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Episode 2

Transcript

     [Music]

Eric:

Welcome to The Deviant’s World. I’m Eric Cervini. Every other week on this podcast, including this one. I’ll go back in time to explore deviant historical mysteries from across the centuries with the help of historians, friends, and other special guests. But before we begin, I have to tell you, we recorded this episode a week ago, and since then there has been a twist in gay current events. Pete Buttigieg has dropped out of the Democratic Presidential Primary. A gay man will not be elected to the presidency in 2020. But in this episode we ask a related question: Have we already had a gay president? This is The Deviant’s World: Magic Closet Edition. All right. Ready to go?

Gregory:

Yes sir.

Eric:

All right. Hello and welcome to the Deviant’s World: Magic Closet Edition. I’m Eric Cervini. I’m here with one of my best friends, Gregory Lehrmann.

Gregory:

Hello.

Eric:

So how do we know each other? Gregory?

Gregory:

Uh, we, uh, we’re a part of a gay kickball league about a year and a half ago. And, uh, Eric was there.

Eric:

And it was right when I moved to Los Angeles, and Gregory was one of my first friends and became one of my best friends. And somehow we have not killed each other yet. He’s here, he’s an attorney during the day and in the magic closet edition of our podcast. Um, we explore deviant mysteries across history, kind of a continuation of what I was doing in the closet a little earlier in the year, uh, but getting a little bit more depth. And so today I wanted to talk about a really specific mystery, which is whether or not we may have actually had a gay president before. So, Gregory, have you been watching the, uh, the democratic presidential primary and, uh, we, we may have a contender, in fact, maybe even a front runner for a gay president.

Gregory:

Yeah, we definitely have a contender. Um, yeah, Pete Buttigieg for sure. Uh, I mean he did very well in New Hampshire and, uh, I just, we’re getting the results from the Nevada caucus right now.

Eric:

Yeah. So we’ll even know when this airs. We’ll even know how he did. And it’ll be interesting to see how he did outside of.

Gregory:

White America.

Eric:

Exactly. Yeah. Outside of South Bend. I think, you know, it’s sends such an important signal regardless of who you’re supporting, if you’re someone who identifies as LGBT+, um, to see how far we’ve come. And I think definitely, especially compared to how many people may have felt during the 2008 election, yes, it is a, a great accomplishment, but we have so much farther to go.

Gregory:

And it is, it’s easy to lose sight of that, um, and get caught up in the politics of it. And with how far we have come so quickly, it’s easy to lose sight of just how, um, historic it truly is and how interesting it is that his sexuality actually really doesn’t seem to be a major issue then I think it’s important to not lose sight of that.

Eric:

Right. Well, so I want to explore whether or not we may have already had a gay president. And a lot of people have heard the fact, Oh, there was a gay president and we’re going to look at some of the evidence for that. In fact, Buttigieg actually was asked about it and the president in question is president James Buchanan. You said you’ve heard of him before, right?

Gregory:

Yeah, yeah, he um, was president right before Lincoln and he–

Eric:

Well don’t spoil anything.

Gregory:

Oh, okay. Yeah. Speaking of Lincoln,

Eric:

He was before Lincoln and we’ve actually, we’ve talked about on my channel, I’ve posted some of the evidence about Lincoln zone, somewhat ambiguous sexuality. Uh, but anyways, Buttigieg actually was asked by someone about, uh, about Buchanan. He said, my gaydar is not great to begin with and it definitely doesn’t work over great stretches of time. So I think we’ll have to let the historians figure that one out. So today, I am a historian. I’m a historian of more modern American history. So we’ll still be looking at some of the evidence. You’re going to help me sift through it. And then at the end we’ll actually be calling an expert on this specific question. Uh, he literally wrote the book on, uh, uh, president Buchanan and, uh, one of the relationships, uh, that he may or may not have had in a romantic sense.

Eric:

So we’re going to take a look, but let’s talk about who James Buchanan is. So one of the reasons I wanted you on Gregory is he was a lawyer. Um, he was originally from Pennsylvania. He was coming from a very anti-slavery part of the state, so you would expect him to be also an abolitionist. But before that, let’s start looking at some of the evidence about his sexuality and we have to start, um, really at the beginning when he is a young guy, he’s in his twenties. He’s actually in his later twenties, is a little bit older than were most men married at the time. But by 1819, he’s considered to be one of Pennsylvania’s most eligible bachelors. And he actually finds a woman, her name is Anne Coleman. She’s a 23 year old heiress to an iron fortune and seemed to be very desirable herself, but pretty quickly into their engagement, they start having problems. He’s working too hard to spend any time with her. And you see all these instances of, you know, him saying, Oh, I’m too busy with work, but then he’s going on all these other vacations. I dunno. Have you had that happen to you?

