Back on the eve of the millennium, in her customary festive speech, The Queen quoted Winston Churchill. “The further backwards you look, the further forwards you can see.”Some people believe that the past is just that, and should be left there, only moving forward. Of course, I believe in the moving forward bit, but history need not be the tedium it may have been at school. Just take a look at the British Museum recently. First we had the fascination of the Emperor of Qin’s Terracotta Army; then followed ‘Hadrian: Empire and Conflict’. Hadrian was the Roman Emperor who built the second most famous wall of the ancient world, and I’ll get to him in a moment.
First, across the Atlantic and to the United States of America.
As the 2008 race pounded along for that prime place in the White House, there was no doubt that we were in the midst of one of the most exciting periods of U.S.A. political history. Throughout America’s growth into the Empire it is today, both women and African-Americans have taken on an arduous battle to achieve equal status with their white male counterparts. Even if the final outcome had proved to be John McCain, the fact that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama stood as prospective candidates undoubtedly proved them to be symbols of triumph over adversity.
Back on that December day in Alabama, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus and so took a monumental step for liberty, I doubt she or anyone believed that in just half a century a billionaire called Oprah would count as arguably one of most powerful and influential woman in the world, let alone that her country would vote in a black president.
Some may argue that it really shouldn’t matter what gender, race, or orientation the president is. That surely to focus on that seems rather archaic. The only thing to truly consider, ultimately, is: who is the best candidate for the job, who is best for the country, and indeed – though we over here hold no sway on the decision – best for the world. I’d like to imagine a world where at no point we were judged because of our religion, place of origin, colour, class, wealth, physical beauty or sexual history. That none of that was viewed as an indication of the person we were, could be, what we hold within: our spirit. But that is a utopia. Though there might not be so many whippings and lynching, racism and prejudice is still very much alive, albeit in a more psychological way. So the question of a female, or even farther reaching, a black Commander-in-Chief did and does matter, because it challenges the status quo, pushes boundaries, and perhaps even leads to some enlightenment.
So, what next? A gay president? Though American society may well have progressed to the point where it can seriously consider having a black or female president, it is still utterly unthinkable that what someone does in bed should not concern them. Some four million US citizens may have rallied together under a $20 million budget to fight Obama’s election, in fear that he’d remove their right to collect guns, but you can bet with full assurance that if his partner was Michael rather than Michelle the outcry against him would have been deafening. Yes, homosexuality is growing to be more accepted, and in a recent poll 55% of Americans said they would not object to a gay Commander-in-Chief (despite the current “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the armed forces), though I doubt many of those in favour came from the ‘Bible Belt’. In the big hangover of religious fervour, sex is still a big issue.
Not that it has ever held others back from holding the highest office. The previous incumbent of the White House, whilst not only having past issues with alcohol and cocaine, and in many eyes across the world being thoroughly ill-placed and just plain wrong, has managed to have scant attention paid to the alleged sex scandals that took place while he was Texas governor. Both women ‘disappeared’ – one by suicide, the other, well, she simply vanished.
Clinton had no such luck, memorably impeached for his fiasco with a cigar and a stain, but has subsequently gained a statesman-like quality that has had no ill-effect on his wife’s ambition and career. Franklin D Roosevelt quietly managed a hat trick of affairs whilst in office. Then, most famously, there is J.F.K. His are almost too numerous to mention: Marilyn Monroe, Angie Dickinson, Jayne Mansfield, the stripper Blaze Starr, mobsters molls and secretaries. Naturally, at the time these conquests were kept quiet, but we now know what a serious serial adulterer he was.
Yet perhaps the one that stands remarkable above all is Thomas Jefferson, whose affair with the African-American slave Sally Hemings produced six children. One would have thought that this alone would have moved the civil rights movement way ahead, but it still had some hundred and fifty years to come into being.
However, an important fact here is that, no matter the moral frowning at such actions, all these indiscretions involved women, and though some may wish to uphold the sanctity of marriage, sex between men and women is fine because it is the Judeo-Christian way. At least a quarter of Americans are evangelical Christians. With a good many of these you could do well to translate this as “fundamentalist”. Be it political or religious, with a prevailing ferocious intolerance of diversity, fundamentalism is always a problem, because unless you’re like them, agree with them, you’re not just wrong, you’re more or less worthless. It is not a quest or a defence of truth, fails to look inward, and its negative effects carry waves of violence throughout our world. As Soren Kierkegaard once put “The mind is like a parachute, it only functions properly when it is open.”
Whilst ‘fundamentalists’ may not necessarily have issues with women (or having relations with more than one at a time), or people of a different colour, they do generally have one with gay people, to the level of insipid hatred. Of course, they are also still screwing themselves over the shock 2006 revelation of Reverend Ted Haggard, ex-leader of the 30 million-strong National Association of Evangelicals, who, it was revealed, whilst vehemently condemning same-sex union was also enjoying methamphetamine and regular trips to a male prostitute. They subsequently spent a year trying to ‘cure’ him, and failed. Scratch a fundamentalist and you’ll often find a hypocrite.
