Poetry is a form of literature in which words are constructed in verse, a series of short phrases, to convey mood and emotion. The purpose of structure in poetry is to help the reader look (or listen) more closely at what the words do in their juxtaposition rather than scan the words for surface information.
Poetry is a means to relay romantic sentiments, but much of same-sex romantic verse before Stonewall (1969) was banned or edited by homophobic censors. People in the LGBTQ community have worked to bring back such poetry in its original form, and Gay poets since Stonewall have used poetry as a folk art to convey a full spectrum of LGBTQ topics dealing with identity, family, injustice, eroticism, love, mourning, and humor.
It is difficult to trace out a coherent history of Gay poetry because the concept of “Gay” is a fairly recent one. There is less evidence for a Gay community in the historical record before the late nineteenth century CE, and very little before 1700 CE, in large part due to the systemic erasure of orientation- and gender-variant people. Nevertheless, there are poets before 1700 CE who have produced verse with homoerotic-romantic content, and these figures are accorded iconic status in the Gay community. The following is a brief historical survey of poets whose works reflect Gay-related themes.
The most important of the ancient poets for the LGBTQ community is Sappho, a sixth century BCE Greek poet from the isle of Lesbos. Not only was she acclaimed a great poet by classical Greek writers, some of her romantic verse written to other women survives, despite efforts by homophobic scholars to portray her as thoroughly heterosexual. One such example is “Hymn to Aphrodite”:
What in my mad heart was my greatest desire,
Who was it now that must feel my allurements,
[Aphrodite says] “Who was the fair one that must be persuaded,
Who wronged thee, Sappho?
“For if now she flees, quickly she shall follow
And if she spurns gifts, soon shall she offer them
Yea, if she knows not love, soon shall she feel it
Even reluctant.” (translated by Edwin Marion Cox, J.B. Hare)
Sappho’s reputation has been such that the word sapphic, taken from her name, refers to a form of Aolic verse that she used in her poetry. “Sapphic” may also signify a woman who is erotically inclined to other women. It is due to Sappho’s verses reflecting love for women that the word lesbian, originally referring to a person from Lesbos, is more popularly defined as a woman with same-sex orientation.
Sappho was not alone among ancient Greeks to celebrate same-sex love in verse. Anacreon from the isle of Teos (another sixth-century poet) is remembered for his poems to wine, love, and young men. In eighteenth-century Britain, the Anacreontic Society was formed for men with an interest in music and alcoholic beverages. The comedic song, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” was written by and for the Anacreontic Society, and was a popular drinking song in Britain and the British colonies in America. The melody of “To Anacreon in Heaven” was used for the American National Anthem.
The transgressive tradition of homoerotic verse in poetry and song passed from ancient Greece to ancient Rome where homosexuality and effeminacy for men were grudgingly tolerated for the most part, but were also condemned as decadent. Notable poets such as Virgil in the first century BCE wrote about men’s erotic love for other men. Such love was no longer tolerated, however, when the Roman Empire became Christianized.
In the fourteenth century CE, Persian Sufi poet Hafiz of Shiraz wrote ghazals (poems with a rhyming couplet and a refrain, and lines with the same meter) in praise of wine, beautiful young men, and the transcendental love of God. According to legend, one verse praising a young man’s beauty offended the conqueror Tamerlane, who summoned Hafez to his court and accused the poet of wrongdoing. Hafez compared the worth of two important cities under Tamerlane’s rule to a mole on a handsome Turk’s cheek:
For your mole
Clinging grain of sand upon a cheek of pearl
Hafez would give all of Samarkand, all of Bokhara
Tamerlane accused Hafez of irresponsible behavior, saying, “You would sell my great cities Samarkand and Bokhara for the black mole of a Shirazi Turk!” Hafez answered, “Your Majesty, it is due to such bad behavior on my part that you find me in such poverty!” Tamerlane was so pleased by the answer that he rewarded Hafez with riches.
Hafez is not alone in Central Asia or the Muslim world as a poet with a reputation for homoerotic verse. Rumi, a fellow Sufi, made references to same-sex erotic attraction in his works. In Aflaki’s Biography of the Mystics, the following account is given:
One day, the story of Sheikh Kermani was told to our Master [Rumi]. The Sheikh loved to dally with beautiful boys, but in all honor, because he did nothing with them. Rumi cried out, “Would to God that he had done something and gone beyond it all!”