Gregory:

Had what happened to me? No, no, I don’t have boyfriends, so–

Eric:

I don’t know. I feel like I’ve often, like I’ve dated people who, you know, they’ll be like, Oh, like I’m really busy to do like this or something. And then you see them on, you know, social media, not very busy. So she, like I think we all should, if we, if we, uh, value ourselves, she broke off the engagement. Um, because it was pretty clear–

Gregory:

Someone should have.

Eric:

but this is where it gets a little dark. She eventually, very quickly after she broke off the engagement, um, started having what they called at the time, women would often suffer from hysteria, right?

Gregory:

Yeah, we’ve come so far, we never call women hysteric anymore.

Eric:

Oh, geez. Yeah. Well she started having these hysterical convulsions, quote unquote, um, that’s what the doctor referred to them and she eventually died. And it’s a little bit unclear about whether or not it was something natural or she may have taken her own life. We don’t really know. Um, but what we can agree on in what scholars have have concluded is that the way Buchanan is, you know, very desirable young man who otherwise should have been going after her as a desirable young woman, um, was treating her with negligence. Right? That’s, that’s kind of the consensus. Um, and another kind of weird part of the story is, many years later after he was a president, Buchanan and gave orders to the executors of his will to make sure that they burned all the letters with Anne.

Gregory:

Oh wow.

Eric:

So that was it. Buchanan never married. And you know, he would point back to this relationship and this kind of trauma to say, Oh, you know, I couldn’t possibly find someone else or have a marriage after this.

Gregory:

Because this was so perfect and went off without a hitch.

Eric:

Or traumatic, right. Maybe women or just like romance was dead for him?

Gregory:

at least with women.

Eric:

Right. [Laughter] Um, but anyways, let’s talk about his politics a little bit. So, uh, you can N he started out as a Federalist just like, uh, our friend Hamilton, so that he was pro bank pro tariff anti war, uh, very much, uh, under that umbrella, but eventually joined the Democratic Party under Andrew Jackson, who he himself was very against, um, the, uh, the bank. Um, and so it was a pretty odd coalition. And that’s where this guy named William Rufus Devane King–quite a hefty name–gets introduced in this story. So he is from Alabama and uh, meets Buchanan in 1821 while he is in the Senate, and Buchanan is elected to the house of representatives. Um, and so they’re both in Washington at the same time. They’re both bachelors. King is, uh, like I said, he’s representing Alabama, but he’s originally from North Carolina. He actually helped found the city of Selma, Alabama, which we know about a hundred years later, was the site of some pretty major protests, uh, by Martin Luther King,

Gregory:

The bridge.

Eric:

Yes. And he, because he was from the South was obviously very pro slavery. Um, we’re getting there, but he was of course, since that was the, the backbone of the entire Southern economy was pro slavery, um, but was still under that same political, um, umbrella of Jackson’s Democratic Party. So it was a pretty, you know, even now you see different factions of the, of our own Democratic Party now, back then the coalition was across, uh, the divide of slavery. And so weirdly, he had a pretty similar story or at least excuse about his sexuality. He was working, uh, before he went to Congress. Um, he was working in the American Mission to Russia. Um, apparently fell in love with this. Uh, uh, Austro-Hungarian princess. And apparently fell in love.

Gregory:

Apparently.

Eric:

Apparently, yes, but nothing came of it. And he, for the rest of his life complained about having a quote wayward heart, uh, after that experience. And supposedly he could never love again because this princess just wouldn’t love him back. Kind of dramatic.

Gregory:

Very dramatic. I can’t have this Prussian princess then we’re not doing.

Eric:

Then screw it. Oh man. Well, okay. So these two young politicians meet each other. They’re both bachelors. They start.

Gregory:

Are they in their early twenties still?

Eric:

No, this is later. Um, uh, I believe in their early thirties. Um, and so.

Gregory:

Almost as mature as we are now.

