Was Lincoln Queer?
And other stories from our queer past
Welcome back to Queer History 101!
Did you know that we’ve already had queer leaders in the White House? How about in the Black Freedom Movement? And even stretching back to ancient Egypt? As y'all know from reading Queer History 101, queer folks have ruled, organized, and mobilized for millennia. On this week’s premiere episode of THE BOOK OF QUEER (streaming now on Discovery+), a new docuseries I created and executive produced, we shine a light on the underrepresented history of those trailblazing activists, heads of state, and rulers: history's queer queens and kings.
After two years of hard work, I'm so thrilled to share this queer history extravaganza with you––it's the largest all-queer cast in the history of Hollywood! Each week, our comedic and music-filled episodes celebrate queer history by shining a light on its past figureheads, pioneers, and movements. These are the stories you won’t find in school textbooks, which erase anything that deviates too far from the hetero-cis-centered norm. By recognizing the queerness that runs deep through all human history, our show hopes to illustrate our queer lineage – to show that we come from a long line of powerful, resilient, and fabulous ancestors.
Exhibit A? Many Americans recognize Abraham Lincoln as one of the greatest presidents in the nation’s history, if not the greatest. But despite the endless tomes detailing his political and personal lives, many historians have turned a blind eye to his longstanding penchant for bedsharing with men – men with whom he sometimes shared intimate written correspondence.
For example, before marrying Mary Todd and running for office, Lincoln lived and worked at a general store alongside Bill Greene. For several years, they crammed into one small bed, with Greene later writing that “when one turned over, the other had to do likewise.” But that's the least of our evidence for Lincoln's queerness. Greene marks just the first of the four intimate relationships Lincoln cherished with other men, all covered in our first episode (with a hysterical "Babe" Lincoln played by comedian Nate Timmerman) and facilitated by interviews with historian Thomas Balcerski.
Plus, Lincoln wasn’t the only queer White House resident. Professor Lillian Faderman, the pioneering lesbian historian, lends her expertise to help us explore First Lady and famed feminist Eleanor Roosevelt’s decades-long relationship with journalist Lorena ‘Hick’ Hickok – who even lived with FDR and Eleanor in the White House! As with Lincoln and his lovers, the letters exchanged between these two women go far beyond the norms of friendship at the time––or even now. Straight scholars can't explain away Lorena writing to Eleanor about “the feeling of that soft spot just northeast of the corner of your mouth against my lips” as she counts down the days until they’re reunited – that’s queer history, folks.
With the help of professor Kara Cooney, we also learn about gender-bending Egyptian Pharoh Akhenaten, whose desire to represent himself as both masculine and feminine became a defining characteristic of his reign. In the patriarchial context of Ancient Egypt, Akhenaten's gender expression was radical, although today it might sound more familiar; if he were alive today, we might refer to him as non-binary. And his queerness didn’t just extend to his hybrid masculine-feminine depictions – tune in to get the full scoop on his potential relationship with Smenkhare, his male co-ruler.
Queer leaders have also exerted their influence on a grassroots level. Take, for example, the iconic Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin, whose brilliant mind and unwavering devotion to equality and non-violence empowered him to orchestrate the 1963 March on Washington. An unapologetic gay Black man, Rustin endured incarceration, racism, and homophobic discrimination. But, due to his extraordinary resilience, he went on to become an icon of queer and Black history.
Our premiere episode of the Book of Queer proves that throughout all history, LGBTQ+ folks have always had political power – and no amount of erasure can change that. I am so proud to have created this incredible show, which brings the rich academic field of queer history to a wider audience. I know you’ll enjoy learning about these stories and laughing along the way, thanks to the stellar work of our all-queer cast and writers, so please tune in! You’ll even see my face from time to time as the show's resident "homo historian."
This is me "constructing" the social construct of homosexuality!!
I can't wait to hear what you think!
THE BOOK OF QUEER is streaming now on Discovery+.