One of the big problems with discovering if someone in the past was or was not what we, today, would think of as homosexual is the fact that very few people recorded their connections with someone of the same sex due to the taboos that were involved. Amy Lowell, for instance, is one of the rare people we can definitively say was lesbian as she lived with Ada Dwyer Russell for most of her adult life, and she apparently wrote most of her erotic poetry about Ada.
For others like William Shakespeare, the evidence is a bit thinner to the point of being almost nonexistent.
A photograph that has surfaced recently could be that of Emily Dickenson. If it is, and it appears to be her, then it is remarkable given that only one picture of the reclusive poet is known to exist. A collector gave the photograph to Amherst College in Massachusetts in 2007. He bought it in 1995.
The daguerreotype dates to somewhere around 1859, and it appears to show Dickenson sitting next to Kate Scott Turner. High resolution digital images of the new photo compared to the one from 1987 are part of the evidence that makes researchers fairly sure that the photograph is of the two women. Mike Kelly, the head of the special collections department and archive at Amherst, noted that a comparison of the eyes and facial features of the two women backs the claim that this is Dickenson and Turner.
He stated that “I believe strongly that these are the same people.” Kelly also believes that they “can get beyond reasonable doubt.”
It has been speculated that Dickenson, who never married and was a recluse, was a lesbian and that she had a relationship with Turner. According to Kelly “This is photographic evidence of their friendship, whatever the nature of that friendship was.”
Dickenson was quite sociable in her youth, but grew more reclusive in her older years. This photograph would be of her when she was about thirty. Kelly stated that “This is really when she’s coming into the height of her powers. To see her as this fully mature woman rather than this sickly little girl, I think it just shifts the way people think about what she’s writing.”
It is easy to speculate about the same-sex relationships of many famous people, especially those who do not conform to the sexual norms of the society that they lived in; however, it is not always possible to say so with authenticity due to the shifting norms of society. For instance, there has been speculation that the fictional character Sherlock Holmes is gay, but the reality is that Holmes represented a fairly common tendency in Victorian society of men forming stronger bonds between themselves than with their families.
That isn’t to say that there weren’t a lot of gay men running around Victorian London.
After all, there was Oscar Wilde.