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Stage Actors and Actresses  
 
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Gay and lesbian actors are among the elite of the contemporary theater, but the number of them who are openly gay remains small. Some have delayed coming out publicly, others have been outed posthumously, and rumors swirl about still others who consistently decline comment as to their private lives.

Such reticence is nothing new and it is altogether understandable. In a social and political climate, there is good reason to fear that the revelation of one's sexual orientation might adversely affect one's career, especially a career that is based to a great extent on public acceptance.

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Some legendary stars of the early to mid-twentieth century, such as Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, found it expedient to create and sustain an illusion of heterosexuality by entering into "lavender marriages."

Attractiveness of the Theater

Theater has historically attracted people whose sexual interests were directed toward members of their own gender. People with same-sex sexual interests may be especially good actors if only because they have experience at developing techniques of pretending heterosexual interest.

Moreover, the interiority and self-examination characteristic of individuals who are "out of sync" with the majority in so significant an area as sexuality may contribute to creativity of all kinds, including acting.

Historically, the tradition of transvestite theater at various periods, including the Elizabethan era in England, may have also attracted individuals who transgressed sexual and gender boundaries.

Until quite recently, acting was not a respectable profession. Thus, it has traditionally been more welcoming of eccentrics of all kinds, including sexual minorities, than has been the larger society. Gay and lesbian actors have found refuge in the theater at times when other professions would have been closed to them.

Vocabulary

What follows are brief accounts of significant actors and actresses who were probably gay, lesbian, or bisexual. The performers discussed here range from an eighteenth-century star of the Comédie-Française to Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir John Gielgud, often considered the greatest British actors of the twentieth century; and they include such luminaries as Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse.

It is important to realize that for many of these individuals, particularly those who lived in the nineteenth century and earlier, the vocabulary used today to describe sexual orientations would not have been meaningful.

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals could not so identify themselves as such because the terms were not current, and they may not have thought of their sexual desires in term of an orientation at all. But while it may be anachronistic to use our current vocabulary to describe these people, one may nevertheless draw conclusions about their sexualities by examining their lives.

Françoise Raucourt

In eighteenth-century France, Françoise Raucourt was famous for her beauty and acting talent, and notorious for her love affairs with both women and men. Trained by her actor-father for a career on stage, Raucourt had her first starring role with the Comédie-Française at the age of sixteen and immediately became popular with audiences. Various noble men and women, including Queen Marie-Antoinette, were among her admirers and patrons.

Raucourt had her detractors as well. Her lavish lifestyle and series of female lovers made her the target of pamphlets claiming that she presided over la Secte Androgyne, purportedly a society of lesbians who hated men and who participated in female orgies. In fact no such group existed.

Raucourt's allegiance to her noble benefactors landed her in prison under the Republic. It was there that she met the love of her life, Henriette Simonnet de Ponty, with whom she spent her remaining years.

Charlotte Charke

Eighteenth-century English actress Charlotte Charke was probably lesbian, perhaps bisexual. On the London stage she played a variety of ambiguously-gendered roles as well as "breeches parts," portraying male characters.

Thrust out of most theatrical work when the Stage Licensing Act of 1739 limited opportunities for the production of plays, Charke took other jobs to support herself and her daughter, the product of a disastrous early marriage. Dressed "in Mens Cloaths" she worked at various typically male occupations.

Under the name of Charles Brown, Charke became a "strolling actor," touring in provincial venues. In her memoirs Charke recounts that when a young heiress became infatuated with "Mr. Brown," Charke had to explain that she was a woman and "not the person she conceived me."

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zoom in
Top: Edwin Forrest.
Center: Sarah Bernhardt performing in male attire in L'Aiglon in 1910.
Above: A portrait of Sir John Gielgud created by Carl Van Vechten in 1936.

  
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