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Lincoln’s Bicentennial Resurrects ’Secret Gay Life’ Controversy

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Feb 13, 2009
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With the occasion of the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, rumors about the sexuality of one of America’s greatest presidents have resurfaced, charging up both left and right

The Feb. 12 episode of The Early Show on CBS addressed the long-simmering issue, according to a news item at right-wing Web site News Busters that same day.

According to Jeff Sammons, a professor of history with New York University, Abraham Lincoln shared a bed with another man, Joshua Speed, for four years, beginning when Lincoln was 28 and Speed 23--a well known fact that is not in dispute in and of itself.

But what right and left contend over is the question of whether two men sharing a bed, even over a long period of time, indicates a sexual relationship, or was merely a pragmatic response to the times, when living spaces were often not well heated and such sleeping arrangements between men did not necessarily carry a hint of anything more.

Calling speculations about Lincoln’s sexuality "revisionist rumors," the Newsbusters article also said that the segment called into question whether Lincoln, credited as the emancipator of America’s slaves, might not have been a racist who viewed African-Americans as "inferior."

The site posted a transcript of the exchange between Sammons and host Maggie Rodriguez, in which, among other topics, the two discuss Lincoln’s sexuality, with Sammons saying, "One of the very interesting stories about Abraham Lincoln is that he might have been gay.

"Lincoln actually did sleep in the same bed with a gentleman for a four-year period."

Responded Rodriguez, "So the question of Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality still remains a mystery."

Or, at the least, a topic capable of generating vigorous controversy, year after year. As far back as 1999, the media have been reporting on the conflicting views of Lincoln’s relationship with Joshua Speed, with a May 3, 1999 Salon.com reporting on a still-unpublished book by GLBT equality advocate and screenwriter Larry Kramer, who claims that Lincoln’s cohabitation with Speed, which took place in Springfield, Ill., was more than a practical solution to a housing problem.

The Salon.com article notes that, What [no major historian] questions is that Lincoln and Speed’s years of living together cemented a friendship unparalleled in its intimacy and tenderness in Lincoln’s life," though "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 explicitly discourage such interpretations."

That hasn’t stopped the issue from turning into a n intermittent point of contention in the so-called culture wars, with gays (conservative and liberal alike) claiming Lincoln as one of their own--the Salon.com article references a comment by one of the Log Cabin Republicans to the effect that Lincoln, credited with creating the modern Republican party, was gay.

Others are unconvinced that the four years the two men spent living together, the friendship they enjoyed for years afterwards, and the intimate letters they wrote to one another mean anything more or less than that the two were best friends--straight best friends, at that.

Salon.com quotes Kramer as saying, "There’s no question in my mind he was a gay man and a totally gay man."

Added Kramer, "It wasn’t just a period, but something that went on his whole life."

Ten years later, with Kramer’s book not yet available and questions about the authenticity of the evidence that Kramer has said he possesses, the go-to book on the subject remains C. A, Tripp’s "The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln," which declares that Lincoln was what Kinsey wold have called a "5" on his sexuality scale: "predominantly homosexual, but incidentally heterosexual," as Tripp sums it up.

Tripp also points to Lincoln’s bodyguard, Capt. David Derickson, who for about a year and a half, proponents of the gay Lincoln theory speculate, may have been Lincoln’s lover.

Though the issue has gained wider recognition (and controversy) since the mid-1990s, historians have grappled with the question of Lincoln’s sexual proclivities for far longer, according to an article at the History News Network Website posted on June 10, 2001. One famous, if non-historian, text that is often referenced is Carl Sandberg’s poem "The Prairie Years," which says that Lincoln’s friendship with Speed had a "streak of lavender."

To some, uch rush Limbaugh, suggestions that Lincoln may have been gay or bisexual constitute an attempt to diminish Lincoln. Gays bristle at the suggestion that to be gay is somehow inferior or reduces the historic significance of Lincoln’s tenure as president.

As with other notable figures from history that gays have embraced--Alexander the Great, for example--there’s always the impenetrable mystery of how the men in question saw themselves. "Gay" and "straight" as we currently understand them are modern classifications; it may be that the men both sides look on now would note have understood or even particularly cared about the distinction.

It’s also possible that in the future the current debate will seem trivial, even wasteful.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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