'Out'-Rage over 'Gay 100'

Article excerpt

ANYONE COMPILING a "Most Influential" list that includes in the same breath the likes of St. Augustine, William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Florence Nightingale, Liberace, Halston and Madonna is at best begging for an argument.

But when Vassar professor Paul Russell includes them all in his book, "The Gay 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Gay Men and Lesbians, Past and Present," he gets some sputtering outrage, too.

Silly. Dumb. Offensive. Plain untruthful. A number of scholars and writers apply those descriptions to Russell's outing of Emily Dickinson. Don't even ask about St. Augustine.

"St. Augustine in particular raises more than eyebrows," Russell concedes.

"Gay" is a fuzzy term. Shari Benstock, author of "Women of the Left Bank: Paris 1900-1940," says notions of "gayness" in 1994 - especially for women - are far different from those in 1894 or 1794.

Is sexual behavior, whether straight or gay, a "social construct" that changes as social conditions evolve, scholars ask? Or is it a timeless quality, "an essential part of the human condition?"

Constructionists and essentialists have long argued the issue.

Taken further, is sex a condition of sexual identity? Under Russell's definition, it is not.

Readers have to answer those questions for themselves. Depending on your opinion, you'll find the book infantile or intriguing.

Russell's "The Gay 100" (Citadel Press, $24.95) is the latest in a series of "100" books. An earlier volume by a different author listed the 100 most influential men and women since primates stood upright (Mohammed was No. 1), while two other lists focused on influential blacks and Jews. Future "100" listings will honor scientists and feminists.

Within the eccentric genre, "The Gay 100" requires a great leap of faith. But it was meant to be provocative, says Russell, who teaches courses in gay and lesbian studies at Vassar and whose definition of "gay" - at least in this listing - is extremely broad.

"This is a book of strong opinions, for better or worse," says the writer.

Russell has ranked Socrates the most influential homosexual of all time. Other prominent figures and their rankings:

Walt Whitman - 6

Susan B. Anthony - 12

St. Augustine - 16

Leonardo da Vinci - 18

Shakespeare - 20

Emily Dickinson - 27

Byron - 38

Eleanor Roosevelt - 44

Florence Nightingale - 54

Freddie Mercury - 90

Madonna - 99

Everyone knows Madonna. But is she really gay? Is she influential? Or is she just . . . Madonna?

Several others on the list will elicit a collective "who?" These names include Magnus Hirschfeld (No. 4). He produced the first gay film, "Anders als die Andern," before his German Gay Emancipation Movement was annihilated by Hitler's Nazis. …