Yesterqueers of the White House: Buchanan, Lincoln, and Eleanor Roosevelt

Welcome to YESTERQUEERS, Kayla Goggin's monthly column dedicated to LGBTQ icons throughout history.


On their May 21, 2012 cover, Newsweek featured a close-up of President Barack Obama, a rainbow halo hovering above his head, the words "The First Gay President" stamped across the bottom of the glossy paper.

The featured article focused on Obama's announcement of his support for gay marriage during the 2012 election. It was a nice sentiment, (I guess? Whatever.) but it came 155 years too late. Somewhere in the Woodward Hill Cemetery, the bones of our gayest president ever neatly arranged themselves into a dusty, giant middle finger.

Long before the Obamas transformed the White House into the Woke House and started publicly appointing openly queer staffers (over 250 of them–including the first openly trans White House employee), and before the dark days of the early 20th century (I'm looking at you LBJ/Reagan/Bush*), we had our first gay president. Sure, he went down in history as literally our worst president ever but we're not here to judge! (We're totally here to judge.)
 


All I'm saying is: President James Buchanan was unequivocally, undeniably, without a doubt gay as fuck.

Buchanan (our fifteenth president, succeeded by Abraham Lincoln) is remembered for a handful of interesting things: (1) being our only president ever to remain a lifelong bachelor, (2) living with William Rufus King (Franklin Pierce's vice president and also our only bachelor VP, which I'm sure is just a gigantic coincidence) for sixteen years, and (3) making a string of terrible decisions that led the country straight into the Civil War.

King and Buchanan first met in 1821 when they were both serving in Congress; King was Alabama's first ever senator. They became fast "friends" and, at the apparent behest of Buchanan, moved in together quickly.

Unfortunately for us, Buchanan ordered his letters be burnt when he died, so any love letters between him and King are lost. However, the shade that was thrown at them survives in historical record: we know that King was called "Miss Nancy" by Andrew Jackson, "Mrs. James Buchanan" by James K. Polk's law partner, and "Buchanan's better half" and "Aunt Fancy" by others.

In a January 1861 letter from a constituent to his Pennsylvania congressman, the man complained about President Buchanan, writing: "I do not share in the confidence which some entertain in poor Betsy Buchanan. She is very weak, and I fear, very bad." Buchanan is misgendered throughout the letter; "his" is written and then crossed out and replaced with "her.”

Vicious rumors? Maybe.

After all, Buchanan is remembered as the guy who thought the Dred Scott decision should've been taken "one step further.” He's the guy who came out against the emancipation of slavery, believing that it "helped civilize blacks." He's the guy whose favorite pastime was sitting alone beside his bedroom window, staring at a nearby stream. James Buchanan was the fucking worst.

But the fact that he sucked doesn't make him any less gay. He referred to his relationship with King as a "communion" and once wrote–after King had moved to Paris to become our ambassador to France, "I am now solitary and alone, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them."

K.
 



For most people, the "Buchanan was queer" pill isn't that hard to swallow. But what about Abraham Lincoln? Was Honest Abe one of us?

For four years, Lincoln lived with and shared a bed with his friend Joshua Speed.

While it wasn't unusual for two men to share a bed at that time (1835-40), there's other evidence that hints at Lincoln's queerness. His stepmother, for example, famously said that he "never took much interest in the girls." And despite his marriage to Mary Todd and the birth of four children, Lincoln is said to have slept with his bodyguard, Captain Derickson, several times during his presidency.

Virginia Woodbury Fox (the daughter of the former secretary of the treasury) wrote in her diary: "Tish says, 'There is a Bucktail Soldier here devoted to the President, drive with him, and when Mrs. L. is not home, sleeps with him’."

Thomas Chamberlin, an officer of the regiment that guarded Lincoln, wrote in his 1895 book, "Captain Derickson, in particular, advanced so far in the President's confidence and esteem that, in Mrs. Lincoln's absence, he frequently spent the night at his cottage, sleeping in the same bed with him, and–it is said–making use of His Excellency's night-shirt!"

It's possible that this was just more gossip. Certainly, lots of people are unconvinced, especially when we acknowledge that William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner for twenty years and the keeper of Lincoln's legacy, never mentioned anything about Lincoln's queerness. Oh, wait–that's because they may have been lovers.

Dr. Sylvia Rhue, a sexologist who is a direct descendent of Herndon, has written repeatedly about her claim that Herndon's sexuality as a gay man was a well-kept family secret. "William Herndon was my great-great-uncle," she says, "and he was gay, and he was Lincoln's lover."

