Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Gaybe question

Five years have gone by since the publication of “The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln” by the late Clarence A. Tripp. That book argues that, in sentiment and action, the homosexual element was the dominant strand in the sexuality of Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth president of the United States. Tripp was my friend for many years, and we frequently discussed his project together. In the end, though, I was unable to subscribe to his arguments, some which were indeed ingenious.

Since 2004 Tripp’s thesis has not exactly died, but it is certainly not in good health. Discussions occasioned by the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth tend briefly to mention the question of Lincoln’s sexuality, and then pass on to other matters. The new watchword in Lincoln studies seems to be complexity. His views about race, American destiny, and God--to name just three topics--were highly nuanced. Yet the more capacious bounds of this new complexity seem to have no room for direct affirmation of a gay Lincoln, or “Gaybe” as some put it for short.

As far as I can tell, not a single accredited Lincoln scholar has spoken out in support of Tripp’s thesis. These scholars are legion: an estimated sixty books are scheduled to appear to mark the bicentennial. Gay observers often say that since most Lincoln scholars are heterosexual, it is natural that they would resist the truth that Tripp has unveiled. One may readily grant that some of these scholars are homophobic, while others simply cling to old ideas. Still, nowadays the frequency of mention of the hypothesis of Lincoln’s homosexual (or rather bisexuality) is noteworthy. On the whole I am struck by the even tone of these citations. There is no indignation that our sixteenth president has been “besmirched” by being labeled a “fag,” but rather a quiet acknowledgment of the question, combined with an enduring skepticism.

After five years of discussion, it would seem that the jury is in with regard to the Gaybe question. Not so, a friend remarks: there has not been enough time. How long then will it take to know? A point made by Chou En-lai is not encouraging. When asked whether the French Revolution was a good thing, the Chinese leader averred that it was “too soon to tell.”

Let me pause now for a brief thought exercise. Consider the following statements:

Jesus passed most of his early years traveling in India and China.

Copernicus was black.

Lord Byron was the true author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

The discoveries ascribed to Albert Einstein were actually made by his first wife, Mileva.

Hitler was a Zoroastrian.

The Vatican was behind the destruction of the World Trade Towers on 9/11.

In the eyes of most observers, these assertions must seem unconvincing, to put it mildly. Yet their supporters (assuming that there are some) may respond: how can you know? When it comes to evaluating the truth of X, further research and reflection may demonstrate that an idea that once seemed shocking, even bizarre is actually true. See Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” for many instances.

As has been observed with regard to the Gaybe question, it is impossible to prove a negative. On these grounds it is safe to predict that 200 years from now some individuals will still insist that Abraham Lincoln was gay.

All things considered, this prospect does not seem alarming--or even very interesting. As I learned many years ago from my teacher Karl Popper, all our truths, even scientific ones, are merely probable. Some, though, are more probable than others. In my view the probability that Lincoln was gay or bi has not significantly increased in the last five years.



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