Just How Gay Was Abraham Lincoln?
‘Tish says, ‘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!”
— Virginia Woodbury Fox, November 16, 1862
Without having seen the Oscar warhorse that is, apparently, Spielberg’s Lincoln, if I were a gay activist of any kind, I might take issue with the fact that the film’s writer, Tony Kushner, has overlooked what to me is pretty clear evidence that President Lincoln was one of them there closeted, bathroom-stall toe-tapping Republicans. Given the quotation above from the diary of the wife of Gustavus Fox, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the Civil War, I’m not sure he was even that closeted.
The reason I would take issue is that Kushner is a highly political Ghey, the author of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, a brilliant epic about the early years of the AIDS Crisis, for which he rightly received the Pulitzer in 1993. Kushner has been married to his partner, Entertainment Weekly Mark Harris, for nearly ten years, a fact that might have pleased the teen Lincoln when he penned this ribald poem:
I will tell you a Joke about Jewel and Mary
It is neither a Joke nor a Story
For Rubin and Charles has married two girls
But Billy has married a boy
The girlies he had tried on every Side
But none could he get to agree
All was in vain he went home again
And since that is married to Natty
So Billy and Natty agreed very well
And mama’s well pleased at the match
The egg it is laid but Natty’s afraid
The Shell is So Soft that it never will hatch
But Betsy she said you Cursed bald head
My Suitor you never Can be
Beside your low crotch [slang for big penis] proclaims you a botch
And that never Can serve for me
I’ve brushed up on my “Was Lincoln Gay?” Googling, and I am pretty confident that historians who deny that Lincoln had strong homosexual tendencies are either being disingenuous, or are the kind of straight men who, like most modern Republicans, need to bend reality to suit their particular vision of the order of things, or “wronging the right,” as I like to call it, full pun intended.
Straight guys do not write poems about two guys marrying each other. Period. It doesn’t even cross their minds. Yes, the poem is clearly intended to be humorous—it still elicits a smile over a century and a half after it was written—and teen humor in particular has forever been especially raging-hormone prurient. But it can also be seen to disclose Lincoln’s own anxieties about eventually having to marry a woman, the possibility that he might never find one suitable, and how he “would agree very well” with just marrying another guy.
Am I allowed to further extrapolate from the poem that the names Billie and Abe aren’t that far apart? In which case, Lincoln would appear to be the top if we are to conclude that his husband Natty, the putative bottom, is the one laying the egg, if that’s any consolation to those deniers of the obvious who would rather their great presidents not be inclined towards buggery.
Stronger evidence than the poem is Lincoln’s sleeping arrangements with men throughout his adult life, right up to his term in the White House, which led to the kind of rumors alluded to in the opening quotation in this article. When twenty-eight-year-old Lincoln first moved to Springfield, Illinois on April 15, 1837, he went to a general store owned by the handsome Joshua Fry Speed, and asked the price of bedding and furnishings. When informed of the total, Lincoln balked and then tried to secure credit to pay it off. Instead, Speed took him upstairs and showed Lincoln his own room with a sole bed, which he suggested they share. And they did, for four happy years.
As one blogger posted online, the issue is that, while it wasn’t unusual in the nineteenth century for men to share a bed, it was unusual for them to share it for so long. “And it’s not like Joshua Speed couldn’t afford an extra bed—after all, he was a bed salesman! He was practically the Sealy Posturepedic of Springfield, Illinois.”
Later, when Lincoln was President and “Mrs. L.” was away, he got cozy with his bodyguard, Captain David Derickson, by sharing a bed. Just as Speed the mattress salesman could have found alternatives, it’s not like there weren’t other beds in the White House Derickson could have availed himself of.
There are a quite few other examples of Lincoln’s gay leanings floating around online and in recent books, enough evidence that the animated comedy show American Dad! devoted a second-season episode to it in 2006, in which the lead, Stan, played Captain Dickerson in a play he wrote. Presumably, the show’s creators were riffing on the controversy that broke when Civil War historian C.A. Tripp’s posthumous book The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln was published in 2005, and a veritable Battle of Gettysburg broke out among Civil War buffs. For the first time, Tripp laid out in detail all of the evidence that pointed to Lincoln being what he concluded as “predominantly homosexual.”
Kushner said his original draft for Lincoln was five hundred pages long, a level of excessive overwriting that as a screenwriter I cannot fathom, but we each have our own approaches, and Kushner’s work is characterized by verboseness. I would like to believe Lincoln’s relationship with Derickson was in there somewhere, but that it didn’t make it past Spielberg’s redaction in favor of keeping this a mainstream film with a heavily political slant. Fair enough.
