While the #LadyGraham hashtag is a reflection of the coarseness of our politics and fury toward Graham for his embrace of President Trump and his policies, rumors about politicians’ sex lives are nothing new in American history.
From George Washington to Donald Trump, illicit sexual liaisons have spanned more than two centuries of American politics. Of the 44 men elected president, the historian Robert P. Watson has estimated, seven engaged in sexual affairs during their time in office, while many more were mired in scandal before their election. Though the nature of these affairs differ, they share one factor in common: gossip has swirled about them.
And the rumors about Graham’s sexuality expose the expectation underlying this gossip: Americans have long expected their politicians to be male, cisgender, straight and married, and have scrutinized those who are not.
Two men virtually leap off the page in this regard — James Buchanan of Pennsylvania and William Rufus King of Alabama, two 19th-century Democratic senators, one who became president, the other who became vice president, whose decades-long relationship sent tongues wagging in their day. While in Washington, they lived together in a shared boardinghouse for 10 years, and they exchanged more than 60 letters during their lifetimes.
Like Graham, Buchanan and King were lifelong bachelors. Washington society took notice of their intimate friendship. Although a fellow Democrat, Andrew Jackson took a special disliking to them. “Mr. Buchanan and his Wife,” as one Jackson ally ridiculed the pair.
They were also called “Aunt Nancy” or “Aunt Fancy” and “the Siamese twins,” named for the famous conjoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker. These names fingered the men as effeminate, even deviant.
In private, Buchanan and King traded letters that revealed an intimate relationship. In one letter from 1844, Buchanan wrote of his desire to be with King, who’d departed Washington for a diplomatic post.
“I am now ‘solitary & 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 & not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”
In reply, King returned the sentiment. “I am selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate, who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation,” he wrote. “For myself, I shall feel lonely in the midst of Paris, for there I shall have no Friends with whom I can commune as with my own thoughts.”
Despite their epistolary platitudes, King and Buchanan suffered an estrangement during their years apart, when distance and competition for elected office cooled their former intimacy. Nonetheless, Buchanan remains our only president never to marry, leading many to speculate that he was gay (ditto for King).
Given these sorts of rumors, a surprising number of major political figures in the 19th and 20th centuries — almost always Democrats — were bachelors. Samuel Tilden, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1876, was a confirmed bachelor. Grover Cleveland, the next Democrat to be elected president after Buchanan, only married once in the White House. And David I. Walsh, longtime Massachusetts senator from the 1920s to the 1940s, never married and became ensnared in a scandal involving male sex workers in 1942. In the 1950s, Democrats even selected bachelor Adlai Stevenson as their presidential nominee twice. Like Graham, suspicions of various sorts dogged the men.
The law has severely repressed same-sex desires, though its provisions have changed over time. Sodomy remained a crime punishable by death in many places until the American Revolution, and subsequently, it carried a prison sentence. After the invention of the concept of homosexuality in the late 19th century, same-sex sexual relations were commonly made illegal, with some states enforcing bans into the 21st century when the Supreme Court struck them down in Lawrence v. Texas. For politicians, especially, taboos around gendered and sexual norms could not easily be transgressed.
Unlike today, politicians for most of American history faced what scholars of the subject have dubbed “compulsory heterosexuality.”
Little changed in this aspect of American society until the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Social values evolved, rates of divorce spiked and the concept of identity politics entered the lexicon. In response, many conservatives, closeted bachelors among them, embraced the rising “family values” movement, decrying LGBTQ participation in mainstream society and vocally defending marriage as an institution between a man and a woman.
At the same time, ironically, the newly liberated world — along with newfound scrutiny of politicians by the media in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam — led to an exponential increase in the number of sex scandals, toppling everyone from Wilbur Mills to Gary Hart. These scandals spotlighted the hypocrisy of the era’s sexual mores. The change also reflected the public’s demand for greater accountability of our political leaders, while revealing sexuality, sexual orientation and gendered performance to be political projects with ongoing relevance.
For its part, the gay rights movement encouraged Americans to come out of the closet. Outing politicians, especially those who hypocritically demonized LGBTQ people, was seen as a necessary part of the political project. By the 1980s, politicians were being outed, often against their will.
Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who later became an icon of LGBTQ political activism, hid his sexual orientation until being more or less outed by former conservative congressman Robert Bauman in a tell-all book. Later mired in his own sex scandal, Frank subsequently embraced what has been called the “Frank rule,” namely that one’s right to sexual privacy does not include the right to hypocrisy.
But in the age of social media, this rule is hard to enforce. Republicans like former congressman Aaron Schock (Ill.), who recently came out as gay in a post on social media, often are at the center of rumors, in part because speculation about their sexuality mixes with scorn for their votes against legislation that protect the rights of LGBTQ people. Yet, even respected LGBTQ allies like Sen. Cory Booker, a notable bachelor who is dating Rosario Dawson, confront speculation about their sexual orientation.
Today, as long ago, lifelong bachelorhood continues to be a liability for politicians like Graham regardless of party. Even as the institution of marriage evolves, suspicions about bachelorhood largely have not. Behind the gossip about Graham and others lay the remnants of a stubbornly pernicious idea: the presumption of heterosexuality for those in positions of power. When combined with the tradition of sexual gossip embedded in American political culture, the sex lives of elected officials, and especially the unmarried, will continue to be grist for the rumor mill.