Can You Recognize These Famous Gay Men When They Were Younger?
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Can You Recognize These Famous Gay Men When They Were Younger?

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Let’s turn back time.

Join us as we take a walk through LGBTQ+ history, guided by some of our favorite gay men icons and celebrities. From Ian McKellen to Leslie Jordan, the landscape of gay rights has changed a lot in their lifetimes. While we look around in shock as a new attack on LGBTQ+ rights closes in on us, let’s take a moment to remember how far we’ve come.

Anderson Cooper

Born in 1967, beloved broadcast journalist and political commentator, Anderson Cooper came into the world the same year as the raid of the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles. So much has changed over the course of his life, to which Cooper had a front-row seat as a young journalist. Born into the Vanderbilt family in Manhattan, he’s pictured here with his late mother Gloria and brother Carter.

Related | This Vintage Photo Offers a Rare Glimpse at Gay History

 

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Cooper has led quite the life. He’s pictured here in 1985 at the age of 17 recovering from malaria in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Cooper wouldn’t publicly come out of the closet for another 27 years. When Cooper came out as gay in 2021 he was 45 years old, and became “the most prominent openly gay journalist on American television”

 

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Billy Porter

Before his many accolades across theater, music, and television, Porter was just a “brave little boy” from Pittsburgh. In an interview for Good Morning America, Porter talked about his struggles growing up a “young, queer Black boy” in Pennsylvania. “From, you know, disenfranchisement from my religious community just simply because I was a sissy to the sort of incessant bullying,” said Porter. He gave a resounding message to those who’ve suffered from the many kinds of bullying in the hopes that they can stand up to the abuse. In the video, Porter looked at a picture of himself as a child, something he spent most of his life avoiding. “I didn’t look at pictures of myself at this age until this year”.

Related | 18 Vintage Pride Photos to Celebrate Pride Month

 

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Looking back at pictures of Porter when he was younger, knowing now how proud, confident, and successful he is now is an encouraging thought. Porter was born in 1969, the same year as the Stonewall Riots. He’s pictured here dressed to the nines with his lovely mother Cloerinda Jean Johnson Porter Ford. Porter come out to his mother at the age of 16, “in the middle of the AIDS crisis”. Porter shared his HIV status publicly last year, saying “This is what HIV-positive looks like now”.

 

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RuPaul

RuPaul Andre Charles was born in San Diego, California in 1960. This was two years before any U.S. state would decriminalize homosexual acts between two consenting adults in private. A time when it was effectively still illegal to be gay in the United States. RuPaul has said that his mother described him as too sensitive. “She was right,” he tweeted.

He lived with his mother Ernestine “Toni” (née Fontenette) and three sisters after his parent’s divorce in 1967. RuPaul’s one-of-a-kind career is well documented, with found footage of him walking the streets of New York in 1988.

Related | RuPaul Is Set To Host a Wordle-esque Game Show

Ru has also shared peeks into his life working the Georgia club scene in the mid-80s. Here he is serving looks and inspiring the Atlanta punk scene. It’s not hard to imagine how this 20-something year old would grow up to become the most recognizable Drag Queen of all time.

Andy Cohen

Andrew Joseph Cohen was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1968. The same year The American Psychiatric Association moved homosexuality from a “sociopathic” category to a “sexual deviation”. Not an entirely encouraging would for young Andy to be brought into, but this would not hold him back from success in the world. Here he is, the spitting image of his son Ben, in Meramec Elementary School.

 

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Cohen’s journey would take him to Boston University, where he went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism. He also wrote for the Boston University student newspaper in college. He later interned at CBS News in New York, which lead to this extraordinary image. He’s pictured here looking like Tarzan naked in front of the NY Public Library. The photo, taken by artist Spencer Tunick, was taken in 1994. This was the same year homosexuality was no longer considered an illness by The American Medical Association. Another small victory.

Related | Unseen Images of Men in Love From 1845 to 1955

 

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Andy Comes Out

Although Cohen started secretly dating men in college, calling himself a “secret agent as a gay man,” he had only come out to some friends by this time. In an interview with Oprah Magazine, Cohen talked about being in the closet while interning at CBS News. “I was in the closet, and I remember being in the control room as Vito Russo was on the screen,” Cohen recalled. “People started laughing, calling him a f*g.” This interaction led to a coworker grilling him about his dating life. In the confusion Cohen let it slip that he was gay. “After that, I came out at work.”

