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,"
"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
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
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
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. …