Friday, November 16, 2012

Lincoln's Sexuality

I wanted to write about a very specific moment and I chose this moment and I don’t feel that there’s any evidence at this particular moment that Lincoln was having sex with anybody. He seems to have not slept and taken no time off and during this period I think he was beginning to feel ground to a pulp by the war and by the pressures of his job. I find it difficult to believe that Lincoln was banging anybody. Now maybe he was. I personally believe that there is some reason to speculate that Lincoln might have been bisexual or gay….

There are, unfortunately, no memoirs, no diaries, nothing to say for sure. I don’t say in the movie whether the Lincoln character that I wrote was gay or straight. You could ask Daniel (Day-Lewis) what he was playing, but it did not seem to me a thing to make a movie about now….

I absolutely believe that the Lincoln’s marriage was a real marriage. These two people loved each other…Whether he was gay or straight or bisexual, they had a real deep, meaningful relationship that was probably the most significant relationship in Lincoln’s life…

It wouldn’t be the first time that a gay man and a straight woman hooked up and had a great marriage. But I don’t know. I really don’t know. And I think that’s what we have to say about it. We keep the door open and people should talk about it. I don’t feel, finally, that my politics are entirely determined by the fact that I’m a gay man.”

– Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner on why the Great Emancipator isn’t laying any logs in his cabin for the upcoming Steven Spielberg movie
Full story here:

Historical evidence is titillating. Much has been made about the fact that Lincoln slept in the same bed with his pal Joshua Speed for three years when they were young adults, but Kushner doesn't think that meant they were lovers. Back in those days, men frequently shared beds without their hands wandering under the sheets.

However, Lincoln's relationship with his bodyguard, Captain David Derickson, was much more suspect. During the early days of the war, in 1862 and 1863, they not only shared a bed frequently, but Lincoln once answered a knock at his bedroom door while wearing Derickson's nightshirt as the captain slumbered in his sack. Gossipmeisters buzzed about them. The wife of a navy aide wrote, "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!"
More here.

In a particularly poignant moment in Lincoln [the Spielberg biopic], honest Abe spends a few moments with a handsome telegraph operator, played by a somewhat period-discordant Adam Driver. “Do we choose to be born? Are we fitted to the times we’re born into?” the Great Emancipator wonders aloud, gazing tenderly at the young man.

When considering the controversial matter of whether Abraham Lincoln was “gay,” that second question is the right one to ask. Some revisionist historians, over the past decade or so, have indeed argued that Lincoln was not fitted to his time, for while he married or was otherwise involved with at least three women over the course of his life (and had four children with Mary Todd), certain bits of evidence suggest that his true romantic desires were directed toward men. Other historians, of course, reject this claim as an activist imposition at worst, a wishful over-reading of a few vaguely suggestive nuggets at best. The truth? It all depends on how you read the clues—which is to say, we probably will never know it.

What’s clear is that the historical Lincoln maintained intimate friendships with men—especially Joshua Speed, with whom a young Lincoln shared a bed for four years following his move in 1837 to Springfield, Ill., and a lifelong correspondence thereafter. But was this relationship romantic and/or sexual, or something more commonplace in an age that was blessed with a more diverse range of male relationships than our modern, hypersensitive, “no homo” era? Based on the available evidence, most historians say we simply can’t be sure. Men in Lincoln’s time often shared beds for economic reasons, just as they share apartments now, and homosocial expressions of affection were completely acceptable, even encouraged.
More here.

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 invoke Lincoln in one breath and denounce the homosexual menace in the next would be forced to reexamine the deeper meaning of the phrase “With malice toward none; with charity for all.” 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 living with Sen. William King. 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 Russell says he chose not to include him in “The Gay 100″ — he just wasn’t anything to be proud of.
More here.

By C. A. Tripp.
Edited by Lewis Gannett.
343 pp. Free Press. $27.

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 was in 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.
More here.

But after 140 years of manipulation, can Lincoln's memory ever again find its true shape?

Abraham Lincoln died shortly after 7 a.m. on April 15, 1865. "Now he belongs to the ages," Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War, said at the President's deathbed. It was a prescient thought, because it suggested not only the long cultural presence ahead for Lincoln but also the fact that generations would possess him.

From the start, his memory was molded to serve a purpose. When telegraph wires clicked with the news that Lincoln had been shot at Ford's Theatre, the nation was facing the monumental and confounding task of restoring peace after four years of broiling war. Lincoln had thought both North and South were complicit in the shame of slavery. He even suggested, in his second Inaugural Address, that God may have brought "this terrible war" to punish both regions, urging the nation to bind up its wounds "with malice towards none, with charity for all."

He wanted reconciliation, but his eulogists struck a different note. With a sentimental tip of the hat to the fallen leader, many Northern journalists, preachers and politicians actually tried to use Lincoln's death to stoke the fires of vengeance. "If the rebels can do a deed like this to the kind, good, generous, tender-hearted ruler, whose every thought was purity," exclaimed Benjamin Butler, a general in the war, to a crowd in New York City, "whose every desire a yearning for forgiveness and peace, what shall be done to them in high places who guided the assassin's knife?" The crowd began to chant, "Hang them! Hang them!" The assassination, Northern leaders saw, had a great political value. "His death," noted a caucus of Republican Congressmen, "is a godsend to our cause."
More here.

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