Despite all of this, Cohen would go on to become the first openly gay host of an American late-night talk show

Graham Norton

Beloved talk show host Graham Norton was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1963. 30 years before same-sex sexual activity became decriminalized in Ireland in 1993. This was largely due to the efforts of David Norris, the first openly gay person elected to public office in the country. Norton grew up with his mother Rhoda, father William “Billy,” and sister Paula grew up in Bandon, County Cork. In the late 80s, Norton moved to London to attend the Central School of Speech and Drama.

 

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In 1996 Norton would find fame playing Father Noel Furlong in Channel 4’s Father Ted. His notably camp and flamboyant performances and early success captured the love of people across Ireland and the U.K. Apparently, he also caught the attention of RuPaul too. He’s pictured here with Mama Ru looking understandably starstruck.

Related | 44 Vintage Photos of Queer Men in Love

 

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From humble beginnings in a small Irish town to earning the title ‘the most powerful person in TV comedy’ by Radio Times. Norton’s story is especially poignant when you consider the realities of growing up gay in Ireland — a predominantly Catholic country — when he did. His success ran parallel to a rapidly changing country, with Ireland becoming the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote in 2015. In an interview with RTÉ, Norton said “I look forward to coming back [to Ireland] and I’m always sorry when I leave. I never thought that would be my relationship with this country”.

Ian McKellen

Sir Ian Murray McKellen was born in Lancashire, England in 1939. He was born right before World War II and recalls sleeping under a steel plate until he was four years old. This was at a place and time that would not see the decriminalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults for over 40 years. McKellen is such a cultural icon, it’s hard to imagine a Britain without his influence. In his accomplished lifetime, Sir Ian has seen LGBTQ+ history play out before him. He was in his early teens at the of Alan Turing’s conviction for indecency after admitting his same-sex relationship to the police. McKellen was 15 when Turing died by suicide. After conviction Turing had to undergo hormonal treatment designed to reduce his libido.

McKellen attended Bolton School, where he planted the seeds of his acting career. This is McKellen in 1957 outside the Great Hall, in costume for a Bolton Little Theatre production of Henry V.

 

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Sir Ian Comes Out

His illustrious career began at the Belgrade Theatre and his talent guided him to the West End. Knighted in 1980 for services to the performing arts, Sir Ian received his first Tony Award win in 1981. McKellen came out as gay in 1988, just 7 years after the decriminalization of same-sex acts. It was also one year before this picture was taken.

Related | Ian McKellen Talks Coming Out and Playing With Hobbits

 

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He has since championed LGBTQ+ social movements worldwide. McKellen is a co-founder of LGBT rights group Stonewall in the United Kingdom as well as a patron of many other LGBTQ+ organizations. It’s hard to quantify how much the world has changed since Sir Ian’s childhood. Almost as hard as it is to quantify our appreciation for him.

George Takei

Born Hosato Takei in 1937, this icon overcame adversity in multiple forms to achieve his goals. Takei was born to Fumiko Emily Nakamura and Takekuma Norman Takei, with whom he lived in U.S.-run internment camps during World War II. Takei even lost an aunt and infant cousin to the atomic bombing in Hiroshima. After leaving the cruel conditions at these camps, Takei’s family moved to Skid Row, Los Angeles. There Takei attended Mount Vernon Junior High School, going on to attend Los Angeles High School.

George Takei's senior class photo at Los Angeles High School in 1956.

George Takei’s senior class photo at Los Angeles High School, 1956.

When Sulu Was Born

The very same year as the above photo, the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee (also called the Johns Committee) came into play. This was part of Lavender Scare-era tactics to find, investigate, and terrorize gay people. This was a government-mandated response to what they perceived to be the “homosexual menace.” This was the political backdrop as Takei began his career in Hollywood. In 1965, NBC cast Takei in the second pilot for the original Star Trek television series.

Related | George Takei Has the Hots for the New Spock

George Takei as Sulu from the television program Star Trek.

George Takei as Sulu in Star Trek, circa 1960s.

Despite being “an open secret” among Star Trek fans from very early on, Takei’s kept his sexuality largely under wraps. He did not publicly come out until 2005 in an issue of Frontiers Magazine. He also revealed that he had been in a committed relationship with his partner, Brad Altman, for 18 years.

Stephen Sondheim

The late and great Stephen Sondheim was born in New York City in 1930. Sondheim was born into a Jewish family with German and Lithuanian roots. Before he turned 10, the world saw the first documented uses of the pink triangle for those deemed “homosexual” by the Nazi regime. Even as a child people saw Sonheim as solitary, isolated, and introverted. He was also extremely talented, with a proclivity for music. He graduated from Williams College magna cum laude and received the Hubbard Hutchinson Prize with a two-year fellowship to study music.

