Here we go again. Atlantic senior editor Jennie Rothenberg Gritz posts a short, hetero-centric essay reinforcing the false premise that because it's impossible to know what historical figures did in bed it's impossible to consider them gay. Whitman, Lincoln & Speed, Sarah Orne Jewett, James Garfield -- all are tarred with this terrible uncertainty.
The article confuses a lack of gay identity with an absence of gay sex. Its most illogical implication is that the big shift from platonic same-sex friendships to gay romantic partnerships came about as a result of two events: 1) Wilde's trials and 2) Freud. These points are framed in relation to the general public's awareness of queer coupling, but they are presented chronologically to suggest a divide between the 19th century's innocent friends and the 20th century's passionate lovers.
Although the writer acknowledges Wilde, Symonds, and Stein, she gets new quotes only from two experts, neither of whom know the word "queer" and both of whom refuse to allow "gay."
Says Jewett House manager Peggy Wishart:
"The thing we don't know about any of these people, is the question most modern people have: Were they gay?.. Women were perceived as being non-sexual to begin with, and most people assumed that if they didn't have husbands, they wouldn't have any interest in sex."
After her own headscratching, the writer gives the final word to NYU graduate school professor David S. Reynolds:
The writer chose not to speak with any of hundreds of scholars of LGBT history who would have balanced her article and obliterated these quotes. To regain your sanity, read Gary Schmidgall's Walt Whitman: A Gay Life. Or Michael Bronski's A Queer History of the United States.
Today, it's hard to know just how to read those letters. But as Reynolds says, "It's absolutely wrong to impose today's version of homosexuality on Whitman or Jewett. That's done much too often." Instead, he suggests we appreciate the rich humanity of the 19th century. "Lincoln was a very, very human guy," Reynolds says. "He saw himself as a comrade, as someone who loved men and women. A lot of other people also saw themselves that way. It was a much less institutional world than we live in today -- a much more personal world."