Outing Abe

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

"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."


The most contentious of recent outings involves Abraham Lincoln, who had a relationship with a 24-year-old merchant named Joshua Speed when the 28-year-old Lincoln was living as a bachelor in Springfield, Illinois. The rumor mill on the Lincoln-Speed case has been smoldering for years, beginning with Carl Sandburg's 1926 observation that their relationship held a "streak of lavender and spots soft as May violets." Scholars have long noted the intense bond between the two men, who lived together for four years and—once again, the controversy thrives on sleeping habits in cold climates—may have shared the same bed.

Illustration: Patrick Arrasmith
Illustration: Patrick Arrasmith

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The intensity of Lincoln's feelings for Speed is evident in Lincoln's depression after the younger man sold his store to return to his native Kentucky, an event that may have persuaded Lincoln to break off his engagement with Mary Todd. ("I am now the most miserable man living," Lincoln wrote. "To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better.")

There are two books in the works about the Lincoln-Speed case, one co-authored by former Kinsey researcher C.A. Tripp, another by Larry Kramer, whose forthcoming The American People will draw on hitherto unseen writings by Speed, some of which reportedly were found in the floorboards of the building he shared with Lincoln. Kramer has been wary about revealing the contents, but he did read passages from it at a 1999 gay studies conference at the University of Wisconsin. A local paper reprinted some of Kramer's more titillating quotes: "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." Describing his friend as "Linc," Speed described the future 16th president as a man who could not get enough huggin' and kissin'. "Yes, our Abe is like a schoolgirl."

It should be no surprise that Log Cabin Republicans are pushing the theory of a Lincoln-Speed affair. "Would the lonely young log splitter have had no chance in 34 years to figure out what men could do with one another?" asked W. Scott Thompson, a professor at Tufts University, in an article on Lincoln and Speed. "Where better for one's fantasies to incubate and elaborate than on such a wide-open frontier?" This may be a new genre, along the lines of what Pauline Kael once called, in discussing the movies of Ken Russell, "porn biography." The studly name of Joshua Speed is perfect for Thompson's steamy scenario.

D'Emilio sounds the note of the scrupulous historian informed by queer theory, which rejects the tendency to assign sexual identities to epochs in which they did not exist. "Of course, in prosperous 21st-century America everyone has his or her own bed. But that was not the case in the early part of the 19th century, where it was very common for men of Lincoln's class to share a bed with another man. I don't doubt that Lincoln and Speed had an intimate relationship—lots of men did then. It was totally typical, viewed as completely normative."

Where D'Emilio sees physical affection, historian Blanche Wiesen Cook sees erotic affiliations. "In her two-volume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, Cook did something extraordinary," D'Emilio notes. "She actually showed how Roosevelt's sexual relations with women mattered enormously in terms of the public arena in which Roosevelt moved. It gave her emotional support so that she could have a public life—and also lent her a certain outsider status that allowed her to be critical of aspects of American life that she found objectionable." Cook's argument has generated an endless debate, especially among those who questioned whether the sexually staid Eleanor could have had lesbian relations.


The gay politics of outing historical figures is extremely tricky, and not only because there are few progressives who would want to claim Hitler as Great Gay Father. For every gay activist who takes pleasure in imagining Lincoln as the cuddly intimate of other men, there's a biographer eager to prove that a "homosexual secret" is a subject's defining neurosis.

The British literary critic Hermione Lee has questioned the prosecutorial relish with which biographer Carole Seymour-Jones sought to demonstrate that T.S. Eliot was homosexual—a closeted, tormented Prufrock. Seymour-Jones makes her case by insisting that the poet engineered his first wife's social ostracism—and eventual banishment to an asylum—out of fear that she would expose his secret homosexuality. The charges, noted Lee in a Times Literary Supplement review, "seem to recriminalize homosexuality. The innuendos about Eliot's secret vices suggest that it is as shameful to be gay as it is to be an anti-Semite or a wife murderer."

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