Some proud President days
February 15th, 2010
When it comes to ensuring the equality of all citizens, especially gay citizens, it can seem that Presidents lag far behind legislators, judges, and society at large. It would be easy to compile a large litany of abuses that Presidents have heaped on the non-heterosexual community. But there have also been days in which Presidents took action that is laudable and to their credit. And, just some steps that I included because they amuse me.
Here are a few (but certainly not all) moments in which Presidents and our community interacted:
February 23, 1778 – Baron Friedrich von Steuben arrived to offer his services General George Washington (not yet President) and his Continental Army. Steuben was probably Washington’s best military asset, as he provided the training and structure that had been up until then missing from the Americans. Steuben’s methods would be utilized for the next century and a half. Although Washington officially did not tolerate homosexual acts (drumming out an officer caught in the act of, um, fraternizing), Steuben’s reputation – and accompaniment of handsome men – did not dissuade the General from placing him in authority. One could even suggest that “don’t ask, don’t tell” was the military policy from the start.
March 4, 1857 – President James Buchanan was sworn into office. Buchanan was a bachelor who had lived for 15 years with Alabama Senator William Rufus King (King had died in 1852, after serving as Vice President for less than a month). While evidence of the two as a couple is not overwhelmingly conclusive enough to convince those who are inclined to dismiss any historical inclusion of non-heterosexuality (the nieces of the two men burned their correspondences), contemporaries certainly seemed to think of them in this manner. Buchanan was our only bachelor President, a sin that would certainly be seen as a liability today.
March 5, 1861 – President Abraham Lincoln was sworn into office. While rumors about Lincoln were less pronounced than those about his predecessor, his space sharing was even more intimate than that of Buchanan. In his late 20’s he met Joshua Speed, moved in with him, and shared his bed for the next four years. The two exchanged flowery letters expressing devotion, and C. A. Tripp, in The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, argued that Lincoln was primarily same-sex attracted. Dissenters argue that sharing beds was common in an era in which beds were scarce. However, they are a bit less adamant about a shortage of beds in the White House when Lincoln shared his bed with David Derickson, his bodyguard, when Mary Todd Lincoln was away. Whether, indeed, Lincoln was primarily homosexual in orientation, he was certainly unconventional in his bed-mate patterns and worthy of mention.
November 1, 1978 – The Briggs Initiative was on the California ballot, for a November 7 vote. If passed, it would have banned gay man and women from working in California’s public schools. Ronald Reagan, the prior Governor and soon to be President, wrote an editorial in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner opposing the bill, saying “Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence this.” This was an official follow-up on a September interview in which he expressed his opposition, and the timing of the editorial is closely associated with a massive shift from strong support to overwhelming opposition. In January 1981, the decorators for Nancy Reagan are the first known gay couple to spend the night in the White House.
January 20, 1993 – President Bill Clinton was sworn into office. Clinton was the first President elected with a campaign which included specific gay rights provisions and shortly into his term, Clinton sought to fulfill his promises by lifting the ban on open service of gay personnel. He ran into immediate opposition in Congress and ultimately signed off on the “compromise” that became Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell as well as the Defense of Marriage Act, both of which still haunt us. But for a brief shining moment the world looked full of promise. In October 1997, Clinton nominated James Hormel, an openly gay man and significant contributor, to be Ambassador to Luxembourg. After a year and a half of opposition from conservative Senators, Clinton employed a recess appointment in May 1999 and Hormel was sworn in the following month.
February 23, 1996 – Former President Jimmy Carter, writing in the LA Times, called for a rejection of “the politics of hate.” He stated, “We must make it clear that a platform of ‘I hate gay men and women’ is not a way to become president of the United States.” On April 5, 2004, in an interview with the American Prospect, he set himself in opposition to George Bush’s election campaign against same-sex couples. “I personally, in my Sunday-school lessons, don’t favor the religious endorsement of a gay marriage. But I do favor equal treatment under the law for people who differ from me in sexual orientation.” In December of the following year, he reiterated, “My own belief is that there should be a distinction between so-called gay marriages, which I look upon as a possibility of a church- ordained blessing of God on a union, which I think should be between a man and a woman. But at the same time, that people who do have gay union in a court or in secular terms not relating to religion, should be treated with complete equality.”
September 18, 2001 – Michael Guest was sworn in as Ambassador to Romania. Unlike James Hormel, this George W. Bush appointment was based on civil service record and received Senate confirmation. This early in W’s first term, there was considerable optimism that he would oversee an inclusive administration.
October 29, 2001 – Reporter Deb Price ran an article based on an interview with former President Gerald Ford. To her surprise, Ford endorsed non-discrimination and declared that gay couples should have the same tax and Social Security rights as married heterosexuals. “I think they ought to be treated equally. Period.” That year Ford joined the Republican Unity Coalition, an organization dedicated to making sexual orientation a non-issue in the Republican Party, thus becoming the only President to engage in pro-gay activism. Shortly before his 2006 death, Ford discussed with his Episcopal priest the divisions in the denomination over the place of gay congregants in the church. In his homily, his pastor noted, “He said he did not think (such inclusive steps) should be divisive for anyone who lived by the Great Commandments and the Great Commission — to love God and to love neighbor.” Ford was the only President who was not elected to any position by the American voters at large. He was sent to Congress by the people of Grand Rapids. After the resignation of Vice-President Spiro Agnew, Ford was selected as a replacement based primarily on his reputation for honesty and integrity, and he become president upon the resignation of Richard Nixon.
The current President has promised to be a fierce advocate for our community. And history will advise us of the most favorable action that President Barack Obama will take in his administration. To date, we are thankful for statements made during the election cycle, for Bishop Robinson’s inaugural prayer, for several gay appointments, and for current efforts to reverse the ban on open service in the military. Let’s hope we have much for to celebrate next Presidents’ Day.
Undoubtedly, I’ve omitted several milestones, for which I apologize. Feel free to praise Presidents in the comments section (for today, let’s try and keep it to praise. We’ll start the criticism again tomorrow.)