Our gaydar seems to be broken

Here’s an excerpt from a press release that’s been popping up around the Internet for the past few days:

In what is hailed as the largest gay history project of its kind in the nation, 30 U.S. publications serving lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people will celebrate October as Gay History Month by presenting “We are America: How members of the LGBT community helped create the U.S.A.”

This groundbreaking month-long series will provide compelling evidence that our Founding Fathers not only welcomed LGBT people to helped create this country, but without the contributions made by LGBT people, American history might have turned out quite differently.

Based on the information contained in the article, this seems to have little to do with the discipline of LGBT history and more to do with seizing on any possible indication that a given historical figure might have been gay and then running with it as hard and fast as possible.

Take this revelation, for example:

Following the historic repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it might surprise many Americans that the individual often considered the father of the United States military was a gay man: Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. He wrote the “Revolutionary War Drill Manual” and introduced drills, tactics and discipline to the rag-tag militia, which culminated in our independence and victory over the British.

Aside from the failure to properly distinguish between “the rag-tag militia” and the Continental Army, this brief passage contains one whopper of an assumption.  It is by no means certain that Baron von Steuben was gay.  In fact, the case rests mostly on rumors which circulated in Europe before his departure for America.  Steuben was accused of having inappropriate relations with young boys during his service at the court of Prince Josef Friedrich Wilhelm of Hohenzollern-Hechingen.  One of Steuben’s biographers notes that the rumors “were never proven, but they were no less damning than if they had been.”  They squelched a hoped-for military appointment by the Margrave of Baden, leaving Steuben to travel around Europe in search of employment. Eventually he ended up in Paris, where (through the French Minister of War) he met Benjamin Franklin, and the rest is history.

Baron von Steuben, by Charles Wilson Peale via Wikimedia Commons

There is some additional, circumstantial evidence that Steuben may have been homosexual, but it’s not terribly impressive; it rests mostly on close relationships he had with male contemporaries, and of course such emotional relationships were not as unusual in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as they would be today.  My point is not to argue that Steuben was straight—perhaps he wasn’t—but simply to demonstrate that the writer or writers have jumped across the gulf between possibility and certainty without so much as a backward glance.  (They’re not the only ones to do so.  Google “Baron von Steuben gay” and you’ll find website after website proclaiming Steuben’s homosexuality with absolute certainty, completely unaware of the tenuous nature of the case for it.)

We’re also told flatly that Katharine Lee Bates, author of “America the Beautiful,” was a lesbian.  Again, this is a case of manufactured certainty.  The contested belief that Bates was a lesbian relies on her relationship with Katharine Corman, with whom she lived until the latter’s death from cancer, and to whom she dedicated a book.  The exact nature of their relationship is uncertain, but you’d never know it by reading the press release.

In a particularly desperate attempt, we’re also told that “it is impossible to refute that [James] Buchanan might have been gay.”  No kidding; it’s “impossible to refute” that a great many people were gay, in the same way that’s impossible to refute that James Buchanan was really a walrus dressed in a rubber human costume.  But history doesn’t operate on the basis of whether or not something is “impossible to refute.”  It operates on the basis of whether or not something is probable in light of the evidence available to us.  In the case of Buchanan, what we’re dealing with once again is rumor and innuendo, based on his very close relationship with William Rufus King and contradicted by references to women in his letters.

Finally and inevitably, the press release trots out the ever-trusty gay Abraham Lincoln question, ignoring or unaware of the ways that proponents of the gay Lincoln meme have misinterpreted masculine relations of the nineteenth century.

Let me stress again that what irks me is not the argument that any or all of these historical figures may have been gay; perhaps some of them were, though in the case of all except for Bates, I very much doubt it.  What bothers me is the substitution of certainty where it doesn’t exist.  Debate has been transformed into fact, and many readers will be misled and exposed to bad history as a result.

I doubt either party would appreciate the comparison, but this whole article reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Christian Nationalist pseudohistorians.  In both cases, what we have is not really an attempt to understand a phenomenon (whether religion or sexuality) within its proper historical context, but rather an attempt to jump on any pretext—no matter how unsubstantiated or unlikely—which allows you to claim a prominent American figure as a member of a particular group.  It has about as much to do with the discipline of LGBT history as the notion that Washington knelt in the snow at Valley Forge has to do with the history of American religion.


Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

8 responses to “Our gaydar seems to be broken

  1. Bob

    I found the recent posting, based on new scholarship, to be very interesting. I agree that evidence is lacking for the claims to be made with any imprimatur of authority. As in the case of Thomas Jefferson’s alleged relationship with Sally Hemmings, it many times is a case of the writer/researcher having a predisposed position of wanting to believe certain facts, short of hard evidence. Many, particularly black Americans want to believe that Jefferson had children with Hemmings, but short of DNA evidence, it can be supposed to be true until the end of time. It may never be known as fact. The same is true regarding the sexual orientation of men of the Revolutionary War and Founding era. Some may want to believe it, but without the “smoking gun” of a verified document, diary, letter, etc, it will remain a mystery. But the converse is also true, especially reading this blog posting. While many will lean to what they want to believe, the tone of writer of the blog posting seems to want to deny any possibility that any of the aforementioned historical figures were in fact gay. Perhaps his personal opinion leanings regarding the concept of gay, shade his opinion. I think most of us, I hope, as historians, etc, believe that history should be about truth, whatever that truth may be.

    • Michael Lynch

      As I said in the post, the notion that any or all of the historical figures mentioned in the press release may have been gay doesn’t bother me. What does bother me is the fact that whoever wrote thing is presenting conjecture as fact. To state that Baron von Steuben was gay is to substitute certainty for uncertainty, and that’s not okay with me.


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  6. Hugh Callaway

    I’ve looked over this issue and the evidence in the statements of the Baron’s own contemporaries, etc., and my GayDar has stayed on the whole time like an air raid siren. You too have and even more specious argument than the one you are trying to debunk. It amounts to simple math. Add up all the known things that indicate he was gay. Add up all the Known things that would indicate he was heterosexual(there aren’t any). It just freaks some bigots out when the objects of their fear don’t conform to stereotype. I bet you would deny that Alexander The Great was gay. After all at 15 yHughears old he defeated the Persians then when on to concur the know world of his time. Gays aren’t supposed to do stuff like that. Fact is gays have contributed as much as all others to the sum total of mankind’s accomplishments.

    • Michael Lynch

      1. If you’re persuaded that the evidence warrants the conclusion that Steuben was attracted to men, that’s fine.
      2. Someone’s opinion on whether or not a historical figure was gay has nothing to do with his or her attitude toward homosexuality. I said nothing about whether or not I object to homosexuality. I’m addressing the argument that Steuben was homosexual, and I find the argument unpersuasive. That’s it.
      3. You’re correct that gay people have made important contributions. That’s not at issue here. What’s at issue is whether these specific claims about some prominent figures in the Revolutionary War are true.
      4. No, I wouldn’t deny that Alexander is reputed by many to have had an intimate relationship with Hephaestion, a close male companion, although the contemporary evidence for it is scant. I would, however, deny that he conquered the Persian Empire at fifteen; I believe he was actually twenty-five when he did so.

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