In honor of Pride Month, FFRF is publishing highlights about some of the many distinguished LGBTQ individuals, past and present, who have made known their dissent from religion. For more information, see FFRF’s Freethought of the Day series. Compiled by Sarah Weinstock and Bill Dunn.
Jane Addams was an American philanthropist and co-founder of the Hull-House, a space for “social settlement” for immigrants and working-class Americans. After 120 years of operation, it closed its doors in 2012. Addams was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for her work in peace activism. She had a 40-year relationship with Mary Rozet Smith. Smith spent her life helping with work at the Hull-House, becoming a benefactor and supporter. Smith suddenly died of pneumonia in 1934, and Addams died 13 months later.
“A wise man has told us that ‘men are once for all so made that they prefer a rational world to believe in and live in.’”
— Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House (1912).
Author James Baldwin’s experiences living as a disenfranchised, Black, gay man in a country that largely shunned these characteristics inspired many of his great novels and essays. Baldwin was a leading voice for the civil rights movement. As an out gay man in the 1950s, Baldwin wrote his book Giovanni’s Room, which focused on his experience of being Black and a homosexual. His writings are considered one of the most influential pieces on Black and LGBTQIA+ activism and communities.
“If the concept of God has any validity or use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.”
— Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963).
Josh Barro is an American journalist focusing his work on American politics. Buzzfeed News in 2013 quoted aides to Democratic President Barack Obama saying that Josh Barro, although a registered Republican at the time, was his favorite columnist. Barro has been openly out since high school and is outspoken against anti-LGBTQ hate speech. He met his husband Zachary Allen, a former Democratic National Committee official and Obama alumnus, in 2013 at a Human Rights Campaign National Dinner, and they married in 2017.
“Mentioning that I am an atheist seems to have led to a bunch of email trying to convince me of the existence of god.”
— Barro tweet (Dec. 28, 2013).
American fashion designer Bill Blass was openly gay, but notoriously private about his personal life. He was early to contribute to Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and other AIDS care centers during the AIDS crisis. Fashion writer Bernadine Morris wrote in a New York magazine piece (July 8, 2002): “You could never tell he was gay, because although he had good manners, he was not effete, and if he ever had lovers, it wasn’t anything anyone knew about.”
Bill Blass: I have a firm belief in such things as, you know, the water, the Earth, the trees and sky. And I’m wondering, it is increasingly difficult to find those elements in nature, because it’s nature I believe in rather than some spiritual thing.
SFWeekly: You’re not a religious man?
BB: No. And I do suppose that science has taken, to a large extent and for a number of people, has taken the place of religion.
SFW: What do you mean by that?
BB: That one can have more belief in scientific cures or scientific miracles than you do in God miracles. It’s inevitable that we will eventually diffuse into nothingness.
— Interview, SF Weekly (Sept. 1, 1999).
Rosa Bonheur is recognized as the 19th century’s most famous female painter, best known for her realistic interpretations of animals. Bonheur was able to obtain a “cross-dressing permit” in 19th-century France. This permit allowed her to wear men’s clothing without fear of legal persecution. She had two female partners, Nathalie Micas, and Anna Klumpke. She was with Nathalie Micas for 40 years. The American portraitist Anna Klumpke came into her life after Micas died. Bonheur viewed womanhood as superior to anything a man could offer or experience and said the only males she had time for were the bulls she painted.
“Yet, though I make this concession as to my body, my philosophical belief remains unalterable.”
— Bonheur agreeing to a church funeral so she could be buried with Nathalie Micas, Reminiscences of Rosa Bonheur, ed. Theodore Stanton (1910).
Truman Capote, a literary star, was most notably known for two of his novels adapted into movies, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and In Cold Blood (1966). Capote was openly gay and had a long-term relationship with writer and playwright Jack Dunphy.
“I belong to no churches and am not a ‘Believer’ in any formal sense… As for me, I just go my way by myself.”
— Capote letter to death row inmate Perry Smith, whose crime he documented in In Cold Blood (Jan. 25, 1965).
American composer Aaron Copland wrote many ballets, chamber music, vocal works, operas and film scores. Copland, who never married, was gay, but not outspoken about his relationships. He had several relationships with other male artists. Copland lived and died as a nonbeliever and specified that his funeral service, if any, be “nonreligious.” He died at age 90 in 1990.
“However, in adult life, although retaining strong memories of the music he heard in the synagogue and at Jewish weddings, Copland evidenced little direct connection with Judaism or Jewish culture. He was neither religious nor observant.”
