Inventors of Gay: Constantine P. Cavafy

By: Christopher Harrity

Constantine P. Cavafy
April 29, 1863 – April 29, 1933

This Greek poet, along with Walt Whitman, was one of the inventors of modern gay love. His gender-neutral writing was recognized by the select few as a paean of gay love that moved away from vice and celebrated both the sensual as well as the spiritual bond between lovers who weren’t necessarily of opposite genders.

Although Greek by heritage, he lived much of his life in Alexandria, Egypt. He was a governmental clerk by day, but in his private time he lived a very different life; Cavafy was devoted to his writing, and to the beauty of young men in his Orientalist fantasy of an apartment, which had red walls, inlaid furniture, and exotic low lights that he constantly adjusted to both conceal himself and to illuminate the beautiful men who visited him.

He published his poetry in the form of broadsheets, and only for his close friends and admirers. His work was little known outside the intellectual communities in Greece and Egypt until gay author E.M. Forster met him in 1919 and introduced him to the English reading world. It was then that his work began to be translated and distributed to a larger audience.

A sample from his 1915 poem “And I Got Down and I Lay There in Their Beds”:

When I went inside the house of pleasure
I didn't linger in the parlor where they celebrate
conventional desires, with some decorum.
The rooms I went to were the secret ones
and I got down and I lay there in their beds.
But for me there was no shame – for if there were
what kind of poet, what kind of craftsman would I be?

Heavily influenced:
E.M. Forster
T.S. Elliot
David Hockney (above print entitled "In Despair," from his series of etchings inspired by Cavafy, from the 1960s)
Duane Michals (first photo below, from his book The Adventures of Constantine Cavafy)
Dimitris Yeros (second photo below, from his Cavafy-inspired book Shades of Love)

Why we care:
•He led an iconoclastic life of exceptional bravery in a time where even looking at another man with desire could ruin your life.
•He was more interested in inspiring friends and lovers with his work, than in making a name for himself and being a financially successful writer.
•His love poems were free of shame and lusciously sexual.
•He believed there was a place in the world for male/male love.

"Inventors of Gay" is our series on important people and cultural influences in LGBT history that helped create the culture we enjoy today.