GayHeroes.com: Was Lincoln Gay?
'Way back before the turn of the milennium (in 1999), GayHeroes had the story about Abe being gay. It's down below. Now here's an update--even more compelling! Read on!
My take is, if a guy has four kids, how gay could he be? One kid, maybe, you could be gay, but I'd guess you have to have sex a lot of times with your goodlady wife to come up with four kids.
On the other hand, while I might, barely, swallow that men slept together on the frontier because there was a shortage of beds, I don't think there was a shortage of beds IN THE WHITE HOUSE. So you read on & decide for yourself.
Helpful hint: these articles are amusing and informative but kinda long. You might want to print this page (from your browser's tool bar) and read 'em at your leisure. Definitely worth the read. -- Jay
NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW DESK
THIS book is already getting noticed. In ''The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln,'' C. A. Tripp contends that Lincoln had erotic attractions and attachments to men throughout his life, from his youth to his presidency. He further argues that Lincoln's relationships with women were either invented by biographers (his love of Ann Rutledge) or were desolate botches (his courtship of Mary Owens and his marriage to Mary Todd). Tripp is not the first to argue that Lincoln was homosexual -- earlier writers have parsed his friendship with Joshua Speed, the young store owner he lived with after moving to Springfield, Ill. -- but he assembles a mass of evidence and tries to make sense of it.
Tripp died in May 2003, after finishing the manuscript of this book, which means he never had a chance to fix its flaws. The prose is both jumpy and lifeless, like a body receiving electric shocks. Tripp alternates shrewd guesses and modest judgments with bluster and fantasy. He drags in references to Alfred Kinsey (with whom he once worked) to give his arguments a (spurious) scientific sheen. And he has an ax to grind. He is, most famously, the author of ''The Homosexual Matrix.'' Published in 1975, it was a document of gay liberation. Since the other president sometimes thought to have been gay is the wretched James Buchanan, what gay activist wouldn't want to trade up to Lincoln? Still, obsession can discover things that have been overlooked by less fevered minds.
Tripp surveys seven of Lincoln's relationships, four with men and three with women, as well as two episodes from his early life. The discussion of Lincoln's youth is worthless. Relying on Lincoln's law partner and earliest biographer, William Herndon, Tripp decides that Lincoln reached puberty when he was 9 years old. Since Kinsey concluded that early maturing boys tended to become witty masturbators with lots of homosexual experience, Tripp concludes the same of Lincoln. He claims even more for Lincoln's adolescence, including a source for his religious heterodoxy. ''Since Lincoln had already arrived on his own at the powerful pleasures of orgasm . . . one can be sure that like most precocious youngsters he wasin no mood to give it all up for bookish or Bible reasons.'' One can be sure, if one is as credulous as Tripp.
Lincoln's story becomes interesting when Tripp discusses real people. In 1831, when he was 22, Lincoln moved to New Salem, an Illinois frontier town, where he met Billy Greene. Greene coached Lincoln in grammar and shared a narrow bed with him. ''When one turned over the other had to do likewise,'' Greene told Herndon. Bed-sharing was common enough in raw settlements, but Greene also had vivid memories of Lincoln's physique: ''His thighs were as perfect as a human being could be.'' Everyone saw that Lincoln was tall and strong, but this seems rather gushing.
Six years later, Lincoln moved to Springfield, where he met Joshua Speed, who became a close friend; John G. Nicolay and John Hay, two early biographers, called him ''the only -- as he was certainly the last -- intimate friend that Lincoln ever had.'' Lincoln and Speed shared a double bed in Speed's store for four years (for two of those years, two other young men shared the room, though not the bed). More important than the sleeping arrangements was the tone of their friendship. Lincoln's letters to Speed before and after Speed's wedding in 1842 are as fretful as those of a general before a dubious engagement. Several of them are signed ''Yours forever.''
By contrast, Lincoln's relations with women are either problematic or distant. Ann Rutledge was the daughter of a New Salem tavernkeeper with whom Lincoln boarded in 1832. Three years later she died of malaria and typhoid. Lincoln biographers have been feuding for decades over whether Lincoln loved her. Tripp, naturally, sides with the skeptics. He concedes that Lincoln was devastated by her death, but argues that it was death itself that distressed him.
In 1836 Lincoln courted Mary Owens. Tripp correctly characterizes his diffident suit as ''reaching forward while sharply leaning back.'' In 1837 Owens broke the relationship off. Lincoln then wrote a jeering letter to a friend, explaining that he had lost interest because Owens was so fat. ''I knew she was oversize, but now she appeared a fair match for Falstaff.'' The nervous hostility of this letter, disguised as humor, is cringe-making. (Tripp finds it hilarious.)
The longest relationship of Lincoln's life was with his wife, Mary Todd, whom he married in 1842; they had four children, on whom Lincoln doted. Mary Lincoln's character is also dark and bloody ground for biographers. Tripp unhelpfully suggests that she had a psychopathic personality, like ''various outlaw types, from Hitler down to myriad petty criminals.'' Explosive, imperious, profligate, she may well have been mad. But in fairness to her, Lincoln was maddening -- remote and unavailable, when he was not physically absent.