Pashtun poetry in the Afghan-Pakistan region has verses celebrating the love of youths. The Pashtun city of Kandahar in Afghanistan is renowned for the long-standing custom of same-sex romances between older men and younger men (one joke about Kandahar states that birds fly over the city with one wing covering their sphincters). A verse attributed to Syed Abdul Khaliq Agha reflects this reputation in the following lines:
Kandahar has beautiful halekon [young men],
They have black eyes and white cheeks.
Juana Inés de la Cruz
A woman of common birth but uncommon education, intelligence, and wit, Juana de Asbaje was a Mexican nun (re-named “Juana Inés de la Cruz”) who impressed the seventeenth-century court of the Viceroy in Mexico City while still in her teens with her poetry, music, dramas, and grasp of philosophy, theology, and science. Called the “Tenth Muse” (a title that was likewise bestowed on Sappho by Plato), she wrote poems to some of the highest ranking women in New Spain, verses that contain sensuous language and declare her love for the lady in question:
Ser mujer, ni estar ausente
No es de amarte impedimento
Neither being a woman nor your absence
Stops me from loving you
Born on Long Island, New York in the early nineteenth century, Whitman wrote about freedom, America, nature, Transcendentalism, and sex. Such themes are in his best-known work, Leaves of Grass, and within that voluminous text is a section called “Calamus,” with implicitly homoerotic verse in it. Calamus is a figure from Greek mythology, a young man who was turned into a river reed when he killed himself by drowning after his male lover drowned. That same reed was used for writing. Whitman would champion the “love of comrades” in the language of friendship, but expressions of sensuality in the poems of “Calamus” made him beloved among homosexual men in Britain and America (British author Oscar Wilde bragged of his trip to America: “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips”). It also brought Whitman the censure of those who felt any mention of sex was crude and depraved.
Whitman did not refer to himself as a catamite (from “Ganymede,” the young male lover of Zeus), one of the less offensive terms of his age for homosexual men. But he did mention his anxiety over his feelings of adhesiveness (attraction to men), expressed in “Calamus 9” (“Hours Continued Long”):
Hours of my torment—I wonder if other men ever have the like, out of the like
Is there even one like me — distracted — his friend, his lover, lost to him?
Whitman also wrote of the pleasures of adhesiveness, as in “When I Heard at the Close of the Day”:
For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the
In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined toward
And his arm lay lightly around my breast — and that night I was happy.
The impact of Whitman’s homoerotic verse was international and long-lasting, with admirers in the world of literature such besides Wilde such as Federico Garcia Lorca, Fernando Pessoa, and Alan Ginsberg.
A pen name assigned to the collaborative work of two British writers, Katherine “Michael” Bradley and Emma “Henry” (also “Field”) Cooper, “Michael Field” is the fictitious author of poems with homoerotic content about both men and women. Bradley and Cooper lived together as lovers for 40 years, and were known as the Michael Fields (also the Michaels) when word of their formerly secret collaboration got out. Their work was inspired by classical Greek myth and literature, particularly Sappho. They were friends with Oscar Wilde, and were fond of their pets, especially their dog, Whym Chow (in this love of pets they resemble other famous female couples, such as the Ladies of Llangollen and Stein/Toklas). Along with Bradley’s poor health, the death of their beloved Whym Chow was such a blow to them that they converted to Roman Catholicism in 1907, and wrote of religious things. Bradley was stricken with cancer in 1911 and Cooper cared for her until she died in 1913. A year later, Cooper died, also from cancer.
They wrote love poems to each other as well as artfully written autobiographical material. This bit of prose in a letter by Bradley (Michael) on the suffering of her beloved Cooper (Henry) reflects their devotion to each other:
Henry has very sharp pains, with moments of agony every day to bear. The Beloved is showing her how great things she must suffer for His Name’s sake …. For the rest, I am all dirty from the battle, and smoked and bleeding — often three parts dragon myself to one of Michael [a reference to Saint Michael fighting the Dragon or Satan]— and sometimes I have only clenched teeth to offer to God.
