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|National Gay History Project highlights LGBT people among nation’s founders|
|Written by National Gay History Project|
|Friday, 28 October 2011 00:00|
James Buchanan: America’s first gay president?
More than 150 years before America elected its first black president, Barack Obama, it most likely had its first gay president, James Buchanan (1791-1868).
Buchanan, a Democrat from Lancaster County, Pa., was the 15th president of the United States, and a lifelong bachelor. He served as president from 1857-61, tumultuous years leading up to the Civil War.
Historian James W. Loewen has done extensive research into Buchanan’s personal life, and he’s convinced Buchanan was gay. Loewen is the author of the acclaimed book “Lies Across America,” which examines how historical sites inaccurately portray figures and events.
“I’m sure that Buchanan was gay,” Loewen said. “There is clear evidence that he was gay. And since I haven’t seen any evidence that he was heterosexual, I don’t believe he was bisexual.”
According to Loewen, Buchanan shared a residence with William Rufus King, a Democratic senator from Alabama, for several years in Washington, D.C.
Loewen also said Buchanan was “fairly open” about his relationship with King, causing some colleagues to view the men as a couple. For example, Aaron Brown, a prominent Democrat, writing to Mrs. James K. Polk, referred to King as Buchanan’s “better half,” “his wife” and “Aunt Fancy … rigged out in her best clothes.”
In 1844, when King was appointed minister to France, he wrote Buchanan, “I am selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation.”
Loewen also said a letter Buchanan wrote to a friend after King went to France shows the depth of his feeling for King.
“I am now solitary and alone, having no companion in the house with me,” Buchanan wrote. “I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”
Loewen said their relationship — though interrupted due to foreign-service obligations — ended only with King’s death in 1853.
Loewen said many historians rate Buchanan as one of the worst U.S. presidents. Buchanan was part of the pro-slavery wing of the Democratic Party, and corruption plagued his administration.
But Loewen said those flaws shouldn’t discourage members of the LGBT community from acknowledging Buchanan’s status as a gay man.
“If we only admit that really great people are gay, what kind of history is that?”
— Timothy Cwiek
William Rufus King: First gay U.S. vice president?
William Rufus DeVane King, the 13th United States vice president, has the distinction of having served in that office for less time than any other vice president.
He died of tuberculosis on April 18, 1853, just 25 days after being sworn into office on March 24, 1853.
Some historians have speculated that King holds yet another distinction — the likely status of being the first gay U.S. vice president and possibly one of the first gay members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
King (1786-1853) served in the House of Representatives from North Carolina for six years beginning in 1811 and later served in the Senate from the newly created state of Alabama from 1819-44, when he became U.S. minister to France.
He returned to the Senate in 1848, where he served until he resigned after winning election in November 1852 as vice president on the ticket of Franklin Pierce.
A lifelong bachelor, King lived for 15 years in the home of future U.S. president James Buchanan while the two served in the Senate. Buchanan, also a lifelong bachelor, is believed by some historians to be the nation’s first gay president.
King’s relationship with Buchanan, who was from Pennsylvania, could have been a factor in Buchanan’s sympathy for the South.
Most accounts by historians of King’s political career portray him as a moderate southerner who supported slavery while emerging as a strong unionist. King voiced opposition calls by some of his fellow southerners for the South to secede from the United States during the tense decade prior to the Civil War.
— Lou Chibbaro Jr
Friedrich Von Steuben: Father of the U.S. military
There are few historians today who would doubt that Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Von Steuben was gay.
To appreciate the contributions von Steuben (1730-94) made to the American Revolution, consider this: Before his arrival in Valley Forge in 1778, the Revolutionary Army had lost several battles to Great Britain and, without him, the USA might still be the British colonies.
Before Valley Forge, the Revolutionary Army was a loosely organized, rag-tag band of men with little military training. Gen. George Washington and the Continental Congress knew that without help from additional seasoned military experts, the colonies would clearly lose.
Washington wrote the colonies’ representative in Paris, Benjamin Franklin, to see what he could come up with. Franklin learned of a “brilliant” Prussian military genius, Lt. Gen. Baron Frederich von Steuben.
During the interview process, Franklin discovered von Steuben’s reputation for having “affections” with males and the issue became pressing as members of the French clergy demanded the French court, as in other countries, take action against this sodomite. They had decided to run him out of France.
Franklin had a choice here, and he decided von Steuben’s expertise was more important to the colonies than his sexuality.
Washington and Franklin’s trust in von Steuben was rewarded. He whipped the rag-tag army of the colonies into a professional fighting force, able to take on the most powerful superpower of the time, England.
Washington rewarded Von Steuben with a house at Valley Forge, which he shared with his aide-de-camps Capt. William North and Gen. Benjamin Walker.
Walker lived with him through the remainder of his life, and von Steuben, who neither married nor denied any of the allegations of homosexuality, left his estate to North and Walker.
His will, which includes the line “extraordinarily intense emotional relationship,” has been described as a love letter to Walker.
