Queering the Presidency: Case Studies of LGBTQ+ People and Politics in the Oval Office

AHA Session 16
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History 1
Thursday, January 6, 2022: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Rhythms Ballroom 2 (Sheraton New Orleans, 2nd Floor)
Dan Royles, Florida International University
The Bachelor Democrats: Unmarried Candidates for President, 1856–84
Thomas J. Balcerski, Eastern Connecticut State University
Rose Cleveland’s Queer Legacy
Lizzie Ehrenhalt, Minnesota Historical Society
It’s Complicated: Resisting the Urge to Define Eleanor Roosevelt
Allida Black, Miller Center, University of Virginia
The Lavender Scare as Family Story: Lyndon Johnson, Male Friendship, and the Walter Jenkins Case
Timothy David Stewart-Winter, Rutgers University–Newark and New Jersey Institute of Technology

Session Abstract

The field of LGBTQ+ history has long been concerned with reconstructing hidden lives and forgotten individuals. But what happens when those very same people are among the elite class who have held the highest office in the land? This panel looks at various presidents and first ladies who have emerged over the past several decades as decidedly queer and takes stock of the research on them to date. In light of the continued political repression faced by LGBTQ+ people, the project of queering the presidency has never been more urgent.

Each of the four presenters will bring to light new research into the various intersections of LGBTQ+ people and politics in the nation’s highest office, proceeding chronologically. First, Thomas Balcerski (Eastern Connecticut State University) will consider the persistence of unmarried presidential candidates in the Democratic Party’s history, in particular James Buchanan (1856), Samuel Tilden (1876), and Grover Cleveland (1884). How did non-normative forms of marital life play out in the partisan politics of the nineteenth century? Was sexual suppression (i.e., the closet) a factor in each of their lives? And when and why did bachelorhood disappear as a viable characteristic of presidential candidates?

Second, Lizzie Ehrenhalt (Minnesota Historical Society) explores the queer legacy of Rose Cleveland, the writer and world traveler who served as Hostess of the White House (and de facto First Lady) for her brother, Grover, between 1885 and 1886. Rose Cleveland’s queerest legacy, however, developed after she left the White House. In 1890 she began a passionate romance with Evangeline Simpson, a wealthy widow who would become the second wife of an Episcopal bishop. The couple’s extant letters provide detailed insight into a same-sex relationship during the Gilded Age. Ehrenhalt accordingly brings a public history perspective to the panel.

Third, Allida Black (University of Virginia’s Miller Center) will present on her research into the life of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Black, who has studied and written on Roosevelt for 30 years, will bring her extensive knowledge and experience to bear to consider how the subject of her sexuality Roosevelt has been studied and received. As such, she will discuss her work curating permanent museum exhibits, developing curricula, negotiating simulations on her work here and around the world, and curating a major traveling exhibit on women’s voting rights as human rights. Black thus brings an activist scholar’s view to the panel.

Fourth, Timothy Stewart-Winter (Rutgers University-Newark) uses the 1964 arrest and resignation of presidential aide Walter Jenkins to examine how antigay sexual policing during the Cold War lavender scare affected not only men who engaged in same-sex acts, but also on straight men—including the president of the United States—and their families, as the first lady, Lady Bird Johnson, drove home in an unusual public statement drawing attention to Jenkins’s vulnerable wife and children.

Finally, Dan Royles (Florida International University), whose work addresses the past 40 years, will chair and comment on the panel.

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