Eric:

Exactly. Um, so it was Buchanan’s idea actually to live together. Um, and this is pretty common. To be fair, very often politicians would live in these communal boarding houses called messes. Right? You would live in a mess with other men. M. E. S. S. yeah. Because there were, you know, Washington’s a really tiny town and they often didn’t have that much money and they were having to commute back and forth just like you would now. In fact, I think they have these entire shows about the Congresspeople living together and you see other politicians kind of complaining about how expensive it is to be a Congressperson.

Gregory:

So that hasn’t changed.

Eric:

That has not, that has not changed. Um, unless you come from vast quantities of money, which is what makes this kind of complicated because they had enough money to be living by themselves, but they lived together in this boarding house. At first it was four of them total, with two other Congressman. But then those congressmen lost their seats. So it ended up just being Buchanan and King and they lived together for sixteen years.

Gregory:

Okay. Yeah. That’s amazing.

Eric:

I mean, like regardless of whether they were, you know, having sex or whatever, like good for them.

Gregory:

Yeah. Yeah. I mean.

Eric:

I can barely live with myself. Like I drive myself nuts. I can’t even imagine living with someone who I didn’t even love, supposedly.

Eric:

I wonder if they called each other princess.

Eric:

Oh. [Laughter] So, um, okay, so now let’s get to some of the evidence about what that relationship may have looked like. So we’re getting into the 1830s, 1840s. It’s pretty clear that they’re spending a lot of time together. And people were a little, people are homophobic now. People were, you know, they didn’t have that word, uh, homosexual yet. So there certainly wasn’t this idea of homophobia, but there were very, very specific, uh, norms of how men were supposed to act and look. And one thing that people would say about Buchanan is that he had “a shrill feminine voice and wholly beardless cheeks.”

Gregory:

Oh wow. Beardless. That’s funny.

Eric:

So it was kind of femme shaming, right? Even.

Gregory:

That’s very femme shaming. If that’s not femme shaming, I don’t know what is. Shrill feminine voice.

Eric:

And so then other people noticed how much time they were spending together together. You know, they’d be be eating together, you know, traveling together–

Gregory:

Look at their watch, it’s been 16 years.

Eric:

[Laughter] Um, and so, you know, some people like future first, later, Julia Gardner Tyler, Present Tyler’s wife, called them the siamese twins, which kind of implies they were brothers. Other people made it a little bit more gendered.

Gregory:

Tyler, is that the one who died after two months?

Eric:

Uh, there was Harrison, I believe.

Gregory:

Right, right, right. Oh yeah. Tyler. He’s the one who annexed Texas, sorry. Right.

Eric:

Good. Good memory. We’re both from Texas, so that, that, um, colors some of our historical knowledge and our too, um, okay. Boy, other people called them by some more explicitly gendered things. They were referred to as, at least in Washington society, as miss Nancy and aunt fancy.

Gregory:

Oh my God.

Eric:

Which reminds me of, uh, uh, the comeback. What was her name?

Gregory:

Oh, Oh my gosh. Ah, yeah. Lisa, Kudros’s character. Um, Valerie cherish.

Eric:

Valerie cherish. She played this like really, um, kind of like older aunt.

Gregory:

Yes, the aunt in the track suit who comes in and says, “I don’t want to see that.”

Eric:

It’s a great show. That’s where if you know RuPaul where he says hello, hello, hello, at the beginning of every episode. That’s where he got that from. Um, okay. So then, uh, some of the other pieces of, of, of this circumstantial evidence of how people perceived him, um, or perceived them together. In 1844 a Congressman wrote a letter that we have access to saying, “Mr. Buchanan looks gloomy and dissatisfied, and so did his better half, until a little private flattery and a certain newspaper puff which you doubtless noticed, excited hopes that by getting a divorce she might set up again in the world to some tolerable advantage.” So clearly his “better half,” they were attached.

Gregory:

Yeah, that’s pretty explicit.

Eric:

But let’s keep going. Okay. So another thing we have to mention is a lot of their letters were destroyed. So that’s why we don’t have that much access to what, you know, their relationship really was like at least privately.

Gregory:

King and Buchanan wrote letters to each other? Even though they lived together?

Eric:

Because they would travel. So King, we’ll get to this later, King was sent to France, um, as, as basically the, the ambassador over there.

Gregory:

I just imagine them in the same house, writing letters from each other, just tiptoeing around, like leaving them on their pillows and like avoiding the rats.

