Breaking the Glass Closet

It is entirely possible that Abraham Lincoln was not gay.

Our 16th president lived in an epoch in which such matters were not openly discussed in the way they are now, and we have no conclusive evidence of his sexual preference in any case.  Further, it is foolish and ignorant—as historians would have us believe—to transplant the mores of our own time unto those of the 19th century, or any other foreign era.

“Very few other presidents in history have slept with a man in their own bed in the White House while their wife slept next door,” Andrew Sullivan matter-of-factly put it.  Officially, however, we are enjoined not to infer anything sexual about such historical tidbits.  Since when has the fact of two people regularly sleeping together been a signal of any kind of intimacy?

Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, does not have the plausible deniability that comes with being dead for nearly 150 years.

The subject of a marvelous new documentary called Koch, which saw its outside-of-New York premiere this past weekend at the Boston Jewish Film Festival, the 87-year-old Koch has been dogged by rumors about his sexuality for most of his life, beginning (at minimum) during his first campaign for mayor in 1977, when supporters of his main opponent, Mario Cuomo, posted signs that read, “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.”

As with Lincoln, evidence for Koch’s homosexuality is circumstantial.  He has never married or, indeed, engaged in an intimate relationship of any kind, so far as anyone knows.  When pressed on the subject in this new film, he cheerfully tells the camera, “It’s none of your fucking business.”  We are left to interpret this however we wish, although one is forced to notice that, if the answer to the gay question is “no,” Koch has spent an awful lot of time not saying so.

What he does instead—often quite eloquently—is make the point that the sexuality of public officials should be off-limits in polite society.  His excuse for not disclosing his own orientation, he says, is that doing so would lend credence to the notion that the question is legitimate and the answer matters.  Koch believes that neither is the case.

He is not alone in thinking this.  There is a well-established, and perfectly respectable, wing of the gay community that objects to “outing” public figures willy-nilly, no matter how self-evident their gayness might be.

This school of thought is not entirely wrong.  For instance, there was no moral imperative—no cries about “the people’s right to know”—in revealing that CNN’s Anderson Cooper is gay until Cooper decided to do it himself, on his own terms.

However, as Koch makes plain, there are instances in which the privacy principle does not apply.  Sometimes whether a particular politician is gay makes all the difference in the world.

The charge leveled against Mayor Koch is as follows:  During the 1980s, as AIDS was running rampant across New York, killing scores and terrifying the holy heck out of the gay community, Koch did not do all that he might have to counteract the epidemic because doing so would effectively confirm his homosexuality in the public’s mind.

It is a deadly serious allegation to make, and profoundly irresponsible were it not made in good faith and with ample evidence to back it up.  Koch, for his part, has rejected its premise, saying his response to the AIDS outbreak went as far as it could reasonably have gone.

Whatever the truth about Koch, we have a duty to take seriously the proposition that living in the closet can produce a great deal of misery that extends far beyond the heart of the closeted person himself.

One is put in mind of the many virulently anti-gay politicians, clergy and others who, as surely as the sun rises, are revealed to be gay themselves, and we realize the hardcore rhetoric was pure posturing and misdirection.  The details of the scandal that brings out the truth might be amusing, but the damage these people inflict upon others in the meantime is real, and sometimes irreversible.

The good news is that word has gotten out, and the world is adapting accordingly.  Young people who, in the past, might have struck stridently anti-gay attitudes as a means of asserting their own masculinity understand that today such bluster raises the prospect of a deep, dark secret.

In effect, supporting gay rights is now the most surefire way of convincing your peers that you are straight.  As an outcome, it might not be ideal.  But it’s not bad.


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