In the recent debate around gay marriage, the Log Cabin Republicans have come up. I understand their deal is that Abraham Lincoln was gay and grew up in a log cabin, so they align themselves with his sexuality through endorsing his upbringing. Whatever. My question is, how valid is the allegation of Honest Abe being gay? I realize that "we may never really know," but my impression is that he was a rowdy skirt chaser in his youth. What evidence do we have that he chased pants as well? Surely having a harridan for a wife isn't evidence enough?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
You got me, partner. On the one hand, Abe has merely joined the long list of famous parties dubiously outed by gay activists, who are presumably prompted by the same impulse that leads African-Americans to claim Cleopatra was black. (She was Macedonian Greek, in case you’re wondering.) As literary scholar Richard Kaye noted in the Village Voice‘s Queer Issue last year, other supposed gays in history include Jane Austen, Adolf Hitler, Eleanor Roosevelt, Robin Hood, T.S. Eliot, and Jesus. On the other hand, Lincoln slept with a man for years and seems to have had little use for women — you can see where people nowadays might jump to conclusions. Considering how the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings thing turned out, I wouldn’t be too quick to say they’re wrong.
The chief evidence, if such it be, of Lincoln’s homosexual inclination is his relationship with Joshua Speed, a handsome 22-year-old shopkeeper when the two men met in 1837. Abe, then a 28-year-old lawyer with bright prospects but poor cash flow, arrived in Springfield, Illinois, and asked about the price of bedding at Speed’s general store. Learning that Lincoln was nearly broke, Speed invited him to share his bed upstairs. “The traveler inspected the bed and, looking into the merchant’s sparkling blue eyes, agreed on the spot,” Carol Lloyd wrote in Salon in 1999. “For the next four years the two men shared that bed along with their most private fears and desires.”
Sure, Lloyd’s retelling is tongue-in-cheek. While two young single guys in the same bed might seem pretty hot to us, the objective in pioneer days was usually just to stay warm. Nonetheless the intimacy of the two men’s friendship suggests to some that there was more going on than frontier privation or fear of frostbite — and rabble-rousing gay activist Larry Kramer says he has proof, namely hitherto unknown letters and a diary kept by Speed. At a gay and lesbian conference in 1999 Kramer read from his unfinished book “The American People,” quoting that diary: “He often kisses me when I tease him, often to shut me up … he would grab me up by his long arms and hug and hug,” Speed purportedly wrote. “Yes, our Abe is like a schoolgirl.” But Kramer won’t submit his source material to scrutiny until the book’s publication, so who knows if it’ll wash. C.A. Tripp, a former Kinsey researcher and author of the milestone 1975 text The Homosexual Matrix, reportedly finished a book making similar claims shortly before his death in 2003, but there’s no news on when we’ll see it.
Anyhow. Five years have passed with no sign of Kramer’s magnum opus, and the natives are getting restless. Historian Gabor Boritt calls Kramer’s claims “almost certainly a hoax”; Lincoln scholar David Donald says they’re “highly dubious.” Kramer for his part says Donald is a “dried old heterosexual prune at Harvard.” Meanwhile, others have been sifting the Lincoln coffee grounds for clues. Findings pro and con:
- “Abraham Lincoln did not like women,” writes psychobiographer Michael Burlingame. Certainly he wasn’t comfortable around them, judging from remarks by contemporaries. Accounts of romantic encounters are few and often disputed. His marriage to Mary Todd, while perhaps not the nightmare some paint it as, was neither peaceful nor happy. Shortly after his assassination a story circulated that as a young man he’d fallen in love with one Ann Rutledge, whose untimely death left him inconsolable, but recent scholarship casts doubt on its veracity. Lincoln may have patronized prostitutes, but the most common such tale sounds suspiciously like a barroom joke — the woman asked for five dollars, but Lincoln had only three, and rather than owe her the rest, Honest Abe buttoned up his pants and left.
- Abe’s enemies accused him of plenty, but never a yen for men. Today we’re all but sure J. Edgar Hoover was gay and that Jefferson sired children by a slave, but people suspected as much at the time. No comparable rumors swirled around Lincoln. It’s not like folks in the 19th century didn’t know what homosexuality was — Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, the only bachelor president, roomed for years with an unmarried U.S. senator and took plenty of flak for it. We’ll see if the Tripp and Kramer books can settle this matter — Lincoln’s sexual orientation is one question DNA tests seem unlikely to resolve.
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