A Gay President

Abraham Lincoln sculpture

Will it happen in my lifetime? Possibly, but we still haven’t had a woman president yet, so much of America is reactionary to change. Maureen Dowd asks a few people willing to return her calls if we are ready for such a thing. Even though we probably already have…

Others feel we’re not ready for a gay president, citing the fear and loathing unleashed by the election of the first black president. “Can you imagine how much a gay president would have to overcompensate to please the macho ninnies who control our national debate?” Bill Maher told me. “Women like Hillary have to do it, Obama had to do it because he’s black and liberal, but a gay president? He’d have to nuke something the first week.”

I called Barney Frank, assuming the gay pioneer would be optimistic. He wasn’t. “It’s one thing to have a gay person in the abstract,” he said. “It’s another to see that person as part of a living, breathing couple. How would a gay presidential candidate have a celebratory kiss with his partner after winning the New Hampshire primary? The sight of two women kissing has not been as distressful to people as the sight of two men kissing.”

Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, he added, “it’s not clear that a gay president could use federal funds to buy his husband dinner. Would his partner have to pay rent in the White House? There would be no Secret Service protection for the paramour.”

Frank noted that we’ve “clearly had one gay president already, James Buchanan. If I had to pick one, it wouldn’t be him.” (The Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan aims higher, citing Abe Lincoln, who sometimes bundled with his military bodyguard in bed when his wife was away.)1

Frank said that although most Republicans now acknowledge that sexual orientation is not a choice, they still can’t handle their pols’ coming out. “There are Republicans here who are gay,” he said of Congress, “but as long as they don’t acknowledge it, it’s O.K. Republicans only tolerate you being gay as long as you don’t seem proud of it. You’ve got to be apologetic.”

(click to continue reading A Gay Commander in Chief – Ready or Not? – NYTimes.com.)

James Buchanan gay? Hmm, interesting. James Loewen’s book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong , includes discussion of this possibility:

In life, Buchanan was not very far in the closet. For many years in Washington, he lived with William Rufus King, Senator from Alabama. The two men were inseparable; wags referred to them as “the Siamese twins.” Andrew Jackson dubbed King “Miss Nancy,” and Aaron Brown, a prominent Democrat, writing to Mrs. James K. Polk, referred to him as Buchanan’s “better half,” “his wife,” and “Aunt Fancy … rigged out in her best clothes.” When in 1844 King was appointed minister to France, he wrote Buchanan, “I am selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation.” On May 13, Buchanan wrote to a Mrs. Roosevelt about his social life:

I am now “solitary and alone,” having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection. King and Buchanan’s relationship, though interrupted from time to time by their foreign service, ended only with King’s death in 1853. While Buchanan was born and raised in Pennsylvania, William Rufus King was a Southern slaveholder. Buchanan’s pro-slavery politics may have stemmed in part from their 23-year connection. Buchanan certainly thought highly of King: “He is among the best, purest, and most consistent public men I have ever known, and is also a sound judging and discreet fellow,” as well as a “very gay, elegant looking fellow.”

(click to continue reading TomPaine.com – Archives – The Other Buchanan Controversy.)

And James Loewen adds:

The preponderance of the evidence clearly shows that James Buchanan had a long-term homosexual relationship with William Rufus King. Historians or sociologists are allowed to go with “a preponderance of the evidence,” since we are not convicting anyone of a crime in a court of law. The evidence that President Buchanan was heterosexual, most of which was marshaled by the staff at his house, is thin indeed. He might of course have been asexual, but that’s tricky to prove, since absence of evidence (of sexuality in this case) is not evidence of absence.

The statements quoted above, and some others by Buchanan and by King, are surely as persuasive as we are likely to get for anyone in the period. As well, they help explain Buchanan’s position on the #1 problem of the day, slavery and related issues, such as its extension into Kansas and fugitive slave law enforcement. Otherwise, Buchanan’s position is harder to understand, being abhorrent to his Mennonite, Quaker, and even many Democrat neighbors.

In 2005, Richard Brookhiser of the New York Times reviewed C.A. Tripp’s book, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln :

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.

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 law office, 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!”

(click to continue reading Was Lincoln Gay? – NYTimes.com.)

  1. The New York Times doesn’t bother to link to Sullivan, perhaps this is the article Dowd is referring to, though I don’t think the thought of President Lincoln being gay is original to Andrew Sullivan. The topic has been discussed for years, even Cecil Adams wrote about it []

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