C.A. Tripp's recently published book, in which he asserts that Abraham Lincoln was gay, has stirred up much discussion. The Weekly Standard can't possibly believe it, and hired a frustrated rival to write up a hatchet job. Andrew Sullivan responds (and blogs repeatedly). There's quite an interesting issue there about how much evidence is required to "prove" that a historical figure was homosexual. Some of us will read Tripp's work and see a slam-dunk. Others would continue to dismiss it even if shown the stained sheets and the DNA results linking Lincoln and one of his "longtime companions". How can that be?
The answer, I think, lies in Thomas Kuhn, the famous philosopher of science who wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he articulated a theory of science as being embedded in tradition. The scientific community operates within a received and established paradigm for understanding the world. When anomalies arise that the paradigm has trouble explaining, the community generally resists giving up the paradigm, until a sufficient crisis gives rise to a new paradigm that eventually supplants the old. The community undergoes a paradigm shift over time as some people are converted to the new paradigm, while stubborn holdouts eventually die off. His classic example is that of the Ptolemaic theory of the universe revolving around the earth, which was only slowly supplanted by the Copernican heliocentric model. The Ptolemists went through increasing gyrations to keep their model consistent with planetary observations. Note that Copernicus' theory, while clearly simpler, was not clearly better at explaining the phenomena (at least until Kepler later improved it). The choice of which theory is "better" cannot be proven in any objective context. There is a largely unacknowledged amount of aesthetics involved. The competing paradigms are ultimately "incommensurable". As Kuhn says, "The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proof."
And so it is with Lincoln being gay (or Michelangelo or Shakespeare or whoever). I was struck reading Andrew Sullivan's defense about the arguments he made, often ending with "sound familiar?" or "ring a bell?". Yes. To me. And to Andrew, and to others who share (or at least truly understand) the coming out experience. But not necessarily to others who don't share that life experience or sensibility.
Kuhn uses the word "conversion" to talk about scientists accepting a new paradigm, suggesting the analogy with religious conversion. "Paradigm shift" and "conversion" are both words I find very appropriate to describe the process of "coming out". There was an "Aha!" moment when the lightbulb went on, and I looked back and suddenly understood earlier life experiences in a whole new way. It was a revelation. Why hadn't somebody told me I was gay sooner? It seemed so obvious in retrospect. Conversion is exactly the right word for such an experience. While I can remember how I used to think, post-conversion it is simply no longer possible to think that way. The new way of seeing the world is clearly right, and everything is reinterpreted in the new light.
The coming out "paradigm shift" is the lens which provides a window into fellow homosexuals (our "gaydar"). I was keenly aware of this when studying Michelangelo in college, and coming to my own realization that he was gay. It was obvious to me. And yet it was dismissed by my professor - oh no, that was merely the Neo-Platonism of the time. Sheesh. Read the sonnets! His love for Vittoria Colonna was Platonic, his love for Tommaso Cavalieri was more. He loved her virtue and his physical beauty. It may be that Michelangelo's feelings for the handsome Roman knight were never physically acted on, but that doesn't deny the truth of what those feelings were. And I can recognize them clearly, because of my own experiences before coming out -- loving women in a certain way but without that physical element, craving the company of men without fully understanding why. As I learned of Michelangelo's life, there was that lightbulb-flash of recognition.
Can it be proved? No. The best we can do is to try to persuade others that this theory is a "better" explanation. As a cultural paradigm shift takes hold, in which more people are aware and sensitive to the gay experience (after all, even savvy straight people can acquire a "queer eye"), more people will recognize the better explanation for the facts. And they'll wonder how they could have ever thought differently.