OUTING HARDLY RAISES an eyebrow anymore. Kevin Spacey? Who cares. Rosie O’Donnell? Please. But last week, when the National Enquirer published its front-page exposŽ of Mohamed Atta, the mastermind behind the September 11 terrorist attacks ("Mohamed Atta and several of his bloody henchmen led secret gay lives — and Atta’s ‘boyfriend’ died with him in his September 11 suicide mission") you couldn’t help but take notice. Especially since the Atta revelation comes on the heels of the publication of Lothar Machtan’s The Hidden Hitler (Basic Books), which claims that Der FŸhrer was gay (a revelation that’s sure to cause as much angst for the Aryan Nation as it does for the Human Rights Campaign).
There’s a weird irony to these outings: for the past 50 years the gay-rights movement has promoted a public-relations campaign insisting to mainstream America that gays are just like everyone else. That gays, in fact, have existed throughout history. Supporting evidence comes from queer historians, both popular and scholarly, who’ve argued that figures such as Plato, Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Willa Cather, John Singer Sargent, and Eleanor Roosevelt were attracted to or engaged in sexual relationships with members of their own sex.
What’s interesting to see, now that Hitler and Atta have been added to the list, is how readily the general public (in the case of Atta) and the media elite (with Hitler) have embraced the notion that both men were gay. During a recent interview with Machtan, NBC’s Matt Lauer unquestioningly accepted the premise that Hitler was gay and asked anti-historical questions, such as: "In just the minute left, and I know it’s very difficult to ask you to do this, but why do you think that his homosexuality and perhaps his attempts at concealing it were at the root of his anti-Semitism?" Apparently, the idea that Hitler’s putative closeted homosexuality did more to shape his hatred of Jews than the 2000 years of virulent European Catholic/Christian anti-Semitism that preceded him poses no logical problem to the mass media.
It’s quite a contrast with the reception given, for example, to the claims that Roosevelt and Whitman were gay. Even though there is abundant, albeit sometimes conjectural, proof that these people experienced same-sex desires, scholars demand far higher standards of "proof" for queerness than they ever would for heterosexual longings or actions. They do this even when such "proof" exists. Whitman, for example, left letters and poems expressing homoerotic feelings, and Roosevelt’s papers are filled with expressions of lesbian desire. Still, enormous efforts are made to "explain" it away as poetic imagery in the case of Whitman, or as sentimental women’s talk for Roosevelt.
So why the ready acceptance that mass murderers like Hitler and Atta were gay and the reluctance to believe that beloved figures like Roosevelt, Whitman, and Lincoln might have been?
MACHTAN AND the National Enquirer, in making their cases, draw upon the same historical techniques and methodologies pioneered by Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds, who compiled what was probably the first list of famous homosexuals throughout history in their 1897 work Sexual Inversion. These techniques and methodologies can be summed up as follows: historians looking for homosexuals in history have learned to read between the lines. Sometimes this involves looking at the work of an artist in fresh ways: why are Michelangelo’s male nudes so much more realistic than his female nudes? Exactly what was Gertrude Stein talking about in her obscure prose poem "Tender Buttons"? Sometimes it simply means acknowledging the obvious: it certainly wasn’t poverty that forced Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed to spend four years sleeping in the same bed when one was an up-and-coming lawyer and the other a prosperous, middle-class store owner.
In The Hidden Hitler, Machtan reinterprets much of what we already know about Hitler to make the case that he was sexually attracted to men; that he probably had sexual relationships with some men before the 1930s; that these relationships helped him attain social and political power; and that his fear of exposure led him to implement a brutal anti-gay policy and inflamed his already deeply held anti-Semitism to new, more determinedly deadly levels. For instance, while the homosexuality of Ernst Rohm, head of the Sturmabteilung (better known as the SA or the Brownshirts), and of some members of the SA has long been a historical given, Machtan reinterprets Hitler’s putsch against them — known as the "Night of the Long Knives" — as a preemptive strike against people who knew too much about Hitler’s homosexual past. In doing so, he rejects the long-held belief that Hitler’s violent destruction of the group was a standard political power play within National Socialism.
In its tawdry piece on Atta, the Enquirer makes much of the fact that Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari shaved their bodies the night before the attack and put on cologne. This can easily be interpreted as a religious act. Islam, along with Christianity and Judaism, has religious and social laws connected to ideals of cleanliness or aestheticism that regulate care of the body and hair grooming. But when put in a seamier context, the act takes on a lurid feel: "On the eve of his murderous assault, [Atta] and his boyfriend Alomari made a quick, mysterious trip to Portland, Maine, where they spent the night in room 233 of a Comfort Inn. They paid $179 for the deluxe rooms with gold bedspreads. Atta and Alomari dutifully followed instructions from a document later discovered in luggage that got left behind.... It told the men to take an ‘oath to die’ and ‘shave excess hair from the body and wear cologne.’ " While the Enquirer piece does raise some valid issues — that male-male sexual activity has always been tacitly condoned in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures (though never accepted as a sexual identity) — the magazine simply distorts it by noting that "extremist elements among Arab men become so socially segregated from women, they turn to homosexual behavior."