Eric:

But yeah, so a lot of King’s letters were from Buchanan, um, were destroyed during the civil war because his plantation was rated. There was a flood. Um, but we also know that a lot of letters were marked private and confidential and the rule was if you mark it that way, you are supposed to destroy them, you burn them. Um, and they were good about actually destroying the letters when they marked them confidential.

Gregory:

Who’s they?

Eric:

King and Buchanan. So that’s why we don’t have a lot from Buchanan to King. We do have a lot from King to Buchanan. And so one thing that is really interesting though about Buchanan’s own letters is he really liked gossiping with people, especially with like older women, as we all do. I love doing that.

Gregory:

I gossip with your mom.

Eric:

Yeah. You literally, he’s very, he’s very good friends with mama Cervini and they definitely do gossip.

Gregory:

She is a hoot.

Eric:

Yes. And, but he did really something interesting in his letters. He often, um, when he was talking about women, he would just refer to them by their name. Just kind of, you know, mentioning Oh, such and such woman did this. But then when he described men, he was very, very explicit about their physical features. Right? H”e was very strong. He was very, you know, robust” in his letters. And so, um, let’s fast forward a little bit. You can in finally, he’s elected to the Senate, um, 1834, uh, they get to serve together. Um, King becomes, uh, the U S minister to France, like I said, in 1844, uh, a decade later. Um, and this is where some of the letters that we do have from King get a little bit more explicit. So why don’t you read, um, one of the letters that King wrote while he was away, uh, in France,

Gregory:

I’m selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation.

Eric:

Hmm. Yeah. So the question is, and what historians argue about, is what is an associate? What kind of associate?

Gregory:

Yeah. It all hinges on that word.

Eric:

And it’s pretty clear h doesn’t mean a woman, but certainly a man and certainly one

Gregory:

Why is it clear that it’s not a woman?

Eric:

Um, because it’s referring to their separation, right. Our separation. Maybe a woman, I mean it could still be. Yeah, that’s a good, I mean, that’s a good point. So they have this scheme, they want to be in power together. Um, they even talk about having a bachelor ticket a little bit later on where it’s just both of them and that’s what they call it. Yeah. They called it that and uh, is awesome. Um, and so King really wants to be vice president, um, in 1844 he gets passed over. He actually becomes that minister to France, and this is where I think one of the most compelling letters comes up and it’s from a Buchanan to Cornelia Van Ness Roosevelt, who’s actually the great aunt of Teddy Roosevelt. Like I said, he loves talking to these older women, um, and, and kind of gossiping and just talking about what’s, you know, what’s going on out there.

Gregory:

The biggest proof I’ve seen so far that he’s gay.

Eric:

[Laughter] I, yeah. Yeah. He’s very much a styling that I’ve seen. He’s not writing love letters to like women his age. He’s like talking about like, Oh, you know, tell me the gossip in New York. But whatever. I mean the, again, this is all circumstantial. We, this really tells us nothing on it. Really.

Gregory:

Absolutely. Only circumstantial. That’s exactly it.

Eric:

Okay. So, but this letter is really interesting. Go ahead and read that.

Gregory:

I envy Colonel King, the pleasure of meeting you and we give anything in reason to be of the party for a single week. I am now solitary and alone having no companion in the house with me. I’ve 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’m sick. Provide good dinners for me when I’m well and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.

Eric:

What do you think?

Gregory:

That’s, yeah, that seems pretty explicit. Um, he’s making it very clear that he, he, he wants a older woman who can take care of him when he’s sick, make good dinners for him when he’s well, I don’t know why he wouldn’t also want that when he’s sick and, uh, not expect any ardent or romantic affection that, uh, yeah, I’m, I don’t know what else that would really mean other than he’s just not really, maybe he’s just not sexually attracted to older women. I don’t know.

Eric:

Yeah. I mean, he’s saying that he’s wooing several gentlemen, which I think is an interesting word choice. Um, and that, you know, a man should not be alone and it is important to note that back then there was, it was much more common for men to be talking to each other and kind of, this almost romantic tone without it necessarily being sexual.

Gregory:

Yeah. How were these terms used back then? Was wooing, I mean, that already sounds like an old term, but was, was it only used in the context of a romantic context?