— From “Copland and the Prophetic Voice” by Howard Pollack in Aaron Copland and His World (2005).
Russell Davies is a Welsh television writer and creator of the British television show “Queer as Folk.” An out gay and atheist, Davies often inserts atheist and homosexual themes into his work. “The only way I can write — whether that’s good or bad — is to put my worldview into everything. I have to challenge that worldview from time to time, but in terms of the atheism of the show, I find that very powerful.” (The Boston Phoenix, July 24, 2009) He frequently depicts religion as nonexistent or very different in the future. He was the showrunner for “Doctor Who” from 2005 to 2010 and has confirmed that he will return to the show in the new season. Davies recently finished a television show depicting the AIDS crisis in London in the 1980s called “It’s a Sin.”
“Yes, I’m deeply atheist. If they haven’t reached that point by the Year Five Billion, then I give up! When did the Doctor do that speech about believing in things that are invisible? It’s Episode 5, isn’t it? That’s another bit of atheism chucked in. That’s what I believe, so that’s what you’re going to get.”
— Davies interview, Doctor Who magazine (Sept. 14, 2005).
Simone de Beauvoir is the writer of the 1949 The Second Sex, a fundamental book of the feminist movement. Born in France, Beauvoir was raised Catholic and was devout until the age of 14, when she had a crisis of faith that ended with her concluding that there was no God. Beauvoir was bisexual, had a long-term open relationship with atheist Jean-Paul Sartre, and had multiple relationships with various women.
“Man enjoys the great advantage of having a God endorse the codes he writes; and since man exercises a sovereign authority over woman, it is especially fortunate that this authority has been vested in him by the Supreme Being. For the Jews, Mohammedans, and the Christians, among others, man is master by divine right; the fear of God, therefore, will repress any impulse toward revolt in the downtrodden female.”
— De Beauvoir, “Situation and Character,” The Second Sex (1949, translated and edited by H.M. Parshley, 1953).
Marlene Dietrich was a German-born actress and entertainer. She is remembered in part for her gender-bending style. Dietrich was bisexual and penned the name “Sewing Circle” for the group of Hollywood actresses that were either bisexual or lesbian. In the 1930 film “Morocco,” Dietrich, dressed in a tuxedo, shares the first lesbian kiss on film with Juliette Compton.
“I lost my faith during the war and can’t believe they are all up there, flying around or sitting at tables, all those I’ve lost.”
— Dietrich, quoted in Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend by Steven Bach (2011).
Journalist/editor and gay rights activist Barry Duke was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and from an early age showed “a strong antipathy toward religion, especially the Calvinist form of Christianity that was used to justify the country’s horrific persecution of people of color during the Apartheid era,” as Duke commented in 2022. Duke’s left-leaning, anti-Apartheid activism and censorship battles led to him being declared a “dangerous undesirable.” Alerted that an arrest warrant was being issued, he left South Africa in 1973 for the UK, where he was granted asylum. A militant atheist, he joined the National Secular Society and was a co-founder in 1979 of the Gay Humanist Group, which changed its name to the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association in 1987.
“Since [1950s John Birch Society claims], War on Christmas reports have simply become a silly festive season tradition, generating more mirth than fury. All are intended to reinforce the belief of Christian fundamentalists that they really are being persecuted by a coalition of atheists, secularists, freethinkers, abortionists – and those who identify as LGBTQ. Seriously!”
— Duke, “And so it begins … the ‘war’ on Christmas 2021” (The Freethinker, Nov. 25, 2021).
Harvey Fierstein is a Tony Award-winning actor, playwright, comedian and a leading LGBT who has consistently made his views on religion known. He views himself as Jewish but does not believe in God. His plays have focused on queer themes, and his “La Cage aux Folles” has been adapted into a movie twice, most recently named “Birdcage,” starring Robin Williams and Albert Goldman. Fierstein often incorporates drag into his shows and performs in female drag, most notably as Edna Turnblad in the 2003 production of “Hairspray.” Fierstein has recently rewritten “Funny Girl” for its 2022 revival.
In a 2022 People magazine interview, Fierstein stated, “I’m still confused as to whether I’m a man or a woman,” and said that as a child he often wondered if he’d been born in the wrong body. “When I was a kid, I was attracted to men. I didn’t feel like a boy was supposed to feel. Then I found out about gay. So that was enough for me for then.”
“We are lucky enough to be living in a country that not only guarantees the freedom to practice religion as we see fit, but also freedom FROM religious zealots who would persecute and prosecute and even physically harm those of us who do not believe as they do. … Predicating patriotism on a citizen’s belief in God is as anti-American as judging him on the color of his skin. It is wrong. It is useless. It is unconstitutional.”
