• Greta Garbo, Josephine Baker, and Lou Reed were all known to be bisexual. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
As a part of Bisexual Awareness Week, let's celebrate these historical figures who have long been regarded as icons of bisexuality and sexual fluidity.
Chloe Sargeant

22 Sep 2017 - 12:58 PM  UPDATED 22 Sep 2017 - 12:58 PM

It's GLAAD's Bisexual+ Awareness Week, so we're taking some time to appreciate figures in history who are celebrated as icons of bisexuality. 

For many of these people, it was extremely difficult or even impossible to come out about their sexuality, and many engaged in same-sex relationships in secret, their sexuality only becoming topic of discussion years later.

So, some of these people never self-identified as a bisexual person, but many also lived in generations where the modern-day definition of 'bisexual' didn't even exist. 

Regardless, these people helped pave the way for later generations, and have assisted young bisexual people in gaining knowledge and having historical context to their sexuality on a daily basis. 

1. Virginia Woolf

The iconic author was married to her husband Leonard Woolf for years before she met fellow author Vita Sackville-West. Vita was also married - she and her husband were both openly bisexual, and she was known to have had several relationships with women during her marriage.

Virginia and Vita began an affair soon after meeting at a dinner party - their husbands both knew of the affair, and did not object to it.

Woolf's hugely influential novel Orlando is based on their relationship, and Vita's son Nigel Nicholson has referred to it as "the longest and most charming love letter in literature". 

2. Giacomo Casanova

There is evidence that Italian adventurer and author whose surname is now synonymous with 'womaniser', was reportedly a bisexual man.

Biographer Ian Kelly was able to corroborate two references from Casanova's memoir, The History of My Life, which states that Casanova had same-sex relations:

"The modern concept of bisexuality, no less than of homosexuality, didn't really exist in the 18th century, and the conception of sexual preference was on the whole a much more fluid affair. It seems likely that Casanova was a man who in sex, as in life, wanted to taste all the flavours on offer."

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3. Lou Reed

Some refer to the influential singer songwriter as the "first 'out' rockstar", but Reed never openly referred to himself as bisexual. However, the singer's popular track, "Kill Your Sons", was about his parents forcing him into electroconvulsive therapy after he expressed his attraction to the same sex at a young age.

There's plenty of stories about Reed's relationships through the '60s and '70s, with people of a range of gender identities - true or not, Reed remains an icon of bisexuality and sexual fluidity for younger generations.

4. Walt Whitman

Biographers still debate Whitman's sexuality, but he is commonly regarded as a bisexual man. A steadfast patriot, the renowned poet is seen as a iconic voice in creating the concept of 'The American Dream' - but the homophobic nature of the United States at the time did cause Whitman grief and self-hatred.

He spoke publicly of relationships with women, but also had various close relationships with men in secret. His poetry anthology Leaves of Grass is supposedly named after Whitman's memory of laying in the grass with an unnamed male lover.

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5. Josephine Baker

The highest-paid and most successful American entertainer working in Europe in the 1920s, Baker also worked as a spy. She collected information on German troop locations for the French military, and her fame allowed her access to senior military leaders. When Germany invaded France, she was still able to move around due to her career, and would carry information (in invisible ink, on her music sheets) about troop concentrations, airfields, harbours, and more, which would then be transmitted to England. She also hid refugees and weapons in her large estate, the Château des Milandes.

Baker is famously known for her affair with Frida Kahlo and had many other same-sex affairs, all the while marrying four different men throughout her life.

6. Oscar Wilde

One of the most bandied-about names on the lists of 'famous bisexuals', poet and playwright Oscar Wilde was long married to his wife Constance, with whom he had two sons, but he also had a number of male lovers. Some have been quick to determine that the author was actually gay and repressing his true sexuality in his marriage; others are certain that he was, in fact, a bisexual man.

Wilde's grandson and biographer, Merlin Holland, said that Wilde was heterosexual "up to a certain point in his life", and also spoken about his grandfather's long-term, yet tumultuous, relationship with poet Lord Alfred Douglas. 


7. Greta Garbo

The silent film actress, four-time Academy Award nominee, and cinematic legend was notoriously private about her relationships, but it's now known that she had relationships with both men and women. It's been noted that she dated conductor Leopold Stokowski, photographer Sir Cecil Beaton, fellow silent film star Louise Brooks, and openly gay writer Mercedes de Acosta.

Since Garbo's death, the estate of fellow Swedish-born actress Mimi Pollak released a number of letters between the pair, one of which (dated 1930) shows that Garbo wrote to Mimi after finding out she was pregnant, "We cannot help our nature, as God has created it. But I have always thought you and I belonged together". 

It's also rumoured that Garbo, early in her career, also had an affair with fellow actress and lesbian icon Marlene Dietrich.

8. Malcolm X

Many find this to be a surprising inclusion, but there's always been rumours of black liberation hero Malcolm X having same-sex relationships, then later marrying a woman before his tragic assassination in 1965.

The political leader's sexuality was never a part of his public narrative, until the acclaimed biography Malcolm - The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America by Bruce Perry was published. The book includes interviews with people from Malcolm's childhood friends, to people closest to him during his adult life - and several of them state that the icon was not heterosexual, as the history books dictate.

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9. Anaïs Nin

Anaïs Nin has taught generations of women about their sexuality and desires.

Known as one of the all-time best and boldest voices in literary erotica, the esteemed author documented her own sexual relationships and attraction to both men and women in her works, particularly Henry and June: From the Unexpurgated Diary of Anais Nin.

10. Sir Alec Guinness

The renowned actor, known for his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, was secretly bisexual, and sadly loathed himself for it.

The actor was married to a woman, but was reported to have a number of male partners - and was even allegedly arrested for public indecency in a public toilet in the 40s. His long-time friend, Sir Ian McKellan (who is openly gay), alluded to Guinness' sexuality in a speech at a Pride gala in London in 2014, saying the late actor had told him not to become an activist for LGBTQIA+ issues.

"Alec Guinness took me out to lunch and said, “You really should not, as a leading actor, have anything to do with anything political, especially anything as dirty as homosexuality. I beg you not to do it”," McKellan told the crowd. "That was self-hatred."

Despite Guinness' personal battles with his sexuality, he has long been a bisexual icon. He was a Jedi, after all. 

11. Billie Holiday

The iconic jazz singer was known to be openly bisexual throughout her career.

It's long been rumoured that she had relationships with a number of stage and film actresses, including Tallulah Bankhead, Louise Crane, and Greta Garbo. She also married three different men throughout her life. 

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12. Alfred Kinsey

The creator of the Kinsey scale - the introduction of a more fluid spectrum of sexuality, rather than relying on strict categories of homosexual, bisexual, and heterosexual - was thought to personally place himself right in the middle of the scale he himself created.

He had same-sex relationships with graduate students and colleagues, and it's also noted that he and his wife Clara McMillen were polygamous.

13. Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt was a diplomat, activist, and the longest-serving First Lady of the United States during her husband Franklin Roosevelt's four terms in office. However, it's also widely known that she had a 'close relationship' with an Associated Press reporter called Lorena Hickok, who was openly gay.

The pair wrote lengthy, heartfelt letters to one another almost daily, which contained romantic endearments such as: "I want to put my arms around you and kiss you at the corner of your mouth," and, "I can't kiss you, so I kiss your 'picture' good night and good morning!".

While there has long been debate over whether Hickok and Roosevelt's relationship was of a sexual nature, Roosevelt has remained a significant figure in bisexual history. 

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