Tripp highlights two relations with men from Lincoln's presidency. Col. Elmer Ellsworth was a flashy young drillmaster, ''the greatest little man I ever met,'' as Lincoln put it. Lincoln recruited him to his Springfield lawoffice, made him part of his presidential campaign and gave him a high military post as war loomed. A few weeks after the fall of Fort Sumter, Ellsworth was killed hauling a rebel flag down from a hotel in Alexandria, Va. Lincoln was shattered.
For nearly eight months in 1862-3, Capt. David Derickson led the brigade that guarded Lincoln at the Soldiers' Home in the District of Columbia, the Camp David of the day. Derickson, in the words of his regiment's history, published three decades later, ''advanced so far in the president's confidence and esteem that in Mrs. Lincoln's absence he frequently spent the night at his cottage, sleeping in the same bed with him, and -- it is said -- making use of his Excellency's night shirt!''
Tripp can lay out a case, but his discussion of its implications is so erratic that the reader is often left on his own. One wonders: What does it mean to be homosexual? Not all of the men Lincoln admired were. Ellsworth seems straight as a ruler: he was engaged to a woman he passionately loved when he died. Even Derickson married twice and fathered 10 children (one son was serving in his unit while he was sleeping with Lincoln). Tripp argues that a cultural innocence -- the word ''homosexual'' had not yet been coined -- allowed acts of physical closeness between men that had no deeper meaning, as well as acts that did but could escape scrutiny. We know more than our ancestors, and our reward is that, in some ways, we may do less. In any case, on the evidence before us, Lincoln loved men, at least some of whom loved him back. Their words tell us more thantheir sleeping arrangements.
What does Lincoln's erotic life tell us about Lincoln? For a gregarious, popular man, he had few intimates (Tripp's very title is a misnomer). Like many secretive types -- Benjamin Franklin comes to mind -- he kept the world at bay with a screen of banter. Yet behind the laughs lay an almost bottomless sadness, and sympathy for those he saw as fellow sufferers. There were many Lincolns: the joker, the pol, the logician, the skeptical theologian. But the man of sorrows may be the most important. ''The president has a curious vein of sentiment running through his thought which is his most valuable mental attribute,'' as his secretary of state, William Seward, said. Desiring what he could not consistently have did not make him grieve -- what Virgil called the tears of things did that -- but it may have deepened his grief.
Towering above these Lincolns is the man who saw liberty and equality as facets of the same thing, and who maintained his (he called it his and the founders') vision in the face of Northern confusion and Southern fury. This is the Lincoln that matters. The rest is biography.
Richard Brookhiser is the author of ''Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution.''
The article below is from NYTimes.com
December 16, 2004
By DINITIA SMITH
Was Abraham Lincoln a gay American?
The subject of the 16th president's sexuality has been debated among scholars for years. They cite his troubled marriage to Mary Todd and his youthful friendship with Joshua Speed, who shared his bed for four years. Now, in anew book, C. A. Tripp also asserts that Lincoln had a homosexual relationship with the captain of his bodyguards, David V. Derickson, who shared his bed whenever Mary Todd was away.
In "The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln," to be published next month by Free Press, Mr. Tripp, a psychologist, influential gay writer and former sex researcher for Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, tries to resolve the issue of Lincoln's sexuality once and for all. The author, who died in 2003, two weeks after finishing the book, subjected almost every word ever written by and about Lincoln to minute analysis. His conclusion is that America's greatest president, the beacon of the Republican Party, was a gay man.
But his book has not stopped the debate. During the 10 years of his research, Mr. Tripp shared his findings with other scholars. Many, including the Harvard professor emeritus David Herbert Donald, who is considered the definitive biographer of Lincoln, disagreed with him. Last year, in his book "We Are Lincoln Men," Mr. Donald mentioned Mr. Tripp's research and disputed his findings.
Mr. Tripp was the author of "The Homosexual Matrix," a 1975 book that disputed the Freudian notion of homosexuality as a personality disorder. In this new book, he says that early biographers of Lincoln, including Carl Sandburg, sensed Lincoln's homosexuality. In the preface to the original multi-volume edition of his acclaimed 1926 biography, Sandburg wrote: "Month by month in stacks and bundles of fact and legend, I found invisible companionships that surprised me. Perhaps a few of these presences lurk and murmur in this book."
Sandburg also wrote that Lincoln and Joshua Speed had "streaks of lavender, spots soft as May violets." Mr. Tripp said that references to Lincoln's possible homosexuality were cut in the 1954 abridged version of the biography. Mr. Tripp maintains that other writers, including Ida Tarbell and Margaret Leech, also found evidence of Lincoln's homosexuality but shied away from defining it as such or omitted crucial details.
Mr. Tripp cites Lincoln's extreme privacy and accounts by those who knew him well. "He was not very fond of girls, as he seemed to me," his stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, told Lincoln's law partner William Herndon. In addition, Lincoln was terrified of marriage to Mary Todd and once broke off their relationship. They eventually had four children.
But in "We Are Lincoln Men" Mr. Donald wrote that no one at the time ever suggested that he and Speed were sexual partners. Herndon, who sometimes slept in the room with them, never mentioned a sexual relationship. In frontier times, Mr. Donald wrote, space was tight and men shared beds. And the correspondence between Lincoln and Speed was not that of lovers, he maintained. Moreover, Lincoln alluded openly to their relationship, saying, "I slept with Joshua for four years. " If they were lovers, Mr.Donald wrote, Lincoln wouldn't have spoken so freely.
