Are We Ready to Celebrate Walt Whitman as Brooklyn’s Gay Poet?

Walt Whitman
(via Wikimedia Commons)

This week all over Brooklyn, there will be celebrations honoring Walt Whitman. With the 200th anniversary of the birth of Brooklyn’s greatest poet, one has to ask the question: Was Walt Whitman gay and does his poetry celebrate the joys of being gay? Reading his poetry there are so many clear homoerotic images that many students of Whitman conclude that despite the fact that Whitman never came out as gay, he was gay, or at least bisexual.

Were Whitman to return to Brooklyn today, he would probably be pleasantly surprised by the many Brooklynites who live an openly gay lifestyle.

During Whitman’s time admitting to a gay relationship was taboo, but he hinted at it in a letter he wrote at the end of his life with his discussion of “fervent comradeship.” In the passage below he seems to suggest to a time when gay relationships would be accepted by the broader American society:

Many will say it is a dream and will not follow my inferences: but I confidentially expect a time when there will be seen running through it like a half-hid warp through all the myriad audible and visible worldly interests of America, threads of manly friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and life-long, carried to degrees hitherto unknown, not only giving tone to individual character and making it unprecedentedly emotional, muscular, heroic and refined, but having the deepest relation to general politics. I say democracy infers such loving comradeship as its most inevitable twin or counterpart, without which it will be incomplete, in vain and incapable of perpetuating itself.

Reading this excerpt from his famous “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” it is hard not to see him as anything other than a gay poet:

And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose . . .

I was one with the rest, the days and haps of the rest,

Was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,

Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,

Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word.

Maybe the clearest images of Whitman as a gay man appear in his poem, “Once I Pass’d Through A Populous City.”

Once I pass’d through a populous city imprinting my brain for future use with its shows, architecture, customs, tradition,

Yet now of all that city I remember only a man I casually met there who detained me for love of me,

Day by day and night by night we were together all else has long been forgotten by me,

I remember I saw only that man who passionately clung to me,
Again we wander, we love, we separate again,
Again he holds me by the hand, I must not go,
I see him close beside me with silent lips sad and tremulous.

Whitman’s coded use of the term “Fervent Comradeship” and the many homoerotic images in his poems suggest that Whitman was one of the earliest voices in the gay liberation movement. This week as we celebrate his genius lets celebrate him proudly and openly as a gay poet and as a visionary who predicted that America would come to embrace and celebrate its gay citizens.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a Brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over 20years and is the author of a book on the history of the area, "Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past."

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