It was around the time Barack Obama was running for re-election that Newsweek ran a cover declaring him “The First Gay President.” At the time, they were referring to his many actions to secure equal rights for LGBTs, from supporting marriage equality to establishing a national AIDS strategy. It’s a cute little joke, and a callback to when Bill Clinton was dubbed the country’s first black president.
But wait, have we really never had a gay president before? We know there haven’t been any openly gay presidents, but evidence suggests that various leaders have had same-sex romances.
The president most speculated about is Pennsylvanian James Buchanan, who was in office from 1857 to 1861.
Buchanan is the only president who was not married—his niece was considered first lady—and he had a close relationship with Alabama Sen. Rufus King. Andrew Jackson referred to the two men as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy,” which would be tremendous drag names if used onstage today.
Buchanan’s own writings when King moved to France certainly seem to suggest a queer relationship:
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.
If that’s not a gay president, it’s hard to imagine what is. Buchanan had all of his letters destroyed when he died, which isn’t at all suspicious.
As role models go, Buchanan is not the best: he was pro-slavery, and his administration is generally regarded as one of the worst in American history. But whether or not he was gay, there certainly have been signs that other leaders harbored secret same-sex relationships. Even John F. Kennedy had a close relationship with a man named Kirk Billings, a school friend who had a bedroom in the White House.
Alexander Hamilton has also been said to have had male lovers by many people, including by Hamilton himself. He once wrote that when a male friend neglected to reply to a letter, “Like a jealous lover, when I thought you slighted my caresses, my affection was alarmed and my vanity piqued.”
Abraham Lincoln shared a bed with friends named Joshua Speed and Billy Greene, though not at the same time. “When one turned over, the other had to do likewise,” Greene later wrote of their time together. “His thighs were as perfect as a human being could be.”
And those are only the ones for whom we have written evidence. As Buchanan demonstrated, it’s easy to destroy documents and hide secrets forever in the past. But we do know that no matter what label a person identifies with, it’s common to have relationships and affection for people of the same sex. Though it may not have been something that could have been spoken about at the time, it’s far more likely that we’ve had multiple queer presidents than none at all.
And times are certainly changing. It’s taken nearly 250 years, but we may finally be reaching a time when an American president can be openly gay.