Outing the dead; Lincoln biography fans speculation on sex lives of 16th president, other historical figures

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Author: Gayle White
Date: Feb. 18, 2005
Publisher: Cox Enterprises d/b/a The Atlanta Journal Constitution
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,154 words

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Byline: GAYLE WHITE

A new biography suggesting that Honest Abe had a secret same-sex orientation set the country's tongues a-wagging when it came out, so to speak, a few weeks ago.

But the book raises a larger question than what Lincoln and his bedmates may have done between the sheets: whether it's appropriate to open history's closets.

C.A. Tripp, who died soon after finishing the manuscript for "The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln," asserts that the 16th president's primary relationships were homosexual.

Among his evidence: that Lincoln, beginning in his late 20s, shared a bed for four years with a young man named Joshua Speed and with an Army captain in the White House when his wife was away. Lincoln expressed affection in letters to male friends, was uncomfortable with women, and once wrote a humorous poem about a man who married a boy.

Scholars disagree about whether Tripp, a former Kinsey sex researcher, proved his case.

Lincoln doesn't yet appear on some gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgendered interest Web sites, but Alexander the Great, Joan of Arc, Julius Caesar, anthropologist Margaret Mead, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Founding Father Alexander Hamilton do. Biographers of American poet Walt Whitman and England's King James of Bible-translation fame claim those notables should be among the world's great gays.

So, who cares? And why?

"Different things interest us about history, depending on what's happening in our culture and society," says Barbara McGowan, who teaches history and gender studies at Ripon College in Wisconsin. "It's just that our latest prurient interest is on homosexuality."

While outing living people might be fraught with ethical concerns, scholars seem to agree that when someone dies, issues of privacy are no longer a problem.

"I'm not convinced that Tripp has proven his case, but he [was] certainly entitled to try," says Martin Duberman, a historian at City University of New York and founder of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies. "I can't see any downside to discovering that various figures in the past had a more variegated sex life than is traditionally thought, and I can see a decided upside. It puts us in touch with the fact that human beings are much more complicated in their taste than we've been led to believe."

Michelangelo Signorile, a Sirius satellite radio talk-show host and author of the groundbreaking 1990s book "Queer in America: Sex, the Media and the Closets of Power," says exploring the sexuality of people in the past is just an effort to gain greater understanding.

"There's a constant correcting of the historical record, and trying to find out about our political leaders of the past, what motivated them, what shaped our country. This is what scholars do."

The disconnect occurs when people try to place long-dead figures into the context of today's categories of sexual orientation or describe them with today's vocabulary, he says.

The concepts of sexual identity as homosexual or heterosexual didn't jell until the late 19th century when, linguists say, the two words came into the lexicon. Sexual acts between people of the same sex have been known across civilizations. The ancient Greeks glorified them; other cultures condemned them.

With the gay rights movement that began in Europe and North America during the 1950s and accelerated after a 1969 uprising at a New York gay bar called the Stonewall Inn, conversation about sexual identity became more public and took on more political significance.

Larry Gross, director of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, cites the saying that history is written by the victors. In the case of sexuality, he says, heterosexuals controlled the literature.

But, he adds, "we as a culture tend to believe the sexual part of somebody's life is one of the keys to understanding their character and personality. It's not like preferring Mozart to Brahms or chocolate instead of vanilla. It's something essential to their identity."

Of course, piecing together the sex lives of long-dead leaders is tricky. A shared bed is little proof in an era when beds were scarce and one-room cabins were common. And in times when correspondence between unmarried people of the opposite sex was prim and proper, men and women poured out their affection in flowery prose to friends of the same gender.

In 1994, when Vassar professor and novelist Paul Russell compiled "The Gay 100," a book about the most influential gay and lesbian people of history, he cautioned that evidence is "often spotty and ambiguous."

In some cases the facts were purposely obfuscated, such as when some editors changed the pronouns of Michelangelo's sonnets to make them seem to be written to a woman, he says.

Topping his list was Socrates, who had a wife but was, Russell claims, "unabashedly a lover of young men."

He also included Shakespeare, who "seems from our point of view to have been completely polyamorous," the author says. "He loved men passionately. He loved women passionately. He wrote about both and saw no contradiction in that."

Russell did not include Lincoln even though he says he was familiar with the evidence. Had he been instructed to include an American president, he says, he would have named Lincoln's predecessor, James Buchanan.

The country's only bachelor president, Buchanan lived in Washington with his best friend William Rufus King, who was sometimes referred to in derision by Washington wags as "Miss Nancy" or "Aunt Fancy."

But Buchanan hardly appears on anyone's list of greatest presidents.

And that brings up another interesting aspect to outing the dead. When scholars open the closet doors, the bad and the ugly emerge along with the good. Among the worst --- Adolf Hitler. One German historian claims the fuhrer allowed the persecution of hundreds of thousands of gays and lesbians to disguise his own same-sex orientation.

Daniel J. Flynn, author of "Intellectual Morons" and "Why the Left Hates America," charges that Lincoln biographer Tripp was simply trying to increase the prestige of gay Americans by claiming Lincoln.

"If there's evidence that a historical figure was homosexual, I think it's fair game," Flynn says, "but if there's no evidence of it and people sort of manufacture the facts, that's a serious problem. That's what you have with regard to the Lincoln scholarship."

Some people touting Lincoln's homosexuality undoubtedly do have political agendas, agrees McGowan of Ripon College. But, she adds, "some of the people who don't want it disseminated also have political agendas."

For the record, the Log Cabin Republicans, the largest of the gay-and-lesbian GOP groups, is officially keeping out of the Lincoln debate.

"We don't speculate on the sexual orientation of politicians," spokesman Chris Barron says, "living or dead."

CAPTION(S):

The primary relationships of Abraham Lincoln were homosexual, asserts C.A. Tripp, who wrote "The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln." / CRAIG HARMON / Associated Press

Alexander the Great; ID: 0001638342Type: PhotoName: LVGayeleanor.epsDate: 02/18/2005Page: G1Edition: HomePub: AJCEleanor Roosevelt

Joan of Arc

Margaret Mead

Michelangelo

Walt Whitman

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A128878738