Larry Kramer's recent novel, The American People: Volume 1: A Search for My Heart, has got tongues wagging again about which great men in American history were gay. In interviews, as well as in the book, Kramer has claimed that many of the founders, including George Washington, were gay. As Kramer knows, the terms "heterosexual" and "homosexual" were coined in the late nineteenth century, and many will dismiss the book because he appears to be a bad historian by asserting modern ideas about the past. But, what I find more compelling is that the negative reaction to Kramer's assertion points to an even bigger problem in American history, and that is the blanket assumption that everyone in the past was straight, unless proven otherwise.
Historians of the LGBTQ past have noted that there is double-standard, a default setting for the sexual orientations of historical figures. Larry Kramer seeks to tackle it head-on with his book. His provocative statements will convince some and irk others. For academic historians, it will likely just result in one request: Show us the evidence. Kramer has long argued that academic historians are as much to blame for the straight-washing of American history as even the most rabid of anti-gay, right-wing, history myth-making foundations. Indeed, he has argued that because the straight-washing is committed by those who wear the authoritative mantle of academic historian, it's even worse.
Do we have evidence that Washington was gay? According to Kramer: "In the case of Washington, he was a big queen, basically." "He decorated everything. He designed all the uniforms, the buttons. The correspondence exists with all the dealers he dealt with in England to make everything." Kramer also points out that we know that Washington was emotionally close to a circle of men who also expressed love to one another.
Absurd? Maybe. But, what evidence do we have that Washington was straight? He had no concept of that identity. What often stands in as evidence of heterosexuality in early America is a marriage license and/or children. We should know enough by now that neither can stand scrutiny as clear evidence of sexual orientation.
In his interview with the New York Times Kramer said: "People say, 'Can you prove to me that George Washington was gay?' and I say, 'Can you prove to me that he wasn't?'" Academic history shouldn't operate on such logic, even if many would argue that for too long it has done precisely this in asserting heterosexuality of historical figures, unless the evidence proved otherwise. Kramer's provocative statements go a long way toward shaking us out of our complacency.
What's at stake here? As I've argued elsewhere, questions about Washington's sexuality are about more than just one man -- they are about American identity. Kramer is not a Washington scholar, determined to understand the founder of our nation. Just as with people invested in fancifully depicting George and Martha as a couple extraordinaire who experienced love at first sight, Kramer's interest in establishing Washington as queer reflects more so on who we are as Americans.
Asserting that George Washington was gay garners headlines because Americans think they know that George Washington was as straight as could be -- a vision that partly relies on the traditional image of virtuous, American manhood. For Kramer, asserting that Washington was gay reveals not only that Americans are bigots who straight-wash their histories, but it also tells us something about LGBTQ Americans. As Kramer stated: "It may look like fiction, but to me, it's not."
He continues: "Most histories have been written by straight people. There has never been any history book written where the gay people have been in the history from the beginning. It's ridiculous to think we haven't been here forever." Kramer uses the legitimacy of the founders to show that queer people have long made contributions to the nation. On that point, he's on solid ground.