These Presidents Might Have Been Gay or Bisexual
If you ask most Americans, they’d probably agree our society is becoming more tolerant of different races, cultures, religions, and sexual identities. Even so, many people assume America just isn’t ready for a gay president. But the reality is we’ve probably already had multiple presidents who were gay or bisexual in the Oval Office. In fact, many of these presidents served before the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.
Of course, just because Americans tolerated gay relationships in the White House doesn’t mean that they truly accepted them, as The Huffington Post explains. Even today, many Americans would be taken aback to see a gay or lesbian couple — or even a gay bachelor — in the modern White House.
Nonetheless, Americans have long talked about which presidents might have been gay or bisexual (at least behind closed doors). Read on to learn about the most interesting rumors — some of which seem more plausible than others.
1. George Washington
- In office: 1789 to 1797
Many historians don’t believe it. But some think George Washington could have been gay or bisexual. According to The Huffington Post, historians can’t prove he was gay. But they also can’t prove that he wasn’t. (As the publication reports, historians also have a problematic habit of assuming everyone in the past was straight, unless proven otherwise.)
Washington reportedly wrote to a friend that there was “not much fire between the sheets” with his wife, Martha. But traditionally, historians have regarded his marriage to her as suspect not because of his sexuality, but because of the fortune she owned in stocks, bonds, land, and slaves. Yet the idea that Washington could have been gay isn’t entirely new, either. As The Daily Beast reports, Washington was a freemason. Newspapers at the time attacked freemasons by circulating stories that they were “engaging in anal penetration with wooden spikes used in ship building.”
2. Thomas Jefferson
- In office: 1801 to 1809
A New Yorker columnist sardonically refers to Thomas Jefferson as the first gay president. Making a point about criticism of Barack Obama, Hendrik Hertzberg recounts the many tropes about gay men that seemed to fit Jefferson. Jefferson was a foodie and a wine connoisseur. He became obsessive about the furnishings and decor at Monticello. Jefferson never remarried after he became a widower. He also dyed his hair and stayed slender despite his gourmet tendencies. Plus, he had a lisp and loved Paris.
Nonetheless, you’ll find little evidence — or serious argument — that Jefferson was actually gay. In fact, Jefferson numbers among the ranks of presidents who fathered illegitimate children. Vox reports that Jefferson “spent years raping his slave, Sally Hemings.” His sexual relationship with her spanned several decades and yielded as many as six children. That probably didn’t leave him much time to have affairs with men.
3. James Buchanan
- In office: 1857 to 1861
Time reports that 150 years before America had its first black president, the nation likely had its first homosexual commander in chief. Many historians believe James Buchanan, the only president who remained a bachelor his whole life, was our first gay president. Buchanan shared a home with Sen. William Rufus King. The two had such a close relationship that a prejudiced Andrew Jackson referred to them as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.”
After King moved to Paris to serve as ambassador, Buchanan wrote to a friend, “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.” Some historians think Buchanan didn’t keep his sexuality a secret. As Time reports, “For much of the 19th century, American society was considerably more open and accepting than it was in much of the century that followed.”
4. Abraham Lincoln
- In office: 1861 to 1865
The Huffington Post reports that Abraham Lincoln, one of our most iconic and most loved presidents, had some very ambiguous relationships with other men. Lincoln lived and shared a bed with a man named Joshua Speed for four years. The two even remained friends even after they no longer lived together. Lincoln also had a close relationship with David Derickson. Derickson would stay with Lincoln overnight when Lincoln’s wife, Mary, left town. He would supposedly even wear Lincoln’s nightshirt.
Some people even believe that William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner for 20 years, also numbered among Lincoln’s lovers. Yet The Daily Beast reports that some historians don’t think Lincoln was gay. One even points out that Lincoln lived at a time “when young men could be, indeed were assumed to be, close, bonded, and intimate, even sleeping together without being sexual partners.”
5. John F. Kennedy
- In office: 1961 to 1963
John F. Kennedy was a noted philanderer and womanizer. He had some of the most shocking sex scandals among modern presidents. But some people argue that Kennedy had affairs not just with women, but with at least one man, too. The Daily Beast reports that Kennedy’s best friend was Kirk LeMoyne Billings, also known as “Lem.” Lem made a pass at the future president when the two were still students. Kennedy reportedly replied, “I’m not that kind of boy.” Yet they remained close friends.
In fact, one biographer claims Kennedy also had more than a platonic relationship with his gay best friend. Lem reportedly said his friendship with Kennedy “included oral sex, with Jack always on the receiving end.” Despite the disapproval of Kennedy’s wife, Lem became a constant presence (and overnight guest) at the Kennedy White House. And after Kennedy was assassinated, one biographer referred to Billings as “probably the saddest of the Kennedy widows.”
6. Lyndon B. Johnson
- In office: 1963 to 1969
There likely wouldn’t have been rumors about Lyndon B. Johnson’s sexuality if he hadn’t hired Walter Jenkins. According to The Daily Beast, Jenkins joined Johnson’s employ at age 21, when LBJ was a congressman. Jenkins served alongside him his entire adult life. But in 1964, Jenkins was arrested by D.C. police while having sex with another man in a YMCA bathroom. Jenkins pleaded guilty to charges of lewd conduct. He had hoped the story would go away, but no such luck.
People speculated about Johnson’s sexuality as the news broke. PinkNews reports that Johnson insisted he knew nothing about Jenkins’ personal life. He said, “I couldn’t have been more shocked about Walter Jenkins if I’d heard that Lady Bird had tried to kill the Pope.” However, the publication adds that Johnson’s “opponents made much mileage out of suggestive innuendo.” They even printed bumper stickers joking, “All the way with LBJ, but don’t go near the YMCA.”
7. Richard Nixon
- In office: 1969 to 1974
The Daily Beast reports that “in addition to blacks, Jews and other minority groups, Nixon wasn’t particularly fond of gays.” Yet a book by a White House correspondent alleges that Nixon had an affair with Charles “Bebe” Rebozo, a banker who supposedly had ties to the mob. U.S. News notes there’s little evidence of the affair. Yet the book describes “several examples of cuddling and awkward swimming pool games between Nixon and Rebozo.”
Nonetheless, The Washington Post characterizes as false the rumors about Nixon being gay. Historians have found no White House tapes, love letters, incriminating pictures, or diary entries to support the rumors. But that hasn’t stopped stories about Nixon’s “gay affair” from going viral online. As The Post explains of the rumors about Nixon and other presidents, “There is almost no way to prove — or disprove — alleged intimacies from so long ago.”
8. Barack Obama
- In office: 2009 to 2017
You’ve probably heard numerous conspiracy theories. (And you’ve likely seen a Newsweek cover proclaiming Barack Obama the “first gay president,” based on his support for same-sex marriage.) But Obama doesn’t seem to be gay himself. Yet Andrew Sullivan, who wrote the Newsweek cover piece, argues that Obama “learned to be black the way gays learn to be gay.” Sullivan explains, “Barack Obama had to come out of a different closet.”
As Sullivan puts it, Obama “had to discover his black identity and then reconcile it with his white family, just as gays discover their homosexual identity and then have to reconcile it with their heterosexual family.” According to Sullivan, who is gay, “This is the gay experience: the discovery in adulthood of a community not like your own home and the struggle to belong in both places, without displacement, without alienation.”
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