The world wouldn't be the same without the contributions of these bi icons!
When talking about the queer community, the B in LGBTQ+ often gets left out of the discussion, so in celebration of Bisexuality Awareness Week we’re shining a light on some of the most influential bisexual figures of the past who helped to shape history.
Some of these historical icons lived out loud and proud at a time when there were often steep punishments for doing so, while others spent their entire lives in the closet. Either way, their contributions not just to queer culture, but to art, pop culture, and history can’t be overstated.
From novelists to jazz singers to swoon-worthy actors and even a member of the Rat Pack, we’re shouting out 15 bisexual historical icons you should know about.
Happy Bisexual Awareness Week!
George Charles Beresford, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Novelist Virginia Woolf met writer Vita Sackville-West in December 1922 in London and an intense years-long love affair. “I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia…It is incredible how essential to me you have become,” Sackville-West wrote in one of hundreds of letters the two women wrote back and forth during this time. Although their relationship was even the inspiration for Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando, like many bisexual women of the past, their passionate affair was often denied. “Their relationship was very passionate and very sexual, even though initially their sexual relationship was downplayed and even ignored,” Victoria L. Smith, a professor of English at Texas State University, told Time.
George Collins Cox, Public domain
Walt Whitman’s famous poetry collection Leaves of Grass caused an uproar when it was first published in 1855 because of its frank descriptions of sexuality and homoerotic overtones. It is speculated that the famous American poet had an affair with a bus conductor named Peter Doyle and had a romantic relationship with New York actress Ellen Grey. And after Oscar Wilde met Whitman in America in 1882 he reportedly told the homosexual-rights activist George Cecil Ives that "I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips."
Singer, dancer and activist Josephine Baker was open about her bisexuality in the 1920s and beyond even though it put her at risk. But Baker was no stranger to risk, during WWII she spied on the Nazis for the French Resistance and she fought for equality in the US by refusing to perform in segregated theaters and by speaking at the 1963 March on Washington.
According to Biography.com, Maude Russell, who used to perform with Baker said of the singer's sexuality, "The girls needed tenderness, so we had girl friendships, the famous lady lovers… I guess we were bisexual, is what you would call us today."
Napoleon Sarony, Public domain
Oscar Wilde, writer of The Importance of Being Earnest and the Picture of Dorian Gray among others, was well known for his intelligence, flamboyance and for being jailed for homosexual acts. While we may never know if Wilde considered himself to be gay or bisexual, he did spend two years infatuated with Florence Balcombe (who later married Bram Stoker) and happily married Constance Lloyd in 1884 and quickly had two children. But he also had a long-lasting affair with Lord Alfred Douglas which would eventually land him in jail.
Early Hollywood starlet Greta Garbo made it big in silent films in the 1920s, but unlike many stars of the time she was able to seamlessly transition to the “talkies” where she was beloved for her husky voice and androgynous look. Garbo never married, but had a long relationship with her frequent co-star John Gilbert, but in recent years her many relationships with women have come to light, including rumors of an affair with actress Marlene Dietrich.
Elsa Dorfman, Public domain
Novelist and essayist Anaïs Nin is probably best known as a writer of critically acclaimed female erotica. Luckily we have a window into her life and sexuality because she was also a prolific diarist. She was married twice to Hugh Parker Guiler and Rupert Pole, but her diaries give us a window into her passionate affairs with famous American novelist Henry Miller and his wife June. Nin even went on to base characters in her novels House of Incest and A Spy in the House of Love on June Miller.
William P. Gottlieb, Public domain
Jazz icon Billie Holiday, best known for her unique voice and her anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit,” lived her life as an openly bisexual woman. She was married to men, but also had affairs with women like philanthropist Louise Cran and Hollywood star Tallulah Bankhead.
You likely know biologist and sexologist Alfred Kinsey because of the massively influential Kinsey Reports and Kinsey scale which paved the way for future sex research and fundamentally altered the way the public thought about sexuality. Kinsey himself was a bi man who had an open marriage with his wife Clara and many relationships with men over the years.
Hans Christian Andersen
Carl Bloch, Public domain
Hans Christian Andersen, who gained notoriety as the author of some of the most beloved fairy tales that have been turned into countless movies in the years since his death, is thought to be bisexual. In his journals Anderson detailed his decision to abstain from sex, but he did fall in love with many men and women over the years. Andersen’s story The Little Mermaid is frequently interpreted as a queer allegory based on his unrequited love for his friend Edvard Collin. Also, if you’ve never read about Andersen’s bizarre vacation at Charles Dickens house—whom he was obsessed with—do yourself a favor and check it out asap!
Actress Joan Crawford was famous for starring in films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Mildred Pierce, for which she won an Oscar. Crawford was married four times and had four children—her treatment of which is documented in the film Mommy Dearest, but she was rumored to have had affairs with Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Stanwyck and Greta Garbo. Like many Golden Age of Hollywood stars, Crawford lived her life in the closet, but her daughter Christine confirmed her mother’s relationships with women in an interview with Joy Behar in 2010.
Sammy Davis Jr.
Alan Light, Public domain
After starting his career in Vaudeville at the age of three, Sammy Davis Jr. eventually became one of the five Rat Pack members, along with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford. The group of performers was known for their partying lifestyle and bad boy personas. In his 2013 autobiography My Way, Paul Ankah revealed that Davis was bisexual. “He just enjoyed life. Curiosity about everything. Explored everything,” Ankah writes. “He was completely open about his sexuality, and got into his bisexuality.”
Heartthrob James Dean, best known for starring in Rebel Without a Cause, which was released just weeks after his untimely death, was rumored to have had affairs with fellow actors Rock Hudson, Marilyn Monroe, and Marlon Brando. When asked by a reporter if he was gay, Dean seemed to confirm his bisexuality by answering, “I’m not a homosexual, but I’m not going through life with one hand tied behind my back.”
Dashing and debonair actor Cary Grant made it big during the Golden Age of Hollywood by starring in movies like His Girl Friday and North by Northwest. While the public only saw his carefully crafted public image as someone women swooned over and men aspired to be, in his private life Grant was married five times, but also lived on and off with fellow actor Randolph Scott for decades.
Guillermo Kahlo, Public domain
Mexican painter Firda Kahlo is best remembered for her unique self-portraits, her refusal to conform to gender norms, her contentious marriage to artist Diego Rivera, and her torrid love affairs. Throughout her life Khalo had relationships with both men and women, including affairs with stars Dolores del Rio, Paulette Goddard, and Maria Felix, as well as painter Georgia O’Keefe, singer Josephine Baker, sculptor Isamu Noguchi, and even communist leader Leon Trotsky.
George Sand was a French writer who worked under a pseudonym and was once described as a “cigar-toting sexual outlaw.” The well respected author was a bisexual crossdresser who wrote about women defying social conventions, which makes sense considering she had many affairs with both men and women while very unhappily married.