Gay Times, February 2005

Terry Sanderson’s new autobiography “The Reluctant Gay Activist” is now available on Amazon

In the early days of the gay movement, there was a campaign to “reclaim” figures from history as gay. Shakespeare, Edward II, Michelangelo, Walt Whitman, Tchaikovsky, Cicero, various Roman emperors and Greek philosophers – the list is endless. 

Sometimes there can be an element of wishful thinking in this. I once saw a suggestion that Jane Austen was gay because she slept with her sister (which seemed to completely overlook the fact that it was bloody cold in those big houses before the advent of central heating). 

This is the problem in trying to sort out who was gay and who wasn’t at times when the modern concept of “gay” was unheard of. We need to take into account the conventions of the times- when affection between men tended to be more overt but less sexual. Nowadays, two men writing passionate declarations of love to each other would be regarded as prima facie evidence of homosexuality, but in the early 19th century conventions were different – and they were different again in earlier eras. 

Even so, the whole issue of “outing” figures from history has surfaced again, with a new book claiming that Abraham Lincoln was gay. The sexuality of the 16th President of the United States has been the subject of speculation for a long time, but the debate has been revived in a book called The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln by C A Tripp. 

It would seem a legitimate subject for historical research, but these days in America there is another agenda at work, as exemplified by Dr Ruth Reisman of the Institute for Media Education, which is described in The Sunday Times as “an anti-pornography think tank”. 

She is reported as saying: “They want to claim that everyone you have heard of in history, from Jesus Christ onwards, was secretly gay or something similar. This is patently untrue.” 

Well, we can put Dr Ruth right on one point straight off – our claims for gay historical figures start long before Jesus Christ. In fact, let’s begin with Alexander the Great, who has been much in the news lately because of Oliver Stone’s film starring Colin Farrell as the bisexual hero. The film got off to a bad start when a group of misguided academics in Greece threatened to sue Warner Brothers for suggesting that Alexander swung both ways. How they thought they would achieve this – what witnesses they would bring, what evidence they would produce – is still a mystery. They say they dropped their action because the film wasn’t as explicit as they thought it was going to be. 

What piffle – there isn’t a court anywhere in the world (except perhaps in the Deep South of the US) that would entertain such a stupid case. 

But, by then, word was out that the film was all about Alexander’s relationship with his (male) friend Hephaestion and so, naturally, the Religious Right swung into action. 

On the ghastly Christian website WorldNet Daily, Benjamin Shapiro wrote: “A large part of Alexander’s downfall is attributable to the moral distastefulness of the subject matter…. During the course of the movie Farrell kisses a eunuch full on the mouth and exchanges numerous lingering glances with boyhood chum and grown-up love Hephaestion (played by eyeliner-wearing Jared Leto). Anthony Hopkins, playing Ptolemy, intones: ‘It was said… that Alexander was never defeated, except by Hephaestion’s thighs’.” 

The director of the film, Oliver Stone, was exasperated by this wilful misrepresentation of his work. He told Reuters: “The homosexuality thing was a buzz word and got all around. It was a hot-button issue and it got overblown. ‘Alexander the Gay’ – I mean, it’s ridiculous.” That, he says, is what kept the punters away from his expensive floperooni. 

Allan Massie in The Independent tried to get to the… erm, bottom of Alexander’s true sexual nature. He wrote-. “There is no doubt they were close, and that Alexander was wretched when Hephaestion died in 324BC, but whatever they had been as youths, it is highly improbable that they remained lovers when grown up. Greeks disapproved of sexual relations between adult men and despised those who practised them. Although, as a Macedonian, Alexander was not a pukka Greek, this was not a convention that he was likely to flout. It was another thing for a soldier to be a paideka (which Robin Lane Fox translates as ‘sex-boy’). That was quite acceptable. Relations with a boy, such as the Persian eunuch, narrator of Mary Renault’s novel The Persian Boy. where he is the paideka of Darius and then Alexander, are far more probable than with an equal such as Hephaestion.” 

Having sorted out Alexander, let’s get back to Abe Lincoln, the man who fought the American Civil War and was instrumental in abolishing slavery. He’s a hero we would definitely like in our gallery. 

C A Tripp – who, incidentally, was a prominent gay writer – died at the age of 83 a couple of weeks after finishing his book on Lincoln. He is reported in the New York Times to have “subjected almost every word ever written by and about Lincoln to minute analysis” in order to reach the conclusion that the iconic president was indeed gay. 

Besides those already identified as possible same-sex partners for Lincoln – including a youthful Joshua Speed, a neighbour with whom he shared a bed for four years – Tripp now points to the Captain of his bodyguard, David Derickson. An excerpt from the regimental history of the guards reveals: “Captain Derickson in particular advanced so far in the president’s confidence and esteem that, in Mrs Lincoln’s absence, he frequently slept in the same bed with him, making use of His Excellency’s night-shirt!” 

In Washington of the 1860s this made excellent gossip. The diary of an officer’s wife says: “Oh, there is a soldier devoted to the president, drives with him and when Mrs L is not at home, sleeps with him. What stuff!” 

Now much of this rests on how you read that last exclamation, is she clapping her hands in glee at such a juicy titbit, or is she huffing her disapproval of such nonsense? 

Harvard professor David Herbert Donald, another biographer of Lincoln, told The Sunday Times: “Victorian men often shared beds and used flowery language in an asexual fashion. If Lincoln were having affairs, he would have hidden them better.” 

But, of course, it isn’t only real historical figures who create speculation – now we have a new film of The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino, which contains a gay kissing scene between two of the fictional characters, Bassanio (played by Joseph Fiennes) and Antonio (Jeremy Irons). There has been speculation whether this kiss should be read as gay or just friendship. The director of the film Michael Radford told Reuters it was important to emphasise Antonio’s love for Bassanio because of the play’s final act, in which Antonio’s feelings for Bassanio and Portia are tested.” 

One character from recent history who was definitely real, and whose sexuality we don’t have to doubt, was Radclyffe Hall, the lesbian whose book, The Well of Loneliness, was banned in 1928. Newly released official papers show that the Government’s advice was that the book needed to be prosecuted for obscenity because it would lead to “a social and national disaster”. How so? It would encourage women – who would never have thought of such a thing for themselves to become lesbians. 

According to The Observer, the raciest line in the book reads: “She kissed her full on the lips, like a lover”. Nevertheless, Stanley Baldwin the Mint Minister and his Chancellor, Winston Churchill, went to extreme lengths to suppress the book. The Observer revealed: “Documents show that Archibald Bodkin, Director of Public Prosecutions, feared that the publishers would mobilise eminent writers to defend the book. He wrote to several doctors asking for a clinical analysis of what he called ‘homo-sexualists’“.

In a letter to one of these doctors. (the Dickensianly named Sir Farquhar Buzzard), he wrote: “I want to be able to call some gentleman of undoubted knowledge, experience and position who could inform the court of the results to those unfortunate women {as I deem them) who have proclivities towards lesbianism or those wicked women (as I deem them) who voluntarily indulge in these practices – results destructive morally, physically and even perhaps mentally” (sic). 

Old Radclyffe herself turned up to court looking superb (as I deem it) in a leather driving coat and Spanish riding hat. The book was, as expected, banned and all copies pulped, and it didn’t see publication until 1949, after Ms Hall’s death. 

Whatever America’s Religious Right says about whether it’s legitimate to look at the sex lives of historical figures (and to claim them if they are ours), it’s reassuring to know that gay people have been around a lot longer than their religion has, and we’ll still be here long after it has gone.

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