Our first gay president(?)

We hear about a lot of firsts.  Kennedy was our first Catholic president.  Reagan our first actor president.  Obama our first black president.

But did you know that, long ago, we almost certainly had our first gay president?  Yup.  I’ve now read in two scholarly, sourced books that James Buchanan was considered by his contemporaries to be a homosexual.  The giveaway isn’t that he was the only president who was never married.  It’s that he had such an unusually long, close relationship with a male friend that people commented on it:

For fifteen years in Washington, D.C., before his presidency, Buchanan lived with his close friend, Alabama Senator William Rufus King. King became Vice President under Franklin Pierce. He became ill and died shortly after Pierce’s inauguration, four years before Buchanan became President. Buchanan’s and King’s close relationship prompted Andrew Jackson to call King “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy”, while Aaron V. Brown spoke of the two as “Buchanan and his wife.” Some of the contemporary press also speculated about Buchanan’s and King’s relationship. The two men’s nieces destroyed their uncles’ correspondence, leaving some questions about their relationship; but the length and intimacy of surviving letters illustrate “the affection of a special friendship”, and Buchanan wrote of his “communion” with his housemate. In May 1844, during one of King’s absences that resulted from King’s appointment as minister to France, Buchanan wrote to a Mrs. Roosevelt, “I am now ‘solitary and alone’, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone, and [I] should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”

It is certainly true that Buchanan lived in an age when people used romantic terms to describe same-sex friendships. Likewise, it was not uncommon for bachelors to share quarters or, as was the case with Abraham Lincoln when he traveled with a friend and colleague, to share a bed. Bed sharing goes back hundreds of years.  It’s just that one gets the strong feeling that Buchanan’s one engagement, which ended when the young woman broke it off (and then died soon after), was really his last effort in the petticoat line.  Later references in his life to getting married really didn’t have any steam in them.  His closest relationship, clearly, was with a man.

What’s interesting, really interesting, is the fact that the suspicions around Buchanan’s sexuality did not affect his career.  He was Secretary of State under Polk and, of course, ultimately went on to become president.  His friend/partner William Rufus King, too, had an august career, reaching its apex with his becoming Vice President.  Don’t ask, don’t tell seemed to be a good rule of thumb for the era.

My last comment, a silly one, is that, when one reads about the political scene in America during the mid-19th Century, the names that come up read like a roster of streets in San Francisco:  Stockton, Taylor, Buchanan, Polk, Mason, Clay, etc.  It’s ironic, given Buchanan’s probable sexual preferences, that it was Polk Street, rather than Buchanan Street, that became one of San Francisco’s gay meccas.

Okay, that wasn’t really my last comment.  My last comment is this:  Mr. Bookworm didn’t believe me when I told him about the scholarly suppositions regarding Buchanan’s sexuality, suppositions based on the historical record, because “there were no gays then.”  I had a little giggle, and then started the short list of historic figures who were almost certainly gay (as opposed to historic figures who might be gay, but as to whom the record is too shaky to draw conclusions):  Edward II; James I; Michelangelo; Leonardo da Vinci; Alexander the Great; Richard the Lionhearted; Oscar Wilde; and Emperor Hadrian.

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  • Charles Martel

    What kind of vacuum does Mr. Bookworm exist in? Is it a total vacuum, or is it a really, really, really total vacuum?

  • kali

    Maybe Mr. B thinks the past is like Iran today–as what’s-his-face told an American audience, there are no gays in Iran [that aren’t hanging from cranes].
    Or does he honestly believe that homosexuality is a cultural artifact? That it wasn’t permitted in the past, therefore it didn’t exist?

  • Zhombre

    I’ll let Mr.Book off on a technicality. I don’t believe there were any ‘gays’ before about 1970 when the word was appropriated to describe homosexuals and then primarily homosexual men in urban environments. Then gay became a culture, a movement, a social construct, etc. Prior to that they were closeted homosexuals, often described with vulgar names, or simply men who had sex with other men, or with boys.

  • stanley

    I have seen hints on the hillbuzz website that BHO and Rahm E are such. Hillbuzz was named originally named for Hillary C but are now backing Sarah P. How they can make the distinction between the various lefties and then go for Sarah P is a mystery.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    Alexander the Great was bisexual, which was a popular social “norm” in Greece at the time.


    What kind of vacuum does Mr. Bookworm exist in?
    Hoover – J. Edgar model 😉

  • Gringo

    Sadie sweeps up the Best Pun of the Thread Awards!

  • Charles Martel

    SADIE: You. Crack. My. Up.

  • Danny Lemieux

    I know this will shock people out of their socks, but there was a time in our history not long ago when guys could live with each other and not be gay and gals could live with each other and not be lesbian.

  • Leah

    I was fine with it all until you said that Mr. Bookworm said there were no gays back then. Does he believe that one is born gay? Or that it is all the environment that makes on gay?
    Cuz if it’s natural from birth, then how does one explain that there were no gays 150 years ago but now it has spread like wildfire.

  • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

    Thinking about it, I believe he found it inconceivable that, in mid-19th Century America, people could act upon their homosexuality.  Or alternatively, he denied what I said reflexively, without thought.  He’s remarkably suspicious of the facts I offer, convinced that all emanate from some vast right wing conspiracy.

  • Leah

    Has he heard of Boston Marriage? That is lesbians living together. I think that it was very common for same sex couples to live together, housing wasn’t cheep and yes, in some cases it was more than just convenience.  I’m inclined to believe that as long as it was ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ and people behaved appropriately in public there was no reason to raise a stink.
    I think Oscar Wilde flaunted his love for a young man, that is what got him in trouble.

  • Tonestaple

    Oh, Book, you have given me the laugh of the year.

    Back in 1853, King County, Washington was created and it was named King County after one William Rufus Devane King, apparent boyfriend of James Buchanan.  In 1986, right after I moved here, probably the first political story I remember hearing here, the King County Council woke up one morning and said, this cannot be!  William Rufus Devane King owned slaves!  Our county is named after a slave-owner!  Quelle horreur, only probably in Swedish because Seattle used to be extremely Nordic.  Anyway, the County Council promptly declared that the county was now named after the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. because having it named after Rev. King is way, way better, even if ahistorical than having it named after an evil white man (even one rumored to have Unionist sympathies).

    Now, hearing this story, it seems that the King County Council gave the boot to a gay man in favor of a black man, and I would be exceedingly pleased to see the s*$^ hit the fan over this.  I would dearly love to see another civil war created over this:  Capitol Hill (the gay neighborhood) versus the Central District (the black neighborhood).  I would pay money to watch.