Was Abraham Lincoln queer? Oh I know what you’re thinking, Mary: that old question again? Well stop sighing, drink your Old Fashioned and listen. New Orleans-based artist Skylar Fein’s current exhibition The Lincoln Bedroom at C24 Gallery raises and re-energizes this debate through a detailed, heavily researched, immersive installation of the bedroom, including the infamous bed, that Lincoln shared with Joshua Speed, a wealthy plantation owner’s son.
Attention wayward teabaggers (Ahem…I mean, Tea Partiers…oh well, you know what I mean, those Fox News forefather fetishists) who made it on Filthy Dreams with a mistaken Google search, stop reading here.
For those curious Filthy Dreams readers who aren’t completely up-to-date on your (gay)Abe history, let me give you a historical overview of Lincoln’s same-sex dabblings and the historical debates swirling around them.
As Fein’s introduction to the installation explains, Lincoln and Speed shared a bedroom in Springfield, Illinois from 1837 to 1841. Not only were they roommates, but they also shared a bed (wink wink, nudge nudge).
Many historians prefer to quickly dismiss this potentially queer relationship, explaining that Lincoln and Speed were forced to share the bed out of economic necessity. However, others, such as Fein, question this “necessity.” As Fein remarks in his introduction, “Joshua Speed was the scion of a wealthy plantation family: no shortage of beds there. And Lincoln was offered a private bedroom of his own in the home of a wealthy lawyer and his wife a few blocks away, but turned it down in favor of sharing the bed with Speed.”
While Speed and Lincoln eventually moved away from their cozy little bedroom, they maintained a life-long correspondence. In his Slate article “Abraham Lincoln Gay? Straight? Something Else?“, J. Bryan Lowder discusses the content of some of these letters. Lowder recalls, “For example, there is clear documentation that Lincoln and Speed were both terribly nervous about marrying women, leading them to act as confidants and cheerleaders to one another during times of wooing, essentially encouraging one another to get it over with already. Certainly no smoking gun, but not quite nothing, either. And what of Lincoln’s deep depression after Speed sold the store they lived above and moved away? To my ear, even Lincoln’s dismissal of Mary Owens—“I knew she was oversize, but now she appeared a fair match for Falstaff”—has a catty, queeny, and even gynaphobic ring.” Not only possibly queer, Lincoln may have been a bitchy queen as well!
In addition, as Fein points out, Lincoln’s bed sharing days were far from over after he left Springfield. Lincoln continued to share a bed with men well into his White House-dwelling days, particularly when that nut Mary Todd was out of town. Fein notes that Lincoln’s contemporaries thought this bed-sharing was a little “queer.”
Fein’s insightful installation is certainly not the first time Lincoln’s sexuality has been questioned. In particular, playwright, activist and provocateur Larry Kramer ruffled some feathers in 1999 when he essentially deemed Lincoln a gay forefather in a lecture, using Lincoln and Speed’s letters as a prime example of Lincoln’s gayness. After Kramer practically outed Lincoln, Lincoln’s sexuality has been debated here and there by historians, queer critics, journalists and other commentators, but this debate has never, as far as I know, been investigated by a fine artist until Fein’s The Lincoln Bedroom.
Primarily known for his paintings on found wood from the streets of New Orleans after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, Skylar Fein’s The Lincoln Bedroom maintains his interest in recontexualizing and analyzing historical icons and events. While The Lincoln Bedroom is one of the most historically ambitious installations I have seen, Fein emerged in the art scene during the New Orleans Prospect 1 Biennial with another large-scale installation Remember The Upstairs Lounge, honoring a French Quarter gay bar that was destroyed in a fatal fire in 1973.
Embarking on extensive research before building the installation, Fein traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, spending time with the remaining Speed descendants in order to faithfully represent Lincoln and Speed’s experiences.
Constructing Lincoln and Speed’s bedroom, appearing like a transgressive period room, The Lincoln Bedroom presents an almost banal vision of these two men’s domestic life together. Walking up the creaking stairs above the Speed store, the viewer is confronted by a slight smell of hay, tobacco and old wood.
