The new issue of Newsweek features a cover photo of President Obama topped by a rainbow-colored halo and captioned “The First Gay President.” The halo and caption strike me as cheap sensationalism. I realize airport travelers look at a magazine for 2.2 seconds before moving on to the next one. I grant that this cover will probably get Newsweek a 4.4 second glance. I also understand that Newsweek is desperate for sales. Nevertheless, I doubt that the Newsweek of old, before it was sold for a dollar, would have pandered as shallowly.
The caption is a superficial way to characterize an important development of thought that the president — along with the country — has been making over recent years. It is also entirely wrong. Like the mini-furor a couple of months back about the claim that Richard Nixon was our first gay president, the story simply ignores that the U.S. already had a gay president more than a century ago.
There can be no doubt that James Buchanan was gay, before, during and after his four years in the White House. Moreover, the nation knew it, too — he was not far into the closet.
Today, I know no historian who has studied the matter and thinks Buchanan was heterosexual. Fifteen years ago, historian John Howard, author of “Men Like That,” a pioneering study of queer culture in Mississippi, shared with me the key documents, including Buchanan’s May 13, 1844, letter to a Mrs. Roosevelt. Describing his deteriorating social life after his great love, William Rufus King, senator from Alabama, had moved to Paris to become our ambassador to France, Buchanan wrote:
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 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.
Despite such evidence, one reason why Americans find it hard to believe Buchanan could have been gay is that we have a touching belief in progress. Our high school history textbooks’ overall story line is, “We started out great and have been getting better ever since,” more or less automatically. Thus we must be more tolerant now than we were way back in the middle of the 19th century! Buchanan could not have been gay then, else we would not seem more tolerant now.
This ideology of progress amounts to a chronological form of ethnocentrism. Thus chronological ethnocentrism is the belief that we now live in a better society, compared to past societies. Of course, ethnocentrism is the anthropological term for the attitude that our society is better than any other society now existing, and theirs are OK to the degree that they are like ours.
Chronological ethnocentrism plays a helpful role for history textbook authors: it lets them sequester bad things, from racism to the robber barons, in the distant past. Unfortunately for students, it also makes history impossibly dull, because we all “know” everything turned out for the best. It also makes history irrelevant, because it separates what we might learn about, say, racism or the robber barons in the past from issues of the here and now. Unfortunately for us all, just as ethnocentrism makes us less able to learn from other societies, chronological ethnocentrism makes us less able to learn from our past. It makes us stupider. ( – more –)