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Harvey Wasserman

Harvey Wasserman

Posted: May 24, 2010 11:53 AM

Don't Ask, Don't Tell If George Washington Was Gay

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As Congress at last debates the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, we might ask ourselves: "What if George Washington was gay?"

The question is posed by "Thomas Paine's" shocking new Passions of the Potsmoking Patriots.

The answer, of course, is that -- under today's laws -- he would have been drummed out of the Revolutionary Army, and we might still be a colony of the King.

Because he "could not tell a lie," a gay General Washington would have been obliged to turn himself in. Under current policy, the Continental Congress would have sent him packing back to Mt. Vernon.

Like many gays in today's military, Washington was irreplaceable. Possessed of an iron will and Vesuvian temper, it's hard to imagine anyone else holding the ragtag Revolutionary army together. His 1776 crossing of the Delaware to surprise the mercenary Hessians in Trenton was one of the great military strokes in all history.

To train his men at Valley Forge, Washington enlisted the Prussian military genius Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, who had fled Prussia amidst numerous charges of molesting young boys. He arrived with a 17-year-old male assistant and was later romantically linked with an American officer.

Whatever his sexual orientation, von Steuben's training techniques set the standard for the US military for 150 years.

Deborah Sampson of Massachusetts was wounded several times while serving the Revolution disguised as a man. Discovered after contracting a fever, she was honorably discharged by Washington himself, and eventually received a military pension.

For years rumors have swirled that Abraham Lincoln was gay, largely because of a lengthy stay in bed with another man. But in an era of limited accommodations, such sharing was common. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were once forced to sleep together while on a European mission. They disliked each other, and it was probably the longest night of both their lives.

President James Buchanan---who served just prior to Lincoln---was a bachelor with a long-time live-in "companion" named William Rufus Devane King. The bigoted Andrew Jackson may have referred to King, or to the couple, as "Miss Fancy and Aunt Nancy," though Jackson never lacked targets for his epithets. A postmaster at the time referred to them as "Buchanan and his wife." King was briefly Vice President to Franklin Pierce. After King's death from tuberculosis, Buchanan became our likeliest gay to occupy the White House.

But was Washington himself gay?

While still in his twenties, George Washington married Martha Dandrige Custis. The widow of an extremely wealthy planter, Martha made George the richest man in America. There is evidence he left a more impassioned (female) lover for just that reason.

George apparently never fathered a child. A childhood illness may have rendered him sterile. Later he wrote to a friend that there was "not much fire between the sheets" with Martha.

Washington did form passionate relationships with his fellow warriors. He developed a fierce loyalty to his brilliant aide de camp Alexander Hamilton, a Jamaican of uncertain parentage. As Treasury Secretary, Hamilton later fathered the American corporate state.

Hamilton married a woman who made him rich and gave him eight children. Then he openly confessed to having an affair. His marriage survived (as did the corporate state).

Washington also expressed fierce affection for the Marquis de Lafayette. Passions opens with the two of them in a passionate embrace, whispering of marriage, headed for the mattress, when they are interrupted by a radical captain named Daniel Shays.

Had such an affair actually been detected, today's laws would have cost the nation its first Commander in Chief -- and probably its War for Independence.

There's no reason to believe there was a smaller proportion of gay men in the Revolutionary Army than in today's. And there's no hard evidence the first Commander in Chief was among them.

But fans of Thomas Jefferson denied for nearly 200 years that he fathered the children of his slave Sally Hemings, only to have DNA prove otherwise.

Passions of the Potsmoking Patriots is a satire, and George Washington's sexual preferences have never been seriously questioned.

But as we weigh repeal of the ban on gays in the military, Congress should consider the costs -- real and potential -- of continuing to strip the armed forces of any of its treasured assets.