Mr. Tripp charts Lincoln's relationships with other men, including Billy Greene, with whom Lincoln supposedly shared a bed in New Salem, Ill. Herndon said Greene told him that Lincoln's thighs "were as perfect as a human being Could be."
Lincoln's fellow lawyer Henry C. Whitney observed once that Lincoln "wooed me to close intimacy and familiarity."
Then there is Lincoln's youthful humorous ballad from 1829, "First Chronicles of Reuben," in which he refers to a man named Biley marrying another man named Natty: "but biley has married a boy/ the girles he had tried on every Side/ but none could he get to agree/ all was in vain he went home again/and sens that he is married to natty."
Mr. Tripp tries to debunk the popular opinion among scholars that Lincoln's lifelong depressions were caused by the death of his first love, Ann Rutledge. He writes that at the time she was supposedly involved with Lincoln, she was engaged to John McNamar and that her name appears nowhere in Lincoln's letters.
Mr. Donald also takes issue with the conclusion that Lincoln had a sexual relationship with Derickson, his bodyguard at his presidential retreat, the Soldiers' Home, outside Washington. Mr. Tripp writes that their closeness stirred comment in Washington, and cites a diary entry from Nov. 16, 1862, by Virginia Woodbury Fox, wife of Gustavus Fox, assistant secretary of the Navy. She recounted a friend's report: " 'There is a Bucktail soldier here devoted to the president, drives with him, and when Mrs. L. is not home, sleeps withhim.' What stuff!" But Mr. Donald writes that "What stuff!" meant she was dismissing the rumor.
Mr. Tripp cites a second description of the relationship in an 1895 history of Derickson's regiment, the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteers, by Thomas Chamberlain, Derickson's commanding officer: "Captain Derickson, in particular, advanced so far in the president's confidence and esteem that, in Mrs. Lincoln's absence, he frequently spent the night at his cottage, sleeping in the same bed with him and - it is said - making use of his Excellency's night-shirts!"When Derickson was to be transferred, Lincoln pulled strings to keep him. But Mr. Donald wrote that if their relationship was romantic, they would not have separated so casually when Derickson finally left Washington in 1863.
Despite Mr. Donald's criticism, Mr. Tripp has won supportfrom other scholars. Jean H. Baker, a former student of Mr. Donald's and the author of "Mary Todd Lincoln: a Biography" (W. W Norton, 1987), wrote the introduction to the book. She said that Lincoln's homosexuality would explain his tempestuous relationship with Mary Todd, and "some of her agonies and anxieties over their relationship."
"Some of the tempers emerged because Lincoln was so detached," Ms. Baker said in a telephone interview. "But I previously thought he was detached because he was thinking great things about his court cases, his debates with Douglas. Now I see there is another explanation."
"The length of time when these men continued to sleep in the same bed and didn't have to was sort of an impropriety," Ms. Baker said.
The question of Lincoln's sexuality is complicated by the fact that the word homosexual did not find its way into print in English until 1892 and that "gayness" is very much a modern concept.
Ms. Baker said the focus of 19th-century moral opprobrium was masturbation, not homosexuality. "Masturbation was considered more dangerous," she said. "For homosexuals, there was a cloud over them, but it seldom rained." People, she noted, "were accustomed to these friendships between men."
In researching Lincoln, Mr. Tripp created a vast database of cross-indexed material, now available at the Lincoln Library in Springfield, Ill. He began the book working with the writer Philip Nobile, but they fell out. Mr. Nobile has charged that Mr. Tripp plagiarized material written by him and fabricated evidence of Lincoln's homosexuality.
"Tripp's book is a fraud," Mr. Nobile said in an interview. He declined to say what was fraudulent, however, because he said he was writing his own article about it.
After Mr. Nobile made his charges, Free Press delayed publication. "We made some slight changes," said Adam Rothberg, a spokesman for the publishing house, "and we are satisfied that we are publishing a book that reflects Mr. Tripp's ideas and is supported by his research and belief." The manuscript was edited by Mr. Tripp'sfriend Lewis Gannett.
Larry Kramer, the author and AIDS activist, said that Mr. Tripp's book "will change history."
"It's a revolutionary book because the most important president in the history of the United States was gay," he said. "Now maybe they'll leave us alone, all those people in the party he founded."
Michael B. Chesson, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and another former student of Mr. Donald's, wrote an afterword to Mr. Tripp's book supporting his thesis. The book is "enormously important to understanding the whole person," he said in an interview. He likened the criticism to early objections to Fawn Brodie's 1974 biography of Thomas Jefferson in which she claimed that Jefferson had children with his slave Sally Hemings; later genetic studies suggested that they had at least one child together.
Finding the truth is a sacred principal for historians, Mr. Chesson said, adding, "It's incumbent on us as scholars to present to readers material if historians have ignored it or swept it under the rug because they don't agree with it."
Still, if Lincoln was gay, how did it affect his presidency? Ms. Baker said that his outsider status would explain his independence and his ability to take anti-Establishment positions like the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. As a homosexual, she said, "he would be on the margins of tradition."