Early twentieth-century Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who was fluent in both Portuguese and English, was not one but three authors in the same person. He wrote under different heteronyms (“other names” rather than pseudonyms or “false names”). However, he assigned his birth name to his poem, “Antinous,” commemorating the death of the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s young male lover:
For the gods take away the life they give
And spoil the beauty they made live.
Pessoa was a great admirer of Walt Whitman. He wrote the poem “Salutation to Walt Whitman” under the heteronym Álvaro de Campos:
How often do I kiss your picture!
Wherever you are now (I don’t know where it is but it is God)
You feel this, I know you feel it, and my kisses are warmer (flesh and blood)
And you like it that way, old friend, and you thank me from over there —
I know this well, something tells me, some pleasure in my spirit:
Some abstract, slant erection in the depths of my soul.
Constantine P. Cavafy
A Greek poet in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth who lived in Liverpool, Alexandria (Egypt), and Istanbul, Cavafy worked as a journalist and a civil servant for the British Empire. He gained fame as a poet in the Greek community in Alexandria, and was even more famous after his death as the man who revived Greek poetry. His same-sex orientation is accepted as common knowledge, and many of his poems have Gay themes, such as “He Asked About the Quality,” describing two men’s attraction (customer and salesclerk):
They kept on talking about the merchandise — but
the only purpose: that their hands might touch
over the handkerchiefs, that their faces, their lips,
might move close together as though by chance —
a moment’s meeting of limb against limb.
Quickly, secretly, so the shopowner sitting at the back
wouldn’t realize what was going on.
Bilitis was an ancient Greek poet and lover of Sappho, at least according to Pierre Louÿs, a French poet and champion for Gay civil rights. A friend of Oscar Wilde and André Gide, Louÿs was a Straight man who had gained the trust of the underground Gay community. He wrote a book called Les Chansons de Bilitis (“The Songs of Bilitis”), describing Bilitis’ life as a Greek woman in love with Sappho, including homoerotic poetry written by Bilitis in which he claims only to be the translator. Even though Louÿs was revealed as the true author, the poems of Bilitis were immensely popular in Lesbian circles. The early Lesbian activist-social group, Daughters of Bilitis, took its name from the Lesbian alter-ego of Pierre Louÿs.
One of the leading voices of the Beat community in the 1950s, Allen Ginsberg reflected facets of his Jewish American and Gay identities in his poetry. He fell in love with Neal Cassady (who was also a favorite of Beat writer Jack Kerouac) and expressed this passion in romantic and explicit language in “Many Loves” (introduced with a short quote from Whitman, “Resolved to sing no songs henceforth but those of manly attachment”):
So gentle the man, so sweet the moment, so kind the thighs that nuzzled
against me smooth-skinned powerful, warm by my legs
That my body shudders and trembles with happiness, remembering —
Ginsberg became famous for his poem, “Howl,” which he would perform during poetry readings as his notoriety grew. When he read “Many Loves” at those same readings early on, however, his audience was often not as appreciative. Ginsberg was not deterred, especially after witnessing for himself the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village, New York City. He is recorded describing the protesters: “You know, the guys there are so beautiful — they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had ten years ago.”
Poets of the Late Twentieth-Early Twenty-First Century: Pat Parker
Pat Parker’s poetry inspired a number of Lesbian poets in the latter half of the twentieth century (including Audre Lorde) to speak frankly about issues of race, homophobia, and the problems of separatist thinking for people whose identities are composed of groups that may be at odds with each other. As an African American Lesbian (with a White lover) who would perform her poetry with a Gay man, and who wrote in American vernacular English about oppression from Black men as well as White, Parker sought to undermine stereotypes and barriers wherever she could:
My agent couldn’t book us.
It seemed my lesbian audiences
were not ready for my faggot
and I remembered
a law conference
in San Francisco
who loved women threw tomatoes
at a woman who dared
to have a man in her band.
