Historical Homosexuals: President Edition

In an interview with Axios on HBO in June 2019, Pete Buttigieg said, “I would imagine we’ve probably had excellent presidents who were gay — we just didn’t know which ones.” This statement may seem completely impossible. “Inconceivable!” you might think. “Even Pete’s gaydar can’t be that strong!” But it is, in fact, conceivable. Some historians suspect that at least one president would be considered gay. 

James Buchanan, America’s fifteenth president, was America’s only bachelor president. He lived with his very close “friend,” William Rufus King, for a large period of time in his life, a period of time that might seem too long for him to be straight. They had a very close relationship, and Andrew Jackson referred to Buchanan as “Miss Nancy,” an offensive term used in that time to refer to someone effeminate or gay. The existing correspondence that has been preserved between Buchanan and King appears to be very affectionate, and the rest of their letters had been destroyed and are now, for obvious reasons, inaccessible.  

Furthermore, in a letter to his friend, the wife of James J. Roosevelt, Buchanan wrote that while King was stationed in Paris, he “[had] gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but [had] not succeeded with any one of them.” In the same letter, he expressed that he would not be surprised if he had to eventually marry a woman, but she could “not expect from [him] any very ardent or romantic affection.” 

This was written in 1844, a time where homophobia was in, and being gay didn’t publicly happen, especially if you were in a position of power. During that time period, close male friendships were common, and intimacy within a male friendship was not as unusual as it might seem today. However, “many historians now think that in the end it was King who ultimately became the real love of Buchanan’s life, and that Buchanan was likely gay,” says Washington Post journalist Lillian Cunningham on her podcast Presidential. The intimacy commonly seen within a friendship in this time period does not discount the possible romantic implications that Buchanan and King’s very close relationship had. This, as well as his lack of romantic affection towards women, whether displayed publicly or through private correspondence, strongly indicates that if he were alive today, King might have been able to be the Chasten to his Pete.

Some historians believe that the speculation surrounding Buchanan’s sexual orientation is simply speculation, fishing for something that wasn’t there. And while it’s true that there is no way of knowing whether or not he identified as gay or had romantic feelings for men, the evidence that has been unearthed, such as these letters and his lifelong history of bachelorhood, indicate at least a possibility of being gay, and many historians have compiled compelling evidence and analysis to support this potentiality.

Another president whose sexuality has come into question is Abraham Lincoln. That’s right: Honest Abe, the face on the penny, definitely married to a woman, might not have been straight. While some historians don’t even entertain the possibility, the suspicions are a little beyond your run-of-the-mill accusations (see: “Obama is gay because he isn’t homophobic!”).

Author C.H. Tripp wrote a book investigating the possibility of Lincoln being gay, although it is not widely regarded among historians to be completely true, and many believe that it does not take into account some key evidence. However, some historians do believe that he had intimate, possibly romantic relationships with men, specifically his relationship with a bodyguard with whom he shared a bed while his wife was away. Many people during the time observed this, and, even taking into account the more intimate nature of male friendships at the time, were skeptical or shocked. Diary accounts from a high-standing figure in society detailed the rumors of Lincoln sleeping with his bodyguard, rumors that were mirrored by the account of another bodyguard within the regiment. Lincoln also was rumored to have had a tumultuous relationship with his wife, Mary Todd. 

However, this evidence is considered by most historians to be insufficient to prove that Lincoln was not straight. Gregory Garcia, a social studies teacher at Franklin, says that the possibility of Lincoln having been gay or bisexual is “plausible but more research has to be done,” a conclusion which many historians seem to have come to. That being said, people really did think the same thing about Obama, but I’ll let you form your own opinions for both.

The historiography, or the methods by which historians analyze historical evidence, of LGBTQ+ history is fairly new. It emerged around the 1990s and 2000s, and investigates the history of LGBTQ+ figures and cultural behaviors surrounding the community. “Historians following this historiography focus on deciphering documents through the attitudes the dominant culture has towards LGBTQ+ like behavior,” says Garcia. “If the cultural norms accept that kind of behavior, deciphering the documents may be easier than if the norms are not as supportive.” Because of the aggressive homophobia of that time, it’s hard to prove that many historical figures were gay. However, the evidence that is available strongly suggests that the history of our presidency is not as straight as some might think. 

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