"He is willing to be independent, to do what is right," she said. "It is invested in his soul, in his psyche and in his behavior."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
OCT. 29 - NOV. 4, 2004
Was Abe Lincoln Gay?
If the loving heart of the Great Emancipator found its natural amorous passions overwhelmingly directed toward those of his own sex, it would certainly be a stunning rebuke to the Republican Party's scapegoating of same-sex love for electoral purposes. And a forthcoming book by the late Dr. C.A. Tripp -- The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, to be published in the new year by Free Press -- makes a powerful case that Lincoln was a lover of men.
Tripp, who worked closely in the 1940s and 1950s with the groundbreaking sexologist Alfred Kinsey, was a clinical psychologist, university professor and author of the 1975 best-seller The Homosexual Matrix, which helped transcend outdated Freudian clichÈs and establish that a same-sex affectional and sexual orientation is a normal and natural occurrence.
In his book on Lincoln, Tripp draws on his years with Kinsey, who, he wrote, "confronted the problem of classifying mixed sex patterns by devising his 0-to-6 scale, which allows the ranking of any homosexual component in a person's life from none to entirely homosexual. By this measure Lincoln qualifies as a classical 5 -- predominantly homosexual, but incidentally heterosexual."
Tripp also found, based on multiple historical accounts, that Lincoln attained puberty unusually early, by the age of 9 or 10 -- early sexualization being a prime Kinsey indicator for same-sex proclivities. Even Lincoln's stepmother admitted in a post-assassination interview that young Abe "never took much interest in the girls." And Tripp buttresses his findings that Lincoln was a same-sex lover with important new historical contributions.
Others, preceding Tripp, have proclaimed in print that Lincoln was gay. The first, some four decades ago, was the pioneer Los Angeles gay activist Jim Kepner, editor of ONE, the early gay magazine (the ONE Institute National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California [http://www.oneinstitute.org/] is the largest collection of gay historical material in the world). Kepnerfocused on Lincoln's long-acknowledged intimate friendship with Joshua Speed -- with whom Lincoln slept in the same bed for four years when both men were in their 20s -- as did later writers, like the historian of gay America Jonathan Ned Katz and University of Massachusetts professor Charles Shively. Gore Vidal has said in interviews that, in researching his historical novel on Lincoln, he began to suspect that the 16th president was a same-sexer. But all this has been little noticed or circulated outside the gay community.
In 1990, the American Historical Association presented a panel on "Gay American Presidents? -- Washington, Buchanan, Lincoln, Garfield." Tripp was in the audience, and was seized with the desire to explore Lincoln's sexuality and emotional complexity with the same brand of scrupulous methodology he'd learned from Kinsey. Tripp devotedthe next decade to this research, and created an electronic databaseand index cross-referencing for more than 600 books of Lincolnalia, a historical tool now available at the Lincoln Institute in Springfield, Illinois.
One of the few traditional Lincolnists to describe (however obliquely) the lifelong Lincoln-Speed relationship as homosexual was the Illinois poet Carl Sandburg, in his masterful, six-volume Lincoln biography. In the tome titled The Prairie Years (1926), Sandburg wrote that both Lincoln and Speed had "a streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets." "I do not feel my own sorrows more keenly than I do yours," Lincoln wrote Speed in one letter. And again, "You know my desire to befriend you is everlasting." In a detailed retelling of the Lincoln-Speed love story -- including the "lust at first sight" encounter between the two youngmen, when Lincoln readily accepted Speed's eager invitation to share his narrow bed -- Tripp notes that Speed was the only human being to whom the president ever signed his letters with the unusually tender (for Lincoln) "yours forever" -- a salutation Lincoln never even used to his wife. Speed himself acknowledged that "No two men were ever so intimate." And Tripp credibly describes Lincoln's near nervous breakdown following Speed's decision to end their four-year affair by returning to his native Kentucky.
In the preface to his massive biography, Sandburg wrote that "month by month in stacks and bundles of facts and legend, I found invisible companionships that surprised me. Perhaps a few of these presences lurk and murmur in this book." Tripp's book is remarkable and precedent-shattering because, for the first time, he restores names and faces (more than just Speed's) to a number of those previously invisible homosexual companions and love objects of the mostvenerated of America's presidents, among them, Henry C. Whitney; the young Billy Greene, a Salem contemporary of Lincoln's and another bedmate (who admired Lincoln's thighs); Nat Grigsby; and A.Y. Ellis.
One of them was the handsome David Derickson, by nine years the president's junior, captain of Lincoln's bodyguard Company K, the unit assigned to ensure Lincoln's protection in September 1862. Citing a variety of sources -- including an autobiographical essay by Captain (later Major) Dickerson, Lincoln's letters, contemporary diaries and historical accounts written while many of the witnesses to the Derickson-Lincoln relationship were still living -- Tripp describes in great detail how Derickson was the object of "the kinds of gentle and concentrated high-focus attention from Lincoln that [Lincoln's law colleague] Henry C. Whitney, from having himself once been onthe receiving end, well described: '[It was] as if he wooed me to close intimacy and friendship, a kind of courtship, as indeed it was.'"
