Jim Loewen over at Salon writes an interesting screed on the apparent historical fact that James Buchanan was the nation’s first gay president. It’s a worthwhile read, but the summary version is more or less that Buchanan was gay, and we only think that of course no mid-19th Century Presidents could be gay because we’ve bought into the belief of the upward march of history — that of course we must be more tolerant than people in the mid 19th Century. Instead, Loewen argues, we went into a period of historically low tolerance between 1890 and 1940, and are now climbing out of it again.
As a side note, this is an interesting piece in that it shows a certain tensions between elements of the Left: Loewen is taking a left point of view, but he’s arguing at least as much against a Marxist dialectic view of history as he is with anyone on the right. Anyway.
Loewen spends much time on the fact that for the latter half of the 20th Century, facial hair on men was highly frowned upon. He seems to regard this as a microcosm of a larger social move towards conformity in the 20th Century. In this, I think, he’s mistaken. He’s mistaking the signifier for the signified.
It is absolutely true that having a beard in, say, 1980 would have been suicide for a Presidential candidate, and he assembles an amusing set of anecdotes around various institutions disallowing the facial hair that their founders in fact had. But it’s also true that having a beard in 1980 meant something different than having a beard in 1880.
In 1880, beards were stylish. Lots of mainstream men wore beards, and they were not flaunting conformity to do so. In 1980, beards were not stylish, and indeed they were so unstylish that wearing a beard was a statement of non-conformity, and at least possibly a declaration of allegiance with the student left, the beatniks and then hippies and then just sort of general extreme leftists who, in essence, claimed the beard. The prejudice against facial hair was not against beards qua beards, it was against the radical left, or against social non-conformism.
In 1880, the beard was not nonconformist. This wasn’t because 1880 was some magical land in which everything was accepted. Other nonconformist gestures would have been political suicide in the same way that beards were in 1980. If a Presidential candidate in 1880 wore a dress, it would be political suicide (or, let’s say, if a Senatorial candidate was a woman). People in 1980 dressed much more casually than they did in 1880, including Presidents. This isn’t because 1980 was any more or less tolerant than 1880, it’s because casual clothing was no long crazily non-conformist. Hat etiquette changed markedly as well.
Getting away from trivial stuff like beards, some of the same critiques apply to the more substantive point about gay, or racial, stuff. James Buchanan was a man who was exclusively interested in sex with other men, sure, and he was reasonably open about this to at least his friends. And they may have been more tolerant of that than would a Presidential candidate today. On the other hand, if Buchanan had proposed that men could get married to other men, ignominious defeat would have been the very least he could have expected. What it means to be gay has changed in the last hundred and fifty years, and not just in a decrease, then increase in tolerance. There are whole different social structures built up around the core sexual desires of human sexuality — some of them more tolerant, others less. Similarly, race. Barack Obama is the first black President, and it seems very clear that he was the first possible black President. There was no utopia in the 19th Century in which a black man could have come within a hail-mary longshot of winning a Presidential election.
Loewen isn’t wrong that the upward march of history is a fantasy. But his alternate formulation of a drop, and then rise, of tolerance is equally wrong. You can’t reduce this to a scalar. The experience of being black, being gay, being non-Christian, and indeed being bearded has changed across history in ways that are not useful to reduce to simply “more or less tolerance.”