Eric:

Generally, yes. Um, and you wouldn’t see that with, you know, I’m wooing this, this man, but you know, maybe in this, in this context, he’s just being kind of tongue in cheek. Um, it’s certainly possible, but the fact that he’s not looking for a woman at all, right? He’s saying, you know, I should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me. That’s the only thing he really cares about. Right. It’s just someone to like take care of him. Um, and he’s admits he doesn’t want anything romantic, so maybe he’s just given up or maybe, you know, he really just really misses King. And so let’s keep going forward. King, in 1853, actually does become Vice President, um, under president Franklin Pierce.

Gregory:

King vice president.

Eric:

Yeah. And so there’s a little bit of a twist though. He very quickly becomes sick with tuberculosis while he’s still vice president elect. And while he’s recuperating, he actually goes to Cuba where, you know, the, the, the warm weather is supposed to be good for you and allow you to, to, to get better. Uh, Congress actually allows him to take his oath of office in Cuba, which had never happened before. And so he, he takes his oath of office, he becomes vice president and King dies after only 45 days.

Gregory:

Aw, poor Buchanan.

Eric:

And so of course, yeah, and Buchanan, we don’t really have any sort of, you know, you see like some of these emperors back, uh, you know, in, in ancient times like Hadrian when they’re, you know, male companion dies, they, they start grieving and everything and you can’t, it didn’t really do that. He would always refer to him as a very pure man, right. Is one of the most, uh, consistent public men, purest, best sound judgment, but never really saying anything about their relationship. And that brings us to four years later Buchanan’s presidency. And so you said you knew a little bit about his presidency. What did you, what have you learned?

Gregory:

Well, I just really know the political side, how he really messed up the whole tension over slavery and he’s pretty much what drove the country to civil war and that he just handled that really poorly. And, um, Lincoln came in and had to really, you know, obviously, clean it up after that.

Eric:

Yeah. So he was elected in 1856. He’s rated one of the worst presidents in history. And one thing that scholars have concluded about his relationship with King is even though Buchanan came from an abolitionist part, an antislavery part of the country, because of King and his influence, he actually started not really caring about slavery. Um, and you know, started saying, eh, maybe it’s kind of like a, uh, an institution that’s keeping our country together. Um, and so as president, he actually supported the Dred Scott decision that was the Supreme court, uh, case that, uh, concluded that anyone of African descent, if you’re free or slave, could not be a us citizen. So one of the worst Supreme court cases of all time,

Gregory:

Flashbacks to high school.

Eric:

Yup. Yup. And also one of the most corrupt presidents of all time, he was trading contracts for political support. He was bribing newspapers. Um, critics were calling him ten cent Jimmy. He was censored by Congress. Um, everyone knew that he was just an extremely corrupt man. And so Lincoln, when he runs in 1860, he actually runs as an antiestablishment candidate. And so his legacy, uh, really has been that he was so horrible of a president that it allowed for this nobody really to, uh, take it all and become one of our best presidents of all time.

Gregory:

Yeah. Lincoln was really bookended by terrible presidents because Andrew Johnson after Lincoln was the first president to be impeached.

Eric:

First president to be impeached. Out of now three. Right?

Gregory:

Uh, yes. Yeah. Lincoln, I mean Nixon technically was not.

Eric:

And so Buchanan eventually serves one term. He doesn’t even run for a second term. He retires back in Lancaster in Pennsylvania and, uh, publishes his memoirs if years later he blames the abolitionists for causing the civil war, um, and dies in 1868. So he, you know, then it raises the question of, regardless of whether he was gay or not, do we want to claim him as our first gay president? Like, do we even want him to be?

Gregory:

Well, I mean, if he was, we don’t really have a choice, I guess, you know? Like are we, do we want to sift through and really be like, yeah, he was gay because maybe we just want to leave it alone?

Eric:

Maybe we should just kind of let Pete have it? [Laugher] Like let, uh, or whoever comes next, or first.

Gregory:

I mean, unless there’s another one in history. I mean, you know, the most, the most famous speculative homosexual president I think is Lincoln. That’s the one I always heard about growing up.

Eric:

So maybe we can claim– you really, you heard Lincoln over Buchanan?

Gregory:

Yeah.

Eric:

Interesting.

Gregory:

I mean, Lincoln’s also just far more famous, but he’s going to have more people talking about him. But that’s the one I always heard.

Eric:

I will say the evidence is more compelling with Buchanan, um, especially just the simple fact that Lincoln was married, right, and had four kids.

