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Co-opting Lincoln's sexuality

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, 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.

Central to Tripp's thesis is the fact that early in Lincoln's career, he spent four years bedding with Springfield, Ill., store owner Joshua Speed. (Lincoln's law partner William Herndon often slept in the same room.) Yet such arrangements were notoriously common on the frontier. Tripp's other "smoking gun" is more intriguing: when Lincoln was president, the captain of his bodyguards over an eight-month period, David Derickson, was said to have sometimes shared his bed when Mrs. Lincoln was away. If true, it was certainly unusual. Yet looking back nearly 150 years at a vastly different culture with the added difficulty of separating fact from rumor, it's impossible to arrive at any real conclusions.

The rest of "The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln" is often bizarre conjecture. If Lincoln's and Speed's letters after their separation dwell on mundane details, it's an obvious coverup for the feelings of "distraught lovers." Tripp's critics cite numerous instances of his leaving out or airbrushing salient details to bolster his case. Thus, he makes much of Lincoln signing his letters to the alleged love of his life, "Yours forever" -- omitting the fact that Lincoln used this same salutation toward at least six other friends.

Is Lincoln's sexuality relevant? If his sexual and romantic feelings were directed toward men in a culture where such love was taboo, it would surely affect our understanding of Lincoln the private man, including his depression and his strained marriage. Clearly that's not what the debate, and the passion, is all about.

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.

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

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