Bostonia is published in print three times a year and updated weekly on the web.
A chaste cross-dresser whom the Vatican made a saint. A pioneering gender reassignment patient, guilt-stricken because she felt she’d murdered the man she used to be. America’s greatest president. In her young adult book Queer, There, and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World (HarperCollins, 2017), Sarah Prager (CAS’08) profiles those and 20 other LGBTQ heroes—famous and obscure, from antiquity to today. Prager defines “queer” broadly: “to mean anyone not 100 percent straight or 100 percent cisgender according to the norms of their time and place or ours.” The founder and director of Quist, which produces an LGBTQ history mobile app, Prager lives in Connecticut with her wife and daughter. Below are six of the people she profiles.
Abraham Lincoln, 1809–65
As a young man, Lincoln shared a double bed with Joshua Fry Speed, an Illinois shop owner, ostensibly because he couldn’t afford a bed of his own. Such arrangements were common on the frontier, but Lincoln made a home with Speed for four years, even after both men were financially independent. Although some historians doubt that Lincoln was gay, Prager writes, “There’s no way to know if Abraham and Joshua’s love was or wasn’t sexual.”
Lili Elbe, 1882–1931
Famed Dutch painter Einar Wegener long felt he was a woman, and he eventually underwent pioneering gender-reassignment surgery, becoming Lili. But Lili was haunted by the belief that she’d murdered Einar. She died of complications from surgery that attempted to give her a uterus. Elbe’s story was inspiration for the 2015 Oscar-winning film The Danish Girl, starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander.
Alan Turing, 1912–54
Turing was the famous inventor of a computer that enabled the British to crack the Nazis’ secret codes. But his wartime contributions didn’t seem to matter in 1952, when police charged him with gross indecency after it came to light that he was gay. Forced to choose between prison and chemical castration, he chose the latter, and committed suicide in 1954 (some think his death was accidental). Queen Elizabeth pardoned him in 2013.
Renée Richards, 1934–present
After a marriage to a woman and a career as an eye surgeon, Richard Raskind became Renée Richards in 1975. She became a professional tennis player, but was banned by the US Tennis Association and required to take a sex chromosome test to qualify for the US Open. Richards refused, sued the US Tennis Association, and won, becoming the first openly trans person to play in the US Open.
Jeanne [Joan] of Arc, 1412–31
Joan heard voices telling her to expel the English from France and help the dauphin to be crowned—and even though the Bible forbade it, to wear men’s clothing. Successful on the battlefield until captured by French forces allied with England, she was tried for heresy and cross-dressing and was burned at the stake, while wearing a dress. In 1920, Pope Benedict XV canonized her.
George Takei, 1937–present
Playing Mr. Sulu in the original Star Trek made the closeted Takei a cultural icon. He and his partner, Brad Altman, marched in AIDS rallies in the 1980s as putative straights and finally married in 2008 when California briefly legalized gay marriage (the state permanently granted the right in 2013).