— Fierstein, “In the Life” broadcast by Generation Q (November 2004).
English author E.M. Forster’s most well-known novels are A Room With a View (1908), Howards End (1910), Maurice (1913-14), and A Passage to India (1924). Forster called himself a humanist and was president of the Cambridge Humanists from 1959 to his death. Forster was 16 when Oscar Wilde was jailed for homosexuality, making him cautious of projecting his own homosexuality. Nonetheless, Forster had a long relationship with Robert Buckingham whom he was with until he died.
“I do not believe in Belief… There lies at the back of every creed something terrible and hard for which the worshipper may one day be required to suffer.”
— Forster’s essay “What I Believe,” The Nation Magazine (July 21, 1938).
Jodie Foster is an Academy Award-winning actress best-known for breakthrough roles in “Silence of the Lambs” and “Taxi Driver.” Foster is a lesbian. When winning and accepting the Golden Globe in 2021 for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “The Mauritanian,” she publicly kissed her wife, Alexandra Hedison.
“I absolutely believe what Ellie [the atheist astronomer in the movie ‘Contact’] believes — that there is no direct evidence, so how could you ask me to believe in God when there’s absolutely no evidence that I can see? I do believe in the beauty and the awe-inspiring mystery of the science that’s out there that we haven’t discovered yet, that there are scientific explanations for phenomena that we call mystical because we don’t know any better.”
— Foster, interview with The Georgia Straight weekly (July 10, 1997).
When Frederick ascended the throne in 1740, he instituted many domestic reforms, including the promotion of education and the arts, improved infrastructure, the creation of new industries and, while he was largely irreligious, the enforcement of universal religious toleration. He married Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern in 1733, an arranged union. Frederick and Elisabeth saw little of each other during his reign but remained married until his death. He was widely believed to have been gay and there are multiple accounts of him trying to run away with lovers before he ascended to the thrown.
“Theologians are all alike, of whatever religion or country they may be. Their aim is always to wield despotic authority of men’s consciences. They therefore persecute all of us who have the temerity to unveil the truth.”
— Frederick the Great, letter to Voltaire (Nov. 4, 1736).
British actor Stephen Fry has been openly gay for his entire professional life and advocates for gay rights. Fry depicted Oscar Wilde in the movie “Wilde.”(1997) Fry married his husband, Eliott Spencer, in 2015.
“I love how when people watch I don’t know, David Attenborough or Discovery Planet type thing you know where you see the absolute phenomenal majesty and complexity and bewildering beauty of nature and you stare at it and then … somebody next to you goes, ‘And how can you say there is no God? Look at that.’ And then five minutes later you’re looking at the lifecycle of a parasitic worm whose job is to bury itself in the eyeball of a little lamb and eat the eyeball from inside while the lamb dies in horrible agony and then you turn to them and say, ‘Yeah, where is your God now?’ “
— Fry, bigthink.com interview (Dec. 17, 2009).
Famously private Swedish actress Grethe Garbo is described by her biographer as bisexual; however, she was primarily lesbian and probably asexual. Garbo was a part of what Marlene Dietrich called the “Sewing Circle,” which consisted of Hollywood actresses having relationships with each other.
“I would like to believe in a life after death, but the different religions have each got their own different solution. In America people go to church a lot, but I don’t know if they’re any more religious for all that. I know that there are many people who are convinced of life after death, but I haven’t been given the capacity for belief.”
— Garbo comments to journalist and biographer Sven Broman on one of their walks, “Garbo on Garbo” (1991).
Roxane Gay is a New York Times bestselling author. Gay’s work concerns racial issues and feminism. In 2011, she published “Ayiti,” a short story collection. In 2014, she published the novel An Untamed State and the New York Times bestseller, Bad Feminist, a collection of essays about feminism, race, gender, and pop culture. Time Magazine declared 2014 “the Year of Roxane Gay.” She is a nationally ranked Scrabble player and a professor of English at Purdue University. Although Gay describes her younger self as “a good girl who went to church,” she no longer believes in God. Gay is openly bi and in 2019 announced her engagement to Debbie Millman.
“I try to understand faith and religion. I was raised by wonderful Catholic parents who were deeply faithful and taught us that God is a God of love. Even though I am lapsed, I respect that others turn to God and religion for guidance, for solace, for salvation. What I cannot respect is when that faith dictates how others should live their lives. I cannot respect when such faith tells some people that their lives are unworthy of dignity.”
