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social sciences

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Santos-Dumont, Alberto (1873-1932)  
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It is true that Santos's sexuality is not absolutely certain--and perhaps can never be in the absence of more concrete documentation. Two recent scholarly biographies agree on the importance of Santos's scientific contributions but differ on the question of his sexuality. Paul Hoffman in Wings of Madness (2003) insists that Santos was indeed gay, while Henrique Lins de Barros in Santos-Dumont E a Invenção Do Vôo (2003) asserts that he was "asexual." (Tellingly, Lins de Barros's work reveals a bias, as when he writes that Santos "didn't suffer from homosexuality . . . he suffered from multiple sclerosis." Here the disease metaphor exposes Lins de Barros' own prejudice more than it tells us about the aviator.) The PBS television segment of NOVA, entitled after Hoffman's book, first aired on November 7, 2006, presents both authors and their perspectives.

An important context for considering Santos's sexuality is that of Decadence, Dandyism, and the example of Oscar Wilde. The Irish writer's trial, persecution, and exile ushered in a period of terror for homosexuals that can scarcely be understood today. The terror affected even men of such power as arms tycoon Friedrich Alfred Krupp, who committed suicide in 1902 when his homosexuality was exposed in newspapers.

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Given this context, it is not surprising that little documentation of Santos's romantic and sexual interests survive. After the Wilde persecution, the inventor burned all of his diaries, letters, and papers, except for volumes specifically intended for publication.

Some historians attempt to "defend" Santos from allegations of homosexuality by noting that he "enjoyed the company of women," and that he felt especially close to the Cuban Aida D'Acosta, whom he allowed to pilot one of his inventions in a solo flight around Paris in 1903. However, enjoying the company of women says little about a man's sexual interests; after all, Wilde, the most famous homosexual of the era, was married and the father of two children. Moreover, D'Acosta herself laughed at the idea of romantic involvement with Santos, declaring, "I simply wanted to be able to fly an aircraft all alone!"

When Brazilian social scientist and gay liberation pioneer Luiz Mott made a case for Santos-Dumont's homosexuality in the early 1990s, he faced death threats from some of his countrymen, who wished to see their hero remain "unblemished." Interestingly, however, the commemorative website maintained by the Brazilian Air Force now acknowledges that Santos may well have been gay: it reprints an article by Norma Couri that discusses just that probability.

Pointing out that he was known to be close friends with the then-famous gay cartoonist SEM (Georges Goursat), Couri quotes Santos's writing the cartoonist to say, "you have captured me." She reports that when openly gay writer Jean Lorrain saw the two together, he remarked to the cartoonist, "Ah, here you are with your little bird." She also argues that "Santos' homosexuality is expressed in his suicide note[:] 'I have loved men and women; I'm both male and female, in my heart as well as mind; for better or worse, I couldn't ever separate such complementary, integral categories.'"

Novelist Patricia Nell Warren includes Santos-Dumont in her 2006 study of gay athletes, The Lavender Locker Room. Relying on biographers Peter Wykeham and Hoffman, Warren offers no new evidence of Santos's sexuality, but she places his achievements in a perspective quite independent of the controversy regarding the Wright brothers and who invented the airplane: "After all," she concludes, "Santos-Dumont was the man who first proved in 1909 that controlled flight was even possible; his innovations on balloon No. 1--propeller, tail rudder, etc.--became standard equipment on later aircraft, including the Wright planes."

Mark Staebler

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literature >> Overview:  Aestheticism

A theory of art and an approach to living that influenced many European and American gay male and lesbian writers at the turn of the twentieth century, aestheticism stressed the independence of art from all moral and social conditions and judgments.

social sciences >> Overview:  Brazil

A notably diverse country, Brazil is also home to one of the world's most dynamic glbtq political movements.

literature >> Overview:  Decadence

Nineteenth-century Decadent literature either describes aspects of decadent life and society or reflects the decadent literary aesthetic.

literature >> Huysmans, Joris-Karl

J. K. Huysmans, an important figure in the Aesthetic and Decadent movements, exemplified a style of homosexuality at a pivotal moment in the emergence of a gay identity.

social sciences >> Krupp, Friedrich Alfred

Friedrich Krupp, heir to the German armament company, was accused of betraying his birthright by pursuing homosexual pleasures in the south of Italy.

literature >> Lorrain, Jean (Paul Duval)

Almost as renowned for his homosexuality and depravity as for his literary achievements, Jean Lorrain was a French poet, novelist, and journalist of the "decadent movement" during the Belle Époque.

literature >> Warren, Patricia Nell

Patricia Nell Warren is the author of significant novels about American gay culture that exemplify popular adult and young adult mainstream fiction.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.


Cohen, Marleine. Santos-Dumont--Sim, Sou Eu, Alberto. São Paolo: Editora Globo, 2006.

Couri, Norma. "Na esteira do vôo centenário." Jornal do Brasil (December 22, 2005):

Helmayd, Chris. "Luiz Mott: o barulho do ilustre dândi." Marcellus Portal (2006):

Hoffman, Paul. Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight. New York: Hyperion Publishers, 2003.

Jarrett, Philip. Pioneer Aircraft: Early Aviation to 1914. London: Putnam Aeronautical, 2003.

Lins de Barros, Henrique. Santos-Dumont E a Invenção Do Vôo. Rio de Janeiro: CBPF (Centro Brasileiro de Pesquisas Físicas ), 2003.

Nova: Wings of Madness: The Flamboyant Rise and Tragic Death of Pioneering Aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont (November 7, 2006):

Warren, Patricia Nell. The Lavender Locker Room: 3000 Years of Great Athletes Whose Sexual Orientation Was Different. Beverly Hills: Wildcat Press, 2006.

Winters, Nancy. Man Flies: The Story of Alberto Santos-Dumont. New York: Ecco Press, 1998.

Wykeham, Peter. Santos-Dumont; A Study in Obsession. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962.


    Citation Information
    Author: Staebler, Mark  
    Entry Title: Santos-Dumont, Alberto  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2007  
    Date Last Updated January 12, 2008  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2007 glbtq, Inc.  


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