America's Only Bachelor President May Have Been Its Only Gay One

James Buchanan May Have Been Homosexual

James Buchanan with his cabinet
Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG / Getty Images

There has never been an openly gay president of the United States, but some historians have argued that James Buchanan, the only president who never shared the White House with a First Lady, may have had feelings for a member of the same sex.

The nation's 15th president is the nation's only bachelor president. Buchanan had been engaged to a woman named Ann Coleman, long before he became president, but Coleman died before the two could wed.

It would not have been unusual had they done so as history is filled with homosexual men who marry straight women.

Longtime Companions

While he remained unmarried his entire life, Buchanan had a very close relationship with William Rufus De Vane King, a diplomat who served as U.S. senator and the nation's 13th vice president—coincidentally, the only vice president to never have married.

Buchanan and King lived together for more than two decades, although that was a relatively common practice in the 1800s. However, historians note that the couple’s contemporaries in Washington reportedly described King as effeminate, calling him "Miss Nancy" and Buchanan's "better half."

They also cite letters written by Buchanan about the man he described as his soulmate. After King left the United States to become the minister to France, Buchanan wrote to a friend:

"I am now solitary and alone, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection."

King showed his own affection for Buchanan at his departure by writing to him: "I am selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation."

A Historian Makes His Claim

James Loewen, a prominent American sociologist and historian, has been outspoken in his claims that Buchanan was the first gay president, writing in a 2012 essay:

"There can be no doubt that James Buchanan was gay, before, during, and after his four years in the White House. Moreover, the nation knew it, too—he was not far into the closet. Today, I know no historian who has studied the matter and thinks Buchanan was heterosexual."

Loewen has argued that Buchanan's homosexuality is not often discussed in modern times because Americans do not want to believe that society was more tolerant of gay relationships in the 19th Century than they are now.

Another Bachelor Presidential Candidate

The closest the nation has come to having a bachelor president since Buchanan was when Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina sought the party's presidential nomination in 2016. When asked who would be his first lady, Graham said the position would be "rotating." He also joked that his sister could play the role, if necessary.

The One and Only?

Although it has long been rumored that Richard Nixon had a homosexual affair with his close friend Bebe Rebozo, Buchanan is still the most likely candidate for first, and only, gay American president.

Thanks to his vocal support of gay marriage, President Barack Obama did earn the title briefly, albeit symbolically, in a May 2012 Newsweek magazine article, written by Andrew Sullivan.

Tina Brown, editor-in-chief for Newsweek at the time, explained the term and the cover photo of Obama with a rainbow halo superimposed over his head by telling news site Politico, "If President Clinton was the ‘first black president’ then Obama earns every stripe in that ‘gaylo’ with last week’s gay marriage proclamation.”

In his article, Sullivan himself pointed out that the claim was not meant to be taken literally (Obama is married, with two daughters). "It's obviously a play on Clinton being the first black president. I am aware that James Buchanan (and maybe Abraham Lincoln) have been in the Oval Office before." 

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Murse, Tom. "America's Only Bachelor President May Have Been Its Only Gay One." ThoughtCo, Feb. 27, 2018, thoughtco.com/americas-only-gay-president-3367940. Murse, Tom. (2018, February 27). America's Only Bachelor President May Have Been Its Only Gay One. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/americas-only-gay-president-3367940 Murse, Tom. "America's Only Bachelor President May Have Been Its Only Gay One." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/americas-only-gay-president-3367940 (accessed May 21, 2018).