I gave some real thought to what word to use for this month. I’ll admit that most of the words I came up with weren’t exactly kind. I’m sure you can figure out why, if you follow US current events at all. Current events got me thinking, though, about history. Who gets to write history? In particular, who gets to write the history of marginalized people, especially those of us whose mere existence was considered taboo to mention even fifty years ago?
The old saying is that history is written by the victors, and to some extent that’s accurate. The stories of wars fought, and which side was right and wrong, is dictated by which group is in charge at any given moment. We have the source documents to go back to, when they exist, so when a new group comes to power we can go back and say, “Well, maybe it wasn’t like x, I think it’s more accurate to say the war was fought because of y.” A good example of this is the American Civil War. People like to claim the war was about federal overreach and “states’ rights,” but if we go back to the foundational documents of the Confederacy we can see that the principal “right” those states were fighting for it was the right to own slaves. Those are the words of the Confederacy’s leaders themselves, them writing their own history.
But what about us, the people who fall under the LGBTQ+ umbrella? For a long time, depending on where and who of course, our mere existence was something too shameful to mention. Who writes our history? Who owns the stories of the people who came before us?
Many years ago, I bought a book. I was so excited to read it. The book was about how Hamilton and Madison framed the US Constitution. It took me a long while to get around to reading it, much to my consternation, but once I did I sat down and opened the book.
And the author spent a good chuck of text – I want to say 30 pages, it might have been more like 10 – defending Alexander Hamilton’s heterosexuality. These were the first pages of the book.
Now first of all, his arguments were deeply flawed, and if his scholarship was that shoddy when it came to the actual subject of the book I didn’t want to read it.
Second, if you feel that compelled to sit there and “defend” how straight some guy was when he’s been dead for 200 years, you’ve got a problem. He’s not a threat to your masculinity, no one’s going to suspect you’ve got a crush on sweet little Alex, your pastor’s not going to come and rap your knuckles with a ruler, the dude is long since dead. The sexuality of someone long since dead should not be a threat to you.*
Third, the guy was technically correct when he said we could not prove Hamilton was bisexual. Like I said, the guy died two centuries ago. We can’t go back to many of the primary sources, because they were heavily edited and, in some cases, destroyed by zealous heirs concerned about respectability.
We do have enough primary sources to know he made overtures to certain men. And we know from multiple sources that he enjoyed the sexual company of women as well. This doesn’t seem to be enough for the charming soul who wrote that book, who probably wouldn’t be satisfied even if Hamilton himself returned from the grave, grabbed him by the throat, screamed, “I’m bisexual, dumbass,” and kicked him in the nads.**
Some people will always see what they want to see, I guess.
Fourth, Hamilton’s sexual orientation has nothing to do with the Constitution. When I initially tried to read the wretched book, I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that someone would object so strenuously to the idea of Hamilton’s sexuality that he would devote so much ink to trying to disprove it. “What are they going to do, toss the Constitution because the guy who wrote it might have liked guys sometimes?” I said.
I’m not so sure now.
But anyway, given the challenges involved with going back and proving, disproving, or even researching a person’s sexuality, who controls that part of history? Who controls that part of our history? Do we sit here and pretend this country was only built by straight white men? Or do we acknowledge the balance of probability being that certain people’s little “quirks” have been papered over? It’s not like it’s a criminal trial, or like showing young people today that people like us have achieved great things could somehow harm anyone.
Today of course we have the Internet. Unsupportive and phobic families can try to hide who we were when we’re gone, but the records we chose to put out there will remain. Hamilton’s letters to Laurens, for example, are explicit enough for those who understand the language of the day. He seems to have been comfortable enough with himself. His family, not so much.
If he’d lived today, his posts to Laurens (and possibly others) would circulate even now. There would be no doubt. Arguably, there wouldn’t have to be. There are fewer barriers than ever before to telling our own stories. We can own our own history. It’s more important than ever for us to do so.
* This is an entirely separate case from a case like Jefferson, who owned the woman by whom he had several children. Sexual assault is not an orientation.
** I would cheerfully engage in necromancy if I thought I could achieve this result. I REALLY hated that book.