Lincoln's seduction of Dickerson was more than successful. Tripp discovered a forgotten volume of Union Army history, an account of The Pennsylvania Volunteers, Second Regiment, Bucktail Brigade, published in 1895 by Derickson's commander, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Chamberlin, who was historian of the Bucktail Survivors Association, and in which he recounted:
"Captain Derickson, in particular, advanced so far in the President's confidence and esteem that in Mrs. Lincoln's absence he frequently spent the night at his cottage [at the summer White House], sleeping in the same bed with him, and -- it is said -- making use of his Excellency's night-shirt! Thus began an intimacy that continued unbroken until the following spring, when Captain Derickson was appointed provost marshal of the Nineteenth Pennsylvania District, with headquarters in Meadville."
The Dickerson-Lincoln affair was common gossip in Washington's high society, as Tripp notes with a citation from the diary of the wife of Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox: "Tish says, Oh, 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!"
Lincoln was very fond of witty, and quite often ribald, stories, a great many of them having anal references. When a friend once suggested that he should collect his stories and publish them in book form, Lincoln replied that he could not, for "such a book would Stink like a thousand privies."
Another Tripp rediscovery is a smutty, humorous poem written by Lincoln when he was a teenager -- in which the future president describes a marriage between two boys! Here (with some of the spelling corrected for easier reading) is Lincoln's gay-marriage poem:
I will tell you a Joke about Jewel and Mary
Tripp notes that the stanza beginning "The egg it is laid" suggests that "Abe was well aware of the term 'jelly baby.' Originally from Negro vernacular, the phrase soon came to be used by whites as well: slang denoting what uneducated folk imagined . . . as a 'pregnancy' from homosexual intercourse . . . As a poem, Lincoln's rhyme of course is a mere trifle, except that it is perhaps the most explicit literary reference to actual homosexual relations in 19th-century America -- more explicit certainly than anything Walt Whitman ever wrote about the 'Love of comrades.'"
There is a great deal more to this book, which -- as Lincoln scholar Jean Baker notes in her admiring preface -- "is not a work of sexual or biological reductionism, but rather a significant effort to understand a complicated man." Among the many invaluable contributions is the chapter revealing that Lincoln's supposed tragic "romance" with Ann Rutledge -- often hyped by Hollywood retelling -- was a myth invented after Lincoln's death (this chapter is for the most part due to the research of Tripp's faithful collaborator on the Lincoln project, the writer Lewis Gannett, who edited the book for publication). Many of Tripp's findings come from finely argued circumstantial deductions -- which will no doubt be seized upon by what Vidal has called the "scholar squirrels" of the considerable Lincoln industry, who have a lot of skin in the game. But it will take more than their usual regurgitations of the clichÈ about the absence of central heating back in those days to explain Lincoln's consistent, yearslong choice of male bed partners, a same-sex affinity that he acted on even as president.
Tripp completed The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln just two weeks before his own death. It is a tragedy that tawdry squabbles between the aging and irascible executor of Tripp's estate and his publisher prevented the book's publication before this year's elections (it is now due out, after yet another postponement, in March). That is why, when -- after assiduous and clandestine effort -- we managed to obtain a copy of the book's uncorrected proofs, we decided to break with book-chat conventions and, without authorization, make some of Tripp's findings public here before November 2.
In a year in which those who claim Lincoln as their political progenitor are trying to introduce a ban on recognition of same-sex love into the Constitution that Lincoln loved so much and defended so well (and also into the constitutions of 11 states through referendums), it seemed to me that the voters had an overriding right to know how, in doing so, the Republicans and their Christian-right allies are wounding the martyr-president squarely in his heart of hearts.
FromSalon Magazine, May 3, 1999
Fax ( 415 ) 882-8731 (
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Was Lincoln gay?Firebrand Larry Kramer says he has the evidence to prove it. Lincoln scholars are holding their fire until they see it. Get ready for the second Civil War.
By Carol Lloyd
If this sounds like the opening of a homoerotic dime-store novel whose subsequent scenes feature fiery loins and ecstatic eruptions, hold your panting. The year is 1837, the place Springfield, Ill., and the leading men none other than our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, and his lifelong friend Joshua Speed.
It is a story that historians have told and retold, puzzled over and reinterpreted, dismissed and decorated. Some describe Lincoln's acceptance of Joshua Speed's generous offer as terse and matter-of-fact; others as beaming and emotional. What none of them questions is that Lincoln and Speed's years of living together cemented a friendship unparalleled in its intimacy and tenderness in Lincoln's life. So far, all major historians have stopped short of intimating that Lincoln was ever involved in a romantic affair with a man, in fact, they explicitlydiscourage such interpretations.
But Larry Kramer, the 62-year-old gay rights hell-raiser, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter ("Women in Love") and Pulitzer-nominated playwright ("The Normal Heart"), wants to change all that. In February, at a gay and lesbian conference in Madison, Wis., he read a portion of his unfinished book, "The American People", which, in the course of describing the history of gays in early America, avers that Lincoln and Speed were not merely bedfellows but lovers.
"There's no question in my mind he was a gay man and a totally gay man," Kramer declares. "It wasn't just a period, but something that went on his whole life."
