Outing Abe


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 Hitler claims 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 Edition values? 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.”

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.

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.”

Yet these sensible objections are complicated by an anecdote that a musician friend has shared with me, a story he heard from the gay poet W.H. Auden. Auden had found himself at a social event with the author of “The Waste Land” and told Eliot that, while delivering a lecture at an American university, he had seen graffiti in a bathroom that read, “W.H. Auden Loves T.S. Eliot.” Eliot replied, “That’s alright—I’m one-third that way myself.” The story suggests any number of possibilities, all of them intriguing. Was the comment meant as a profound self-revelation about the poet’s life? Was it a casual confession of bisexuality, delivered in a spirit of friendly camaraderie? Did the percentage that Eliot assigned to his sexuality refer to periods in Eliot’s life or to what he considered an essential component of his makeup? Of course, the percentage will satisfy no one who wishes to “resolve” the question of Eliot’s erotic preferences.

When it comes to the ever shifting opacities of erotic desire, evidence can be very elusive. It is worth recalling that when Jerry Falwell outed Tinky Winky as homosexual, the Teletubbies’ spokespeople demonstrated an admirable precision in the game of revelation and decoding. “It’s not a purse,” one of them dryly admonished reporters after Falwell charged that Tinky Winky had a telltale carryall. “It’s a magic bag.”

Richard Kaye teaches English at Hunter College and is the author of The Flirt’s Tragedy: Desire Without End in Victorian and Edwardian Fiction (Virginia, 2002).

Research assistance: E. Timothy Martin