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Who did Lincoln love?


January 2013

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As Spielberg’s biopic on Lincoln is released, we untangle rumours about his sexuality

CA Tripp’s 2005 book, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, presents a convincing case that America’s 16th President, the man who freed America’s slaves and won the Civil War, and whose bearded face appears on the penny and five-dollar bill, may have been, if not gay, then certainly bisexual. Tripp’s evidence? His disastrous marriage to wife [•] Mary (Sally Field in new movie Lincoln), with whom he spent as little time as possible, and close relationships with several men, including Joshua Speed, the general-store owner he shared a bed with for four years in his youth, and a presidential guard who sometimes slept in his bedroom (and was once discovered in his nightshirt) when Mary was away. There is correspondence, too, with several men that contains hints of homoerotic suggestion (in one letter, Honest Abe marvelled at the magnificence of Speed’s thighs).

And if that weren’t proof enough, Steven Spielberg’s own god-daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow, mentioned it in an episode of Glee. In the director’s Oscar-touted biopic, Lincoln, there is nothing that overt. But there are enough shots of Daniel Day-Lewis (astonishing performance, it goes without saying) squeezing young men’s shoulders or waking them up in their nightshirts for bedside tête-à-têtes to suggest that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (author of Angels in America) might be tipping their hat in that direction. One of Lincoln’s two cute male assistants in the film is even played by an actor, Joseph Cross, who’s already chalked up two significant gay roles, in Milk and Running with Scissors.

‘Just because it’s in an episode of Glee doesn’t make it right!’ counters Spielberg with a smile. ‘I personally don’t believe he was gay, and Tony Kushner, who is, does not believe Lincoln was gay either.’ But after viewing the film, we’re still swayed that the hints are there if you want to find them, and that Spielberg’s reticence to acknowledge them may come down to his awareness that conservative factions in America would launch an all-out attack if he did. They’ve already lambasted the director and his star with accusations that their Lincoln doesn’t sound ‘presidential’ enough (Daniel Day-Lewis gives him a high-pitched tonality).

What is true is that Lincoln lived in a time when the word ‘homosexual’ hadn’t been invented, and close male friendships often contained qualities that in our era we’d call romantic love but at that time didn’t necessarily denote sexual attraction. Tripp’s estate, too, has distanced itself from the Lincoln-was-gay movement, claiming that the late author’s original academic study has been rewritten to over-egg the gay pudding, as it were. Tripp, they insist, wanted readers to draw their own conclusions about whether Lincoln’s eyes strayed in a same-sex direction. It looks to us like Spielberg has taken the same approach.
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