— Gay, quoted in The Guardian, “Indiana is not protecting religious freedom but outright zealotry” (March 27, 2015).
Media personality George Hahn decided to come out while he was enrolled in Boston College, a Jesuit University. “I was a classic Catholic closet case, tightly wrapped in fear, guilt and shame. If anything or anyone came close to exposing me and my proclivity, I’d do what many do: run and shun.” (Blog, April 29, 2020) Currently he uses his media platforms to criticize abuse of power in the name of religion.
“Can we get back to the fight against religious psychos who think it’s appropriate to impose their will and their reign of terror onto women?”
— Hahn tweet after a SCOTUS draft opinion on abortion was leaked (May 4, 2022).
One of the most recognizable names in the music industry, Elton John is also a notable face in the queer community. His homosexuality drew him to denouncing religion: “Religion has always tried to turn hatred toward gay people. Religion promotes the hatred and spite against gays.” (Observer Monthly magazine, November 2006.) He was knighted in 1998 by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to music and fundraising for AIDS.
“From my point of view, I would ban religion completely. The reality is that organized religion doesn’t seem to work. It turns people into hateful lemmings and it’s not really compassionate.”
— John, Observer Music Monthly interview (November 2006).
Angelina Jolie is an Oscar-winning American actress, screenwriter, and director. Jolie has been open about her bisexuality. Famously married to Brad Pitt, now divorced, she has had relationships with women. In an interview on 20/20 (July 11, 2003), Barbara Walters asked Jolie if she was bisexual, and she answered, “I’m a very sexual person who loves who she loves, whatever sex they may be.” Recently in an interview for her movie “Maleficent Mistress of Evil,” she admits to having a teen crush on Michelle Pfeiffer.
“For the people who believe in it, I hope so. There doesn’t need to be a God for me.”
— Jolie, responding to the question “Is there a God?” The Onion A.V. Club (Sept. 6, 2000).
Bill T. Jones is a renowned American choreographer. His major work, “Still/Here” (1950), incorporates terminally ill dancers, including AIDS and HIV-positive performers. It is one of his most controversial pieces of work. In an interview with Jeffrey Brown (Oct. 8, 2021) for “News Hour” on PBS, he told Brown, “I’m an atheist.” Jones is married to designer and creative director Bjorn Amelan.
“I am a humanist, as all Christians are supposed to be. For me, the bottom line is commonality. It is the only thing I accept. I don’t even know if a soul exists. But I do know there is a condition called humanity that we are a part of, with wonderful potential for good and evil. I believe in limited free will. God? I believe there is an intelligence in the universe, but I don’t believe in absolute morality, in sin.”
— Jones interview, Los Angeles Times (March 10, 1991).
Frida Kahlo is a famous Mexican painter and is a well-known name in the LGBTQIA+ community. Kahlo was bisexual and open about her sexuality and atheist beliefs. While once married to a man, Diego Rivera, she had multiple relationships with women, including Dolores del Rio, Paulette Goddard, Josephine Baker, and others.
“I hope the exit is joyful — and I hope never to return.”
— Kahlo diary entry a few days before her death.
Tony Kushner is a playwright, author, and screenwriter whose most recent work was rewriting the 2020 version of West Side Story. His play Angels in America (1991-1992) metaphorically depicts the American AIDS crisis and homosexuality. Kushner had a commitment ceremony with his partner Mark Harris, an editor for Entertainment Weekly, in 2003, and the couple officially married in 2008.
“I wrote the play in part out of my feeling as an agnostic. Huge questions about god emerge whenever a crisis the size of the AIDS epidemic or I think the political crisis of Reaganism appear on the scene. One begins to ask questions about the benevolence or presence of any kind of consciousness in the universe. I asked those questions — I was thinking a lot about death, I was thinking a lot about my own mortality, I was thinking a lot about justice and whether or not the world would resume what seemed to me a serious hampered progress towards something like social justice with someone like Reagan in the White House.”
— Kushner in an interview on his play “Angels in America” (NPR, Dec. 9, 2003).
Brooklyn-born American songwriter Jack Lawrence wrote some of the most popular songs of his time, working with singers like Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin. Psychologist and social worker Walter Myden was his longtime partner. After Myden died, Lawrence met Richard Debnam, a former Broadway dancer and Ice Follies performer. In 1979, in his mid-60s, he adopted Debnam, 20 years his junior. Before same-sex marriage became legal, it was not uncommon for gay couples to pursue adoption as legal protection for inheritance and other purposes.
