The Queer History of the United States: Part 3

Episode · 2 years ago

The Queer History of the United States: Part 3


By reading some of the hot and steamy letters from the Antebellum era in the United States, we learn about one of the first gay marriages in the US, Alexander Hamilton’s other love, and the gay frontier.  Be sure to follow Eric on IG! Your host is Levi Chambers, co-founder of Gayety. Follow the show and keep up with the conversation @Pride. Want more great shows from Straw Hut Media? Check out or website at Your producers are Levi Chambers, Maggie Boles, Ryan Tillotson and Edited by Sebastian Alcala Have an interesting LGBTQ+ story to share? We might feature U! Email us at *This podcast is not affiliated with Pride Media. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit

STRAWUT media. It's kind of funny that almost everything we know about the personal lives of our ancestors comes from snooping in their letters and diaries. Without phones and email and DM's, everything that wasn't said out loud was written down on paper and usually saved for posterity. Today, on pride will read writings from between the revolutionary war up to the civil war, some of the very suggestive letters between Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens, the diary entrees of two women in Vermont and merely eighteen hundreds, and also some pretty explicit letters from early frontiersmen. Dr Eric Servini is with us again as we dive into part three of our series on the Queer history of the United States. Stay with us. I'M LEA by Chambers, and this is pride. When the Revolutionary War ended in one thousand seven hundred and eighty three, the colonies gradually settled into their new identity, the United States of America. We're talking really this is considered the antebell em era, so it's all the years between the the conclusion of the Revolutionary War and the outbreak of the civil war. Ante Bellum is a Latin word. That means before the war, up until the civil war in one thousand eight hundred and sixty one, there was a lot of debate between federal and state powers. After all, the US was not a conventional country with one set of rules for everyone to follow. Instead, it was a group of states made stronger together, but capable of preventing concentration of power. So throughout this period the south is becoming a huge economic force. They have massive amounts of resources and slave labor. On the opposite side of the country, the north becomes more and more industrialized every day. The country is becoming more and more polarized between the pro and antislavery camps. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. We're here to talk about Alexander Hamilton. You know him as one of the founding fathers, a believer in a strong federal government, the First Secretary of the Treasury, the main character in Lynn Manuel Miranda's hit Broadway show. But before all of that he was just an ambitious young man. It's one thousand seven hundred and seventy seven. You know, towards the beginning of the war, Hamilton is working as a senior aide for Washington, who was commander in chief the continental army. That same year, Hamilton meets a man named John Lawrence, and this is a blue eyed, stylish young officer in the continental army. Lawrence has been living in England and studying law. He's just married a woman he got pregnant to save her reputation. She hasn't even given birth yet. But then he comes back to America to help out during the war and that's when he meets Alexander Hamilton. They become close...

...friends pretty quickly. In case you need a face for Laurens, this is the character played by Anthony Ramos in the original Broadway production of Hamilton. I think if anyone who's seen the musical, you know they are very close. At least on stage they seem like brothers. But I think one thing that the musical doesn't capture is this wasn't necessarily brotherly love. Honestly, when we look back and read the letters they wrote to each other, they seem kind of gay. One says, quote, I wish my dear Lauren's it might be in my power, by action rather than words, to convince you that I love you. I shall only tell you that till you bade us a do. I hardly knew the value you had taught my heart to set upon you. Pretty Romantic right now. If you remember, last week we talked about how freely friends expressed affection for each other at this point in time. So open declarations of love weren't uncommon. But time and time again these letters make it pretty clear that this was an intimate friendship at the very least. There was even one letter that Hamilton's airs may have chosen not to publish because it was a little too suggestive. In this letter he refers to his soon to be wife, Elizabeth Schuylar. It reads, in spite of Schuyler's black eyes, I still have a part for the public and another for you, so your impatience to have me married is misplaced. A strange cure, by the way, as if after matrimony I was to be less devoted than I am now. Makes you wonder right. He describes her as a good hearted girl. He's not the most excited about it from from some of the letters, but you know he's he's happy about it. When Hamilton gets married in seventeen eighty laurens can't come to the wedding earlier that year, he had been captured by the British ship to Philadelphia and paroled under the condition that he didn't leave the state, and Hamilton was pretty bummed out about that and even jokingly rights to to Lauren's saying, you know, I would invite you to I would invite you, after the fall, to Albany, which is where they got married, to be witness to the final consummation, meaning he literally was inviting him to watch him and his wife have sex. So maybe it was a joke, maybe it was a little bit more. It's hard to tell. We know his wife was devoted. She carried a poem he wrote for her around her neck and gathered all his writings after his death. We know their love story plays a prominent part in the Broadway musical. Still even Ron Churn out the historian who wrote the famous biography that inspired the musical describe John Lawns as, quote, the most intimate friendship of Hamilton's life. And even though he warned that the writing style of the time prevents us from making assumptions, he also says, quote, at the very least we can say that...

