We Were Here, We Were Maybe QueerNew Historical Biographies Tell Us to Get Used to It

Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers—and most infamous tyrants—were getting down with other men. Or so some folks would like us to believe. Historians and posthumous biographers have of late been venturing into the relatively uncharted territory of sexual historiography, exhuming some celebrated corpses to uncover the steamy, secret queer lives they once lived. Tom Cruise and Jodie Foster can breathe easy because, at least for the moment, Americans seem interested in speculating more about the sexual preferences of deceased historical figures ranging from Adolf Hitler to Abraham Lincoln than about the same-sex rendezvous of still-living celebrities. The past several years have seen the release of C.A. Tripp’s controversial book The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln and German historian Lothar Machtan’s book The Hidden Hitler (and a subsequent documentary, The Hidden Führer, that further explores the possibility of a gay Hitler). In their respective attempts to establish that Hitler and Lincoln were gay, Machtan and Tripp rely almost entirely on speculation. Tripp, for instance, cites a silly poem Lincoln wrote about two men marrying, his stepmother’s description of Abe as being ambivalent about girls, and a four-year sleeping arrangement that had Lincoln sharing a bed with friend Joshua Fry Speed to conclude that Lincoln was “predominantly homosexual.” Machtan, meanwhile, suggests that Hitler was openly gay until he sought public office, at which point he got himself a girlfriend—though their sex life, according to the alleged revelations of a lonely Eva Braun, was lacking at best—and left others to do the dirty work of executing queers in concentration camps. Why have we become so obsessed with outing historical figures? Have we simply run out of living people whose sexual preferences we can speculate about? Unlikely: The talk about Tom Cruise alone could go on forever (or half a million Google hits, last time I checked). Are we just more comfortable talking about sex and sexuality than we were back when Lincoln and Hitler were alive? Probably, but that alone doesn’t explain the fascination with retroactive outing.

It may sound a bit naive, even heterosexist, but my own gut reaction when, as an undergraduate, I became aware of the gay historiographies of some other influential people—writer Oscar Wilde, poet Emily Dickinson, and actor Rock Hudson, to name a few—was that there could be only one explanation. Surely the publication of such speculation was a means for gays and lesbians to claim as their own prominent historical figures previously assumed to be straight—and, more important, a way to identify role models for the closeted and openly out alike.

Homo skeptical

It wasn’t until I learned of Machtan’s book, after its 2001 publication, that I was forced to reconsider. What benefit could the queer community possibly reap from news that the world’s most notorious mass murderer was a closeted homosexual, a tyrant who killed millions of other queers to conceal his own self-loathing? It seems like the worst possible kind of pr for a community still struggling to convince psychiatrists, political and religious leaders, and a great number of their fellow citizens that homosexuality is neither sick nor abnormal.

Filmmaker Fenton Bailey thought the issue was worth exploring in greater depth, and so he, along with Randy Barbato, made The Hidden Führer: Debating the Enigma of Hitler’s Sexuality, the 2004 documentary that features historians and queer activists debating the validity of Machtan’s claims. “I don’t know any gay person who [wants] Hitler as a role model,” Bailey says. “Gay scholars felt [Machtan’s thesis] was homophobic. Historians, on the flip side, felt the homosexuality of a historical figure was not relevant.”

Bailey, who is himself gay, found the idea of writing off Hitler’s possible homosexuality (as many historians and gay advocates did when Machtan’s book came out) “bothersome,” and wanted to explore it further. The filmmaker isn’t concerned that he and Hitler might share the same sexual preference. “Gayness,” he says, “is a part of life. There are good gay people and bad gay people. It’s only in a world where homophobia is prevalent that being gay becomes charged—wrongly so.”

Even if Bailey’s investigation of Hitler’s sexuality was at least partially motivated by the filmmaker’s own sexual orientation, the project also makes sense from a political standpoint. We’ve all heard the explanation that Hitler, allegedly part Jewish himself, exterminated six million Jews out of self-hatred. And though the way that the Holocaust is typically taught and commemorated might make you think that all of Hitler’s victims were Jewish, another six million were also killed for their so-called imperfections—in many cases, their queerness. Examining Hitler’s self-hatred to explain significant historical actions—the murder of millions of queers in Nazi Germany, for instance—is just good scholarship, a means to expand the record on one of history’s worst human-made tragedies. After all, says Carolyn Dinshaw, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University, this was one of the benefits of “outing” when that practice was named in the early 1990s: It could “bring to light a suggestion that a person in public life who had been actively doing something to harm gays was in fact involved in some kind of gay life.”

