17 February 2014

Was He? Does It Matter?

Here in the US, today is “Presidents’ Day”.  In my childhood and adolescence, schools were closed on the 12th of February to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s (but not Charles Darwin’s) birthday and on the 22nd for George Washington’s birth.  Some time when I was in college, I think, the two holidays were combined into a Monday observance.

I haven’t seen many attempts to psychoanalyze George Washington.  However, about a decade ago, it seemed fashionable (at least among actual and wannabe historians) to speculate on Lincoln’s sexual proclivities.  More than a few people who were trying to make names for themselves or simply to seem smart (to whom, I don’t want to know) claimed that Lincoln was gay.  They cited such evidence as the fact that he sometimes shared his bed with other men and that he seemed distant, even cold, toward his wife.

Now, I would not be upset if someone could prove once and for all that “Honest Abe” was indeed a homophile.  However, I also can’t say that the question of whether or not he was doesn’t occupy my mind.  For that matter, I don’t find myself thinking much at all about whether famous historical figures were straight, gay or whatever, unless it has some obvious bearing on their actions.

To be perfectly honest, I never could impute any sort of sexuality to Lincoln.  In every portrait I’ve seen of him—and the monument to him in Washington, DC—he simply seems too dour to experience any sort of passion or pleasure.  In fact, the time I saw his larger-than-life statue in the nation’s capital, all I could think was, “Shit, that guy was ugly!”  

About his sharing his bed:  It wasn’t uncommon in those days before central heating and such.  Even today, people of the same sex sometimes share a bed because they’re sharing the same space—for the same reasons people who aren’t romantically linked would share a space.  Also, if he was indeed cold or distant to his wife, I could easily understand it, having seen the portraits and read accounts of him.  His contemporaries noted that he often seemed sad and distant; he himself confessed to suffering bouts of depression. As someone who can honestly say she’s experienced her share of despair, I can attest to the difficulty of letting yourself get close to someone, or letting someone get close to you, when you’re trying to find your own self-worth.

The real point, though, is that trying to “prove” that some long-dead historical figure was gay or lesbian or straight makes the person trying to make the case—and the group into which the person is trying to fit said historical figure—seem less credible and overly concerned with the seemingly trivial.

If anything, I think it’s more important for LGBT people to figure out whether we can apply any of his methods or lessons to our own struggles. As to whether he would have supported same-sex marriage…well, he believed that people should be free and equal.  I’ll leave it at that.

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