The Links Between “Lincoln” And The Fight For LGBT Equality

There was a minor dust up over Pulitzer winner Tony Kushner not including allusions to Abraham Lincoln being gay in his screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. In truth, the film focuses on a very small part of the 16th president’s life—the intrigue surrounding his efforts to abolish slavery.

There’s not a lot of room for insight into the man’s personal life.

But there’s still interesting and informative ways to put a queer eye to this fine film (without comparing the historical plights of African Americans and gays and lesbians). The political machinations Kushner and Spielberg portray are particularly reminiscent of what we face today.


“Cause the Bible tells me so…”

“We shall oppose this amendment and any legislation that so affronts natural law, insulting to God as to man,” opponents of abolition claimed. “Congress must never declare equal those whom God created unequal.”

That’s slaves they’re talking about, not gays, but it’s clearly been recycled. Then as now, there were Christians on both sides of the debate, both confident their positions were grounded in the Good Book. They  just cite different chapters and verses to make their case. Of course, few are inclined today to argue the Christian conservatives of the 19th century were right.


“We’d love to, but think of the a slippery slope…”

Like the current gentler face of homophobia epitomized by Rick Warren, Lincoln depicts opponents of freeing the slaves soft-peddling their bigotry. One anti-abolitionist character testifies:

Although I’m disgusted by slavery, I rise on this sad and solemn day to announce I’m opposed to this amendment. We must consider what will become of colored folk if four million are in one instant set free. We will be forced to enfranchise the men of the colored race. It would be inhuman not to. Who among us is prepared to give Negroes the vote? What shall follow, universal enfranchisement? Votes for women?

How many times have we heard the same kind of argument? “Oh, we totally oppose discrimination but if gay people can marry, next will be polygamy and bestiality!”


“Just let me pull this legal trick out of my hat…”

One of the few times Lincoln shows Honest Abe acting ambivalent regarding his choices is in a monologue about the Emancipation Proclamation. A lawyer himself, Lincoln wasn’t certain the document was built on firm legal ground.  “He didn’t say it was legal,” Lincoln says of his Attorney General’s advice. “Only that it wasn’t criminal.”

Flash-forward to 2009, when President Obama instructed the Department of Justice to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act. The DOJ was on much sturdier ground than Lincoln—there’s been legal precedent for an AG not defending laws—but the President likely questioned his right to step in. He took a risk, and transitioned into an effective ally in the fight for marriage equality. In the end, he’ll be vindicated by history.

“You don’t really want to see the sausage get made.”

During the film, Lincoln is shown courting votes from the opposition, wooing lame-duck legislators with the promise of patronage jobs. And—surprise!—at vote time these representatives suddenly discovered a new appreciation for equality.

Prior to 2010, the Senate had obstinately refused to let the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal pass chambers. Then, in the lame duck session, the bill suddenly gathered eight Republican votes (the first cross-aisle support it ever received).  Did Obama promise a cushy cabinet position to any GOP legislators. That kind on thing only happened in the 19th century, right?


“Your radicalism is going to ruin everything!”

At it’s heart, Lincoln is a love letter to incrementalism: The film’s central conflict comes less from between the President and proponents of slavery than from between Lincoln and radical abolitionists who just didn’t trust him.

There is a key scene in which pro-abolition Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) is pressured to moderate his anti-slavery rhetoric. “Say you believe in legal equality for all races, not racial equality,” warns Rep. James Ashley (David Costabile). “Compromise. Or you risk it all.”

Obama has similarly come under fire from LGBT activists, even after endorsing marriage equality, because he also affirmed a state’s right to decide. (A stance even The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart mocked him for taking). But the reality is Obama demanding Alabama let gays marry would be an overreach of presidential powers and result in a massive political backlash.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.


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  • brent

    The author is making an argument that the language behind the mroal reasons for slavery is similar to the people today arguing against gay marriage. That may be true, but what is also true is that the feminists of today make the same argument for abortion rights that slave owners used for the right to own slaves.

  • mlbumiller

    @brent: could you please be a little more clear? You make a statement with no backup to the position. How or what statements do Feminists make for abortion that slave owners made?


    Perhaps the irony might be — that the bogus hogus pogus hate-speech with its hateful leviticus 18:22 might bring the bible and torah into a banned status and the churches and synagogues shut down!

    I am the son of a catholic father who never went to church and a protestant mother who took us to church and Sunday school. Onward christian soldiers; I think not. Such absolute drivel. To be manipulated by a santa claus; an easter bunny and worst of all a bogus cross?

    It is written; so therefore it shall be? We are the chosen people? Such a wicked fantasy.
    To see the religious lunatics manipulate government and our lives is shameful.

  • Curty

    Besides rumors what evidence is he was gay? I mean what was the writer suppose to do, mention there were rumors he was gay in the film? I mean we know who Rock hudson former lover was. But why put something in the film about him being gay when its only hearsay?

  • GeriHew

    @Curty: There is absolutely no evidence at all that Lincoln was gay. There is some evidence that suggests that he may have been bi.

  • DuMaurier

    Interesting article, but I was a bit bemused by the parallel drawn between the “slippery slope” arguments aginst same-sex marrige–next will be polygamy! Bestiality!–and the ones cited against the slavery amendment: “We will be forced to enfranchise the men of the colored race… What shall follow, universal enfranchisement? Votes for women?” Most reasonable people agree that plural and animal marriage are not going to follow the establishment of marriage equality; but in fact voting rights for African-Americans and women DID follow the end of slavery–and a good thing, too, I might add; but comparing the two issues in this context kind of leaves an opposite impression to the one intended.

  • trilingual1946

    While Lincoln may never have thought of himself as “gay,” which is a modern concept, the evidence is pretty solid that he enjoyed the company of men. An entire, well-documented book has been published about his relationships with other men, including Joshua Speed, with whom he shared a narrow bed for 4 years (long after there was no economic reason for doing so) and with whom he maintained an affectionate correspondence for years afterwards, and with his military aide, David Derickson, when he was President. Lincoln and Derickson shared a bed on numerous occasions when Mary Todd Lincoln was away from Washington, and there certainly wasn’t any economic need to do that! Also, a descendant of Lincoln’s law partner in Springfield, Illinois has also recently disclosed that her family’s oral tradition is that the two were lovers for 20 years!

    In the film it went by fleetingly, but anyone who has read the book describing the relationship between Lincoln and his military aide would have seen Kushner’s reference to Lincoln’s sexuality in the brief scene where he’s sitting on Derickson’s bed at 3:00 in the morning, signing pardons. He engages in some affectionate physical behavior with Derickson, who asks Lincoln if he “needs company.” Lincoln declines (they’re apparently in the White House) and the film moves on.

  • GeriHew

    What’s wrong with polygamy?

  • Handsy

    How nice to finally read some intelligently composed and thought out comments!

Comments are closed.