There is already much consternation going in relation to Obama holding the interests of “radical homosexual activists” in high regard. His relaxation of certain ‘traditional’ values, ‘anti-biblical’ views on truth, sex, and family – it is both disturbing and very much out there.
Having said this, there have actually been, according to many sources, a couple of ‘gay’ presidents already. James Buchanan (the 15th President) lived for many years with William Rufus King, an Alabama Senator. The two men were considered inseparable. However, life was rather more ‘sanitised’ in regards to homosexuality in the 19th century, and rather like the Cary Grant/Randolph Scott bachelor pad set-up in the 1950’s, despite some hushed mockery behind closed doors, Buchanan’s infatuation was never deemed to be at the level of scandal, and due to the destruction of their personal correspondence, can only ever now stand as speculation.
Then old Abe himself. Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Fry Speed slept together nightly for four years in a shared bed above the store where Lincoln worked as a young man. Fair enough, this may have just been out of necessity and not held any sexual component, yet a handful of other men were, it has been suggested, also intimate with him: William Greene; Army Captain David V. Derickson (who frequently shared the president’s bed when his wife Mary was absent); Ephrim Elmer Ellsworth; A. Y. Ellis, who also ended up in his bed… Of course, some scholars say that it was all innocent and above board, yet many now concede that they cannot say he was not bisexual.
The absolute truth will never be assured, but suffice to say that as much as some vehemently deny such a possibility, some, those of an evangelical persuasion, now call for Lincoln’s face to be removed from the face of Mount Rushmore, replaced with say. Ronald Reagan. A female president? Not just yet. A black president? History has been made. A gay president? That is probably quite some time away yet.
But imagine if you will, for a moment, just that. A man taking the ultimate role in office, furthering his ‘empire’ as the forerunner in the world. Fed up with the guerrilla warfare after his predecessor engaged in a pointless war, he removes his troops from Iraq, and ushers in a new era of peace. He shows interest in all the lives of the all the millions who live under his rule, genuinely and personally concerned with their well being and improving their lives. A superb leader who had long gained the love and admiration of his military. General, Diplomat, Artist, Architect, Financier, Scholar, Poet, Philosopher, Athlete, Priest, Mystic, Traveller, Lover… a world leader of legendary stature. And a homosexual.
It was not uncommon in the classical age for a man to take male lovers alongside his wife, indeed it was generally deemed acceptable and, with the Greeks, the ultimate bond. However, what made Hadrian so unique was in making his love “official” in a way that no other Head of State has done before or since. I have long thought that, in some ways, the majority of the classical world had a far healthier approach to that universal matter of love and attraction then is so in this day and age. They certainly didn’t have it right, but philosophy was in its golden age and impacted on everything. To them, the concept of “straight” or “gay” would have seemed alien, if not ridiculous, and obsessing about ethnicity equally so. Sure, Romans were snobs when it came to cultural superiority, but skin colour was irrelevant. Woman too, though undoubtedly under the heel of patrician rule, had some status – for example, it was far easier for a wife to divorce her husband than the other way round.
Hadrian toured the world with his beloved Antinous constantly at his side. Whilst visiting Egypt, the young lover, whose only great claim was being the most beautiful vision of masculine perfection, drowned in mysterious circumstances. Consumed by grief, Hadrian lost any stoical tolerance and, in a wave of shocking violence, swept into Judea, slaughtered 500,000 Jews and re-named their homeland as Palestine; a rash move still haunting the world so deeply today. He also chose to immortalise Antinous in the form of a god, the only way he felt he could truly honour his lost love. He became not only the last god of the pagan world (and one the Catholic Church did its best to eradicate the memory of), but more statues were made of him than any other figure in Rome’s history (ironically, the most breathtaking of which now stands in the Vatican), and he was worshipped in some eighty countries for over six hundred years. Most of us these days don’t believe in the idea of human divinity, so this seems rather absurd to say the least. Yet when you consider how we seem to idolize beautiful celebrities tragically taken in the prime of their youth, perhaps the idea that Antinous took his ‘place among the gods’ seems less ridiculous. But what of a gay president?
Now in his second term of office, Paris has a gay mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, who may well lead the Socialist charge to France’s next presidential election, challenging Nicolas Sarkozy who, he accuses, “treads on individual freedoms and ignores collective freedoms.” If he manages to set such a precedent, perhaps the idea of the same happening in the U.S.A may become a little more plausible, after all there are already several openly-gay leading members of Congress who could step up to the challenge.
Once again, in reference to my earlier point as to why this should matter, in some ways it does not. But that would, I say, greatly depend on whether one has struggled under and had to fight against prejudice. It was little problem for Hadrian, so perhaps it is indeed a case that “the further backwards you look, the further forwards you can see.”
GILES ADDISON – 2008
Hadrian: Empire and Conflict was at the British Museum from the 24th of July through to the 26th of October 2008.
My play ‘LAST OF THE GODS’, about the relationship between Hadrian and Antinous, is available for production.