Graphic by Kas Greenbaum (They/He)
The coronavirus pandemic has changed how people are able to connect to each other. Masks stop not just germs but smiles; social distancing prevents not just transmission but hugs. Young queer people especially have found themselves cooped up with relatives that don’t respect them, far away from their found family.
Many of us have been looking for new ways to safely connect: socially-distanced meetups, virtual conferencing, social media, and more. But if screens and scrolling have you exhausted, why not look back to one of the oldest expressions of queer life and love — the letter?
A recent radio program, “Chopin’s Men,” revealed the untold story of Polish virtuoso composer Frédéric Chopin’s love for other men, as expressed through his letters. In the program, music journalist Moritz Weber argued that Chopin’s letters had been intentionally mistranslated from Polish to hide his orientation: pronouns changed, misleading footnotes added, and particularly leading passages simply buried to be forgotten. Weber began delving into the letters at the start of lockdown, uncovering unambiguous expressions of love and lust.
In public, Chopin kept his personal life quiet and he never married. But in his letters, he was passionate and fervent about his love for other men — in particular, for his friend, Tytus Woyciechowski, whom he referred to as his “ideal” lover.
And he would find himself in good company. Although he is one of the most recent historical figures whose sexuality has been revealed by their correspondence, he certainly isn’t the first. Throughout history, queer people of all backgrounds have used letters to say what couldn’t be said in person; to gush, pine, and more.
Some, like Chopin, were never truly “out” but abstained from heterosexual life. Others used letters as an outlet for feelings they could not satisfy in their heterosexual marriages. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist Lorena Hickok exchanged thousands of effusive letters, rife with love and longing:
“Dearest, I miss you & wish you were here I want to put my arms around you & feel yours around me. More love than I can express in a letter is flying on waves of thought to you.”
Others were separated not just by societal obligations, but by physical distance — the concept of a long-distance relationship is hardly new. Ninth century Chinese poet Bo Juyi and his faraway lover, fellow poet Yuan Zhen, exchanged beautiful passages to close the distance between them:
“Other people too have friends that they love;
But ours was a love such as few friends have known.
You were all my sustenance; it mattered more
To see you daily than to get my morning food.”
(From Yuan Zhen to Bo Juyi, 816 CE)
Naturally, not all letters are poetic expressions of true love. Black poet Countee Cullen began a letter about being stood up by another man with, “I am feeling as miserable at this writing as I can imagine a person feeling,” a sentiment that remains keenly relatable nearly a century later. Letters were a place for all facets of the queer experience, joy and heartbreak alike.
Cullen also ends that very letter with “P.S. — Sentiments expressed here would be misconstrued by others, so this letter, once read, is best destroyed,” an instruction that clearly was not followed. There is an unfortunate voyeuristic aspect to poring over private correspondence, no matter how historically relevant said correspondence may be. An intimate secret can be reduced to clickbait or a quip at the dinner table — “Did you hear so-and-so is gay?”
Yet, as the censorship of Chopin’s letters reveals, it is also in the best interests of oppressors that history go untold. Chopin’s home country of Poland is virulently homo- and transphobic; Polish President Andrzej Duda has campaigned on promises to oppose gay and transgender rights, and a third of the country is composed of “LGBT-free zones,” where any variance in gender or sexuality is illegal. Chopin is a national icon in Poland, even 171 years after his death. As such, the truth about his sexuality remains an active threat to the vision of Poland projected by its far right movement — that of a bastion of “traditional values.”
Of course, you don’t need to be a national icon to write a letter, nor are the letters of historical figures the only ones worth keeping. In her book “Between Us: A Legacy of Lesbian Love Letters,” artist and scholar Kay Turner includes letters from all kinds of people, famous and ordinary alike. Her foreword encourages readers to contribute their own correspondence to historical archives: “Letters are crucial manifestos of our loving. At the center of lesbian freedom in the world is the inviolable love of one woman for another written down in a letter.”
New technology has allowed people to become more connected than ever before. Had instant messaging and video chat been available to figures of the past, they almost certainly would have used them. It’s surprisingly easy to imagine Chopin sending colorful DMs or Roosevelt and Hickok furtively texting (reportedly, they would sometimes mail each other twice in a single day).
And of course, as overwhelming as instant digital communication can be at times, it is still a luxury inaccessible to many, particularly those locked behind bars. To help keep incarcerated LGBTQ+ people from being left behind, the Prisoner Correspondence Project connects them to pen pals; even in an increasingly digital society, the mail remains a lifeline to the outside world for some of our most vulnerable.
At the end of the day, a letter is a tangible reminder that somewhere, someone cares about you. In a year where physical touch is more and more difficult to come by, a letter that you can pick up and hold, display proudly or stash away for later sounds like a fine way to connect. Why not send one to a partner, a friend, a stranger in need? You never know — it might even be a part of history.