Hamilton developed something like an adolescent crush on his friend again we can't say Hamilton was gay or that he was bisexual or anything like that, but we know that this friendship certainly had romantic elements to it. What's more, Eric says, is that growing up in the Caribbean likely exposed him to some forms of sexual deviation. In addition to enslaved people, Sodomites were also being shipped to the CARIBBEANS. So we know that there there's a good chance that he understood that there was this, you know, sexually deviant tradition out there in the world. Sadly, their relationship was cut short. Lawns was shot and killed in battle just a year before the war ended. And I think one of the greatest pieces of evidence that Lawrence was more than just a friend to Hamilton is how Hamilton actually reacted to Lawrence's death. And, as Ronturno put it, you know, after the death of John Lawrence, this is his words, Hamilton shut off some compartment of his emotions and never reopened it. After the break. The first same sex marriage in the United States two hundred years ago. Welcome back. Before the break, we talked about the intense romance between Alexander Hamilton and John Lawrens. So how did they compare with other kinds of relationships and how often did it cross over into steamy? These passionate, loving, physically affectionate friendships between members of the same sex, I. was much more common and it was much more accepted back then. Eric says that not only were these kinds of relationships more accepted, there's also evidence to suggest that they were sometimes even more important than heterosexual ones. Especially we talked about last time how, even for women sometimes, you know, they would get married and well, men would kind of maybe put their male friends on a second tier sometime. There's clear evidence that that, especially among women, they continued some of these very, very emotionally charged, arguably romantic friendships and relationships with other women even after getting married. Eric shared a letter with us from one thousand eight hundred and twenty six that very clearly crossed over into steamy territory. It's from a twenty two year old white guy in South Carolina. He was writing to a friend and he said, quote, whether you have yet the extravagant delight of poking and punching a writhing bedfellow with your long flush and pull, the exquisite touches of which I have often had the honor of feeling... pretty clear what's going on. Historian, could you tell me what a long flesh and pole is? I would rather not elaborate for for our listeners, but I think it's pretty clear, even though, yes, it was common back then, in the nineteen century in before that, for people to be sharing beds, for two men to be sharing beds or two women. This poking and punching of a writhing bedfellow with a long flesh and pole, it's pretty it's pretty explicit what was happening. So you know, we do have, as historians have, this evidence of homosexual activity and maybe back then, if they were confronted with this lighter they maybe would have said, oh no, we're just friends, we were just kidding. You know, it makes you wonder. In fact, historian Carol Smith Rosenberg, who has studied historic letters between female friends extensively, agrees. She said that while we can't assign a current term like homosexual to the relationships of the time, the letters have a, quote, emotional intensity and a sensual and physical explicitness that is difficult to dismiss. Another historian, Rachel Hope Cleaves, published a book in two thousand and fourteen called charity and Sylvia a same sex marriage in early America. By reading their poetry, diary entries and Letters, she was able to chronicle their life as a couple living in Waybridge, Vermont, in the earth the eighteen hundreds. So Bryant was a seamstress and drake became her apprentice and so she moved in and then over time they became something more. In their daytoday life they functioned as an ordinary married couple and charities. Nephew, the poet William Cullen Bryant, described her as the husband and Sylvia as her fond wife, and they stayed together, beginning in in one thousand eight hundred and seven. They stayed together for forty years and everyone, including their families, recognized that they were married. Even their community recognize their roles and they worked, you know, very hard together to be able to, you know, afford not having husband's in her research, Rachel Hope cleaves even found some evidence of a sexual relationship between them, because both women were pretty religious. They don't explicitly refer to anything sexual, but they do make admissions to sin. There's one entry that I love that's from their thirty one anniversary and Silvia Drake writes. It's been thirty one years since I left my mother's House and commenced serving in company with dear Miss B Sin Mars, all earthly bliss in no common sinner have I been, but God has spared my life, given me everything I would enjoy, and now I have a space, if I improve..., to exercise true Penitence. So she's recognizing that her relationship, in the context of early American society, her relationship with this other woman, was, quote unquote, sinful. Right. She knows that this is not the, you know, most socially sanctioned relationship that you know, this is transgressing social norms, but the fact that she lived that way and loved this other woman, I think it is pretty remarkable, despite those social norms. Even today, religion often has a similar effect on Queer people. Being tasked with reconciling the popular interpretations of religious beliefs and what you know to be true in your heart is a lot to carry and I think it's important to say well, you know, we have these heroes, essentially from, you know, two hundred years ago, who were living their lives and finding love despite what their religion and what their communities were telling them. And I think what's especially interesting that charity and Sylvia were able to do is they found a solution to that, that that conundrum of society, you know, frowning upon the same sex activity, by integrating their family members in the townspeople into their domestic circle. It is honestly extraordinary that charity and Sylvia not only successfully ran a business together and supported themselves, but also were accepted wholly in their community and their families. One of their nephews wrote they took each other as companions for life and how this union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsisted in uninterrupted harmony for more than forty years. And I think what is so amazing because it's very similar to marriages today, right of two people. You know, they may share finances, they work together, they live together, they share all aspects of their lives together and in that sense their marriage was very normal. And I absolutely love the conclusion of Rachel Hope cleaves book where she says the most remarkable element of charity and Sylvia's life together in the final assessment, maybe how unremarkable it was, and so I absolutely love that. When we come back the Gay History of the Y MCA. Welcome back. Today we're talking about same sex relationships in early America. The Revolution has been one and America is finding her footing. During this period of...