A sparse room, Lincoln and Speed’s bedroom certainly does not appear to be a devious sex dungeon and yet, it is not completely asexual either. With two jackets hung on the wall, the bedroom is strewn with intimate objects from personal letters to photographs, allowing the viewers to consider the nature of male kinship in the 1800s as well as the relation of Lincoln and Speed to queerness.
Further cementing his commentary on Lincoln’s sexuality, the rest of The Lincoln Bedroom exhibition presents a vast range of Fein’s other artwork, in which he employs vintage and antique aesthetics to subvert accepted historical narratives about sexuality, race, economics and a host of other issues. His works, such as “Magazines For Tomorrow’s Man,” a rack of hilariously smutty mags such as “Sullen Teen” and “Vile,” as well as his light-up “Fresh Hot Nuts,” which of course makes me think of one of my favorite camp classics, portray Fein’s fascination in mining the hidden and often queer within dominant history.
Now, the question remains: what new is Fein bringing to this debate over Lincoln’s sexuality?
In her book Feeling Backward: Loss And The Politics Of Queer History, Heather Love takes on the queer historians who mine the potentially queer past in order to rescue certain figures from their sad, historical closets. Using The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” to define the push and pull of queer historians’ desire and demand for their subjects, Love states, “You will be mine; you could be mine—but you probably won’t be mine. This combination of demand and desperation characterizes the relation to the gay past. But queer critics tend to disavow their need for the past by focusing on the heroic aspect of their work of historical recovery. Like many demanding lovers, queer critics promise to rescue the past when in fact they dream of being rescued themselves” (33).
In many respects, Love’s statement reflects the problem with Larry Kramer and many other queer historians assertion of Lincoln as a type of queer forefather. These historians and critics at once use Lincoln to point to a highly esteemed, talented and noble queer past, as well as rescue him from his closeted suffering.
As Love continues critically, “By including queer figures from the past in a positive genealogy of gay identity, we make good on their suffering, transforming their shame into pride after the fact” (32).
Conversely, Fein’s The Lincoln Bedroom refuses easily definable categories and simplistic answers about Lincoln’s sexuality. In his introduction to the exhibition, Fein observes “Am I arguing that Lincoln was a homosexual? I’ll give the answer away right now: that question is probably unanswerable. In the end, Lincoln’s same-sex bed sharing may mean less than its proponents want, but more than its opponents allow. The truth may lie somewhere in between, in a third category: messy.”
And messy is exactly the type of historical study that queer historians need to embrace. Through an art installation, which will always be more open to these messy ideas and questions than historical analysis will ever be, Fein is able to embrace all the contradictions, complications and confusions contained within the possibility of queerness in the 1830s and 1840s, particularly considering the impossibility of a gay or queer identity, at least as defined in the 21st century, during this time.
Perhaps even more than the embrace of messiness, Fein’s installation allows for, as Heather Love observes, a touch across time.
Discussing Carolyn Dinshaw’s book Getting Medieval, Heather Love reveals, “Dinshaw focuses on the metaphorics of touch in the relation of contemporary critics to the medieval past; she explores the ‘strange fellowships’ and the ‘partial connections’ that link queer subjects across time. Through such connections, queer subjects build an imagined community of the marginal and the excluded. By trying to create relations across time, Dinshaw follows what she calls ‘a queer historical impulse, an impulse toward making connections across time between, on the one hand, lives, texts, and other cultural phenomena left out of sexual categories back then and, on the other hand, those left out of current sexual categories now. Such an impulse extends the resources for self-and community building into even the distant past.’ Rather than seeing herself as the heroic savior of the past, Dinshaw puts herself into relation with it, describing her own desires for ‘partial, affective connection, for community, for even a touch across time'” (37).
Through the sensory experience of entering a construction of Lincoln and Speed’s bedroom, Fein allows the viewers to experience this affective connection or “a touch across time.” And, as they say, seeing (or feeling) is believing, kweens. Somehow the experience of walking through Lincoln’s bedroom further solidifies the queer notions contained within the letters, historical documents and critical debates.
Simply put, that bed is really small. Maybe even too small for the notoriously tall Lincoln unless he was spooning really tight with Speed.
Through his installation, Fein is able to reach through history and put himself, and his audience, in relation with Lincoln, even though he is (thankfully) raising more questions than giving answers.