If you ask most Americans, they would agree that we, as a society, are always becoming more progressive -- especially when it comes to tolerance of different races, cultures, and, perhaps most relevant in recent years, sexualities.
With the primaries for the November election in full force, we've seen human rights -- including those of the LGBTQ community -- take center stage. And after electing our first African-American President and experiencing the Supreme Court's landmark legalization of gay marriage in 2015, it's not far fetched to think that an LGBT president may be in the near future. But it might not be a first. That's right -- we may have already had a gay U.S. president: James Buchanan.
Our 15th President, Buchanan was elected in 1856 and served one term. While Buchanan is often remembered for his "Doughface" politics -- as a Northerner who leaned towards Southern policies -- and for remaining a bachelor throughout his life, the reasoning behind both is rarely discussed. In fact, Buchanan was most likely homosexual, and spent much of his early career in a 15-year relationship with another politician, southerner William Rufus King.
To further understand this relationship, I spoke with historian Jim Loewen, who wrote extensively about Buchanan and King in his book Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong.
As Loewen noted, "There's no reasonably doubt that King and Buchanan were both homosexual, and that they were known to be by political leaders at the time." Though neither man ever publicly admitted to being in a romantic relationship, Andrew Jackson referred to the pair as "Aunt Fancy" and "Miss Nancy," and Tennessee congressman Aaron Brown referred to King as Buchanan's "wife" and "better half" -- suggesting that their relationship was not as "closeted" as one might think. Perhaps the most damning public evidence is their cohabitation; the two men actually shared a room in a Washington boarding house for 15 years, while both men were members of Congress.
Letters between the two also suggest a relationship beyond platonic - particularly one written by Buchanan after King was appointed as President Tyler's Minister to France, and left for Paris:
"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."
With these archival words, it's difficult to argue that these two men were not romantically involved -- as Loewen told me, "people who deny that Buchanan and Vice President William Rufus King were a gay couple [...] set an impossibly high standard of proof." The two men even discussed plans to run as President and Vice President together, yet though each was elected to their respective positions, the stars never aligned in their favor; King died of tuberculosis just 45 days after his inauguration as Pierce's Vice President, four years before Buchanan would go on to be elected President.
So, could it be that we're just now becoming as tolerant as we were during the 19th century? It's not quite that simple. I spoke with Marke Bieschke, publisher and writer with the GLBT Historical Society, who noted the paradox: "While in the past there may have been more tolerance of gay relationships, especially in smaller communities, I don't necessarily think there was any acceptance to accompany it. There was just no dialogue about it." Thinking this way, today's culture may be less tolerant but more accepting of homosexuality.
This isn't the only distinction that needs to be made; I also spoke with Ilya Somin, Professor of Law at George Mason University and political contributor to the Washington Post, who suggested we shouldn't necessarily be comparing modern society to that of Buchanan's time, but instead to more recent history. He noted that, "it is pretty obvious that tolerance for gays and lesbians (including gay and lesbian politicians) is far greater than it was in the 19th century, or indeed as recently as 20 or 30 years ago."
Survey data from a 2015 Gallup poll certainly backs this claim, as it found that 74 percent of Americans say they're willing to vote for a gay or lesbian presidential candidate -- about the same percentage that would be willing to vote for an Evangelical Christian, yet far fewer than for a black, female, Catholic, or Hispanic candidate.
But we cannot discuss our perception of these types of candidates without also considering the media influence. While being race and gender are (generally) impossible to hide from the public, individuals can often choose to disclose or conceal their sexuality- - or, at least, most agree that they should be able to.
Yet Somin noted, "The modern media environment may make it tougher for a candidate to stay in the 'closet.'" As Bieschke put it, "One of the basic (if not universal) characteristics of homosexuality in America has always been 'keep it to yourself and we won't bother you -- unless we need a good scapegoat for political purposes.'"
Obama may have formally eliminated the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, but that doesn't mean we've eradicated this mindset from our society -- and though Bieschke agrees that we may see gay candidates in the near future, he's unsure if the public would elect this individual because of both "sexual mudslinging and innuendo" and the importance of the image of the "First Family." As he explains, "[he's] not quite sure people could deal with two men/ two women with or without children yet in the White House, let alone a gay bachelor."
Buchanan never had to face online publications dragging him through the mud, or paparazzi following him and King during the time they served in Congress together, or the National Enquirer critiquing their relationship. Though it's hard to believe we are circling back to what may be a beneficial divide between personal and public politics, Loewen is hopeful:
"Maybe we are finally again reaching -- as we had reached in the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century -- the sophistication [...] to say that the headlines about a President or member of Congress or other leader should be related to their jobs, and not their private lives."
Wouldn't that be wonderful?