But what about Honest Abe? As far as we know, he did nothing to harm gays in his public life. And as far as the relevance of his sexual orientation to his politics goes, well, he did free the slaves, and we could presume that he championed emancipation partly out of a respect for human rights he developed as a result of his own identity as an other. But it would be a tenuous connection—and neither Tripp nor any other historian has attempted to make it—since the evidence of Lincoln’s homosexuality is tentative at best.

Of course, as U.S. history teachers have gone to great lengths to ingrain in young minds for 150 years, Lincoln was a great man with heroic qualities. So why wouldn’t the queer community want to claim him as one of its own? Gay activist and rabble-rouser Larry Kramer, in defending Tripp’s book, has stressed that gay people need a role model like Lincoln. (He also claimed that he had evidence that Lincoln was gay well before The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln was published in 2004.) But while Kramer believes that Tripp’s book gave the queer community a new hero, this doesn’t seem to be the reason that Tripp—the first person to publish a thorough investigation of Lincoln’s sexual orientation—undertook the task of outing Lincoln. Tripp himself was gay, but according to historian Jean Baker (who wrote the book’s foreword after Tripp’s death in 2003), he “never really thought of himself as gay. [Tripp] wasn’t [like most] post-Stonewall homosexuals, who [really stress their gayness] as part of their overall identity.” Consequently, says Baker, Tripp didn’t have the queer community specifically in mind; his interest in the former president’s sexuality simply derived from his own work in sex research—he once worked alongside famed researcher Alfred Kinsey—and human sexuality.

But regardless of Tripp’s intentions or personal motivations, the book can’t help but resonate within queer communities and the realm of queer studies. In fact, Baker says she’s received several calls from writers at queer publications who had hoped that Tripp would make a stronger case for a homosexual Lincoln, and were disappointed by what they got.

Perhaps they were looking for a hero after all.

The gays of our lives

Posthumous sexual speculation is a phenomenon that goes well beyond Lincoln and Hitler. Alexander the Great, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, J. Edgar Hoover, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, Eleanor Roosevelt, T.S. Eliot, and Jesus—yes, Jesus—are just a few of the historical figures whose heterosexuality has been drawn into question off and on since their deaths. Given the diversity of this cast of characters, both kind and corrupt, popular and unpopular, there must be a more overarching, less partisan, and less self-interested explanation for the public outing of historical figures.

But journalist and gay activist Michael Bronski isn’t so sure such a neutral explanation is possible. “A lot of times, labeling historical figures as gay or straight is a way of identifying people as being ‘good’ or ‘bad.’… It often comes down to whether we like them. If so, they couldn’t be anything other than heterosexual. If we don’t like them, it’s easier to label them as gay.” (Or vice versa, depending on who’s doing the labeling.)

None of us can disregard the role sexual identity plays in our lives, so why should we be expected to ­disregard the role sexuality plays in the lives of influential people, whether they’re historical or contemporary? Consider, for instance, the Holly­wood types whom we clamor to define as gay or straight, and whose ­sexual ­orientations are subjected to a battle of hide-and-seek in our media.

There’s Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon, for instance, who in September 2004 was outed by the New York Daily News with the headline “Miranda Switches Sides.” Nixon, it seemed, had broken up with her longtime male partner, the father of her two children, and a few months later had begun seeing a woman. Though dozens of other outlets picked up the story, they couldn’t maintain the momentum for long, simply because Nixon wouldn’t give the media more to chew on. She neither named names nor took her significant other to subsequent media events, knowing that doing so would only further subject her to the rumor mill. What’s problematic about the outing of Nixon is the hetero/homo binary the media relied on to report the story. While Nixon became involved with a woman after being with a man (and perhaps before being with other men, or a combination of men and women), the media designated her a lesbian, obscuring the complex nature of sexual orientation and desire and leaving no room to transform the language we use to discuss sexuality.

