Heteronormativity in the portrayal of historical figures

By: Irene Cohen and Ellie Mulvaney

Stigmas have been prevalent in modern society since its creation; limiting those who act or think differently than the status quo. Even now, there are conscious and subconscious prejudices against these people or ideas that taint the way they are perceived.

Homosexuality is one of such stigmas that has been frowned upon or discouraged in many communities, from the past through to present day. There are many figures in American history alone that have been rumored or confirmed as LGBT+, though this is often omitted when their stories are recounted. Let’s look at who some of these people are and why their sexualities were kept under wraps.

To begin, we have a revered poet and author responsible for works such as ​”I Hear America Singing​” and “​Song of Myself”;​ the latter of the two being a mildly controversial poem that sparked intrigue over the topic of sexuality. The University of Illinois reports that this poem contains a certain “Section V”, which contains explicit themes in a setting with another man. He titled the group of works centered around this man ​”Leaves of Grass”,​ and upon its discovery by his employer, this homoerotic poetry cost him his job. He was quickly rehired, but the work remained controversial and even prohibited in places. Since he self-published it in 1855, it underwent multiple transformations to muffle it’s suggested nature by scandalised editors, and was banned in Boston in 1882. At the time, Robert K. Martin was credited with saying “Whitman intended his work to communicate his homosexuality to his readers.”

Back then, being anything but straight was heavily condemned, and hidden almost completely by those who that pertained to. Despite progress made in terms of acceptance in the present day, there still is heavy criticism around the LGBT+ community. Could this in part be accredited to the lack of normalization?

In the case of Walt Whitman, even after his unconventional poems, that called mass amounts of attention to his identity, his sexuality is not commonly known. In my own years of studying and analyzing his work, this detail has always somehow been excluded from what I’ve learned about him. Teaching about honored individuals while being fully transparent in who they are can not only provide role models for LGBT+ youth, but also give more insight into the lives and experiences of said individuals.

A personal idol of Walt Whitman, who had similar gender preferences in relationships, was the renowned president Abraham Lincoln. Famous for documents such as the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln is one of the US’s most prominent political figures.

As familiar as many are with his achievements in office, his personal endeavors are much less known. One piece of information that many point to, to support the claim that Lincoln was actually gay, is the fact that Lincoln admitted to sleeping with another man, Joshua Speed, for four years, though Speed was far from the only man to have shared a bed with Abraham Lincoln over the years. Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, mentioned that Billy Greene had once said to him “They were as perfect as a human being could be,” in reference to Lincoln’s thighs.

Another, Captain Derrickson, was known to sleep in Lincoln’s bed and use his nightshirts when Mrs. Lincoln was out of town. Despite this overwhelming amount of corroboration for the idea that Lincoln was gay, historians to this day are maintaining that this esteemed president was heterosexual. One could argue that had any of these citations been with women rather than men, the claim that these people had an intimate relationship with Lincoln would be almost completely certain.

Looking back in the history books, it is evident that there is a lack of LGBTQ+ figures. The idea that people have only now begun to identify as anything but straight is nothing but illogical, though historians have seemingly edited out the parts of history they deemed unnatural or distasteful to further this notion. The public not seeing this aspect of the identities of figures they respect, or idolize, can be toxic to the queer community. Treating being gay as some sort of taboo stunts the movement and normalization of the existence of queer people.

Hopefully, the discussion opens up more and more in the future about just how many capable, and successful, people lived a non-heterosexual lifestyle.

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