I read in the paper recently that Abraham Lincoln was gay.
As surprising as that may seem, it's not exactly news. Lincoln's sexuality has been hotly debated for years in academia. But now, a new book by C.A. Tripp, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, finds the issue being aired in none other than The New York Times. Which lends the theory a certain establishment weight.
If you think about it, though, Lincoln is not the first president to come from the ranks of a discriminated-against group in American society. We've had a disabled president (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and a woman president (Edith Wilson secretly took the reins from her husband, Woodrow, after a stroke in the final year of his presidency left him partially paralyzed). We haven't had a black president, per se. But if you consider the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s accomplishments as the unsung half of the Kennedy presidency, you could say it's almost happened.
Did being gay make a difference in how Lincoln governed? Jean H. Baker, the author of a biography of Mary Todd Lincoln, was quoted in the Times as saying that his "outsider status" would explain "his independence and his ability to take anti-Establishment positions like the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation."
Of course, living outside the mainstream doesn't always lead people to accomplish great things. It can just as easily make you bitter and withdrawn ("terminal, crazy and mean," as the character Belize says in Tony Kushner's play, Angels in America).
What do Log Cabin Republicans have to say about the implications of Tripp's vision of the Lincoln presidency?
Adam Crowley, president of the newly formed Triangle chapter of the gay political club, doesn't expect any ripple effects. "Honestly, I don't think it matters," says Crowley, an insurance agent from Cary. "I think Lincoln's life is a testament, and what he accomplished should be an example to all Americans."
The Triangle group is planning events to celebrate Lincoln's birthday in February ("he's our spiritual leader," Crowley says) and working on finding "common ground" with both the GOP and other gay organizations on issues such as "tax fairness" and privatizing Social Security.
Writer and activist Larry Kramer, a founder of ACT UP, was far less accommodating when he was asked about Tripp's book. He called the idea that Lincoln was gay "revolutionary" and expressed the hope that "now, maybe they'll leave us alone, all those people in the party he founded."
I like to think that it wasn't so much Lincoln's alienation that created such historical achievements as the Gettysburg Address and his desire to save the Union--it was heightened perception, the kind that comes from being outside the majority.
America was founded and built by people viewed as Other. It's an aspect of our history we pretend to embrace but most often choose to reject. We're desperate to fit in. We hate anything that smacks of being truly different. We view our national identity in static, nostalgic terms that prevent us from being able to see what truly binds us together.
The truth is that the most civic-minded, energetic, justice-loving Americans are still found among the ranks of the Others in our midst (think Barak Obama).
Me, I'm waiting for the day when the first Latino-American, left-handed, lesbian, Jewish woman takes the reins in the Oval Office. Great things are still possible.