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What a gay history of slavery and the Civil War can teach us

Trump’s chief-of-staff John Kelly needs a queer history lesson

What a gay history of slavery and the Civil War can teach us
Black soldiers during the American Civil War.

Nobody is more in need of a queer history lesson on the Civil War than White House chief of staff John Kelly who recently described Confederate General Robert E Lee as ‘an honourable man’.

Kelly also suggested ‘the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War’.

And with these words, President Donald Trump’s second-in-command only deepened the divide in this country about slavery.

Boston-born Kelly made the remarks, perhaps unsurprisingly, on Laura Ingraham’s new Fox News show on 30 October.

Kelly’s moral relativism suggests there’s no absolute truth about the war, only truths a particular individual or culture upholds. But he is wrong.

African American gay activist and CNN political commentator Keith Boykin was one of the first to challenge his absurdity.

His tweet was a brilliant take-down:

‘If I say slavery is bad, and you say it’s good, let’s compromise, and you be a slave.’

The secret gay history of slavery in America

Slavery is America’s original sin. Even many of our venerated Founding Fathers were wealthy slaveholders.

Slavery was a brutal history of deliberately debasing and dehumanizing enslaved blacks.

But even now the horrors of slavery are told mostly from a white and/or heteronormative perspective like Kelly’s. So the suffering of enslaved LGBTI Africans has long been invisible.

These stories, however, are gradually coming out of the closets of African American oral histories.

Today they are fictionalized in the literary works of Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, Courtney Milan’s The Pursuit of, Alyssa Cole’s That Could Be Enough, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, to name a few.

The ‘slave buck’ is one example. Many know the stories of slaves being coerced to breed from both oral history and literature.

However far few know white gay slave owners forcibly had sex or openly raped male slaves – straight and queer.

You will likely know the stereotype of the ‘docile slave’. Slave owners designed that mythology to emasculate black manhood. But you will probably not know the term was a code to signal to slave owners which black males might actually be LGBTI.

The gay soldiers of the Civil War

It’s disappointing John Kelly, a retired four-star general, needs a history lesson on the Civil War.

But seeing he does, he should start with LGBTIs who lives are seldom mentioned.

Queer Civil War buffs say the deafening silence around LGBTI Confederate and Union soldiers suggests their very presence.

Confederate and Union soldiers didn’t have the infamous Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, or Trump’s now rescinded ban on transgender service members.

But gays did serve in the Civil War.

Using modern day calculations of the LGBTI population, we can estimate 325,000 gay and bi soldiers joined the 3,250,000 on the battlefield.

We know in particular that three pairs of Navy sailors did go to court-martial for ‘improper and indecent intercourse with each other’.

The words ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ weren’t part of the American lexicon until thirty years after the Civil War ended.

But that’s mere semantics.

I have combed through Civil War records of  Confederate and Union soldiers. And I found they were not only slaughtering each other – many were also loving each other.

John Kelly needs a history lesson

Why does this history matter?

Well, if John Kelly knew his Civil War history he would know that when the war ended Robert E Lee refused to be buried in his Confederate uniform.

In fact, Lee asked followers to put their flags away. He said displaying them as a form of defiance would be an act of treason.

Moreover, Robert E Lee V, the general’s great-great-grandson, made a similar request this summer.

After riots flared over Charlottesville’s plan to remove his ancestor’s statue, he talked about the various Lee symbols across the South:

‘First and foremost, if it can avoid any days like this past Saturday in Charlottesville, then take them down today. That’s not what our family is at all interested in, and that’s not what we think General Lee would want whatsoever.’

White Americans, like Kelly, must learn the full and accurate history of the Civil War. Otherwise, they compromise the nation’s ability to move forward.


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