What color is the White House?
Whose people and history does this iconic symbol represent? The answer has always depended on who is telling that story.
The Lavender White House; Queer Lives, American Presidents is a work in progress, a never before told saga of America and the presidency from a decidedly queer perspective. It is a look at how the lives of likely LGBT individuals have intersected with each of the American presidents in curious and unexpected ways.
Readers first encounter Baron von Steuben, the general who in Germany was suspected of sodomy but in America delivers critically needed discipline to Washington’s army. Charles Adams, the son of the second president, soon falls under the spell of the convivial Baron. The career of an early speaker of the House is brought down by his intense friendship with Thomas Jefferson’s whip-wielding, androgynous cousin, John Randolph of Roanoke. Before long, spinster and advocate Sarah Grimke is giving marital advice to the unhappy wife of John Quincy Adams.
In this first volume of a proposed two-volume history, the stories of these early gender rebels gradually blend and blur with the distinctly American struggles for abolition and universal suffrage. The lives and romantic friendships of perennial bachelors James Buchanan and Walt Whitman and a surprisingly passionate Susan B. Anthony stretch across multiple presidencies, giving the narrative a strong continuity. Each president takes his turn in the spotlight in a chapter of his own, along with the queer lives that cross paths with his.
The purpose of this tour inside the Lavender White House is to take a fresh look at familiar rooms in our collective history and discover long forgotten nooks and never noticed crannies. By its end, my hope is every reader will have found a treasured place within what hasn’t always been the people’s house.
Among the notable queer lives to be explored (and the presidents with whom they interacted):
BARON FRIEDRICH VON STEUBEN, a German-born general enlisted by Benjamin Franklin to help Washington’s cause, Steuben was in fact neither a baron or a general. He was infatuated with the handsome young captains under his command, but more importantly saw to transformation of a ragtag army into military force to be reckoned with.
CHARLES ADAMS, son of John and Abigail, a sweet soul who luxuriated in his friendships with other men, including the Baron. Whatever secrets Charles may have had were lost in his slow and ultimately fatal decent into alcoholism.
MAJOR PETER L’ENFANT, the French architect who provided Washington with the earliest plans for the new capitol. His arrogance and his passionate trust in a Swedish rogue proved to be his undoing.
BENJAMIN BANNEKER, an African American surveyor who provided invaluable assistance to the ground breaking of the capital. His defiant letter to Thomas Jefferson on behalf of his race is famous, his bachelor status and apparent sexual conflicts less so.
JOHN RANDOLPH OF ROANOKE, Jefferson’s whip-wielding cousin and one of the most influential men in the House of Representatives. His friendship with the widowed Speaker of the House resembled that of a wife and a husband, according to contemporaries. Even so, the decidedly androgynous Randolph accused James Monroe of lacking masculinity and called John Quincy Adams a traitor.
WASHINGTON IRVING, America’s first great writer and confirmed bachelor, he charmed Dolley Madison, her husband less so. Irving often fell in love with other men outside the public’s prying eyes. For his part, President Van Buren was acutely distressed when he and Irving fell out of friendship.
JAMES BUCHANAN, a prime player in Washington politics, Andrew Jackson sent him to Russia as his ambassador and James Polk made him his secretary of state. He may well have been America’s first gay president.
WILLIAM RUFUS KING, Buchanan’s intimate friend, the pair were referred to as Siamese twins and King mocked as “Mrs. B.” and “Aunt Fancy.” With Buchanan’s help, King became Franklin Pierce’s vice president. He also died mere weeks after his swearing in.
FITZ-GREENE HALLECK, one of America’s earliest recognized poets. His friendship with Jackson was noted by historians, but his contemporaries gradually derided him for his bachelor status and seeming femininity.
SARAH GRIMKE, an early female advocate for women’s rights and abolition. She and Louisa Adams, John Quincy’s wife, developed a close correspondence and she attempted to counsel Louisa in her unhappy marriage.
MARGARET FULLER, another, more widely recognized author women’s rights advocate. While she never met a president, she critiqued several of them as well as notable figures like Irving, Halleck and Edgar Allan Poe. Poe accused the unmarried Fuller of having a masculine nature and Fuller privately agreed.
POWERS FILLMORE, the only son and personal secretary to Millard Fillmore. Powers, a lifelong bachelor and intensely private, was a close friend to a youthful Grover Cleveland and saved the future president from being the central player in an international incident.
SUSAN B. ANTHONY, perennially single suffragist who buttonholed ten different presidents on the matter of a vote for women. She also was passionately attached to one of the greatest female orators, promising her a place in her bed and in her strong arms if she would only visit her again. She crossed paths with several American presidents.
ANNA DICKINSON, one of the earliest and most popular of 18th century American women orators. Dickinson, who never married, was also the woman that Anthony pursued and apparently enjoyed in her bed. She met and actively campaigned for Benjamin Harrison.
WALT WHITMAN, America’s premiere poet, celebrated the passionate love between men. He was friendly with James Garfield, knew Grant and idolized Lincoln. Ironically, it would be his beloved friend, a streetcar conductor, who would witness Lincoln’s assassination.
BAYARD TAYLOR, acclaimed novelist and poet, was a friend to two presidents, Lincoln and Hayes. He also socialized with both Halleck and Whitman, later becoming estranged from the Good, Gray Poet. Taylor wrote the first American novel extolling the virtue of love between men.
DR. MARY WALKER, an exceptionally courageous Civil War surgeon, was awarded a medal of honor by President Andrew Johnson, the only woman ever to be granted that honor. The cross-dressing physician once camped out in Ulysses S. Grant’s White House until the president agreed to see her concerning woman’s rights.
COLONEL WILLIAM G. MOORE, Andrew Johnson’s press secretary and confidant. While married, Moore was an active member of the Misanthrope Club, whose leader and members often extolled the virtues of the love between men.
DR. SUSAN EDSON, the Garfields’ longtime homeopathic physician and faithful deathbed caretaker after the president was shot. The unmarried physician was devoted to her vocation, women’s rights and female friendship. Edson fought the feds to pay her the same as the male physicians who treated Garfield.
ROSE CLEVELAND, Grover Cleveland’s sister who acted as first lady until he married. Rose boldly bought a female companion to her brother’s White House wedding. She would ultimately find love with an expatriate American woman in Italy.
WE’WHA, “the Indian princess” feted at Cleveland’s White House. No one ever knew the sturdily built Zuni woman was born male.
While not an LGBTQ individual I also explore the intriguing life of
ALEXANDER POWELL, the African American messenger and White House companion of President Chester A. Arthur.
I’ll be sharing more information about these intriguing figures on this website and the larger project in the months to come. A second volume bringing the intersection of the White House and LGBTQ lives is planned. In the meantime, if you’re interested in reading about LGBT involvement in past presidential elections, check out this article that I wrote for the Washington Blade.