Identifying and Validating Gay and Bisexual Historical Figures

Previously, I wrote about the de-queering of historic figures in film and academia. I touched briefly on the idea that scholars sometimes struggle to distinguish the flowery, exaggerated prose style of previous eras from legitimate expressions of same-sex affection, occasionally producing uncertainty and debate over the sexual orientation of some historical figures. While it is a legitimate problem particularly among female figures and one that scholars readily admit, the tendency to assume heterosexuality as the default (or worse yet, a willful attempt to consciously hide or deny queerness) can unfairly strip LGBT contributions out of history. An excellent example of this is the sexuality of  First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

To say that the jury is out on Roosevelt’s sexual orientation, as some resources do, is misleading. In point of fact, the majority of scholars believe, based on the written correspondence between Eleanor and semi-out lesbian journalist Lorena Hickok and a few key letters in particular, that while Eleanor was First Lady she had a romantic relationship with Lorena.

The evidence of Eleanor’s sexuality seems incontrovertible and unambiguous: Hickok once wrote about remembering “the feeling of that soft spot just north-east of the corner of your mouth against my lips,” while Eleanor wrote, “I wish I could lie down beside you tonight & take you in my arms.” And those were from the letters that remained after Lorena edited and retyped much of the original correspondence (Lorena’s sister burned the original copies of their first year of correspondence after reading them, saying it was “no one else’s business”).

Eleanor Roosevelt (Right) with Lorena Hickok (Left) and Governor Paul Pearson (Center)Eleanor Roosevelt (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)

Nevertheless, some historians and biographers have steadfastly rejected any suggestion of Roosevelt’s lesbianism or bisexuality. When in 2014 filmmaker Ken Burns was asked why his television documentary series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History did not address the relationship between Eleanor and Lorena, he said, “We have no evidence whatsoever of that, and none of the historians and experts believe it. This is an intimate [look at the Roosevelts] not a tabloid and we just don’t know. … We have to be very careful because sometimes we want to read into things that aren’t there.” That no historians believe Eleanor and Lorena were in a romantic relationship is a blatant lie, and the documentary does the gay community a great disservice by claiming to thoroughly examine the Roosevelts without including this part of the First Lady’s life.

Separately, Lorena’s biographer Doris Faber has argued that the language used by the women has been misinterpreted by historians and it was little more than “a schoolgirl crush”—an argument that a Roosevelt researcher has called out as “a case study in homophobia.” In fact, Faber was so desperate to sterilize Eleanor and Lorena’s relationship that she said of Lorena’s passage about wistfully longing to kiss Eleanor that “it could not mean what it appears to mean.” Why not, and if not, then what was meant?

Eleanor RooseveltPhoto by Fotosearch/Getty Images

To question whether the relationship was romantic while accepting at face value the likelihood of romance in Roosevelt’s other extramarital relationships smacks of heterosexism. After all, scholars confidently report that Roosevelt was in love with and possibly romantically involved with her bodyguard Earl Miller, with whom she corresponded daily just as she once did with Lorena. Elanor was also rumored to have developed a “romantic attachment” to her doctor, David Gurewitsch.

Nor is Roosevelt the only White House resident to suffer from a heterosexism. The 15th President of the United States, James Buchanan, never married and showed no interest in any woman after the death of his fiancée when he was 28 (she was, conveniently, the daughter of a wealthy businessman at a time when Buchanan needed money, and Buchanan saw her rarely during their engagement). Because of his lifelong “bachelorhood,” some biographers have painted Buchanan as asexual or celibate…but the preponderance of evidence suggests that Buchanan wasn’t a bachelor at all. He was likely in a romantic relationship with Alabama senator William Rufus King, with whom he lived for 10 years in a DC boarding house.  Even the Democratic politician Aaron Brown, writing to the wife of President James Polk, referred to William as Buchanan’s “wife” and called him an “Aunt Fancy,” then a derogatory term for men presumed to be gay. 

In May 1844, after William departed to be Minister to France, James wrote to a friend, “I am now ‘solitary and alone’…I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone, and [I] should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”

According to historian James Loewen, James and William’s romantic relationship ended finally only when King died in 1854. While author Jean Baker indicated in her biography of James Buchanan that his nieces may have destroyed some correspondence between the men, she also stated that the length and intimacy of their surviving letters illustrate only “the affection of a special friendship.” Sounds familiar.  

As one would expect, similar examples exist for other historical figures, such as the 18th century English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft’s book Mary: A Fiction is about the successive loves of the heroine Mary: Anne (scholars often interpret this as a “romantic friendship” or a “homosocial” relationship rather than romantic relationship because “the concepts of heterosexuality and homosexuality did not exist during the 18th century”) and Henry.

Mary Wollstonecraft', c1797Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images

The book was not so fictional: the character Anne was based on Mary’s very special “friend” Fanny Blood. Mary had numerous well-known affairs with men, so some scholars have denied her romantic love of Fanny and at least one attributed her sorrow at Blood’s death to an infatuation with a man (this is called cherchez l’homme (“looking for the man”)—a scholarly attempt to explain a woman’s feelings by assuming an unknown man was the cause of them).   

The heterosexualizing of historical literature, intentional or not, is sometimes called “discriminatory historiography.” While some academics claim the use of modern labels (homosexuality comes from the 19th century, while bisexuality comes from the 20th) for historical figures is “problematic” given that societies over time have constructed sexual orientation identities differently, to eliminate any mention of a figure’s possible same-sex attraction on that basis seems a weak argument. After all, one could similarly claim that historical figures weren’t straight if they cannot meet the same evidentiary threshold that is currently used for homosexuality. 

It is true that women tend to be more emotive in writing and as a result, history may never know if the likes of Emily Dickinson pined for her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert or for some unknown man. But more obvious examples like Eleanor Roosevelt or Mary Wollstonecraft deserve more than the epithet “debated.”

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson c. 1846Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images

The question is not one of “outing” figures post-mortem, but of being true to the source material that we use, even if we are not 100% certain of the interpretation. Scholars fear incorrectly labeling a historical figure gay, but have none of the same fear at inaccurately calling someone who was possibly gay or bisexual,  straight.

Perhaps rather than assuming “straight until proven otherwise,” scholars could simply assume that all historical figures fall somewhere along the Kinsey scale at a point that historians will never be able to determine, and that may not be entirely at either end of the scale, and from there be honest in explaining to lay readers what the likelihood of any particular figure being bi (or closeted and gay) was. We might never know the exact truth, but we owe it to both the figures themselves and those of us in the present to read source material with open minds.