Famous gay men rediscovered?

Last week a painting by Rubens was rediscovered. The subject of this portrait was one of ‘the “most famous gay men in history”’, as the Independent titled their article about the subject. Having just read Joshua’s Adairs ‘House museums or walk-in closets? The (non) representation of gay men in the museums they called home’ I was struck by one question: why the quotation marks in the title?

The most famous gay man is George Villiers, a favorite of James I. The Guardian elaborates: ‘Although the Duke of Buckingham’s personal relationship with James VI and I is much debated, the king referred to Buckingham as his husband, and their relationship scandalised the court.’ If this is the case, why do a number of newspapers feel the need to put quotation marks in the title? The Guardian itself uses the title: ‘Lost Rubens portrait of James I’s “lover” is rediscovered in Glasgow’. The Times wrote two articles: ‘King’s “lover” worth a king’s ransom as unknown Rubens’ and ‘Rubens portrait of James I’s “lover” found after 400 years’. The content of the articles don’t get any better. The NOS writes that according to some historians James and Villiers had a homosexual relationship. It continues that there was a secret passage between their bedrooms. The Independent claims that ´Many experts claim they were lovers, while others believe they enjoyed a close platonic friendship.’ De Telegraaf doesn’t mention anything about Villiers background at all, which is better than what the Volkskrant does. This newspaper states that James and Villiers were only friends and that there are only rumours about them having had a homosexual relationship.

Newspapers aren’t the only ones that find it difficult to address the homosexuality of historical persons. In his article ‘House museums or walk-in closets?’ Adair discusses the representation of gay men in houses that have become museums. In these house museums, according to Adair, there is little to no attention to the sexuality of their makers. He has a valid point. Jesse Shepard and Lawrence Waldemar Tonner (Villa Montezuma in San Diego) and Robert Neal and Edgar Hellum (Pendarvis, Wisconsin) are both excellent examples of known gay men that are depicted as just friends in museums. As Adair rightly states: ‘the biographical realities of the life of the owner or owners must remain an integral facet of the narrative a house museum presents’ (p.269).

Adair however goes one step further. In his article Adair refers to Fellows’ definition of gay: ‘a male who is gender atypical (psychologically and perhaps physically androgynous or effeminate) and decidedly homosexual in orientation if not in practice. Thus, my use of the term gay encompasses both gender identity and sexual orientation (p.268). Adair wants to use Fellows’ gender atypical definition on the house museum creators, ‘including those (…) who never self-identified as gay in the manner an individual might do today’ (p.268). But is it right to label historical individuals as gender atypical if they didn’t do so themselves? In the cases of Neal, Hellum, Shepard and even Villiers it is quite clear that they had serious relationships with men. More attention to their sexuality is absolutely required. But with the example of Gibson that Adair uses, things get complicated: Gibson had an eccentric lifestyle and good taste, moreover he was a poet (an artist) and quite colorful. According to Fellows’ definition this means he is gay. But did Gibson consider himself as homosexual or gay? The article doesn’t say. Adair mentions that this isn’t the point of the article, the point of the article is to use gender atypicality to ‘understand the ways in which those individuals that fail to attain perfect heteronormative order are studied, understood and portrayed when their homes become museums’ (p. 270). But by labeling these individuals as gender atypical Adair risks being anachronistic. He imposes a modern understanding of gender on historical figures.

our society still has trouble with calling a homosexual relationship by its name

Adair on the whole has a strong argument. As the case of George Villiers points out our society still has trouble with calling a homosexual relationship by its name. This is the same for the house museums Adair mentions. But he has to stay aware of the historical context: not every man with an eccentric lifestyle and flamboyant clothing considered himself homosexual or (the modern term) gender atypical.


By: Iris Geldermans