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Explaining a Presidential Relationship

Krissy Clark

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President Abraham Lincoln
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First, a note about gaydar. You know, radar that detects "gay-ness." The word gaydar, of course, didn't exist back in Abraham Lincoln's time. But if it had, and the facts of Lincoln's life had blipped across its screen, those facts would not have gone unnoticed.

Fact number one, explains historian Jean Baker: Lincoln's relationship with Joshua Speed, a shop keeper from Springfield, Ill. Lincoln was a young lawyer who'd just come into town, she explains. "Didn't have much money. Had all of his possessions in two saddlebags. He went to Joshua Speed's store. Now, Lincoln didn't know Speed."

But Speed knew of Lincoln. He was gaining quite a reputation for his powerful speeches in the state legislature. "And so," Baker says, "Lincoln arrives, and says he doesn't have enough money to buy a mattress, and so Speed immediately says, 'Oh, why don't you share mine?'"

Lincoln and Speed bedded down together above the store, in a room they shared with a few other bachelors. Four years later, Lincoln had made more than enough money to buy a mattress, but he was still there.

Lincoln eventually moved out, and got married. Still, he and Speed stayed devoted friends. They wrote tender letters to each other. Baker says Lincoln signed his "Yours, Forever."

But wait, there's more: Lincoln's late-in-life marriage at 32; his awkwardness around women; the poem he penned as a young man about two boys named Biley and Natty, who get married and have a baby.

"The egg it is laid," Lincoln wrote, "but Natty's afraid, that the shell is so soft it never will hatch."

And then there's David V. Derickson, one of Lincoln's body guards once he became president. Derickson "ate with Lincoln when Mary Lincoln was away, slept in the bed when she was away, and once, according to another officer, was discovered wearing Lincoln's night shirt," says Baker.

And yet, the surprising thing about Lincoln's personal life is not the male bed-fellows, the nightshirts, or the homo-erotic poetry. The surprising thing is that none of those intimate details seemed to matter back then.

One woman, the wife of a Washington bureaucrat, wrote a diary entry about the bodyguard rumors she'd heard: "'There is a bucktail soldier here devoted to the president, drives with him, and when Mrs. L is not home, sleeps with him.' What stuff!" But, in the gossip department, that was it.

Now, imagine how America would react tomorrow if we heard George Bush was sharing a bed with his bodyguard. His masculinity would be questioned. A fuse would blow in the country's collective gaydar. But in 1862? Baker says, Lincoln's close relations with men inspired more of a collective yawn. "In his time," she says, "Lincoln was mocked for many, many things. But he was never, never mocked for this."

Of course there's a huge controversy over how to interpret the details of Lincoln's personal life. "I think what Lincoln's experience really alerts us to," says George Chauncey, a historian at Yale University," is that he and the people that lived in his time lived in a really different emotional and erotic universe than we do today."

For example, plenty of men shared beds in those days purely out of convenience, explains Chauncey. "You have to remember it was a much less rich society than this. There were a lot fewer beds to go around." You couldn't just go buy one at Ikea. And back then, there was nothing un-masculine about writing tender things to a male friend.

So was Lincoln gay or wasn't he? No one knows. But that's not the most interesting question, says Chauncey. What interests Chauncey is this: when did American's start caring about who was gay and who wasn't? When did who you sleep with start to define who you are?

Chauncey says the categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality just didn't exist in most of the 19th century in the way that they do for us today. Now, he says, "They stand as really powerful boundaries as we're trying to think about who we are sexually." But back then, nobody defined themselves around those boundaries.

Of course, America has always liked its men manly, and its women feminine. Sodomy laws have been on the books since the beginning. But society's rules around what was proper masculine behavior took a dramatic shift in the early 1900s. To illustrate this point, Chauncey takes out some old pictures of the men's football team at Yale. First he shows photographs from the 1880s. "They've got their arms all over each other, they're leaning into each other. Touching each other's knees."

And then, around the 1920s, the poses start to change. "And suddenly they're putting their hands clasped before them, or on their hips, or clasped behind them. Anywhere but on the other men around them," Chauncey laughs. "And I think that that sort of records a growing anxiety around physical as well as emotional intimacy between men."

So how, in just a few decades, did America go from a place where manly men could openly share beds, to a place where male teammates kept their distance in front of the camera? And when did figuring out who's gay and who's not become a national obsession?

It's hard to say exactly. But Chauncey has two possible ingredients: an increased awareness of sex, thanks to Freud. And, Coney Island.

Or, at least, the rise of places like Coney Island. "Commercial amusements," Chauncey explains, "dance halls, certain kinds of restaurants and so forth. Places where younger men and women were encouraged to spend time together and develop partnerships in a way that wouldn't have been true in an earlier generation, when people were expected to remain fairly sex segregated."

By the 1920s, men and women had more places to flirt, to hang out, to share the same social space. And there were more chances to scrutinize how we behaved around each other. For men, it wasn't enough to be just one of the guys anymore. Now you had to broadcast your manliness -- a manliness that was becoming all wrapped up in how attracted you were to women.

Of course, even in Lincoln's day, there was at least one thing that could get a man immediately suspected of being un-masculine, deviant. Not voting. "If you didn't go to vote," explains historian Jean Baker, "you were called a 'Nancy Girl.'"

Voting was, after all, something only men could do at the time, she says. "And party politics was an entirely masculine affair, built around parades and solidarity among men."

The word homosexuality didn't exist back in Lincoln's day. But more than that, the concept didn't exist. People didn't have sexual identities, says Baker. "Today if you ask someone who they are, you might get the answer, 'I'm gay.' If you ask someone in the 19th century who they were, they'd say 'I'm a Republican from the state of Illinois.'"

So even if Lincoln was "gay," in the way we think about it today, his contemporaries cared much more about his political identity than his sexual one.

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    By Karen Morrison

    From OK, 01/27/2010

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    By JoeJoe Lawest

    From NYC, NY, 02/19/2009

    Interesting, BUT, male affection visible to public was quite different in the early 20th Century. I for one would like to boast Lincoln's sexuality as gay, but there is much too much interpritation. Feel being married to Mary Todd would have driven anyone to a male bed. C'est la vie. What was most important was THE MAN HIMSELF. JOEJOE

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