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.