Then there’s Desperate Housewives star Marcia Cross, who last February was rumored to be coming out in an upcoming Advocate cover story. Unconcerned with “proving” her heterosexuality, Cross responded to the kerfuffle by citing her support of the queer community and her gay colleagues and relatives, and surmising that the lesbian rumors were most likely an attempt to explain why she’s 42 and single. (According to New York Post gossip columnist Liz Smith, when a male admirer told Cross at a Hollywood gala this past March, “I heard you were gay. Let’s get a room and prove that wrong,” she replied, “Sorry. I’d much rather be gay than sleep with you just to prove I wasn’t.”)

And then there’s Tom Cruise, perhaps Hollywood’s longest-running subject of is-he-or-isn’t-he rumor-mongering. Some of the gossip about Cruise’s sexuality might be incited by ex- or even current male lovers trying to validate a secret relationship with Cruise; it could also be the product of an unsuccessful smear campaign to wreck the esteemed actor’s career; or it could simply be wishful thinking. But the gossip has also managed to sustain life years after its inception thanks to gay folks who like the idea of Cruise being gay. Take queer writer Christopher Kelly, who revealed in a Salon article that seeing Cruise rock out in his underwear in Risky Business was such a turn-on that Kelly couldn’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, Cruise was gay. “My admiration for him as a performer,” writes Kelly, “is entirely bound up in my desire for him as a sexual persona. In fact, I don’t think Cruise can separate these elements either; whether he realizes it or not, he’s grown as an actor by exploiting the very things—a classic face, a perfect body, a predilection toward sexually ambiguous parts—that have also made him a gay icon.”

What’s interesting about this speculation is the way Cruise has responded: with a string of gorgeous actress wives and girlfriends, a defamation lawsuit against gay-porn star Kyle Bradford (who publicly claimed an affair with Cruise) in 2001, and perennial threats of litigation over other queer allegations. Just as tabloids and gay men alike are intent on reading into the details of Cruise’s life—from the ladies on his arm to his adopted children—to prove he’s hiding something, the actor himself seems all too determined to prove his heterosexuality through his body language (or in a court of law).

Further highlighting the distinction between attempts to out Cruise and Cross is the fact that the media wasn’t even looking at Cross’s actions or statements to determine her sexual orientation. Rather, rumors about Cross were incited by a single anonymous source, who claimed in the popular queercentric gossip forum DataLounge.com that one of the Housewives stars would be announcing her relationship with another actress in a future issue of the Advocate. As one of the few unmarried House­wives off the set (and one who was rumored to be a lesbian back in her Melrose Place days), Cross sent the gossip mill a-whirling from The View to the Boston Herald.

These contemporary attempted outings illustrate the mainstream media’s heteromasculine bent. Stories about so-called lesbians are played up in a way that inspires fantasies of two women together, like Nixon and her partner or Cross and her rumored leading lady, in the minds of an audience—whether that audience is a stereotypical heterosexual male, a lesbian, or anyone else who likes the idea. At the same time, gay rumors about men like Cruise are played up in a way that makes these men seem a little less male (implying, for example, that Cruise’s sexuality is why he and Nicole Kidman adopted children), inspiring—at least in Cruise’s case—responses that serve to reiterate his heterosexuality and masculinity. Elsewhere, the media scarcely mentions same-sex relationships like those of the openly gay actress Portia de Rossi or the late writer Susan Sontag—rewarding them, in a way, for not hiding their sexuality. But the media isn’t so quick to lay off those who deny such claims and leave open the question of whether they’re straying from heterosexual norms of desire. And perhaps predictably, the media isn’t so protective of those who, from six feet under, can’t confirm or deny the rumors.

“Often people say, ‘I may be gay, but [my gayness] doesn’t define me,’” remarks Fenton Bailey. “Fair enough, but I think sexuality is a very important attribute, so to exclude it and say it shouldn’t be taken into consideration when looking at someone’s biography is shortsighted. It’s a mistake.”