I am not as much a fan of another gay Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Larry Kramer, as I am of Kushner, of whom I am out-and-out jealous. Kramer has done a considerable amount of research into the subject for his yet-to-be-released, four-thousand-page book The American People, which he has been working on since the early 80s. At a reading of the unfinished manuscript in 1999, Kramer said the following about Lincoln:
“There’s no question in my mind he was a gay man and a totally gay man. It wasn’t just a period, but something that went on his whole life…. I do not think that people were different starting with the Garden of Eden… Why do we imagine that people were these naive asexual beings before the 20th century? Lincoln had a lot of sex.”
It is the Garden of Eden bit that leads me to my own conclusions, which are the same most Gheys would make when looking at the evidence put forth by Tripp, Kramer and other, especially those of us who come from an era when it was preferable to be in the closet than out.
People in the nineteenth century weren’t any different from us; it’s not even a blink of an eye away from us in terms of world history. They had the same nature, they just lived in a different culture. It was a culture that was simply as different from us in the West today as any other culture that currently exists elsewhere in the world that is saddled with severely repressed mores, where pre-marital sex is still forbidden. The best example of that is most Islamic countries.
As any young, fair-skinned male knows who has ever traveled to the Muslim world—and I mean countries like Morocco in particular—you are hit on by men constantly. It’s not considered gay; all the guys are going to have to get married eventually, so it’s just a bit of fun before everyone settles down. And for those numerous older men who developed a taste for man-on-man sex before they got married, it’s a way to have a dalliance away from the wife/wives without complications. And fair-skinned boys are a particular treat.
Even in India, where I lived for many years, covert gay sex is prevalent and completely normal, again because of a lack of pre-marital sex. I used to find it funny when, after a steamy encounter, a local male would often ask me about my wife and express surprise that I wasn’t married. I quickly gave up replying, “You mean, after what we just did, you think I should be with a woman?” It’s only recently, with the imposition of Western culture, that there has been some establishment of a gay identity on the subcontinent. Otherwise, it is very much as it must have been in Lincoln’s time.
It’s simply the fluid nature of male sexuality, its response to environmental circumstances. If ten percent of the population in Western countries can be classified as gay, that certainly isn’t the case with prison populations, where the ten percent would be the minority that has somehow resisted man-on-man sex. And it’s not always rape, mostly consensual; practically speaking, it’s rather arduous to sodomize another man against his will. More often than not, it’s plain, simple horniness and a shift in culture from the outside heterosexual world, to one where horny men do what needs to be done to get off.
But Lincoln’s was clearly more than just a horniness and the inability to have pre-marital sex. He was in love with Joshua Speed, and it was mutual. Both were terrified of getting married. And when Speed sold his shop and moved back to Kentucky, Lincoln had a nervous breakdown, and broke off his engagement to Mary Todd, whom he didn’t love until after they got finally got married, after Lincoln recovered.
That episode is known as “The Fatal First,” and it sums up my reaction to breakups when I was in my twenties and early thirties, when I still identified as bisexual and was in and out of the closet so often the door almost fell of its hinge. Like Lincoln, I was also victim of severe depressions, which were intermittently exacerbated or alleviated by relationships with other men. From my rather cursory readings of Lincoln’s personal life, however, I believe he was far more afflicted with depression than I was, but I do not doubt that was largely because of the oppressive culture in which he lived, compared to mine in modern-day New York City and Europe.
I didn’t care about Lincoln other than his greatness as a president until researching this article, but I am now inspired by “The Fatal First,” as I’m sure a few gay dramatists are. It speaks directly to me and my experience as a Ghey, so I might just do something with it: a play, a script, a novella. Maybe all three. As my sister used to say during every whining conversation about my lovers until I learned to shrug them off, “At least it isn’t as bad as your breakup with [your first boyfriend]. Remember that?” Indeed, I do. I am surprised I survived that. It’s something I should talk about, using Lincoln’s voice; I really like the guy, now.
There’s a lot to read about Lincoln’s sexuality, so I’ll post some relevant links below, and you can meander form there. As to the question posed by the title of this article, Just how gay was Lincoln? As gay as I am, baby. As gay as I am.
The Wikipedia entry about Lincoln’s sexuality
An exhaustive compendium of articles on the subject is HERE
A quicker overview is HERE