Gregory:

Maybe he was just better at hiding it.

Eric:

Maybe. Um, and, and certainly has his relationship with, uh, his wife was really, um, complicated and fraught. Um, but you know, I think it goes to show that even if they were platonic or even if they were romantic, the fact that the Southern, uh, slave owner was rubbing off, so to speak, on Buchanan [Laughter], um, may have had a really bad effect.

Eric:

Right. So maybe he was like not seeing straight, um, because–Oh, that’s another good one.

Gregory:

Man. You’re killing it.

Eric:

Yeah. Um, okay. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to call a professor Thomas Balcerski.

Gregory:

My God, I thought you’re gonna say we’re going to call James Buchanan.

Eric:

We’re going to call James Buchanan. So professor Balcerski teaches history at Eastern Connecticut State University. He’s actually the author of Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King. It’s a great, it’s an amazing title. We actually have it.

Gregory:

Eric and I are bosom friends.

Eric:

We are bosom friends. We’ll actually ask him, we’ll make sure to, to ask him what, what it’s about. So Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King, published last year, a very recent book by Oxford university press. So let’s give him a ring.

Professor Balcerski:

Hello this is Tom.

Eric:

Hi Tom. It’s Eric Cervin. We have your book here, and we’ve introduced it, and uh, have kind of gone through some of the key letters and pieces of evidence about, um, the relationship between, uh, Buchanan and King. Uh, but before we get into that, I was wondering what, what made you interested in this story?

Professor Balcerski:

I was a graduate student at Cornell university working on a PhD in history. And for my dissertation topic, I wanted to look at what I thought, um, was an understudied part of antebellum political history, which was the say male friendship. Partisan development, the two party system. These are topics that are well known within the history of the pre civil war era. But what about the human relationships? And my dissertation actually focused on a series of friendships, um, five unique friendship sets that I think help to explain some of the most important dynamics in the pre civil war Congress. Buchanan and King were but one chapter of the dissertation. In fact, they constituted the first chapter. And after defending the dissertation and after starting up teaching at Eastern Connecticut State University, I decided that I wanted to focus on them and their pairing as a subject of my first book.

Eric:

We were just discussing how King may have influenced Buchanan’s politics, may have added an entirely new dimension, especially in the context of uh, uh, the right before the civil war.

Professor Balcerski:

I think that Buchanan influenced King’s politics and King influenced Buchana., It was reciprocal. Um, and I think there are parts of their story that suggest a personal reciprocity as well. And that has been, teasing out those two things, the personal and the political , was the challenge at the book.

Eric:

Yeah. And so one thing we’ve been discussing and what I’m sure, you know, the media, as you know, in their coverage of the topic is the nature of their relationship and whether or not it was actually romantic or sexual. Um, so I’m wondering what you, after going through these, there’s a vast quantity of, of correspondence. What did you conclude in in the book?

Professor Balcerski:

I think it’s the task of any biographer to address his or her subject’s sexuality. And I feel as if with the Buchanan King relationship, that is frankly what has brought me to the topic. Being a gay man in the 21st century, there’s no doubt that I became more interested by the possibility, the possibilities of this friendship because of what was presumed to be romantic or sexual in nature. And yet the more I researched, the more I studied, the more I began to unpack the layers of that interpretation to say nothing of the sources themselves. The more I came to, to more or less disagree with the entire premise on which that that view is based. Um, I think there’s, there’s a lot of complexity in their relationship. I think it gets to that quality of unevenness I was talking about. And I think that then gets us to that the nature of the intimacy between them. I think that James Buchanan, who was engaged, whose engagement was broken off, who at least played the game of romantic courtship throughout his entire life. I think that his, his relationship to King was platonic, in that he viewed King as he did among a number of intimate associates, as brothers with a kind of fraternal affection, for which I do not read a sexual longing or attraction. When I read King’s letters, when I see King’s life in his biography and the fuller view, then I get a different approach. I see King longing for Buchanan. I see King disdaining romantic courtship with women. I see him much more comfortably fitting within the kinds of behaviors and attractions that we would want to call today as gay. So in that sense, the unevenness persists even in the sexual attraction that I read in their relationship. That is to say King longing much more deeply for Buchanan than Buchanan ever gave back in turn.

Eric:

And I saw you quoted somewhere saying that Buchanan may have even used King as, as kind of political convenience or, uh, in his own career?

