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LGBTQI+ History Month Icons – Elizabeth Bishop

For LGBTQI+ History Month 2021 members of SRUC’s Rainbow Staff Network will be blogging about someone who is an LGBTQI+ Icon to them. The first in the series is Elizabeth Bishop chosen by Liz Mackenzie.

Elizabeth Bishop was a truly gifted American Poet and short story writer born in Massachusetts in 1911.  She won numerous accolades, a Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, she won the Pulitzer Prize and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.  Although not a well-known ‘gay’ icon I chose Elizabeth Bishop as a lover of poetry and literature.  I was drawn to her story, her life and loves.

She had a difficult childhood uprooted many times and placed in different schools and homes.  Her father died when she was very young, and her mother was institutionalised after suffering with mental illness.  Despite this dysfunctional start she graduated from Vassar College in New York in 1934.


Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth was financially independent from a young age this allowed a life of complete freedom to travel which she did extensively visiting and living in many countries, and her work reflected this.

Her first notable relationship was with a former Vassar graduate, Louise Crane with whom she moved to France living together for several years.  In 1951 she set off for Brazil on a fellowship which was set to last two weeks, however turned in to 15 years as she was introduced to and fell in love with Architect, Lota de Macedo Soares.  Their tempestuous love affair was turned into a movie and is beautifully portrayed in the Brazilian film Reaching for the Moon.  Sadly, Soares took her own life in 1967 and Elizabeth returned to the US.  Later she took up teaching positions at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Why have you chosen Elizabeth Bishop?

I was also born in Massachusetts but went on to have a very international childhood growing up in the Far East.  I  moved a lot, changing schools many times but was blessed with so many unique and wonderful experiences, my horizons were very broad from a young age. This also paved the way for a lot of feelings of being lost, of never quite fitting or belonging in one place.  I think you either internalise this or find some outlet to cope in which your childhood self cannot.

In Questions of Travel the observations she writes about are coloured by an extraordinary level of  attention to detail drawing from her extensive travels.  She had a unique ability to use her love of the natural world to write beautifully constructed poems. I think she was aware of her sexuality from a young age, but this was something she never wished to publicly address. She loved women and simply accepted this as part of who she was without the desire to discuss it openly.  I relate to her certainty and sense of self without the seeming need to live up to any other’s measure of what her life should have looked like. I know in myself the peace that such certainty brings, living true to oneself gives me a quiet confidence and my being gay is just part of this.

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