Column: Knocking on History’s Closet

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The LGBT community has been speculating about the sexual orientation or gender identity of great historical figures long before Noel I. Grade wrote “Jonathan to Gide” (1964), the first tell-all compilation of “great gays in history.” To many of us, the fact that Leonardo or Tchaikovsky was “one of us” seemed to validate our existence in a world that only saw us as sinners, criminals or mental patients. On the other hand, historians continue to heterosexualize the greats. One time when a newspaper ran a piece about Michelangelo’s love for other men it drew an angry response from Irving Stone, author of The Agony and the Ecstasy, who insisted that the creator of “David” was straight.

Greg Kabel

When the Dr. C.A. Tripp, posthumously published “The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln” appeared in 2005, keepers of the Lincoln torch went crazy. Tripp, who at one time served as an assistant to the notorious Dr. Alfred Kinsey, placed Lincoln on the Kinsey Scale “as a classical 5 - predominantly homosexual, but incidentally heterosexual.”

Lincoln, Tripp noted, had “passionate friendships” with other men, most notably Joshua Fry Speed, with whom Lincoln shared a bed for four years (1837-1841). This was enough to evoke a heated rebuttal from Michael Burlingame, author of “The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln.” Though Burlingame admitted that “Speed and Lincoln were close emotionally” he added that “their letters have no discernable romantic overtones. Besides, there is too much evidence that Lincoln was strongly attracted to women,” giving Lincoln’s spurious romance with Ann Rutledge as an example.

Long before Mel Brooks, historians have tried to analyze Adolf Hitler’s sexuality. In 2001 the German historian Lothar Machtan shocked the world by claiming that Hitler was queer.

“Adolf Hitler was fond of men. He had a homosexual nature,” said Machtan, who elaborated in his book “Hitler’s Secret: The Double Life of a Dictator” (published in English as “The Hidden Hitler”). “One must be very careful with the expression ‘homosexual activities’ because we do not know how Hitler lived them out. We can say that until the late 1920s Hitler had a range of homoerotic friendships. Many of them were characterized by contemporaries as homosexual.”

During World War I, Corporal Hitler was attached to a fellow soldier, Ernst Schmidt, who was known as Hitler’s “male whore.” As a result of this liaison, Hitler was never promoted. In 1934 Hitler, now the Fuhrer, ordered the death of Ernst Rohm, the gay leader of the Storm Troopers, because he feared that Rohm might reveal Hitler’s sexuality.

“Hitler himself never condemned homosexuality, but he allowed the persecution of gays in order to disguise his own true colors,” said Machtan. Hitler being Hitler, no scholars came forth to defend his heterosexuality, as they did in the case of Lincoln or Michelangelo.

Last year the artistic world was rocked by the publication of “American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell.” Biographer Deborah Solomon went on a limb when she speculated that the beloved artist, whose work is the epitome of Americana, was a closet gay.

Norman Rockwell, Solomon wrote, “demonstrated an intense need for emotional and physical closeness with men. From the viewpoint of twenty-first-century gender studies, a man who yearns for the company of men is considered homosexual, whether or not he has sex with other men.”

Rockwell’s family members had a collective fit. They issued a statement claiming that Solomon made 96 factual errors in her book, misused sources and made “highly selective” use of Rockwell’s autobiography. For her part Solomon said she did not believe Rockwell had any gay sexual contacts but that he preferred male company and that “enormous homoeroticism” was evident in his work.

As if that was not enough, a few years ago Professor Stephen Knight wrote a piece claiming that the twelfth century folk hero Robin Hood was a poof. Knight, who until recently was distinguished research professor at the University of Cardiff in Wales, claimed that Robin of Locksley was a victim of antigay prejudice who was forced to live in Sherwood Forest with his band of “merry men.”

After studying ballads of Robin Hood written in the fourteenth century, Knight concluded that “…the ballads could not say outright that he was gay because of the prevailing moral climate, but they do contain a great deal of erotic imagery. The green wood itself is a symbol of virility and the references to arrows, quivers and swords make it clear, too.”

Knight added that Maid Marian was a “beard” who was not part of the legend until the 16th century and that Robin’s real love was “Little John,” one of his “merry men.”

Though Knight’s theories seem far-fetched, even to me, the very merry British group Outrage welcomed the “outing” of Robin Hood: “It is about time school history lessons acknowledged the contributions of famous homosexuals.”


Greg Kabel

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