Related | Legendary Broadway Composer Dies Suddenly

Stephen Sondheim, New York, 1972

Stephen Sondheim, New York, 1972

Sondheim’s success on Broadway earned him a status in gay culture that was somewhat antithetical to Sondheim himself. It wasn’t until he was around 40 that he began to open up about his homosexuality. Despite how privately he kept, and how he rejected gay interpretations of his work, Sondheim left the world gay than it was when he entered. His death in 2021 was felt so deeply by those he influenced, Broadway theaters dimmed their marquee lights for one minute as a tribute.

Elton John

Sir Elton Hercules John was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight in Greater London, England in 1947. John was born into a Britain covering from World War II, where moral attitudes to homosexuality were rapidly souring. Homosexuality was still a criminal offense. The Public Morality Council officer noted just two years earlier that “Police are again conducting a campaign against those engaged in this ‘deplorable offense’.”. Such acts wouldn’t be decriminalized until Elton turned 20.

The very same year John began an advertisement in the British magazine New Musical Express, connecting him with Bernie Taupin. The pair recorded their first song, and not long after John started going by the name Elton John.

 

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The Elton John AIDS Foundation

Elton’s astounding career has spanned decades, with the attitudes toward the gay community constantly in flux. By the time the ’90s rolled around, John achieved his first solo UK number one hit single, with “Sacrifice.” It was also around this time that John began to associate himself with AIDS charities, after the death of Ryan White and Freddie Mercury at the beginning of the decade. John founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992 which has raised over $600 million to support HIV-related programs in fifty-five countries.

John is pictured here in 1993 with Princess Diana, who was also very involved with HIV/AIDS work. Both Diana and John used their power and platform to fight the stigma attached to people living with HIV/AIDS.

Related | Watch Taron Egerton and Elton John Perform ‘Tiny Dancer’

 

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In the same year, John began his relationship with David Furnish. The couple would marry in 2014, the same year same-sex marriage became legal in the United Kingdom. John and Furnish also have two sons, Zachary and Elijah — something that might have been hard to imagine for John before one of the best-selling music artists of all time.

Leslie Jordan

Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1955, the internet’s guncle lived the early years of his childhood as the fallout from the Lavender Scare took hold. It wasn’t just government-mandated abuse either. Jordan has talked about the impact that growing up Southern Baptist had on his life. “I was baptized 14 times,” Jordan said in an interview with Philadelphia Magazine. “Every time the preacher would say, ‘Come forward, sinners!’ I’d say ‘Oooh, I was out in the woods with that boy, I better go forward.” Despite his religious upbringing, Jordan has always been very close to his mother, despite her never really understanding him. Babie Leslie is pictured here looking adorable wearing a sweater from his “daddy’s alma mater Tennessee Tech.”

 

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When Jordan turned 22, it was 1977. The same year Harvey Milk stepped into office as city-county supervisor in San Francisco. This made Milk the first openly gay candidate elected to political office in California. Jordan is pictured below that very year “wasted at 22 years old”. As Jordan points out on Instagram, his friends very understandably likened his younger self to Robin Williams or Paul Rudd. Incidentally, this was also the same year that Anita Bryant, the voice of a new anti-gay movement, was pied in the face.

Related | Leslie Jordan Shares His Coming Out Story

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Moving to Los Angeles

Jordan moved to Los Angeles in 1982. During this period, Jordan turned to drugs and was arrested several times. The cultural context at the time for the gay community was very volatile. HIV/AIDS was beginning to take hold in the United States. The same year the CDC introduced the term Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It was also the same year that Reverend Jerry Falwell described it as a “gay plague”. Early during the crisis, Jordan took part in AIDS Project Los Angeles as a buddy and food delivery person for Project Angel Food. He’s is pictured below in the early ’80s incredibly trim.

 

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Who could guess then where Jordan’s career would turn? From TV to movies and eventually internet stardom, the twists and turns of Jordan’s life are a testament to his constant growth and adaptability. We couldn’t be happier for his success.

Looking Forward, Looking Back

As we flip through the images of these queer men, it’s important to understand the cultural context within which they were living. It’s important to understand that their many often achievements ran contrary to what was expected of them. Their achievements are also triumphs, and the pain they endured further highlights the gayety of it all. When you think about the road that still lies ahead of us, take a moment to look back at the faces and the lessons that got us to where we are now.

Can You Recognize These Famous Gay Men When They Were Younger?
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