Marching with Walt Whitman

By Schmidgall, Gary | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), April 30, 2000 | Go to article overview

Marching with Walt Whitman


Schmidgall, Gary, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


Fired from his government job for writing about his love of men, the great gay poet would have marched to end policies like "don't ask, don't tell"

What would Walt Whitman have thought about that prize example of inside-the-Beltway folly "don't ask, don't tell"? I'm pretty certain I know--not only from my experience writing Walt Whitman: A Gay Life, but also my experience as one of Uncle Sam's soldiers.

In the mid 1970s, when I was just coming out, I paid my first visit to the nation's capital, courtesy of the U.S. Army. I was a clerk in the Fifth Judge Advocate General's Reserve Detachment, based at the Presidio of San Francisco, and we were encamped for two weeks at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. (The Army's JAG school was on the campus.)

During my free weekend I made a beeline for Washington. I couldn't believe how many military haircuts I saw in the first gay bar I entered in Georgetown. (Military buzz cuts really stood out then.) I hooked up with a soldier there who said he worked at the Pentagon for a gay two-star general. He gave me a grand tour, and we ended up at a three-floor bar that thrived practically under the eaves of the then-new J. Edgar Hoover Building. Even to a visitor from laissez-faire San Francisco, the capital gay scene seemed relaxed and wide-open.

Having hung out with Whitman for several years now, I've been trying to imagine how the poet--who exulted "I hear America singing" and who had a penchant for shouting from the rooftop--would have reacted to the military's policy of the zipped lip. He would have ridiculed it, for sure. The first three words in the first poem of the first Leaves of Grass edition of 1855 are all that is needed to explode the skulking, dishonest, un-American rationale of "don't ask, don't tell": "I celebrate myself." These three simple words are even more fundamental to the pursuit of happiness than e pluribus unum. What use is celebrating if one cannot tell about it?

Whitman spent his entire career untying the tongue of America and encouraging the freedom of personal speech. The very phrase don't tell--which is exactly synonymous with don't speak--would have offended him deeply as a contradiction of the First Amendment.

"How beautiful is candor!" Whitman wrote in his 1855 Leaves preface, and he also said great poets should be known by their "perfect personal candor." That is also how great nations--and all human beings--should be known. But suspiciously not inquiring and fearfully not telling make candor impossible.

No American poet has written more potently of the thick-plated hell of the closet (read his "Calamus 40" or "Song of the Open Road"), and the closet is what the military policy perpetuates. And no poet has written more glowingly of the joys of truthfulness to oneself and about oneself. "It is time to explain myself," he says in "Song of Myself." For the gay or lesbian member of the armed forces, that time never comes.

Did Whitman experience something like the purse-lipped bigotry that animates "don't ask, don't tell"? Without a doubt. The smarter homophobes of Whitman's day read between his lines and hit the ceiling. One reviewer, in 1855, said Leaves of Grass was a "gathering of muck" filled with "gross obscenity." Then he ended his review by quoting the 19th-century Latin legal euphemism for sodomy: peccatum illud horribile inter Christianos non nominandum. This translates as "that horrible sin not to be named among Christians." You can't get more pointed than that!

Later, in 1865, when Whitman was working in Washington as a clerk at the Department of the Interior, Secretary James Harlan himself rifled through the poet's desk and came upon a copy of the most exuberantly "out" of all Leaves editions. This was the third edition of 1860, which contained the 45-poem "Calamus" sequence about Whitman's love for a man. Harlan, who was a former professor of (get this! …

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