“We cannot escape history.” It’s one of the more memorable lines of a man who, had he not saved the nation from tearing itself in two, would be best known as our nation’s greatest orator. But when Abraham Lincoln warned his countrymen about history in his second inaugural address, he was looking forward rather than to the past, saying, “We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.” For Lincoln, history was not a thing which loomed over his country like a shadow, but a judgment to be made by future generations. But could Lincoln have ever expected that future generations of Americans would judge him not just on his actions, but his sexuality?
“There’s no question in my mind [Lincoln] was a gay man and a totally gay man. It wasn’t just a period, but something that went on his whole life”, said ACT-UP activist Larry Kramer in a 1999 interview with Salon. At the heart of the speculation is Lincoln’s close relationship with Joshua Speed, a Springfield merchant who helped the young lawyer by allowing him to share his upstairs room – and bed – for four years. Speed remained a lifelong friend, despite his support of slavery, and the two sent warm, affectionate letters for years, even after Lincoln moved into the White House.
So, is Lincoln gay? I’m no historian (though a definite history buff), but it seems to me, the real question is, “Can we know if Lincoln was gay?” The answer to that question has to be a definite “No.” There are simply too many problems for us to ever hope to get a definitive answer. Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln’s Melancholy, argues that Lincoln wasn’t gay by pointing to the nature of both frontier life, where sharing beds was common, and Victorian masculinity, which valued intimacy and florid language, especially in letter writing. The only scholarly work that seriously argues that Lincoln was gay is The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln by C. A. Tripp,and even that features a dissenting forward.
And yet, the “controversy” continues. Last week, playwright Tony Kushner, who’s written the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Lincoln, told The Boston Phoenix, “I think that there’s the possibility that Lincoln was bisexual. Shakespeare was. Why not Lincoln? All the best people are!” On CBS’ Early Show, New York University history professor Jeffrey Sammons said, “One of the very interesting stories about Abraham Lincoln is that he might have been gay. Lincoln actually did sleep in the same bed with a gentleman for a four-year period,” leading host Maggie Rodriguez to conclude, “So the question of Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality still remains a mystery.” And of course, the gay blogs jumped on the 200th anniversary of his birth as on opportunity to bring up the “Lincoln is gay” meme, much to the chagrin of conservative wingnuts.
With there never being a definitive answer to Lincoln’s sexuality and most of the evidence pointing to him being “gay” specious at best, why do we still look for it? The obvious answer is that we want to prove that gays and lesbians have always been there, to weave the history of gays and lesbians into the history of America and if the evidence is weak, that’s only because we were never allowed to be open.
Forget for a minute the question of whether we can answer the question of whether historical people like Lincoln were gay or not and consider the question of why we ought to? Science has done a pretty good job of proving that homosexuality is ingrained and genetic, but the gay identity is more than same-sex attraction; it’s a modern political identity. To try to ascribe that identity to historical people who had no conception of what being gay means in a modern context seems sort of futile. To simply point out that they may have had some element of same-sex attraction is speculative and not something that really has any relevance. Larry Craig is attracted to men, so is Ted Haggard, but that hardly makes them worthy of being heroes.
To steal another line from Lincoln: “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.” The desire to find ourselves in the faces of history is only human, but in oversimplifying the past, we oversimplify ourselves. Can we look to time gone by to see men and women who expressed their same-sex attraction? Absolutely (we point out some here), but their concept of sexuality was so radically different from the modern one that we can not count them among us. Sexuality, not just for gays and lesbians, but for all humanity, is not a static thing. We make that argument every day here when it comes to marriage – that it is not a static institution and that people need to take a more enlightened and expansive view of the parameters – but we must do the same when it comes to slapping the gay label on famous people of the past.
I know this is a contentious position to take—we have fought for decades to prove to ourselves and to the world that homosexuality is not a choice, and it isn’t. It is, however, a choice to live our lives openly, to demand and fight for the same equal respect and rights as our straight friends—and this is something we should own. We don’t have pride parades because we’re proud we’re attracted to people of the same gender, we take pride in our decision to live our lives openly, and we’re making history by doing so. Why look to the past to find gay heroes when there are so many among us today?