University of Sydney professor Robert Aldrich has collated a wealth of gay life stories from all over the world for his impressive new tome, appropriately titled Gay Life Stories.
The book gives a voice to more than 80 deceased people from every major continent and from all walks of life, including poets and philosophers, rulers and spies, activists and artists.
Alongside such celebrated people as Michelangelo, Frederick the Great and Harvey Milk are lesser-known historical figures: Dong Xian and the Chinese emperor Ai, whose relationship flourished in the 1st century BC; Robert de Péronne, first to be burned at the stake for sodomy; Katharine Philips, writer of lesbian poetry in 17th century England; and ‘Aimée’ and ‘Jaguar’, whose love defied the death camps of wartime Germany.
“It’s hard to talk about gay and lesbian history without covering the Christopher Isherwoods and the Harvey Milks and all of that, but once you move past that, it’s interesting to learn how there were people involved in same-sex activities in all walks of life – the book has a lesbian nun, a criminal, painters, explorers…” Aldrich told the Star Observer.
“I wanted to take a lot of less well-known figures from across continents and around the world to show diversity, because in many ways diversity is the theme of the book.”
As a professor of European history, Aldrich has spent his career researching the issue of homosexuality throughout history. He admitted it was far from an exact science.
“[Gay] historians often have to read between lines, to look at the use of particular words, to look at the gaps as well as the presences in accounts of people’s lives,” he said.
“We’re looking for relationships that seem to indicate some sort of same-sex intimacy.
“It’s true that some of the figures about whom I wrote, other writers would say they were not homosexual, or were bisexual or even asexual.
“My starting point was ‘guilty until proven innocent’, and the sexual ambiguity of a situation can help us understand it. I wasn’t interested in finding hard evidence of copulation.”
INFO: Gay Life Stories (Thames and Hudson) is out now.