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be the overarching subject of an investigation of a historical figure like Lincoln, particularly if his sexual ­identity wasn’t significant to his public work. In the case of Lincoln, the intense speculation offered by Tripp’s book can seem like inane gossip, especially given that Tripp pores over the intricacies of Lincoln’s relationship with Joshua Fry Speed much like Us Weekly trying to decipher Brad and Angelina’s romantic status through their body language.

The reason that neither Hitler’s nor Lincoln’s alleged homosexuality has attracted much attention, at least according to the historical record, until now most likely isn’t because these men were so good at hiding their homosexuality or because historians weren’t interested in the allegations. The explanation is likely more prosaic. For one thing, the private lives of public figures were far ­different than they are today; likewise, same-sex relationships were not automatically assumed to have the ­sexual frisson they do today. With men and women in spheres that were firmly constrained by gender roles, both men and women had the kind of close, emotionally demonstrative affection for their respective genders that would surely subject them to a gossip-column frenzy today. These friendships—which both Tripp and Machtan use as the primary evidence of their subjects’ homosexuality—were a matter of course, not a cause for speculation.

As Lisa Duggan, a professor of American studies at New York University, emphasizes, “Hetero/homosexual identity is a relatively recent, geographically specific development. In the U.S. before the late 19th century, sexual relations between people of the same gender were considered to be something you do—like mastur­bation—not something you are. Though laws and culture might pathologize same-sex relations as ‘sodomy,’ the propensity to commit it was something all people felt. This idea we now have that some people are [fully] heterosexual and some are [fully] homosexual—well, it doesn’t explain human diversity very well at all.”

The fundamental problem with current-day speculation about the sexual preferences of historical figures is that we end up superimposing our contemporary conception of what constitutes homosexuality, or what same-sex affection “really” means, on history. We are, as NYU’s Carolyn Dinshaw puts it, “engaged in acts of historical revisionism.”

Gossiping for our rights

Still, it’s worth asking whether such revisionism could be beneficial if, for instance, it enhances respect—and, by extension, civil rights—for contemporary gays and lesbians. What, if anything, are we contributing to the modern-day discourse on sexuality, and queerness in particular, by speculating about historical figures?

Baker, for one, sees a certain value in casting Lincoln as gay. She thinks that if “we can make the case that [Lincoln was] gay to [more conservative Americans] who also happen to love him, then they’d [embrace] a more tolerant attitude and think differently about homosexuality.”

But folks who want nothing to do with the subject of homosexuality are unlikely to pick up a book suggesting Lincoln was gay in the first place. And because historiographies like Tripp’s and Machtan’s rely almost entirely on circumstantial evidence, they seem destined to produce a never-ending cycle of speculation that isn’t fundamentally different from gossip. Sure, it can inspire future historians to seek out new evidence, to find the previously uncirculated letter or journal entry that might be the smoking gun. But these revelations come at the cost of an exploration of the more complex nature of sexuality and sexual identity. That is, notes activist Michael Bronski, “by asking questions like ‘Was Lincoln gay?’ we end up narrowing the discussion of sexual possibilities by presuming the totality of that person’s sexuality and the possible answers to that question.”

But at least we’re talking about sex and sexuality in a way that was unthinkable even 60 years ago. Ultimately, the greatest difference between us and the intriguing, sexually ambiguous figures of Hitler, Lincoln, et al., is time. Maybe talking about their sex lives—okay, spec­ulating about their sex lives—is our means of whittling away that distance, a way of dis­covering that the sexual complexities and freedoms of today aren’t as new as we often think they are. And if we can engage in a debate about the evidence—the male friendships, the timidity around women—maybe we can get a little ­closer to explaining how we define ­hetero- and homosexuality.

It may not be enough to free us from the binary world in which we live. But speculation about the alleged queerness of historical figures is a rather recent phenomenon. We’re still working on doing something other than gossiping for the sake of gossiping about the sexual orientations of living public figures. Perhaps we need to come to grips with our own conceptions of sexuality before we can dissect them in relation to sexual definitions of old—and decide just how honest Abe really was.

Laura Nathan is the editor of INTHEFRAY (http://inthefray.com), an online magazine about identity and community. She lives in New York.
This article was published in Truth & Consequences Issue #29 | Summer 2005

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

0 Comments Have Been Posted

Add new comment