Andrew Sullivan: How Gay Was Lincoln?

Roundup: Talking About History

Andrew Sullivan, in the New Republic (1-11-05):

How gay was Abraham Lincoln? By asking the question that way, it's perhaps possible to avoid the historically futile, binary question of "gay" versus "straight." Futile, because we are talking about a man who lived well over a century ago, at a time when the very concepts of gay and straight did not exist. And C.A. Tripp, author of The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln was, despite the crude assertions of some reviewers, a Kinseyite who believed in a continuum between gay and straight. If completely heterosexual is a Kinsey zero and completely homosexual is a Kinsey six, Tripp puts Lincoln at five. Reading his engrossing, if uneven, book, I'd say you could make a case that Lincoln was, in fact, a four. It's going to be a subjective judgment, and I'm no Lincoln scholar. In any particular piece of evidence that Tripp discovers, I'd say it's easy to dismiss his theory. But when you review all the many pieces of the Lincoln emotional-sexual puzzle, the homosexual dimension gets harder and harder to ignore. As conservative writer Richard Brookhiser has noted, all we can say with complete confidence is that "on the evidence before us, Lincoln loved men, at least some of whom loved him back." That's a pretty good definition of the core truth of homosexuality.

That Tripp (who died shortly after completing the book) had an ax to grind, as some have alleged, is to my mind unfair. Yes, he sought to understand the homosexual experience better. But he was a Kinseyite social scientist, not a New Left propagandist. His database of Lincoln material is regarded as superb and invaluable to Lincoln scholars everywhere, and he had a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Yes, he was gay. But being gay can also be an advantage in this respect. The contours of a closeted gay life--the subtle effects of concealed homosexuality on behavior, public and private--are most easily recognized by other gay men, for the simple reason that many have experienced the same things. And the very nature of a closeted life is that it is hard to discern from the surface. I don't doubt that my own view that Lincoln was obviously homosexual is affected by my personal recognition of some aspects of the story, especially in his early years. The danger, of course, is over-identification and projection. But the danger of under-identification is also there--and it may well have impeded real research into what made Lincoln tick. Certainly if you're looking for clear evidence of sexual relationships between men in Lincoln's time in the official historical record, you'll come to the conclusion that no one was gay in the nineteenth century. But of course, many were.

But was Lincoln? Here's what I'd say are the most persuasive facts. Lincoln never developed deep emotional relations with any women, including his wife. Even the few snippets we have of early romances or his deeply strained courtship of Mary Todd suggest a painful attempt to live up to social norms, not a regular heterosexual life. His marriage was a disaster, by all accounts. Why? Well, ask Brookhiser, who tries to exonerate Todd from charges of being cruel and psychopathic as well as corrupt: "Explosive, imperious, profligate, she may well have been mad. But in fairness to her, Lincoln was maddening--remote and unavailable, when he was not physically absent." Hmmm. Remote, emotionally unavailable, running away to hang with men whenever he could. Ring a bell? Not in Brookhiser's mind....