...rapid development and frontiering, there were a lot of opportunities for situational homosexuality. Men were often together for long periods of time with little, if any interaction with women, and I think you saw that especially, you know, beginning with the Louisiana purchase, right at the beginning of the nineteen century. All of a sudden you have these men leaving their wives or their families and leaving society and leaving societies norms to go to this unknown land, these frontiers, where there really were no rules, right. So you have minors, you have loggers, people building railroads. A little later on you have these cowboys societies and Western frontier homesteads where there are not these really structured society mandated norms of how you're supposed to behave. And on top of that, there's no women. You might remember our episode last year about the Golden Age of piracy. Dr Rebecca Simon taught us that long periods at see made homosexual relationships relatively common and even accepted. Eric thinks the frontier era of the US was similar, because not only were the men surrounded by men, they were also completely outside of Standard Society. Very easily people on the frontier wood pair off right maybe for protection or maybe for companionship, and and you see these instances of over time that they became emotional or even sexual. So it may have started out as a practical pairing, but then it became something more. At the same time, men are founding organizations to promote morality and Christianity in cities. A good example of this is the young men's Christian Association, or the why MCA, which was founded in one thousand eighteen forty four. So everyone might have heard of the village people in the song. It's a very gay song, but from the beginning one of the reasons why now we identify it as a gay, or at least a gay adjacent institution, is because from the beginning that's an all male institution. Only men were allowed in the young men's Christian Association. When the song was written in the s, it probably reference the why MCA because residents were largely queer, making it a popular pickup spot. But scholars like Jenny beaman have looked back even deeper and she saw that a lot of the people who were running these hymca's were lifelong bachelor's right. They were not getting married, they were not starting families and they seem to be disproportionately devoting their lives to other men and to the WHYMCA. So it makes you wonder, you know, if there were people who had these at...

...least homosexual inclinations. Maybe they were finding voluntarily spaces where they could be with other men and where they would have that cover to pursue these these relationships or romantic friendships and say, oh well, that's just my job. Eric thinks it's possible that some men saw all male environments like the Ymca and the frontier as opportunities to avoid giving in to heterosexual life. Maybe this was a way out from, you know, a really constricting society. And you even have some of these very selfaware cowboys who are saying recognizing this phenomenon. There's one cowboy from, you know, the middle of the century in Oklahoma who wrote that his relationship with another man was, quote, first rooted and admiration infatuation, in a sense need of an ally loneliness and yearning, but it regularly ripened into love and I think it's a kind of a beautiful phenomenon. And you see that also in mining and logging railroad camps. And this brings us to San Francisco. Everyone thinks of it as a gay capital today, but did you know it also started out pretty gay in the gold rush. You have thousands of young men flocking there for, you know, riches and adventure, but at the same time we'd don't have any of those social norms that are back east. It's fun to imagine some of the men traveling West not hoping to strike it rich in gold but in freedom, freedom from a rigid society that forbade them from loving who they wanted to love. And then you see this transgression also of gender norms. So you know, these men or cowboys or miners would hold dances and well, there's no women and they still want to dance. So what do they do? Well, they some of them, would put on dresses or wear a wrap or a Bandana and that would be the signal that they would assume the women's part. So what does that mean? Well, and it literally like, is it that they would assume the woman's part dancing or that they would bottom? Well, we can't speculate too much about what they did after the dance, but certainly during the dance itself they would take, you know, the women's role, I guess, if they were whatever dancing they were doing back then. But so it's sort of like the early Hanky Code exactly. Yeah, but even though men were dressing up for dances and probably having lots of hot gay gold miner sex, you can't definitively say anything about sexuality when we take the context of mail only society into account, and we can't say that, you know, if you are engaging in sexual ttivity with a man and your you haven't seen a...

...woman in a year or two years, does that make you gay? And we can say that. We can't even say that now. Right, it's same sex sexual behavior. But we can't necessarily say, Oh, all the people who were, you know, messing around with a fellow cowboy on the frontier, if you did that, that that made you gay, because again, that category didn't exist. But also maybe they just wanted physical touch. Right. That that's totally valid and as historians, we have to say, all right, it's completely possible that maybe they didn't have any sort of actual desire to be with a man, but also we have to say it's certainly possible that they did. So there are some highlights from the very queer antebellum era. Make sure you join US next week for part four of our series. Next time we'll be talking about the civil war itself and up through the turn of the century, including two of my favorite questions in American history, which was the sexualities of James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln. To presidents who serve backto back and may have been a little queer. Pride is a production of Straw hut media. If you like the show, leave us a rating and a review on Apple, podcast, spotify or wherever you're tuning in from. Share us with your friends, subscribe and follow us on Facebook, instagram and twitter at pride. You can follow me at Le by Chambers, and you can follow Dr Eric Servini at Eric Seer Eini. Pride is produced by me, be by chambers, Maggie Bowls and Ryan Tillotson, edited by Sebastian. All CALLA boomp awesome. I think we're good, great whoop,.

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