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Lincoln Gay Debate Sparks Controversy

Would you let this man suck your cock? Case closed. Abraham Lincoln wasn’t gay but one historian’s work is sparking a $5 bill’s worth of controversy.

WWW- For those inclined to believe a new book that’s out, Abraham Lincoln was gay or mostly so, and it’s impossible to understand America’s 16th president without accepting that.

He was in love with his old friend Joshua Speed. He shared a romantic bed with his dashing Pennsylvania soldier-bodyguard, Capt. David V. Derickson, during the summer of 1862, wrote letters that dropped hints he was a homosexual and had a lousy marriage to prove it all.

For those who aren’t at all convinced–who see coincidence and another period’s innocence where others now find love in the air–the notion and the attention it’s getting are infuriating.

The disagreement over Lincoln’s sexuality pries into perhaps the least-known, most private aspect of one of history’s most scrutinized figures.

It also spotlights the obscure field of historiography–the study of history and how it is written.

Historiographers know history sees the past through the prism of a current society’s beliefs.

What is notable now, they say, is how fractured the current society’s beliefs are.

Drawing to the fore one set of those beliefs, the subject of the disagreement, C.A. Tripp’s posthumously published “The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln,” was the culmination of gay and lesbian activism and scholarship in the 1990s, said Illinois State Historian Thomas Schwartz.

“This book,” he said, “would be written sometime, by someone.”

For gay and lesbian scholars, Tripp’s 2005 book shines brightly, calling into question heterocentric tellings of the past.

In the view of those who don’t like the book, Tripp–a sex researcher and protege of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey–committed lousy scholarship, and was also a homosexual with his own distinct lens through which to view the world.

“People have ideas and use them to look upon the world and interpret the world because of those ideas,” said historiographer William Hardy McNeill. “Historians have been doing that as long as there’ve been historians.”

It doesn’t make the allegations, formalized and end-noted in a hardbound cover, any less incendiary.

“It matters for those in lesbian and gay studies a great deal,” Jonathan D. Katz, executive coordinator at the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies at Yale University, said of the book. “It challenges one of the fundamental prejudices that we continuously communicate: The stage of public life is owned by normative sexuality.”

At the same time, a story on the Christian Wire Service this week singled out Tripp’s book and its unopposed arrival in bookstores as “evidence of the corruption caused by the cultural elite’s embrace of homosexuality.”

“It is obviously moved by gays’ need for validation,” said Peter LaBarbera, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute.

LaBarbera wrote the rebuke and called for “harsh condemnation” for the book from America’s Christian community, which he said was besieged by homosexual messages in modern American culture.

Whispers that Lincoln was a closeted lover of men can be found as early as the 1960s. Gay activists printed the allegations in 1971, Tripp noted in his book. Over time, the ideas found their way into insistent questions that burst out in public forums during the 1990s.

Tripp paints a typically unhappy picture of the 1842 marriage between Lincoln and Mary Todd. He dismisses Lincoln’s lately-attributed fancy for Ann Rutledge, a daughter of the tavernkeeper with whom Lincoln boarded in New Salem. He makes a special point of Lincoln’s half-hearted courtship of Mary Owens in 1836. (She broke up with him.)

But when a young Abraham Lincoln first rode the Sangamon River into New Salem, Ill., in 1831, Tripp notes he shared a tiny cabin–and an even smaller bed–with a man named Billy Greene. In 1837, Lincoln was similarly intimate with storekeeper Joshua Speed, whom Lincoln often wrote he knew well because they’d shared a bed for four years.

A later connection was presumed in Lincoln’s grief after the death early in the Civil War of Col. Elmer Ellsworth, “the greatest little man I ever met,” as Lincoln put it.

But Tripp’s book opens with Lincoln’s association with Derickson in 1862 and 1863–one which even historians say is the hardest to explain.

During Washington, D.C.’s hot, disease-ridden summers, the Lincolns–and often just the president–stayed in the Soldier’s Home barracks, the Camp David of its day.

While there, Lincoln frequently had Derickson in his room, often in his bed–at least once in a borrowed nightshirt.

Still, the book has been dogged by persistent critiques from some students of history, who say little new evidence has been presented, while much of what was used had already been dismissed.

A co-author on Tripp’s project, Philip Nobile of the Cobble Hill School of American Studies in New York, fell out with Tripp over his scholarship and savaged the book in the Weekly Standard.

“Most reviews have not been favorable, for reasons that Tripp was not trained as an historian,” Schwartz said. “As a sex researcher, he had a different set of questions.”

For example, Tripp makes much out of Lincoln sharing a bed with other men. But historians point out that people, especially on the frontier, shared beds during that period.

Tripp died in 2003, shortly after finishing the manuscript, said the book’s publisher, Free Press, and most agree the tempest whipped up by the book is probably more noteworthy than the book itself.

“This says far more about us than about Lincoln,” said Heather C. Richardson, a Civil War historian at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Though the practice of sexual relations between members of the same sex is ancient, the notion of homosexuality as an identity is a decidedly 20th Century one, say historians.

Scholarship in the field is much more recent.

Earlier, McNeill said, Marxism was a powerfully influential way of thought, defining swaths of history into a tale of perennial class conflict.

In other eras, historians were inspired by the writings of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

“Nowadays,” McNeill said, “people think that’s mostly myth. It’s fallen out of fashion.”


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