Like the rumors that Thomas Jefferson had sired the children of his young slave Sally Hemings, questions about Speed and Lincoln's relationship have circulated for years. In "Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years" (1926), Carl Sandberg wrote that their relationship had "a streak of lavender and spots soft as May violets," which some have taken as a veiled reference to homosexuality. In 1995, just after Bob Dole rejected campaign contributions from the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP group, Log Cabin member W. Scott Thompson was quoted in the New York Times as saying that gays should feel welcome in the party, "given that the founder was gay." Novelist Paul Russell, author of "The Gay 100," a ranking of the world's most important gay figures, also investigated the rumors but chose not to include Lincoln, feeling that the case was not strong enough, thoughhe did include questionable figures like Shakespeare and Madonna. In an interview that will appear in a forthcoming anthology called "Sexual Writings by Gore Vidal," Gore Vidal told Kramer some years ago that during the research for the historical novel "Lincoln," Vidal too began to suspect that Lincoln was gay.
Like most of Lincoln's early private life, the story of his friendship with Speed is a murky one, although not nearly as murky as Lincoln's early liaisons with women. After four years of living in intimate quarters, Speed announced plans to sell the store and return to his home in Kentucky, where his family owned a large plantation. Lincoln, who was notoriously awkward and shy around women, was at the time engaged to a vivacious, if temperamental, society girl namedMary Todd, but as the date of Speed's departure and themarriage approached, Lincoln cracked. He wanted to break the engagement by letter, but at Speed's entreaty, he went to Mary Todd and told her face to face he did not love her. Some argue that Lincoln had fallen in love with another woman. Soon after, Speed departed, leaving Lincoln mired in depression and guilt.
Seven months later Lincoln traveled to Speed's home in Kentucky, where he spent a month being nursed back to health. After that the two men corresponded affectionately for decades, chronicling their most personal internal conflicts, including their abject fear of marriage, which they ominously refer to in their correspondence (always emphasized) as forebodings.Speed was the first to approach the altar successfully, an ordeal that Lincoln coached him through with tender but not altogether convincing letters of encouragement. It seemed that Speed was on the verge of a premarital meltdown similar to Lincoln's. "If you went through the ceremony calmly, or even with sufficient composure not to excite alarm in anyone present, you are safe, beyond question" Lincoln wrote just after the date of Speed's betrothal, "and in two or three months, to say the most, will be the happiest of men." Subsequent clandestine letters inquired whether Speed really was "happier or, if you think the term preferable, less miserable." Both men eventually married and had children; they remained close until they had a falling-out in 1855 over the issue of slavery.
A shared bed, tortured secret letters and a fear of women... what more proof could scholars want?
Real evidence, they say. First, the shared bed is meaningless, most argue, since in the 19th century American frontiersmen often slept two and three to a bed for purely economic reasons. "It was very common for men to share the same bed in the 1800s, especially in taverns," says Gene Griessman, author of "The Words Lincoln Lived By" (Simon & Schuster, 1997). "We know that Lincoln had a long, affectionate friendship with Speed. He deeply loved the man, but to go beyond that fact is to go beyond any evidence I have seen."
"It sounds like this might be a case of taking a 19th century event and giving it a 20th century context," says Douglas Wilson, author of "Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln" and co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox Collegein Galesburg, Ill. Wilson adds that this trend of seeing the past in terms of the present (what historians call "presentism") has seen a recent revival, with the controversy over Jefferson's alleged relationship with Sally Hemings and the "outing" of Walt Whitman.
Other scholars believe that such cozy sleeping arrangements did reflect a distinct emotional landscape for men, but didn't necessarily lead to hot homo lovemaking. "There was a lot of male homoerotic desire in the middle of the 19th century," says UC-Berkeley political scientist Michael Rogin. "There may be evidence of male-male desire, but that's not gay. If 'gay' is going to mean anything it's got to mean orgasms with other men. There's got to be some sense of transgression and forbiddenness."
In an era obsessed with the fine points of identity nomenclature, exactly what constitutes mid-19th-century homosexuality is a sticky question. Can homosexuality, be it queer, gay or radical fairy butch, even exist without a name? And can it exist without self-identification on the part of the lover? Can it exist simply through desire, or must those desires be consummated?
Kramer has little patience for such theoretical hairsplitting. "I do not think that people were different starting with the Garden of Eden," he says. "Why do we imagine that people were these naive asexual beings before the 20th century? Lincoln had a lot of sex." Kramer doesn't pretend to be a Lincolnscholar or even an objective researcher. ("I have read all the biographies, and they are full of shit," he spits, and derides Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald as "some dried oldheterosexual prune at Harvard.") He's an unabashed gay rabble-rouser, beating the bushes of history to find gay heroes. But if he really does have the new primary sources he claims to, even the staunchest defenders of Lincoln's heterosexuality may be forced to reconsider. Kramer claims to have a trump card, a smoking gun: a hitherto unknown Joshua Speed diary, as well as a stash of letters in which Speed writes explicitly about his love affair with Lincoln. The secret pages, which were discovered hidden beneath the floorboards of the old store where the two men lived, now are said to reside in a private collection in Davenport, Iowa.
No sooner has Kramer mentioned the discovery and location of the papers than he grumbles, "That's already more than I wish I had said." Kramer is ambivalent about airing the entire subject. Even the reading, he explains, was a spur-of-the-moment stopgap measure to save him the trouble of writing another speech for a second appearance at the conference. "I didn't know there were any reporters there," he says, "and I didn't let anyone tape it."
