Phila. Gay News articles examine homosexuality in U.S. history

Mark Segal, dressed as a Colonial soldier, poses in Elfreth's Alley at 2nd St. in Old City, Philadelphia. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)
Mark Segal, dressed as a Colonial soldier, poses in Elfreth's Alley at 2nd St. in Old City, Philadelphia. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 13, 2011

SOME DAYS, Mark Segal writes about gay history. Other days, he makes it.

As leader of the "Gay Raiders" activist group in 1973, Segal forced the gay-rights movement into the national spotlight by running in front of the cameras during a live broadcast of "CBS Evening News" with Walter Cronkite.

Two years later, he founded the Philadelphia Gay News, a weekly newspaper targeting the area's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population. He still publishes it.

So when Segal heard some tea-party types on TV last year saying the Founding Fathers didn't have homosexuals in mind when they formed the United States, he started plotting a response.

What, you thought he'd keep quiet?

"I consider myself a patriot. I love my country," said Segal, 60, a Queen Village resident known to many as the dean of gay American journalism. "When you tell me the Founding Fathers didn't want us, you just hurt me pretty badly."

Now, Segal has gone to print with a monthlong, coast-to-coast retort, a series of articles running in his newspaper and 30 other publications around the country examining the sexuality of major figures in U.S. history and how they treated homosexuals.

The combined print run for the series - "We are America: How members of the LGBT community helped create the U.S.A." - is expected to exceed 650,000 copies.

"We're telling historians to get their history straight," Segal said. "For too long, they've put gay people in the closet."

Segal and a small team of writers spent the last year devouring history books and sifting through the letters, diaries and poems of politicians and patriots like time-traveling TMZ reporters. Their stories read like retrospective gossip columns infused with scholarly research:

Benjamin Franklin? Gay-friendly ambassador.

James Buchanan? Dreadful president but probably America's first gay one.

William Rufus King? They called the eventual vice president "Mrs. Buchanan" and "Aunt Fancy" for a reason.

George Washington? Straight, but way ahead of his time regarding gays in the military.

Abraham Lincoln? Closeted gay. Walt Whitman's gaydar was beeping.

Friedrich Wilhelm Von Steuben? Military genius. Totally gay.

"Don't you dare say the Founding Fathers didn't have us in mind," Segal said. "Not only did we help create this country, but it was a gay president - at least I believe he was gay - who kept this nation together."

Social conservatives were hyperventilating before the first installment of the series hit the streets last week. The backlash will likely intensify today, when the Philadelphia Gay News publishes a piece arguing that Americans essentially owe their freedom to a gay man.

"If Von Steuben hadn't come to the United States, there would be no United States," Segal said.

Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Von Steuben, a former captain in the Prussian army whom Franklin had recommended to Washington, is credited with bringing European-style military tactics and training to the Continental Army at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War.

Some consider him the father of the U.S. military. He also was gay.

At least according to Segal, who says there is ample evidence showing that Steuben had homosexual relationships in Europe and likely continued his gay lifestyle in the United States. Neither Washington nor Franklin seemed to have a problem with it, Segal said.

This stuff is borderline blasphemy to God-'n'-guns social conservatives still stinging from last month's repeal of "don't ask, don't-tell," the 1993 law that banned openly gay and lesbian soldiers from serving in the military.

"It's just tawdry to go around and make up historical narrative to suit your contemporary agenda," said Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis at the American Family Association. "They're trying to drag the Founding Fathers by their tri-corner hats and turn them into gay advocates. That's laughable."

"Throw it in the trash bin," said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, which seeks to thwart the "agendas of civilian feminists and homosexual activists."

"It smacks of a desperate attempt to sully the memory of great men," Donnelly said. "And this is being done by men who are not great. They have an ideology, and to do this is just beneath contempt."

But Paul Lockhart, a Wright State University history professor and author of "The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army," said homosexual relationships were not unusual in the Prussian officer corps. The jury is still out on whether Steuben was gay, he said.

"I don't doubt that Steuben was probably part of that culture," Lockhart said. He doubts, however, that Steuben's close relationships with his male aides in America can be used to strengthen the argument that he was gay. Correspondence between straight men was generally more affectionate then.

"When dealing with people living in the 18th century, sometimes it's hard to attach 21st-century sexual-identification labels to them," Lockhart said.

Later this month, which is Gay History Month, Segal's paper and the participating LGBT publications will run articles about other historical figures, including Lincoln.

"My theory is Abe Lincoln was like a lot of other Republican politicians - a closeted gay man," Segal said. "But in those days you could go to jail or be killed for being gay."

Many of these claims aren't new. They've been written about before, but often in passing, so they remain mostly on the fringes of American history. Segal is trying to get historians to review them in a more serious light.

This whole debate - which, by the way, is exactly what Segal had intended - is irrelevant to people like Al Taubenberger, chairman of the Steuben Day Observance Association, which holds an annual parade on Frankford Avenue celebrating Steuben and other German-American patriots.

"To be very direct about it, nobody really cares," Taubenberger, a Republican running for City Council, said of Steuben's sexual orientation. "He knew how to fight. He was a great man and he did great things."

But Segal says parsing the sexuality of the Founding Fathers and other patriots is a worthwhile endeavor. More than, one could argue, whether Thomas Jefferson was diddling one of his slaves. Or how many sexual favors Bill Clinton received in the Oval Office.

"How else are we going to understand history if we don't understand the men and women who gave us that history?" Segal asked.

And what about the fact that some of these guys have been dead for more than two centuries? When's it time to put the sex gossip to bed?

"We're still discovering stuff on Cleopatra," Segal said, "and she died 2,000 years ago."

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