Since the dawn of man, there have been many influential and powerful gay men in the world. From Egypt to the Middle Ages, gay men have ruled and accomplished many feats throughout history. In all honesty, we can only assume that the likes of Shakespeare and Alexander the Great identified as gay. Scholars often go back and forth with the little evidence that they have to prove or debunk such gay claims, but we must also understand that the times were very different then. What we identify gay as today was non-existent because there was not a term to describe the commonplace nature of same-sex relationships or sexual activity. In Monaddition, there are also the men to consider who included homosexual innuendos in their works, who probably could not live as out gay men due to the social stigmas against being gay at the time.
There are many powerful and influential gay men in recent history to choose from, but I can only type so many words in this article. Thus, I will highlight five “gay” influential and powerful men: Alvin Ailey, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Harvey Milk, and Bayard Rustin.
Alvin Ailey became a world famous dancer and choreographer who merged the worlds of theatre and various dance genres into one. After dancing for other dance companies, he formed his very own dance group, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, in the late 50s. He created many dance works and toured the world with his group. Ailey’s craft incorporated jazz, modern, ballet, and African dance into his choreography which can still be seen in many black dance academies today. He died in 1989 from AIDS related complications.
Alvin Ailey (photo courtesy of Time)
The iconic James Baldwin was a provocative writer and activist who injected into his works the themes of racism, social injustice, and even homosexuality. Baldwin created works of art such as the powerful and unapologetic Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room. He died in 1987 from stomach cancer, and his legacy lives in literature and African American history.
James Baldwin (photo courtesy of Pinterest)
The Hughes — that is, Langston Hughes, also known as the king of the Harlem Renaissance — helped to make Harlem the place to be for young black artists in New York. As a writer and social activist, Hughes developed countless plays, novels, and other works that celebrated black arts, lives, and culture. Mule Bone and The Ways of White Folks were just two examples of his beloved creations that continue to stand the test of time. Hughes died in 1967 of surgical complications related to prostate cancer.
Langston Hughes (photo courtesy of Twitter)
Harvey Milk was nicknamed the Mayor of Castro by the San Francisco gay community because of his pioneering political influence on supporting protections for LGBT workplace protections. In his brief political career, he helped to introduce and pass several pieces of legislation that promoted equal treatment for LGBTQ and other minority communities in San Francisco. Unfortunately, Milk and the actual mayor of San Francisco were assassinated by a former associate within minutes of each other in 1978. Milk’s legacy continues to prosper and gain more recognition in movies, schools, and government.
Harvey Milk (photo courtesy of Pinterest)
Last and certainly not least is the amazing, Bayard Rustin. Some would say that Rustin was the brains behind the 1963 March on Washington; in fact, he was indeed the lead organizer of the march. Rustin was one of Dr. King’s most trusted advisors who taught King that the combination of nonviolence and civil disobedience could be an effective strategy to use in the civil rights movement. He was an avid civil rights activist for decades until his untimely death in 1987. Rustin’s contributions were often overshadowed by Dr. King and scandal, but his impact has resurfaced into the public thanks to various acknowledgments of his undeniable contributions that should be noted. Bayard Rustin and his legacy represent the embodiment of why we should remember the influence and power a person can have even behind the scenes. In modern society, we often place too much emphasis on the people in the front or in the spotlight, but we often overlook those important people who have helped to create such accomplishments outside the public eye.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (L) and Bayard Rustin (R) (photo courtesy of Walter Naegel)
Let’s remember that we rarely accomplish success on our own. In the end, what these men have accomplished is enormous. From writing to dance to politics to civil rights, these men have blazed the trail for future generations. Note, while reading this article, that I haven’t really mentioned much about the men and their sexuality. Although it is remarkable that some of these men accomplished so much as gay men, it was their work first and their sexuality second that should be acknowledged. Thanks to these powerful and influential gay men in history, we now have a history in the making where gay men can be out and powerful creators in their work. Here’s to new legacies in the works.