Continuing the tradition of reflecting multiple identities, Gloria Anzaldúa from South Texas described herself as multicultural and multilingual, as was her home on the border with Mexico. Anzaldúa was a poet and scholar who is recognized as an important voice in Latina, American, and Lesbian communities. Anzaldúa also infused multiple languages into her poetry:
Because I, a mestiza,
Continually walk out of one culture
And into another,
Because I am all cultures at the same time,
alma entre dos mundos, tres, cuatro, [soul between two worlds, three, four]
me zumba la cabeza con lo contradictorio, [my head buzzes with contradiction]
estoy norteada por todas las voces que me hablan [I am oriented towards all the voices that speak to me]
Paula Gunn Allen
Native American writer and activist Paula Gunn Allen caused a stir when she came out in support of Lesbian Native Americans. “Some Like Indians Endure” reflects her solidarity with all Lesbians and all Indians:
dykes remind me of Indians
like Indians dykes
are supposed to die out
or drink all the time
or go away
what will happen
if they don’t
Co-director of the Two-Spirit Society of Denver, Crisosto Apache of the Mescalero Apache in Arizona and New Mexico had a double coming-out experience: first as a Gay man, then as Two-Spirit, claiming an identity that links him to Native American conceptions of humanity rather than the classifications found within the LGBTQ collective. In his poem, “Self-Portrait Before Candlelight,” Apache reveals the stress a person feels when confronted with personal truths that do not conform to one’s self-image:
Dusk comes quickly and I see us
Standing in a room of glass
Up amongst the clouds
Waiting for that same sickness to tell us
Of last night when I was lost.
We greet each other with the vibrating faces
Which one will I be this time?
There will always be a second. Standing
There always being second and the two
Will never sever.
Chinese-Jamaican Staceyann Chin took the Lesbian poetic voice to the competitive world of slam poetry (contests in which performers have three minutes to recite their work before judges), and made a name for herself as a spoken word artist. She moved to Brooklyn at a young age, and has since returned to Jamaica for speaking engagements that were initially tense due to her openness about her sexual orientation. Her international reputation and her refusal to give up on her fellow Jamaicans have gained her respect in the land of her birth.
Chin’s poetry (which ranges from the erotic to the humorous to activism) is much in the tradition of Pat Parker. Chin is especially forceful in challenging the stereotypes of the LGBTQ community as well as the Straight, as in this poem she recited at the Gay Games VII in Chicago (2006):
the LGBT manifesto has evolved into a corporate agenda
and outside that agenda
a woman is beaten every 12 seconds
every two minutes
a girl is raped somewhere in America
and while we stand here well-dressed and rejoicing
in South America a small child cuts the cloth
to construct you a new shirt
a new shoe
an old lifestyle held upright
by the engineered hunger and misuse of impoverished lives
gather round ye fags, dykes
trannies and all those in between
we are not simply at a political crossroad
we are buried knee deep in the quagmire
of a battle for our humanity
Born and raised on the island of O‘ahu in Hawai‘i, Noelle Kahanu is a Hawaiian activist-scholar, museum curator, and daughter of poet Hina Kahanu, who calls Noelle “My greatest poem.” Noelle poems often describe her as in between worlds, as in this excerpt from “Grrrly Bar” (named for a Lesbian club in Honolulu where she worked in the 1990s) that reflects the delight and dilemma of sexuality:
Male, female, butch, fem
They look at me and wonder
So, what are you?
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Neither? Then do you want a girlfriend?”
“Come on, let’s dance…”
Soft familiar lips,
Slim shoulders that fit comfortably in my arms
I think of Narcissus
And the danger of falling in love with one’s own image
Of rejecting love of the other
Lest we pine away,
Reduced to a delicate pale flower,
Nestled in the moist earth
Suniti Namjoshi and Gillian Hanscombe
Born in 1941 in Mumbai, India, and settled in Britain, Suniti Namjoshi has been especially drawn to fable and fantasy. Her lover, detective novelist and fellow poet Gillian Hanscombe from Australia, collaborated with her in a number of works dealing with women and love, such as the poem entitled “Well, then let slip the masks”:
Will you let my tongue caress you? Will you
lie in my arms? Will you rest? And if the sun
is too strong, should burn too much, will you
walk with me to where the light is more calm
and be in me where the seas heave and are
serene and heave again and are themselves?
Georgiou, Elena and Michael Lassell. The World in Us: Lesbian and Gay Poetry of the Next Wave. New York: St. Martin’s, 2001.
Sturgeon, Mary C. Michael Field. New York: Arno, 1975 (1922).
Wilhelm, James, ed. Gay Poetry: An Anthology from Sappho to Michelangelo. London: Taylor and Francis, 1995.
Yorke, Liz. Impertinent Voices: Subversive Strategies in Contemporary Women’s Poetry. London: Routledge, 1991.