Although Kramer refuses to share any portions of these documents, the Capital Times in Madison reported some of the juicier quotes from the reading: "He often kisses me when I tease him, often to shut me up. He would grab me up by his long arms and hug and hug," Speed reportedly wrote. Addressing his dear friend as "Linc," Speed allegedly described the young politician as a man who couldn't getenough hugging and kissing: "Yes, our Abe is like a school girl." Kramer also attested that Speed recounted conversations in which the two men wondered whether other men, too, had relationships like theirs.
Whether these quotes prove that Lincoln was gay is debatable, although, of course, Kramer may possess others that are more explicit. But he goes further: He not only claims that honest, rail-splitting, nation-uniting Abe was a proto-bossy bottom, but that there existed a whole 19th century gay frontier subculture. For example, he says there was an underground travel agency that arranged for small groups of man-loving men to travel into the wilderness for nature appreciation and other earthy pleasures. Both Lincoln and Speed, Kramer says, frequented these camping trips while living in Springfield. In one circular, which Kramer shared by phone, a man named "Dapper Dan from Kansas" invited "fellow travelers" on a "holiday journey" to sleep outdoors. The passage he read was certainly suggestive but hardly explicit.
Repeating a claim long circulated in the gay community, if not in Hamilton scholarship, Kramer also claims that Alexander Hamilton was "essentially a cock-tease."
All these assertions, however, pale in the face of Kramer's most outrageous theory: that Lincoln's murder may have been a kind of gay-bashing, resulting from a kinky sexual set-up. "There's some evidence that shows that Speed presented Booth to Lincoln as a 'present' and the young Booth, who was a gorgeous man, was virulently homophobic, like the men who killed Matthew Shepard," he says. "If the murder turns out to have had a homosexual underpinning, that's going to freak everybody out."
Seemingly outlandish claims like these, along with the fact that Kramer is not by any conventional definition a scholar, obviously raise questions about his historical judgment and probity. Isn't Kramer just a propagandist,laboring mightily to turn the 1800s into 18th and Castro?
Interestingly, however, Lincoln scholars have largely held their fire even when confronted with Kramer's more extreme claims. "That's pretty wild," says Douglas Wilson of the Lincoln-Booth theory. "If Lincoln and Booth had ever met, I would have thought we would have known more about it. But all ideas are welcome; you learn more when people argue."
Arguments coming from Larry Kramer tend to have a special vehemence. Long a lightning rod for controversy both within and without the gay community, Kramer knows how to play his cards for all they're worth, although playing them close to his chest is not his strong suit. After founding ACT-UP and the Gay Men's Health Crisis, two staggeringly influential organizations within the gay community, Kramer assailed the Reagan administration, the medical establishment andheterosexuals in general (whom he referred to as "they") with razor pen and acid tongue. Just as often, he attacked his own community; his conflicts with factions of the two organizations he founded erupted into public spectacles of ire and recrimination. No setting was too sacrosanct for Kramer to tell his angry truths, as evidenced by a eulogy he once gave in which he accused the gathering of mourners (including himself) of murdering the deceased with their complacency and passivity.
Compared to those days of high dudgeon and real crisis, it seems odd that Kramer is so anxious about his scholarly crusade to out a dead president. Why won't he share his evidence? His explanations vary from wanting to protect the poor folks of Davenport from a mob of Lincoln lunatics to simply wanting to finish his monster-in-the-box book (now 2,000 pages long and at least five years away from being finished) in peace. He's also planning to submit a short excerpt of the Lincoln material to magazines this fall. But when pressed, he confesses that he fears the vitriol, or worse, that may rain down upon him from outraged defenders of Lincoln's sullied honor. "Don't tell them where I live," he adds at the end of one phone conversation, with no hint of irony.
It's possible that Kramer was led to some of his evidence by a more respectable scholar, C.A. Tripp, the elderly author of the groundbreaking "The Homosexual Matrix." Kramer admits that he hopes a forthcoming book by Tripp comes out before his own. Tripp's book also plans to drag Lincoln out of the closet, but according to Kramer, it will do so with a good deal more scholarly muscle and nuance. Kramer says Tripp has evidence that Lincoln had not just one, but numerous homoerotic relationships throughout his life. Unlike Kramer, however, he does not construe these ongoing sexual encounters as self-consciously homosexual. Speaking by phone from his home in New Jersey, Tripp refuses to "drop any pearls" before his book is finished. "It's too far away," he says, "about two years."
When told that Kramer had expressed enthusiasm about Tripp's findings, Tripp snarls good-naturedly: "Of course he did. Kramer's a propagandist. And that's all I have to say." He does acknowledge, however, that his research was based on "absolutely new" primary sources that no other historian has yet to see.
All this talk of new primary sources makes the Lincoln history establishment curious despite their skepticism.
"It's possible there is something else, but I would be very surprised," says Michael Burlingame, author of the "Inner World of Abraham Lincoln" and history professor at Connecticut College. "If there's a Joshua Speed diary, then I'm eager to see it." Indeed, Burlingame is one volume into a three-volume account of Lincoln's life; presumably such findings might guide his current project in new directions.