“When I am asked what religion I am, I don’t hesitate to answer. I don’t believe in religion.”
— “They All Sang My Songs” (2004).
Fran Lebowitz is a political liberal author, public speaker, and lesbian. She states she has been an atheist since she was seven years old. Lebowitz once told an interviewer. “My Jewish identity is ethnic or cultural or whatever people call it now. But it’s not religious.” (New Jersey Jewish News, Jan. 27, 2016).
“I’ve been an atheist since I was about 7 years old.”
—Haaretz interview (Oct. 6, 2011).
Amy Lowell was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, who was more open about her sexuality in her life than in her poetry. She was in a “Boston marriage,” which historically referred to a lesbian or other relationship in which two women live together and are self-sufficient from any male influence. Lowell met her partner Ada Dwyer in 1912 and was with her for the rest of her life.
And every year when the fields are high
With oat grass, and red top, and timothy,
I know that a creed is the shell of a lie.
— Lowell’s poem “Evelyn Ray” from What’s O’Clock (1925).
She is best known for portraying Sue Sylvester in the television series “Glee.” She is an out lesbian and an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. She made a video for the “It Gets Better” campaign and performed in a play titled “8,” which focused on marriage equality and California’s anti-gay Proposition 8. She is active in several organizations that promote equality for people of all sexual orientations. Currently, she is in the revival of Broadway “Funny Girl,” playing Mrs. Brice. Lynch advocated for state/church separation in a humorous song performed with Jordan Peele and produced by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
“Yes. They say you die just a little bit when you sneeze. And I’m kind of an atheist, but yet I will say that just in case.”
— Lynch in response to a TMZ reporter asking her “Is it still necessary to say God bless you when someone sneezes?” (May 28, 2013).
W. Somerset Maugham is an English author and playwright of works like Of Human Bondage. Maugham was bisexual and married to a woman, but after his divorce, he lived with men for the rest of his life. “Tried to persuade myself that I was three-quarters normal and that only a quarter of me was queer— whereas really it was the other way around.”
“I do not believe in God. I see no need of such idea. It is incredible to me that there should be an after-life. I find the notion of future punishment outrageous and of future reward extravagant. I am convinced that when I die, I shall cease entirely to live; I shall return to the earth I came from.”
— Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook (1949).
English actor Sir Ian McKellen is open about atheism. but does not often speak on the subject. He came out publicly as a gay man in 1988, and was a founding member of the UK LGBT advocacy group, Stonewall, to advocate against discriminatory legislation. McKellen was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1979, and was knighted in 1991 for his contributions to the theater. In 2008, he was made a Companion of Honor for his services to drama and equality.
Matt Lauer: There have been calls from some religious groups. They wanted a disclaimer at the beginning of this movie saying it is fiction because, again, one of the themes in the book really knocks Christianity right on its ear. … How would you all have felt if there was a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie?
Ian McKellen: Well, I’ve often thought the bible should have a disclaimer in the front saying this is fiction. I mean, walking on water, it takes an act of faith. And I have faith in this movie. Not that it’s true, not that it’s factual, but that it’s a jolly good story. And I think audiences are clever enough and bright enough to separate out fact and fiction, and discuss the thing after they’ve seen it.
— McKellen interview on “The Today Show” about “The Da Vinci Code” (May 17, 2006).
Alexander McQueen was an English fashion designer and winner of several “Best British Designer” awards. Among his famous clients were David Bowie and Kate Winslet, for whom he designed her iconic “Titanic” dress. In 2000, he had a marriage ceremony with his partner George Forsyth, a documentary filmmaker. He died in 2010.
“I’m an atheist and an anti-royalist, so why would I put anyone on a pedestal?”
— McQueen, 1996 interview, “Bowie on Bowie: Interviews and Encounters with David Bowie,” ed. Sean Egan (2015).
Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, becoming the first openly gay man to hold public office in California. During the peak of his political career, Milk supported anti-discrimination bills, established daycare centers for working mothers, and converted military facilities into low-cost housing. Milk spoke out on state and national issues for LGBTQIA+ people, women, racial and ethnic minorities, and other marginalized communities. Milk was assassinated in 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone, by former city supervisor Dan White, a rabid opponent of gay rights.
“About six months ago, Anita Bryant in her speaking to God said that the drought in California was because of the gay people. On November 9, the day after I got elected, it started to rain. On the day I got sworn in, we walked to City Hall and it was kinda nice, and as soon as I said ‘I do,’ it started to rain again. It’s been raining since then and the people of San Francisco figure the only way to stop it is to do a recall petition.”