— Mark Segal
Abraham Lincoln: A presidential life in the closet?
Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) may likely be the most studied and researched of the United States presidents. The first reference to him possibly being “homosexual” came from notable Lincoln expert Carl Sandburg in his 1926 biography, “Abraham Lincoln: The War Years.”
In describing the early relationship between Lincoln and his close friend, Joshua Fry Speed, Sandburg wrote “a streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets.” This line got historians talking about an issue from which many had previously shied away. Still, it wasn’t until 2005 when the first book was published on Lincoln’s relationships with men, C.A. Tripp’s “The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln.”
Detractors of Lincoln’s possible homosexuality, such as historian David Herbert Donald, often say there is no new evidence on Lincoln. Yet historians continue to draw fresh conclusions from Lincoln’s letters.
In 1830, when Lincoln’s family moved to Coles County, Ill., he headed out on his own. At age 22, he settled in New Salem, Ill., where he met Billy Greene — and, as Greene told Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon, the two “shared a narrow bed. When one turned over the other had to do likewise.” However, Lincoln was poor at the time and it was not unusual for men in poverty to share a bed.
In 1837, Lincoln moved to Springfield, Ill., to practice law and enter politics. That’s where he met the two men who would be his greatest friends throughout his life. One, Joshua Fry Speed, became his bed partner for a while; the other was law partner Herndon.
Speed and Lincoln were almost inseparable. Most Lincoln historians agree this relationship was the strongest and most intimate of the president’s life. What they don’t agree on is why they slept in the same bed together for four years when they had the space and means to sleep separately, as was expected of men their age.
They were no longer young and poor. And this was a house with ample room.
By 1840, both Lincoln and Speed — now 31 and 26— were considered well past the marrying age. Both bachelors reportedly were hesitant to tie the knot, but it was a de-facto requirement to have a wife if you wanted to move in political circles — or at least create the perception of interest in marriage.
Speed takes the marriage plunge first and moves back to Kentucky, leaving Lincoln. Lincoln suffered a mental breakdown.
Lincoln’s most emotional and intimate writings were contained in his letters to Speed. From the time they lived together until shortly after Speed married and moved to Kentucky, Lincoln always signed his letters “forever yours” or “yours forever.”
Lincoln married Mary Todd on Nov. 4, 1842, despite that he broke off their engagement two years earlier.
Even after the Civil War broke out and Speed lived in Kentucky — a border state — Lincoln and Speed continued to write. On numerous occasions, Speed visited Lincoln at the White House; he even spent a night with Lincoln in the president’s cottage at the Soldier’s Home.
After Speed and Lincoln’s marriages, there were no traces of other men in Lincoln’s life until Elmer Ellsworth in 1860. Lincoln invited Ellsworth, who had been a law clerk in Chicago, to move to Springfield to study law.
One author wrote that it seemed Lincoln had a “schoolboy crush” on the much-younger Ellsworth. He first worked in Lincoln’s law practice, then moved on to his political career and eventual campaign for president. Once elected, Lincoln asked Ellsworth to accompany his family to Washington. Ellsworth would be the first Union soldier killed in the war.
In 1862, Lincoln met Capt. David Derickson, who served as his bodyguard. Historians note two recorded mentions that Lincoln and Derickson slept in the same bed.
— Mark Segal
Katherine Lee Bates: Author of ‘America the Beautiful’
Katherine Lee Bates was born on Aug. 12, 1859, on Cape Cod in Falmouth, Mass.
Bates’ interest in writing started at an early in life. By age 6, she started keeping a diary. At age 9, one entry stated, “I like women better than men.”
At age 17, Bates began her long time association with Wellesley College, entering along with 43 other girls in the class of ’80. She would be president of her class.
After receiving her B.A. from Wellesley College in 1880, Bates entered her career as a teacher. In 1885, she was invited back to Wellesley College to join the English department.
Bates took a cross-country train trip to Colorado Springs in 1893 — she’d been asked to teach a summer session at Colorado College — that sparked the start of her work on her best known poem, “America the Beautiful.”
Bates stopped at the Chicago family home of Katherine Coman, professor of economics and history at Wellesley. The two had met in 1887, and would live together for more than 25 years in what was known as a “Boston marriage.”
Both Katherines boarded a train bound for Colorado. They would together view the Rocky Mountains for the first time. Inspired by the majestic view, Bates wrote the start of what would later be known as “America the Beautiful.”
Her first version of the poem “America the Beautiful” appeared in the Congregationalist on July 4, 1895. It was later set to music and became known as “the other national anthem.”
Coman died of breast cancer in 1915, at age 57. Bates told a friend, “So much of me died with Coman that I’m sometimes not quiet sure whether I’m alive or not.” Bates died in 1929.
— Judd Proctor and Brian Burns
Editor’s note: October was LGBT History Month, and the National Gay History Project focused this year on LGBT people involved in the founding of the United States.
Top photo: James Buchanan
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