Burlingame is familiar with Tripp's work and despite his "enormous respect for the man," he disagrees with his ideas about Lincoln's sexual orientation. "Speed and Lincoln were close emotionally but their letters have no discernable romantic overtones," he says. "Besides, there is too much evidence that Lincoln was strongly attracted to women." By way of example he cites the fact that Lincoln was a "proto-feminist," fell "head over heels in love with 18-year-old Matilda Edwards" and loved a beautiful young woman named Ann Rutledge.
Such evidence, however, can be interpreted several ways. Heterosexual men have never had a corner on the market for feminist-friendly attitudes; in fact, one might argue that proto-homosexual men might better sympathize with the plights of proto-feminist women. Moreover, some historians reject the tale ofhis love for Matilda Edwards as a paranoid fantasy that Mary Todd Lincoln concocted to explain why Lincoln abandoned her at the altar. In "Lincoln," David Herbert Donald suggests that there was "no real justification" to think that Lincoln had fallen in love with her and that Edwards had expressly denied that he ever "even stooped to pay [her] a compliment." In turn, Douglas Wilson calls Donald's refusal to deal with the Edwards evidence "just hopeless."
Historians also posit wildly different scenarios regarding the doomed Ann Rutledge. All evidence comes from third-hand accounts that held that Lincoln became acquainted with her while she was still engaged to another man. Soon afterwards, she fell ill; Lincoln sat by her bedside for the last two days of her life. Some contend the two were on their way to being engaged, others that Lincoln might havebefriended her simply because she was already spoken for. Others say her death left him a devastated man who, at least from a romantic perspective, never recovered. Yet as Kramer is quick to point out, not a single letter exists between Rutledge and Lincoln, and in the thousand pages of Lincoln's personal correspondence, he never once mentions her name.
Finally, in chronicling the proof of Lincoln's heterosexual romances, historians are split in their interpretation of his marriage to the volatile, possibly insane, drug-addled Mary Todd Lincoln. By all accounts the couple had a difficult, turbulent relationship, but over the course of 10 years they managed to bear four children. Some historians paint theirs as a difficult but loving bond; others as the quintessential marriage from hell. Douglas Wilson gives credence to stories that Lincoln visitedprostitutes during his marriage and later believed himself to have contracted syphilis. David Herbert Donald, in contrast, paints Lincoln as a faithful, if not exactly doting, husband.
All of these heterosexist interpretations get Kramer foaming at the mouth. "Why is their version so much more believable than mine? So much of the history that is shoveled into the world is bullshit, we really have to invent our own."
Do such overt desires for a specific outcome make it impossible for Kramer to separate fact from wishful thinking? That was the charge leveled against those who initially argued that Walt Whitman was a 19th century homosexual. At first this idea was derided as far-fetched propaganda, but it is now largely accepted (although academics continue to debate whether it is legitimate to call Whitman "gay").
But does it really matter if Lincoln was gay? What difference does it make if the man who reunited the country, ended slavery, wrote some of the most majestic speeches in the English language and died a martyr's death desired (or actually had sex with) other men? According to Illinois state historian Tom Schwarz, it doesn't make any difference: "It's only important if he made conscious decisions based on his sexuality which then influenced his political behavior, public policy or his decisions on slavery. If not, its importance readily diminishes."
Schwarz's politic words, however, don't take into account the enormous symbolic significance that will attend any reevaluation of the sexual orientation of America's most beloved figure. Imagine if the Hemings-Jefferson love affair had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt (which, as scientists continue to remind us, still hasn't happened) in the Jim Crow 1950s, when certain states still prosecuted miscegenation? Bigots would have had one less legendary leg to stand on. Similarly, if the man on our $5 bill was proven to be gay, right-wing politicians who invokeLincoln in one breath and denounce the homosexual menace in the next would be forced to reexamine the deeper meaning of the phrase "with charity towards all, with malice towards none." Certainly, for queer theorists and gay scholars, the ability to claim the man who was arguably America's greatest president as their own would arm gay battalions with a powerful new rhetorical weapon.
"Greatest" is the operative word here. When Kramer first announced at the Madison meeting that he was setting out to get gays their "first gay president," he could have made his job easier by looking to Lincoln's predecessor, James Buchanan. The only bachelor to take office, Buchanan spent 15 years, including some of those in the White House, living with Sen. William King. When King died Buchanan went into a tailspin, neglecting his executive duties; his already ineffectual presidency derailed. The contemporary press ridiculed the men's relationship mercilessly, and Andrew Jackson once called King "Miss Nancy." The problem, of course, is that James Buchanan is not the guy to stake a modern civil rights movement on. Passive and ineffectual, he slowly but surely led the country into a bloody civil war. Despite the fact that it was "obvious" that Buchanan was gay, Paul Russellsays he chose not to include him in "The Gay 100"; he just wasn't anything to be proud of.
One equally controversial gay figure did make it into the book: none other than the fire-breathing Larry Kramer. In fact, he's the highest-ranked of all living people on the list. "A lot of people wouldn't agree with that," Kramer mutters when informed of this fact.
In similar fashion, many of Lincoln's contemporary enemies would have seen the deification of the rough-hewn, socially awkward president as the worst kind of historical revisionism. But as Kramer knows, from a political perspective, revisionist history is the only kind of history that counts.
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