— Milk keynote speech in San Diego to the gay caucus of the California Democratic Council (March 10, 1978).
Tig Notaro is an openly gay American comedian. The 2015 Netflix movie “Tig” chronicled her attempts to become pregnant with her fiancée Stephanie Allynne, an actress and comedian. They married in 2016 and that year they welcomed twin sons.
“My biggest problem with people who talk about God and prayers is how confident they are about how it all works out until it doesn’t work out. This kind of willful blindness astounds me. If something is a miracle when it works, then when it doesn’t work that should not just be ignored; it should be questioned.”
— From Notaro’s memoir I’m Just a Person (2016).
Diana Nyad, a record-breaking long distance swimmer, is now a multilingual motivational speaker who was honored by the International Swimming Hall of Fame and National Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. She is “out” about her long-term relationship with a woman.
“I’m not a god person. … I’m an atheist who’s in awe.”
— Nyad on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” (Oct. 13, 2013).
The American composer, socialite, and gay man was famously married to a woman, Linda Porter, for what they both considered social convenience. He considered his art a religion. And when asked by a clerk what religion he was, he replied, “Put down none.”
“Although later in life Cole briefly considered embracing religion, he was never a believer, and his several comments about his mother’s attachments to Peru churches were dismissive.”
— Porter biographer William McBrien, Cole Porter (1998).
Paula Poundstone is an American stand-up comedian, author and actor. She identifies as asexual. She told EDGE online (Aug. 21, 2013) that she’s asexual: “I don’t like sex. Therefore, I don’t have sex. It frees up time, but that’s not by design, it’s just a bonus.”
“I’m an atheist. The good news about atheists is that we have no mandate to convert anyone. So you’ll never find me on your doorstep on a Saturday morning with a big smile, saying, ‘Just stopped by to tell you there is no word. I brought along this little blank book I was hoping you could take a look at.’”
— Poundstone, There’s Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say (2006).
“The Amazing” James Randi was a magician and escape artist who investigated and exposed claims of the paranormal. He had come out as gay at age 81 in 2010, announcing: “This declaration of mine was prompted just last week by seeing an excellent film — starring Sean Penn — that told the story of politician Harvey Milk. … I’m in excellent company: Barney Frank, Oscar Wilde, Stephen Fry, Ellen DeGeneres, Rachel Maddow, are just a few of those who were in my thoughts as I pressed the key that placed this on Swift and before the whole world.” He died in 2020 at age 92.
“[T]here are two sorts of atheists. One sort claims that there is no deity; the other claims that there is no evidence that proves the existence of a deity. I belong to the latter group, because if I were to claim that no god exists, I would have to produce evidence to establish that claim, and I cannot.”
— Randi, newsletter at randi.org (Aug. 5, 2005).
Eleanor Roosevelt was the wife of the 32nd president Franklin Delanor Roosevelt and niece of the 26th president Theodore Roosevelt. As First Lady from 1933-45, she revolutionized the position and threw herself into reforms, including championing social justice. As an author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she supported freedom of conscience: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief.” The United Nations adopted the declaration in 1948. In 2016 the book, “Eleanor and Hicks: The Love Affair That Shaped the First Lady,” Susan Quinn depicts her romantic relationship and friendship with journalist Lorena Hickock.
“The Bible illustrated by Dore occupied many of my hours — and I think probably gave me many nightmares.”
— Roosevelt, This Is My Story (1937).
Jane Rule was an American author whose first novel, Desert of the Heart, was turned into the 1984 movie. While teaching at Concord Academy in Massachusetts, she fell in love with Helen Sonthoff, a creative writing instructor who was married to Herbert Sonthoff. Rule moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1956, and taught intermittently at the University of British Columbia until 1976. At age 40, Sonthoff came to Vancouver to visit Rule, then 25, and they resumed their intimate relationship. They lived as a couple until Sonthoff died in 2000.
“I’m a nonbeliever. I don’t believe in the existence of a God. I don’t believe in the Christian dogma. I find it horrifyingly silly. The intolerance that flows from organized religion is the most dangerous thing on the planet.”
— Rule, Brave Souls: Writers and Artists Wrestle with God, Love, Death and the Things That Matter by Douglas Todd (1996).
“Jeopardy!” champion Amy Schneider is the first transgender contestant in “Jeopardy!” history to make the Tournament of Champions and the highest-winning woman ($1,382,800). Schneider grew up watching the show with her devout Catholic parents. She participated in theater in high school before majoring in civil engineering and computer science at the University of Dayton on her way to becoming a software engineer.
