The list of historical figures whose lives have been reexamined in recent years in order to tinker with sexual reputations is both long and illustrious. The targets are usually male, preferably canonical and the revelatory sources of information are usually cast as "long-ignored" or "long-suppressed"--sometimes nothing more than a suspiciously worded journal entry or letter, sometimes an account by a lover or contemporary. Following are four prominent figures whose sex lives have activated many gaydars in recent years and continue to incite active debate.
Leonardo is gay
Leonardo da Vinci, of The Da Vinci Code fame, is the only one of the four featured historical figures who had to publicly defend himself against charges of homosexual activity during his lifetime. In 1476 he and some male cohorts were tried for but acquitted of sodomy, but Leonardo's reputation as both a lady's and man's man survived regardless. Finally, in a 2000 issue of the Italian magazine Art and Dossier, leading Leonardo scholar Carlo Pedretti claimed to have discovered definitive proof of the artist and Renaissance man's orientation via a long-ignored manuscript in the British Museum's library. The verdict, according to 16th century art critic Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo: Leonardo "loved" his pupil Perugino (who painted the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel), although "there had been many [other boys]."
Thoreau is gay
American author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau leaves no doubt about his distaste for both heterosexual sex and marriage. In his journals, he declares human marriage to be "little better than the marriage of beasts," even going so far as to label women "an army of nonproducers." Likewise in Walden, he prudishly pronounces "any nobleness begins at once to refine a man's features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them."
During Thoreau's lifetime, such remarks were taken to mean, as Ralph Waldo Emerson explained at Thoreau's funeral, that the writer was "a bachelor of thought and Nature ... [with] no appetites, no passions." In the 20th century, however, scholars dismantled the crust around Hank's heart and began to admit that his combination of misogyny and Whitman-esque man-love often sound more homosexual than asexual. Thoreau-guru Walter Harding, for instance, drew attention in a 1991 article in The Journal of Homosexuality to Thoreau's fondness for watching nude male swimmers, his blatantly sexual journalized fantasies about muscular male bodies and even phallic-shaped plants, and his voluminous library of homoerotic classical literature before concluding that Thoreau's "actions and words ... indicate a specific sexual interest in members of his own sex." Such information was often ignored or edited out of early Thoreau editions, but today no biographical study of the writer is complete without addressing the likelihood that even while in the forest, Thoreau was in the closet.
Hitler is gay
The outing of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler by Lothar Machtan in the 2001 book The Hidden Hitler has undoubtedly, been the most publicized such expose in recent years. Hitler's verbal and physical effeminacy were targets of ridicule by anti-Nazi writers throughout his lifetime, but Machtan delves deep into diaries of soldiers who knew the young Hitler to show that his pre-Führer years were characterized by several open same-sex relationships. Upon his meteoric rise to political power in the 1920s, though, Hitler is thought to have done everything from paying off his past amores to imprisoning and murdering them to cover his history.
While many of Machtan's specific claims are both dubious and highly sensationalized, the strongest of them leave little doubt about Hitler's leanings--which is especially disturbing considering that outside of Jews, homosexual men bore the brunt of Nazi cruelty.
Jesus is Gay
The surprisingly long-lived topic of homoeroticism between Jesus and his New Testament fishing buddies, er ... disciples, received its most thorough mainstream examination in the 2003 book The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament. Author Thomas Jennings, a Methodist clergyman and professor at the Chicago Theological Seminary, explains that Jesus' teachings do not preclude or condemn homosexuality. Jennings avoids saying outright that Jesus actively engaged in physical same-sex relations, but presents compelling analyses of scriptures in which such a scenario seems the most reasonable explanation.
For instance, recall the scene in which cross-bound Jesus tells his mother, "Woman, behold your son," referring to nearby disciple John, and bids John, "Behold your mother." Jennings reveals a venerable tradition of writers and theorists who maintain that such a claim only makes sense if Jesus is calling upon his mother to adopt his lover as son and vice versa, but that centuries of Christian homophobia had kept such a simple conclusion from becoming accepted. Likewise Jennings, whose exhaustive research and highly academic writing style have garnered considerable critical acclaim, delves deeply into the notion of a single "beloved disciple"--mentioned but never named in the Gospel of John--for whom Jesus felt a particularly intense and perhaps sexual affection which would have been far more acceptable in its day than to modern fundamentalist sensibilities.