WIDESPREAD INDIGNATION at the suggestion that Abraham Lincoln might have enjoyed sharing his bed with other men, that he delayed marriage to make it last as long as he could, and that he occasionally returned to the practice even in the White House when Mrs. Lincoln was away, suggests the fragility of tolerance for homosexuality. Educated Americans may be able to meet gay contemporaries as equals, but they will not tolerate making a presidential hero into a “homo” as well. It is hard to know whether things are different in Great Britain, where Tony Blair’s government has recently passed a law legalizing domestic partnerships for gay men and lesbians. There it was suggested a few years ago that Lincoln’s contemporary, Benjamin Disraeli, who was twice prime minister between 1868 and 1880, might also have been gay. One political journalist reacted to the Disraeli revelation by writing in The Times (London) that it was time to stop dwelling on irrelevant questions of sexuality and to focus on the great man’s policies.
But was Disraeli gay? And if so, did it matter then and does it now?
William Kuhn’s book on Disraeli, The Politics of Pleasure (Free Press), will be published later this year in the U.K. He teaches history at Carthage College.