Editor’s note: Mark Carlson-Ghost is an associate professor at the Minnesota School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University. The following is taken from research he’s conducting for an upcoming book called ‘The Lavender White House: Queer Lives, American Presidents.’ He can be found online at markcarlson-ghost.com.
With Anderson Cooper having moderated the Oct. 9 debate, Robby Mook running Hillary Clinton’s campaign and Peter Thiel and transgender activist Sarah McBride speaking at the party conventions, this year may well be a turning point for LGBT involvement in presidential campaigns. But the truth is queer men and women have been trying to influence the outcomes of presidential elections for a very long time. Or, at least, men and women we might reasonably consider queer today.
Buchanan and King, comrades in campaigning
Long before James Buchanan won the presidency himself, the bachelor congressman from Pennsylvania aspired to be a power broker in the contested election of 1824. In a meeting with Andrew Jackson he attempted to solicit inside information, but a disorder of the eye made the war hero think that Buchanan was winking at him conspiratorially.
By 1844, Buchanan was inseparable from Alabama Sen. William Rufus King, the two were referred to “the Siamese twins.” King was fond of jewelry and powdered wigs long after they were out of fashion. Buchanan and King had entertained hopes to run as a North/South ticket that year. When the odds of that dimmed, King considered running as a vice president with someone else.
Aaron Brown, a congressman from Tennessee, summarized these goings on in a letter to a friend. Considering a “divorce,” Brown wrote, “Aunt Fancy can now be seen every day in her best clothes,” seeking a more politically advantageous running mate. Neither man got on the ticket that year.
After another failed attempt at a joint run, King was chosen to run as vice president with Franklin Pierce in 1852. The two men won the election, but King’s health was failing and he’d traveled to Cuba for a rest cure. Sadly, King died a few weeks later. Buchanan finally became president in 1856, just in time to preside over the break-up of the Union. Some guys just can’t seem to catch a break.
Lincoln’s queer campaigners
In 1860, noted author Bayard Taylor campaigned for Abraham Lincoln and won himself a diplomatic post in Russia as a result. Likely bisexual, Taylor later wrote “Joseph and His Friend,” the first American novel celebrating love between two men.
Anna Dickinson, America’s most celebrated female orator, was in the midst of ripping on Lincoln during the 1864 campaign when the Lincolns just happened to enter the lecture hall. To the surprise of those gathered, the never-married Dickinson ended up publicly endorsing him.
Susan B. Anthony, who was actively supporting Lincoln’s opponent, found it hard to stay mad at the fetching Dickinson, with whom she was actively flirting. As Lillian Faderman has detailed, a surprisingly passionate Anthony wrote Dickinson that she hoped to “snuggle” her and hold her “in these strong arms of mine,” assuring the orator that her bed was “big enough … to take you in.”
Years later, Dickinson was hired by the Republican Party to give speeches across the country on behalf of their 1888 candidate, Benjamin Harrison. Harrison won, but Dickinson felt the Republicans only paid her part of what they’d agreed upon. It turned out to be Dickinson’s last hurrah on the national stage.
Scandals, secrets in the 20th century
Warren Harding’s 1920 campaign for president had two old cronies from Ohio at his side, Harry Daugherty and Jess Smith. Once president, Daugherty became attorney general and Smith helped Mrs. Harding pick out clothes. As Carl Sferrazza Anthony recounts, while both men had married, they lived together and the Hardings treated them socially as a couple. Smith would be found dead in their apartment under mysterious circumstances.
When Lorena Hickok was assigned to cover Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign in 1932, she reportedly fell for his wife. Eleanor Roosevelt’s bisexuality is well documented as is her contribution to her husband’s political success and substantial accomplishments in her own right.
Dwight D. Eisenhower felt he had to seek the resignation of Arthur Vandenberg, Jr., a key player in his 1952 bid for the presidency. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had informed the president-elect that Vandenberg was a homosexual, ignoring the admonition about those in glass houses.
By 1960, “Lem” Billings, arguably John F. Kennedy’s best friend, actively worked to get him elected. Billings’s homosexuality was an open secret to those who knew him well.
Lyndon Johnson’s long-time right-hand man, Walter Jenkins, was also a trusted friend. But then Jenkins, a married man with six children, was arrested for soliciting another man at a YMCA restroom mere weeks before the 1964 presidential election. Johnson reluctantly had to cut Jenkins loose, but he never abandoned their friendship.
LGBT campaigning in an era of gay rights
Midge Costanza’s role as an early Jimmy Carter campaigner in New York in 1976 won her a spot in the Carter administration. She proudly served as Carter’s liaison with the public, but her advocacy for abortion rights and gay liberation ultimately became a distraction for Carter and she was let go.
Gay media mogul David Geffen was a key player in raising funds for Bill Clinton’s 1992 and 1996 campaigns, but would switch loyalties when Hillary squared off against the newcomer, Barack Obama.
Ken Melhman’s role in George W. Bush’s re-election bid in 2004 is equally well known, though not so fondly remembered. He came out in 2010. Mehlman’s later support of same-sex marriage was seen by some as an attempt at redemption.
Will Rachel Maddow’s multiple interviews with press shy Hillary Clinton be written up in later presidential histories? Only time will tell. In any case, it won’t be the first time a queer figure played her part on the largest of political stages.