Professor Balcerski:

I think so. I think Buchanan benefited more from the relationship. Certainly you could argue by him becoming president, he achieved the higher office. But even the ways in which Kings filtered into this life, the way King offered advice at key moments, the way King supported Buchanan’s political aspirations with this, the Southern bloc that he could give. And then just the ways in which Buchanan could take King for granted, especially in their transatlantic separation. In correspondence, we find King plaintively asking for letters from Buchanan and Buchanan who was secretary of state, who was a holding down a major office during James Polk’s presidency, nevertheless, ignoring that and nevertheless sort of pushing it to the side.

Eric:

Right. And we’ve talked about how some of the norms of these intimate, same sex relationships were very different back then and compared to how they are now. And so one of my questions is when did that change? When did you know this idea of no homo or you know, making sure that you’re, you’re creating some distance with your male friends. How did, how and when did that change?

Professor Balcerski:

Eric, I think you could probably answer that better than I can. Your research suggests quite a focus on this transition period. The period of the emergence of the homosexual. The idea of homosexuality, this, this layered medical discourse that gets thrown upon same sex attraction and sexuality. The idea of an orientation I think is another concept that sort of changes the nature of intimacy among men. So I think it is medicalized, I think it is legal. I think there is also a way in which, and this, this brings me to how my work prefigures um, the 20th century in that within politics, um, intimacy was seen as a good, that somehow one could express, um, this, this, um, almost fraternal language, um, between North and South as a way to keep the union together. So I think within the politics of the period, there’s a shattering of male intimacy in the civil war. And I actually think the kinds of friendships and political relationships that emerge after the war are far more instrumental. This is, this is an era in which cronyism and the kind of crass political corruption, um, begins to emerge in force. And although there are some examples, I think of intimate male friendships that persist into the 21st century, the culture of it had died. So, so as, as the culture changes, as the society changes, as people frankly get used to having more personal space, um, famously bed sharing was common during the 19th century. So too does that proximity, that closeness of men was other men begin to change and meaning, and I think, yeah, no, homo is just one of many now unfortunate phrases that that has come to almost stand between male intimacy because it presupposes that sexuality must always trump any other kind of feeling or emotion,

Eric:

Right. I’m sure historians will be looking at, uh, Lindsey Graham and John McCain as another more, more recent example, and maybe some, some other similarities, but we won’t go too deep there.

Professor Balcerski:

I think what’s interesting, and again, what’s made my book, I think more relevant, frankly, has been the political fortunes of the presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. And that is to say in which now when you have an openly gay man being able to run for president, um, it changes the nature therefore, of friendship itself. And what I find interesting about his biography and about how he presents his marriage, this, um, almost homonormative view of, of marriage among two gay men is simply that therefore it actually recreates the same tropes of the 19th century, which Buchanan and King were fighting against, which is to say as bachelors they were within a category sit apart from their married counterparts. And so I ironically think a married gay man of the 21st century is much more like a married straight man in the, in the 19th century, then he is like a bachelor.

Eric:

Interesting. Well, thank you so much for joining us and giving us a bit of clarity on an otherwise unclear subject. Uh, this is professor Thomas Balcerski who teaches at Eastern Connecticut state university and the author ofBosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King. Thank you so much again for joining us.

Eric:

So what that means is that it’s more likely that we’ve had a gay vice president than it is that we, even if he served for just 45 days, then a president. Uh, but I will say the fact that he took advantage of King and kind of used him and may have known that he had these yearnings for him but used him politically, makes me dislike Buchanan even more. Well, again, that is the evidence. We will let the listeners conclude for themselves. Thank you to professor Balcerski. Bosom Friends is available on Amazon. It is a great read and especially relevant now in the middle of the democratic primary and the success of an openly gay candidate. So Gregory, thank you so much for joining. It has been a pleasure as always. See you next week on the Deviant’s World.

Music:

[Interlude]

Eric:

Hi everyone, it’s me again. This week, my book, the Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America became available for pre-order. It’s the secret history of gay rights in America, and I’m giving out a free pre-order package for the first 1000 people who pre-order it. If you haven’t already, do me a favor and pre-order it today: it tells bookstores that there is going to be big demand for the book. Plus, Amazon won’t charge you until it comes out in June. Thanks so much, and see you next week on the Deviant’s World.

 

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