Outing Abe

Also Adolf, Jesus, Eleanor, Robin Hood, and Other Historic Greats

The furor started at the Second International Robin Hood Conference, in 1999. In a paper mischievously titled "The Forest Queen," University of Wales professor Stephen Knight delivered a talk suggesting that the enduring myth of Robin and his devoted comrades was far more erotically charged than scholars had previously surmised.

Knight based his case on certain 14th-century ballads, the earliest known accounts of the 12th-century hero's deeds. Not only did these poems contain considerable homoerotic imagery ("references to arrows, quivers, and swords," Knight later told the London Sunday Times), but it was clear that Maid Marian never existed. She was an invention of 16th-century authors eager to make Robin palatable to readers who might have objected to the kind of homosexual subculture the church sent underground in the 13th century. In the time usually associated with breakthroughs in cancer research, the story hit the AP wires under the irresistible headline "Robin Hood Was Gay; Preferred Merrie Men."

Not since Jerry Falwell outed Tinky Winky had there been such an outcry. This was the latest skirmish in a sometimes ferocious battle involving real and mythic figures from history whose "secret" has become a source of pride for their admirers and an occasion for consternation among those who like their heroes and heroines straight.

The "outing" sensation of the late '80s, which focused largely on celebrities, has now migrated elsewhere, into a craving for disclosing the "gay lives" of celebrated figures from the past. The last several years have witnessed spirited attempts at outing an ever expanding number of notables: Jane Austen, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, and that Usual Suspect, Jesus (who, we are asked to believe, had sexual relations with his disciples). This is not just the stuff of tell-all biographies; a number of serious scholars are involved—and the issues being raised say a lot about the culture's ever uneasy attitude toward same-sex desire.

There is something for believers of every political stripe. The German historian Lothar Machtan's The Hidden Hitlerclaims that the Nazi leader was a same-sexer ("Adolf Hitler was fond of men," Machtan told Die Welt. "He had a homosexual nature"). A recent biography of Field Marshal Montgomery by Nigel Hamilton (entitled, of course, The Full Monty) claims that his most passionate relations were his "quasi-love affairs" with fellow soldiers. Carole Seymour-Jones's Painted Shadow, a recent biography of T.S. Eliot's first wife, Vivienne, insists that the poet's notorious marital problems stemmed from his unacknowledged homosexuality, a topic that has roiled Eliot scholars for years.

What accounts for the current hankering for gay and lesbian greats? Is it an at-long-last, salutary frankness in the writing of biography, or the trashy importation to serious scholarship of Inside Editionvalues? Is it an impulse to find "positive role models," or the displacement of frustrated movement aspirations onto a safely vanished and infinitely malleable past? Is this a highly functional mythology adopted by gay men and women who, consciously or unconsciously, seek exemplary, surrogate family figures?

Whatever the reason, it's a given that the outing of historical figures resonates with burning contemporary preoccupations. Within days of Knight's talk, several members of the Robin Hood Society voiced objections, with a Mary Chamberlain fulminating that "Robin remains a highly regarded figure the world over and children like to play at being Robin Hood. These claims could do a lot of damage." Those remarks led to her denunciation on the society's website.

Confronted with the recent surge of popular interest in biographical subjects with homosexual "pasts," more historically minded scholars go blue in the face as they insist it is misguided to strive to make contemporary concepts of sexual identity fit into eras in which they did not exist. Still, such scholarly objections don't often prevent the heterosexualization of notables. The creators of Shakespeare in Love clearly were loath to explore the implications of the "two loves" in the Bard's sonnets.

The "homosexual biography" as practiced today probably can be traced back to Freud's 1910 Leonardo da Vinci, which speculated wildly on its subject's sexuality and its supposed relation to his art (and which may have been inspired by Freud's conflicted relationship with his colleague Wilhelm Fliess). Freud's premise about Leonardo's sexuality, though not his speculation about its impact on Leonardo's art, is widely accepted. Still, there are some iconic figures one queries at one's peril.

Witness the controversy surrounding Stanford University professor Terry Castle's subtly argued claim that Jane Austen had a richly intimate relation to other women and possibly an "unconscious, homoerotic" attraction to her sister Cassandra. Castle deduced this not only from the language of the letters between these two women, but from the fact that they slept in the same bed. Because an editor at the London Review of Books gave Castle's piece the sensational headline "Was Jane Austen Gay?" all hell broke loose among those who like to think of the world of Mansfield Park as serenely straight. "I do not believe," sniffed one miffed Austenite on reading Castle's speculations about Austen's sleeping habits, "that a California intellectual can appreciate just how cold English homes get in the winter."

"It's not all that surprising that this is happening now," says historian John D'Emilio, author of Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the Unites States, 1940-1970, as well as a forthcoming biography of Bayard Rustin, the gay black civil rights leader. "It's so American to feel this need to look to the past for models to legitimize a group's history. It began with women and blacks and now it's taken up by gays and lesbians. The difference with homosexuality is that it is never so clear-cut, so even when the evidence is clear, it's not clear enough."

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