Philly Forum Tackles Sexuality of U.S. Icons
From the Philadelphia Daily News
Tuesday, April 26, 2005
“Philly Forum Tackles Sexuality of U.S. Icons”
by William Bunch
Honestly, was Abe Lincoln gay? Or was our 16th president merely a man of his times – times when it was no big deal for men to share the same bed.
The controversy has been raging among academics and in book reviews for months, and tonight it comes to Philadelphia, as part of a free panel discussion at the Prince Music Theater.
The discussion is a headline event of the weeklong gay-pride event called Equality Forum. It’s called “Invisibility: Gay Icons in U.S. History,” but even the very title is open for debate.
Just who exactly qualifies as a gay icon in American history?
Ex-New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey? Well, we now know that McGreevey is “a gay American,” but does a largely unsuccessful two-year stint in Trenton make one an icon?
What about Eleanor Roosevelt? America’s longest-serving first lady and social activist is surely an icon. But more than four decades after her passing, her sexuality is still a topic of strong debate.
Then there’s Lincoln.
The Mount Rushmore figure is many things to many Americans – but gay?
In the last year, with increasing noise, a small band of historians and gay activists – backed by a new posthumously published history of Lincoln – has been arguing just that, seeking to rewrite history on the Civil War leader.
“If a person’s sexuality isn’t important, what is?” asked William Percy, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and one of tonight’s three panelists. He and others have focused on Lincoln’s close friendships with men, including one with whom he shared the same bed for four years.
Percy said that knowing Lincoln’s sexuality would be especially important in understanding the man, “because he was so strange and different from everybody else.”
But Percy, who is gay, is not a Lincoln specialist, though he has long campaigned for “outing” public officials in high positions who are accused of denying rights to homosexuals. He even co-authored a book in 1994 called “Outing: Shattering the Conspiracy of Silence” and has said he’ll pay $10,000 to anyone who outs an American Catholic bishop or top-ranked general.
And many career Lincoln historians, while more than willing to discuss and debate the growing uproar over Lincoln’s sexuality, insist they’re underwhelmed by the evidence they’ve seen.
Douglas Wilson, co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College in Illinois, said that he’s open-minded but that “the evidence doesn’t persuade me”—nor are other top Lincoln scholars impressed.
“I think…the gay-liberation movement has had need for heroes and heroines, and it would be rather nice to have Abraham Lincoln as your poster boy, wouldn’t it?” asked David Herbert Donald, the 85-year-old Pulitzer-winning Lincoln biographer, in a 2003 interview with PBS.
Donald said on that program that after studying Lincoln’s friendships with six men and after talking with psychology experts, he concluded that the Illinois icon was not a homosexual.
Ironically, we are unable to talk to the two men at the center of the controversy. One, of course, is Lincoln, while the other is C.A. Tripp, the psychologist and former sex researcher whose controversial book – The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln – was published posthumously in January by Free Press.
Tripp, who was gay and a former colleague of the famed sex expert Alfred Kinsey, died in 2003, and the book was completed with the help of several colleagues. His argument is based in part on Lincoln’s unhappy marriage to Mary Todd Lincoln, but hangs largely on his close friendship with two men.
The first, and perhaps best-known is a Springfield, Ill., merchant named Joshua Speed, whom Lincoln met as a 28-year-old new lawyer when he arrived in the town in 1837.
According to Lincoln biographers, Lincoln didn’t want to spend the $17 that a new bed set would have cost in those days, so when Speed told the up-and-coming attorney that he could stay with him and sleep in his bed, the young man readily agreed. The arrangement lasted for four years.
That fact alone, coupled with the long, closely personal and occasionally affectionate letters that the two men exchanged in later years, is largely what has given ammunition to those who believe Lincoln was gay.
Michael Chesson, a Civil War historian who also teaches at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and is also supporting Tripp’s thesis, insists that even earlier biographers of Lincoln, including muckraker Ida Tarbell and writer-poet Carl Sandburg, dropped hints that Lincoln was gay.
Sandburg, in particular, wrote that Lincoln and Speed had “streaks of lavender, spots soft as May violets,” and Sandburg was later quoted as saying that the long-dead president had “invisible companionships that surprised me.”
Chesson and some others have argued that ever since the harsh climate of McCarthyism in the 1950s, that all subsequent works and historians have somehow strived to cover up Lincoln’s homosexuality.
“Lincoln scholars now have so much vested in this image of a supposedly straight Lincoln,” Chesson complained in a telephone interview. A few other historians, most notably Mary Todd Lincoln biographer Jean Baker, have said that Lincoln’s sexual orientation could explain his famously difficult and at times distant marriage to the mother of his four children.
What’s more, Tripp writes that Lincoln may have had sexual relationships with other men, even after he was elected president in 1860. He and others have questioned the nature of his friendship with the captain of his bodyguards, David V. Derickson, a soldier from a Pennsylvania regiment.
The two men, by several accounts, may have shared a bed when Mrs. Lincoln was out of town. In 1862, Virginia Woodbury Fox, a Washington socialite and the wife of Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox, wrote in her diary that a friend of hers named Leticia McKean had told her that “ ‘there is a Bucktail soldier here devoted to the President, drives with him, and when Mrs. L. is not home, sleeps with him.’ What stuff!”
What stuff, indeed, but Wilson and other scholars who don’t believe that Lincoln was gay said that the expression appears to have been one of disbelief – a view that they share.
In particular, they are quick to point out that two men sharing a bed – which might be fraught with some sexual significance in the 21st century – was much more common, and typically not sexual, in the 19th century, when notions of personal privacy and space were radically different.
Indeed, critics say that Tripp and his supporters have taken a kind of “kitchen sink” approach to Lincoln and the issue of his sexuality, taking any and every comment that might have some bearing on the issue and twisting the context.
That includes a guess – based on scant evidence – that Lincoln hit puberty at an early age or an early settler who comments on the future president’s “perfect” thighs.
“Much of these facts don’t carry much traction with Lincoln scholars,” said Wilson, who questions whether Tripp had really even completed all his research at the time of his death.
Ironically, many more historians are apparently willing to agree, or at least speculate, that the president who came right before Lincoln, James Buchanan – the only president ever to hail from Pennsylvania and the only bachelor chief executive – was a homosexual.
Buchanan’s longtime living companion, William Rufus King, was sometimes called Buchanan’s “better half,” “his wife” and “Aunt Fancy” during the years (1857-61) that Buchanan was in the White House. In Washington, the two were known as the “Siamese twins,” apparently contemporary slang for gays.
But Buchanan also is one of our more obscure presidents, and so no one is fighting over his historical legacy.
Abraham Lincoln is different.
To the historians who do not believe that Lincoln was gay, the private, sexual life of the 16th president is just one tile on the mosaic of trying to determine what influenced great events like the Civil War or the Emancipation Proclamation – and a small one at that.
To some gay activists, however, proving that one of the nation’s most admired historical figures also was a gay American is a powerful weapon that can be applied to contemporary issues. They cite, for example, allowing gays in the military, if it’s true that the Civil War commander in chief was a homosexual.
“Lincoln would be barred from even serving as a private,” notes Percy, one of tonight’s panelists. “So it’s ridiculous to say that it doesn’t matter.”