Cathy Young: Response Thus Far to the "Lincoln Was Gay" Book

Roundup: Talking About History

Cathy Young, in the Boston Globe (1-31-05):

[Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.]

WAS ABRAHAM LINCOLN gay? And does it matter? These questions have been the subject of heated debate in the past few weeks, thanks to a new posthumous book by the late sex researcher C.A. Tripp,"The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln."

The gay Lincoln theory has been floated among the academic left before, but the current debate brings it closer to the mainstream. Andrew Sullivan, the right-of-center gay commentator usually known for challenging politically correct orthodoxy, has proclaimed in an online New Republic essay that the only question left is just how gay Lincoln was. Rejection of this"truth," Sullivan has argued, stems from the homophobia of the modern Republican establishment -- epitomized, to him, by an attack on Tripp's book in the conservative Weekly Standard, accompanied by a cartoon of a limp-wristed Lincoln.

But while the cartoon is cringeworthy, the article, by former Tripp coauthor Philip Nobile, makes some devastating points about the book's cavalier treatment of its material and possible plagiarism.

And what of the scathing criticism from reviewers in no way linked to a right-wing antigay agenda -- such as Rutgers historian David Greenberg, who, in Slate.com, dismisses the book as"tendentious, sloppy, and wholly unpersuasive"? The New Republic itself ran an equally negative review by Princeton feminist historian Christine Stansell, posted online two days before Sullivan's essay.


Nobile writes that gay playwright/activist Larry Kramer threatened to expose him as a"homophobe" if he attacked Tripp's book, telling him that"gay people need a role model." More recently, Kramer has been quoted as saying,"It's a revolutionary book because the most important president in the history of the United States was gay. . . . Now maybe they'll leave us alone, all those people in the party he founded."

While it's highly dubious that even true revelations about Lincoln's sexuality could affect Republican policies today, the desire to find gay heroes in history is understandable, given the vilification of gays that persists. But subordinating history to identity politics is never a good idea.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has written that even if Tripp had proved his case, many Americans would be reluctant to recognize that one of our greatest presidents was gay. True, and unfortunate. But it's equally unfortunate that clear-thinking people like Sullivan would embrace a shoddy piece of historical speculation to help their cause. Untruth has yet to set anyone free.

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Jim Lynch - 2/12/2005

Those who espouse the "Lincoln was gay belief" put me in mind of those southerners who, during the war, contended and broadcast the fiction that Lincoln was black. "Not that there's anthing wrong with that", as Jerry Seinfeld might say. Still, there's not a lick of proof to support either conclusion. Any more than, say, Lincoln was descended from the ancient Irish royalty that my father always assured me was my proud lineage. My mother's side of the family, he was always careful to add, provided the sturdy peasant stock that would serve me well in times of adversity.