ableism goes for Charles I as well, I’ve never seen a good version of him on screen where he isn’t a effete stammering moron. Oh and he might count as a famous queer of history as well – ironically he may have been having a sexual relationship with one of James’s favourites depending on who you ask. So I’d like to nominate him as well. This is why the Stuart’s are way more fun than the Tudors – lotsa gay.

        Reply
        • Susan Pola Staples

          And let us not forget William III who may have been bisexual as he had both male and female ‘favourites’. And finally Queen Anne and Sarah Marlborough. The Duchess when she and the queen fell out accused Anne of being gay. Sarah’s replacement was Abigail Masham.

          Reply
            • Trystan L. Bass

              Christopher Marlowe wrote a play about Edward II that’s been filmed, & then there was a 1991 film that uses the play as a starting point (it’s kind of a modern-medieval mix).

              Reply
              • MoHub

                Yep. Read the Marlowe play when I was getting my English Lit degree decades ago.

                Reply
          • Trystan L. Bass

            There is supposedly a movie titled ‘The Favourite’ about Queen Anne, Sarah Duchess of Marlborough, & Abigail Masham in production with Sandy Powell doing the costumes. It’s on our upcoming movies list but I haven’t found any more details.

            Reply
  5. decrepitelephone

    Ooh – I vote for Frederick Park and Earnest Boulton – the late 1860s and early ’70s (essentially) drag queens (known as Fanny and Stella) who were at the center of a sensational and ridiculous trial in which they were eventually acquitted. It could be a fairly unflinching look at what being gay was like in the mid-nineteenth century, but with a somewhat positive ending. Their subsequent appearance in Sins of the Cities of the Plain could be made into an interesting LGBTQ-geared mini-series, set in the 1870s, which would fulfill a lifelong wish of mine: FIRST BUSTLE PERIOD DRAG! Tiny parasols! Tiny bonnets! Giant hair! Giant poofy bustles! Dolman sleeves!

    Reply
  6. Susan Pola Staples

    Tristan, thanks for info on ‘The Favourite’ and with Sandy Powell doing costumes. Wow! I loved her Orlando and all of her other films. I’m putting this here as the comments area on the original Peacolour & mine is too small to read.

    Reply
  7. Susan Pola Staples

    Tristan, I goggled movie and Oscar winner Rachael Weisz is playing Sarah. Wonder how they will do hair Ashe was a light redhead. Emma Stone is cast as Abigail and Olivia Coleman’s Anne. Marlborough hasn’t been cast or actor wasn’t listed.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      I really hope this one gets made & Powell is still the costume designer bec. at least it would look good then. But the casting has changed a few times & the dates are sketchy still.

      Reply
      • Peacoclaur

        I don’t have much hope for that film. On top of the cast and script issues you’ve mentioned, Queen Anne is a hard sell as most people these days haven’t heard of her and films and tv shows about the Stuart’s are never given as much care and attetion as Tudor ones. Frankly I get the feeling it’s going to be in soap opera/soft core territory given the casting and probably fall into ‘restoration romp’ territory – despite the fact that Anne’s reign is Augustan era, which is near totally different.

        Sandy Powell’s costumes should be nice though – far nicer than the fugly Jacobean costumes for the James VI&I miniseries in my head that will never happen 😉

        Reply
  8. Saraquill

    Not one specific person, but a period piece on Boston Marriages would be sweet.

    Reply
  9. Elizabeth Merritt

    I’d love to see a biopic of Radcylffe Hall, or an adaptation of one of her novels. The Unlit Lamp is my fave, but how can you not love The Well Of Loneliness?

    Reply
  10. skye

    Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake! My favorite post-colonial lesbians. I’m reading Rachel Hope Cleves’s biography of them now; it turns out their only extant correspondence is in a museum in my state!

    Reply
  11. J.K.

    Love this list. I can think of so many I’d love to add! Here are a few of my favorites that I’d love to see on screen:

    Ladies of Llangollen
    Michael Field
    Herman Melville (not 100% confirmed as queer, but extremely likely)
    Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (same, she wrote very romantic/erotic poetry/letters to a woman)
    Aphra Behn (same)
    Algernon Charles Swinburne
    Chevalier d’eon
    Lord Byron (okay, he’s had some films made about him but not enough and not enough that focus on his bisexuality)

    And there are many others!

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      I’ve mentioned Aphra Behn before on the site, & I think we’ve mentioned Chevalier d’eon, both as good biopic candidates (& Behn’s literature as great source material for film/TV in general!). There’s a recent Netflix Spanish-language series available about Juana Inés but it has such shitty costumes & a cheesy plot that I haven’t been able to make it past the 1st two episodes.

      Reply
  12. Vincent

    I’d love to see movies about historical trans people, portrayed by trans actors!
    Dr. James Barry is the first one that comes to mind. There’s a fair amount of information to base a movie on, and it’d be fascinating.

    Reply

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