In fact, it was Herndon who manufactured the stories of Lincoln's romances with women pre-Mary Todd, probably because he knew it would piss her off. (Herndon's hatred for Todd is well documented. Gee, I wonder why he hated her so much?) In an excellent article for Vanity Fair, Gore Vidal explains how years of scholarship have proved that there is practically no compelling record of Lincoln's heterosexuality, but tons that indicate he was clearly queer.
 


But no matter how much evidence you have that proves someone was queer, there will always be people around to dispute it. And that brings us to our final yesterqueer of the White House, a true case study in lesbian erasure: Eleanor Roosevelt.**

A loyal wife, Roosevelt dealt with a ton of bullshit (FDR's infamous mother, for one) until she discovered her husband was cheating on her in September of 1918. After that, all bets were off. The couple had an "arrangement" but never legally dissolved their marriage

Roosevelt met lesbian AP reporter Lorena Hickok ("Hick") during FDR's first presidential campaign. They instantly fell in love, writing over 3,500 letters back and forth to one another over their thirty-year relationship.

The letters include things like: "I want to put my arms around you and kiss you at the corner of your mouth," and "I can't kiss you, so I kiss your picture good night and good morning!" At FDR's 1933 inauguration, Eleanor wore a sapphire ring Hickok had given her.

Eleanor once wrote that her son Jimmy, then twenty-five years old, had been near her during a phone conversation she had just had with Hickok, so, "I couldn't say je t'aime et je t'adore as I longed to, but always remember I am saying it and that I go to sleep thinking of you and repeating our little saying."

 

 

Hickok destroyed hundreds of the letters after Eleanor's death, telling Anna Roosevelt: "Your mother wasn't always so very discreet in her letters to me." Which means that even the (very clearly gay) love letters we have left today aren't the most explicit of them all.

But, of course, there are plenty of scholars who deny the two women had anything more than a friendship. Rhoda Lerman, who wrote a novel based on Eleanor's life, wrote that the relationship was "more a case of girl scout camp stuff–you know, where they all have names like 'P.J.'" What the fuck does that even mean?

Doris Faber, author of The Life of Lorena Hickok: E.R.'s Friend, quotes letters Roosevelt wrote to Hickok and says that they are "particularly susceptible to misinterpretation." Eleanor wrote that she wanted to "lie down beside you tonight and take you in my arms," but Faber says this is just an expression of maternal love. She writes, "There can be little doubt that the final sentence of the above letter does not mean what it appears to mean."

I guess Faber forgot about Eleanor's long history as a friend to the New York gay community (she was extremely close with Elizabeth Read, an attorney and scholar of international affairs, and her life partner Esther Lape, as well as Nan Cook and Marion Dickerman) and her deep personal belief in sexual freedom.

That kind of erasure is the exact sort of thing I hope this column actively fights against. Queer history is American history and if we're going to call Obama the first "gay president" as if that's some kind of prize-winning metaphor, then we need to remember the actual queer people who lived in the White House, too. The ones that never got a rainbow halo over their heads on a national magazine cover.

In 1925, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her personal journal: "No form of love is to be despised." If only some of our more recent presidents had read what this great, gay woman had to say.



*Hey, remember that time Dubya's administration paid off newspaper columnists to defend the amendment to federally ban gay marriage?

**Let's take a moment to appreciate what a fucking boss Eleanor Roosevelt was.  She was the first presidential spouse to hold press conferences, write a daily syndicated newspaper column, and speak at a national convention. She also served as a US delegate to the UN General Assembly for almost a decade, functioned as FDR's chief advisor and had the balls to publicly disagree with him on more than one occasion. This was the 1930s, by the way.
 

Sources:
Affairs of the State: The Untold History of Presidential Love, Sex, and Scandal 1789 - 1900 by Robert P. Watson

We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends by David Herbert Donald

Did Abraham Lincoln Sleep With His Bodyguard? Another Look At the Evidence by Martin P. Johnson

A Family History Provides More Evidence That Lincoln Was Gay by Sylvia Rhue, Ph.D.

Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok by Roger Streitmatter

Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in 20th Century America by Lillian Faderman

 


Kayla Goggin is a freelance writer based in Savannah, GA. She is the editor of the Savannah Art Informer, the arts columnist for Connect Savannah and has contributed writing to MESH Magazine, XOJane, and elsewhere.