For the past seven years, Washington and Lee University has hosted the Virginia Colleges Equality Gala, an event held to promote recognition and equality amongst all students, LGBTQ and straight, across college campuses in Virginia. While this event usually passes without much controversy (other than some displeasure from certain groups that it happens in the first place), this year’s event was particularly controversial. With the theme of “Mr. & Mr.” celebrating the marriage of Washington and Lee’s two namesakes and a poster featuring a shadow of the two men kissing, the Gala has been the subject of complaints, both in written and verbal form. As made apparent by this controversy, there exists some misunderstanding regarding the event and the LGBTQ community on campus as a whole that needs to be clarified.
In choosing the theme for the Gala, there is a wide-spread belief that the Gala’s planning committee decided on a George-and-Bob wedding as nothing more than a joke to extend a middle finger to history and to purposefully and meaninglessly anger community members. Quite the contrary: the reasons behind this theme came from a want for cultural cultivation and a questioning of the heteronormative ideals that are upheld by our institution and society as a whole. The planning committee can promise that they do not truly assume that George Washington and Robert E. Lee had romantic feelings for each other— not due to evidence of the two never having had any homosexual feelings, but due to the fact that their lives fell around a hundred years apart. There is no reason for the Gala theme to be seen as more scandalous or inappropriate than any other organization’s event or advertisements.
Firstly, using George and Bob as mascots is not a revolutionary tactic on this campus. Rather, clubs and organizations have been using caricatures of the men for generations, featuring them on sleigh rides, attending concerts, and smoking marijuana together. The rage directed at W&L’s gay community regarding the use of caricatures of Washington and Lee is disproportionate in comparison to the multitude of other student organization merchandise featuring the two. What is it about the image of two men kissing that is so disgraceful when it is so easy and unquestioned to accept them in every other promotional context?
Furthermore, why must we as a society assume that all historical figures were straight? What evidence exists regarding the straightness or queerness of these figures? As science has not progressed to the point where we can fully experience the feelings and lives of these historical figures, we cannot fully assume their straightness. While the two were both married with children, what evidence exists disproving bisexuality? Or an extreme case of being "in the closet?" Even beyond George Washington and Robert E. Lee, society has a habit of erasing the LGBTQ identities of historical figures. Many academic historical readings choose to identify LGBTQ women as lonely spinsters or LGBTQ men as “too focused on their careers” despite evidence of homosexual relations (Virginia Woolf, anyone?). To an even heavier extent, the level of bisexual erasure in historic academia is incredible. Even despite blatant evidence of the love of two (or more) genders, many choose to think of historical figures’ sexuality as concretely one way or the other (e.g. William Shakespeare). If history can assume that LGBTQ figures are straight, then it should not be too far of a stretch to think that some that we assume were straight were actually LGBTQ.
Such theorizations have actually been made long before the 2018 Virginia Colleges Equality Gala. While the planning committee does wish to be so innovative, they were not the first people to invent historical fiction. For hundreds of years (since about the 18th century), authors and creators have imagined historical figures in situations and scenarios not representative of historical textbooks. Logically, we know that George Washington likely never met two young children who time travel in a Magic Treehouse, and that Robert E. Lee was likely never shown loss on the battlefield by the Unionist superman Atticus Kent, but these flights of fantasy occasionally make for some solid entertainment.
So, one must ask: where does the controversy behind this Gala theme lie? The way the Gala was advertised this year used no techniques that were not previously used to advertise concerts and formals here at Washington and Lee University. The theme (evidently) struck conversation regarding the way historical figures are portrayed, and the execution of the Gala itself, while an inauthentic portrayal of the two men, was a refreshing bout of historical fiction. So, where did the true issue with the Virginia Colleges Equality Gala of 2018 lie? Was it that the two figureheads of Washington and Lee were portrayed in a historically inaccurate manner, or that they were shown as being gay?