Exploring the hidden LGBTQ+ history of the American Revolution

Dr. John Gilbert McCurdy and his book, 'Vicious and Immoral: Homosexuality, the American Revolution, and the Trials of Robert Newburgh'

Historian Dr. John Gilbert McCurdy will cast some much-needed light on the life and military career of British army chaplain Robert Newburgh — an overlooked figure of 1770s Revolutionary era — at the Museum of the American Revolution (MOAR). On June 6, MOAR will host a launch party for McCurdy’s new book, “Vicious and Immoral: Homosexuality, the American Revolution, and the Trials of Robert Newburgh.” The event will be held in MOAR’s Liberty Hall and via Zoom. After McCurdy delivers a lecture, MOAR President and CEO Dr. R. Scott Stephenson will facilitate a Q&A session both onsite and online with the author.

McCurdy, a history professor at Eastern Michigan University, has written a number of well-regarded historical volumes focusing on the American Revolution. Also, as an openly gay man, McCurdy thought it was time to look at an under-documented aspect of those tumultuous times. In an email, McCurdy said, “Vicious and Immoral is the first book to situate LGBTQ+ people at the creation of the United States. As such, it provides a more inclusive retelling of the American Revolution at the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of our nation.”

The connection between McCurdy and MOAR occurred last year. 

“The museum staff contacted me in the fall,” he explained. 

The museum had a difficult summer last year with staff members opposing MOAR’s decision to host an event by right-wing anti-LGBTQ+ group Moms for Liberty. The staff was looking for something to celebrate Pride Month, which also fell within the purview of MOAR’s mission. Through the academic grapevine, MOAR staff learned of McCurdy and his forthcoming book, which proved a perfect fit for a Pride event at MOAR.

In an email, McCurdy wrote, “I am delighted by the topic of this book. I am the first historian to write this story, and as a gay man, I am proud to tell the story of a notorious buggerer [the historical term the British used before the term “homosexual” was coined] who embodied both the greatest hopes and limitations of American independence.”

Newburgh arrived in Philadelphia in 1773, shrouded by rumors and scandals and accusations of buggery. He was unable to fulfill his duties since the British soldiers shunned and rejected him, calling for his court-martial. Newburgh responded with an extremely ballsy but highly risky move: he demanded a court-martial. Amazingly, Newburgh refused to deny the charges against him. Instead, he asked why a man’s clothes or rumors of his sex life should affect his reputation. In effect, Newburgh used the language of the American Revolution to defend himself. Interestingly, Newburgh’s greatest defenders ended up being some of the first citizens of the new United States. Newburgh’s defense echoed the rhetoric of human rights, much on the mind of Americans of that time.

McCurdy explains that the transcript of Newburgh’s trial preserves an unparalleled look into 18th century notions of same-sex desire, yet it has long been ignored by historians. 

“In fact,” he says, “I see evidence in those days of the seeds of sexual liberalism, of a live-and-let-live philosophy that subtly informed American society for over a century after the Revolution.” 

Of course, he also concedes that that is a thesis that is open to spirited debate.

What’s also notable, McCurdy says, is how the British characterizations of Newburgh’s alleged buggery (which he never admitted or denied) perfectly echoes today’s characterization by right-wing conservatives of LGBTQ+ people.

Nevertheless, McCurdy is opening fresh historical ground, particularly with regards to the LGBTQ+ community. In a statement on their website, MOAR sums the issue up succinctly: “As the first book to place homosexuality in conversation with the American Revolution, Vicious and Immoral dares readers to rethink the place of LGBTQ+ people in the founding of the United States.”

Read the Revolution Speaker Series with John Gilbert McCurdy will be held 6:30 p.m.-8 p.m. on June 6 in MOAR’s Liberty Hall, 101 S. 3rd St., and will be broadcast live via Zoom. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit amrevmuseum.org.

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