“Ms. Schneider describes herself as an atheist who doesn’t believe in the occult or the supernatural but, as she said, ‘It’s not a queer meet cute if there’s not tarot.’ ”
— Interviewer Shane O’Neill, explaining “The Star” tarot card on a necklace Schneider was wearing that her girlfriend gave her. (New York Times, Jan. 26, 2022).
Dan Savage is a gay rights activist and writer famous for his sex advice column “Savage Love,” which is syndicated in more than 70 publications. He is also known and respected for his longtime advocacy for LGBTQIA+ rights. He drew media attention in 2012 when he gave a talk to high school students and encouraged them to “ignore the bullshit in the bible about gay people.” In 2010 he and his husband Terry Miller started the “It Gets Better” project in response to a series of teens who committed suicide because they were bullied about their sexual orientation. Over 150,000 people submitted videos encouraging LGBTQIA+ teens that their lives will improve and they will find acceptance. The videos have received over 50 million views. Savage received FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award in 2013.
“My father was a Catholic deacon, my mother was a lay minister and I thought about becoming a priest. I was in church every Sunday for the first 15 years of my life. Now I spend my Sundays on my bike, on my snowboard or on my husband. I haven’t spent my post-Catholic decades in a sulk, wishing the church would come around on the issue of homosexuality so that I could start attending Mass again. I didn’t abandon my faith. I saw through it. The conflict between my faith and my sexuality set that process in motion, but the conclusions I reached at the end of that process — there are no gods, religion is man-made, faith can be a force for good or evil — improved my life. I’m grateful that my sexuality prompted me to think critically about faith. Pushed out? No. I walked out.”
— Savage, quoted in “What God Wants,” The New York Times (April 14, 2013).
Stephen Sondheim was one of the most well-known names in musical theater, writing the music and lyrics for some of the most popular Broadway shows as a composer and lyricist. Sondheim came out in 1970 at the age of 40. He lived with dramatist Peter Jones for eight years in the 1990s and was later in a relationship with Jeff Romley. In a 2019 interview, Romley’s friend Randy Rainbow, a satirical songwriter, referred to Romley as Sondheim’s husband. It was later revealed that they had married in 2017. He died at 91 in 2022.
“It’s called flowers wilt / It’s called apples rot / It’s called thieves get rich / And saints get shot / It’s called God don’t answer prayers a lot / Okay, now you know.”
— “Now You Know,” from the 1981 musical “Merrily We Roll Along.”
This prolific and most lyrical of the classical composers wrote “Romeo and Juliet” (1869), “Swan Lake” (1876), “The Sleeping Beauty” (1890) and “The Nutcracker” (1892). Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, which made him a “transgressor” in the 19th century, may have played a role in his religious migration. To cover up his homosexuality, he married a woman and proceeded to attempt suicide two weeks later by jumping in a Moscow river.
“I have found some astonishing answers to my questioning as to God and religion in his book.”
— Tchaikovsky, letter to his brother Modest about reading freethinker Flaubert, Life and Letters of P.I. Tchaikovsky (ed. Rosa Newmarch, 1906).
Mary L. Trump, a psychologist and author, is also the niece and harsh critic of Donald Trump. Her book Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man was an unauthorized 2020 biography of her uncle Donald. Legal efforts to stop publication failed and sold nearly a million copies on the first sales day. In “Too Much and Never Enough,” Trump said the family’s homophobia caused her to stay in the closet for many years out of fear of being disowned. She hid her plans to marry a woman.
“It just seemed absurd that there could be any kind of higher power. None of it made sense to me any more. So, since the age of 16, I have been an unwavering atheist. And I worry a lot about how religion is intertwined in politics in this country.”
— Trump, on the unexpected death of her father at age 42, Sydney Morning Herald (Sept. 17, 2021).
Alan Turing was a mathematician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist who studied cognitive science and artificial intelligence, among other fields. Turing helped design a revolutionary code-breaking machine called the bombe, which was essential to the Allies throughout World War II. He was a major part of the team that broke the complex code used by the German military to encode their radio communications. The movie “The Imitation Game” is a biography of his contributions to decoding German telegrams during WWII. In 1952, Turing was convicted of homosexuality, under section 11, “gross indecency,” of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment. This is the same law that Oscar Wilde was convicted under. He died in 1954, and only a few years later, in 1956, the English government repealed the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment. In 2013, the Queen pardoned Turing posthumously.
“I am not very impressed with theological arguments whatever they may be used to support. Such arguments have often been found unsatisfactory in the past.”
— Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Mind (1950).
Gore Vidal was the prolific author of many novels and plays based on history and politics and worked in TV and the movies. His novels include Julian (1964), Myra Breckenridge (1968), Burr (1974), and Live from Golgotha (1992), an irreverent satire imagining New Testament events if reported on TV. Vital considered himself bisexual and often rejected the “gay” label, saying it referred to sexual acts rather than sexuality. Vidal enjoyed telling his alleged sexual exploits to friends and claimed to have slept with Fred Astaire when he first moved to Hollywood and with a young Dennis Hopper. In 1950, he met Howard Austen, who became his partner for the next 53 years until Austen’s death. Vidal died in 2012.
“Christianity is such a silly religion.”
— Vidal, Time magazine (Sept. 28, 1992).
Alice Walker, a novelist and poet, wrote the 1982 bestseller, The Color Purple, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and was turned into a popular movie by Steven Spielberg. Walker introduced the term “womanist” to the feminist movement to describe African-American feminism. Her books of essays include In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983), Alice Walker Banned (1996), and Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism (1997). She worked on voter registration drives in the 1960s and married fellow civil rights worker Melvyn Leventhal in 1967. They had a daughter, Rebecca, in 1970 and divorced in 1976. She had a relationship with singer Tracy Chapman.
“It is chilling to think that the same people who persecuted the wise women and men of Europe, its midwives and healers, then crossed the oceans to Africa and the Americas and tortured and enslaved, raped, impoverished, and eradicated the peaceful, Christ-like people they found. And that the blueprint from which they worked, and still work, was the Bible.”
— Walker, Anything We Love Can Be Saved (1997).
Biographers continue to debate the sexuality of Walt Whitman, an American author and poet. He is usually described as either homosexual or bisexual in his feelings and attractions. Whitman was influenced by deism and was a religious skeptic. Invited in 1874 to write a poem about the Spiritualism movement, he responded, “It seems to me nearly altogether a poor, cheap, crude humbug.” (“Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself” by Jerome Loving, 1999)
“I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God.”
— Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1891 edition).
Irish playwright and author Oscar Wilde is one of the most recognized names in literature. His only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was published in 1890, followed by his famous plays: Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), Salome (1894), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884 and fathered two sons. In 1895, he sued the father of his male lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, for libel after he accused Wilde of homosexuality. Wilde dropped the ill-advised lawsuit, but was then charged criminally, convicted of gross indecency, and sentenced to two years’ hard labor. He died three years after his release, in France, where homosexuality was already decriminalized. In 2017, Wilde was posthumously pardoned because of the Alan Turning law.
“Science is the record of dead religions.”
— Wilde, Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young (1894).
Mara Wilson played Natalie Hillard, the daughter of Robin Williams and Sally Field, in “Mrs. Doubtfire” when she was five and had a role in the remake of “Miracle on 34th Street” in 1994. She had the title role in 1996 in director Danny DeVito’s “Matilda,” an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s young adult book. Mara came out publicly as bi — although she now tends to prefer the label queer. “I like queer more than I like bisexual, but I have no problem with people calling me bisexual,” she said on Twitter in the wake of June 2016’s tragedy at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. “Matilda’ Is Bi and So Am I,” was the title of an article about her in medium.com. (Sept. 20, 2017) She was the American Humanist Association’s 2019 LGBTQ Humanist Award recipient.
“Eventually, I saw Julia Sweeney’s monologue ‘Letting Go of God.’ That changed everything. I walked out of the theater and said, ‘You know what, I don’t believe there is a God, and I’m OK with that.’ “
— Wilson, TheaterMania interview (Aug. 7, 2013).
English author Virginia Woolf’s first book, The Voyage Out, was published in 1915, followed by Night and Day (1919), Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and Orlando (1938). Woolf wrote more than 500 essays, among them A Room of One’s Own (1929), in which she famously observed, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Her “Three Guineas” was a feminist rallying cry to women to come into their own. Wolfe had several affairs with women, the most notable being with Vita Sackville-West, which inspired “Orlando: A Biography.” The two of them remained lovers for a decade and stayed close friends for the rest of Woolf’s life. Leonard Woolf became the love of her life, and even though their sexual relationship was questionable, they loved each other profoundly and formed a strong, supportive, and prolific marriage, which led to the formation of their publishing house. She died in 1941 at age 59.
“I read the Book of Job last night — I don’t think God comes well out of it.”
— Woolf Letter to Lady Robert Cecil, Nov. 12, 1922, The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 2, eds. N. Nicolson and J. Trautmann (1976).