Washington’s Gay General: The Legends and Loves of Baron von Steuben
- By Josh Trujillo and Levi Hastings
- Abrams ComicArts – Surely
- 192 pp.
- Reviewed by Nick Havey
- September 4, 2023
A queer Revolutionary War hero gets his glorious due.
Winston Churchill is credited with the classic quote, “History is written by the victors.” A notorious racist and proponent of empire, Churchill is nonetheless remembered as a brilliant war-time hero and a cunning tactician. Why? Because the Allies prevailed in World War II. History has been kind to Churchill in large part because, as he said, it was written by the victors.
It also tends to be written from a white, heterosexual, cisgender perspective, at least until now. Washington’s Gay General, a graphic novel chronicling the real-life exploits of queer Revolutionary War figure Friedrich von Steuben, is an open criticism and repudiation of this approach to capturing the historical record — and an incredibly successful one.
Josh Trujillo and Levi Hastings, the book’s author and illustrator, respectively, open their compelling new work with erasure. In a fit of self-aware meta commentary in the book’s first few pages, the pair remind us that queer history is often overlooked and misunderstood. Triumphs like von Steuben’s are appropriated, becoming the wins of the straight men in their proximity. Queerness has been scrubbed from history, not celebrated. Washington’s Gay General is a response to and rebuke of that insidious reality.
Born in 1730 in wartime Prussia, von Steuben turned his humble beginnings into a life worth living and, like any self-respecting gay person, did so via creative lying and impeccable performance — queer superpowers that would carry him far. Hastings’ excellent illustrations buoy von Steuben’s ascent to greatness, beautifully depicting his survival of battle, imprisonment, and rampant homophobia.
As the novel progresses toward the Revolutionary War, von Steuben’s charm is amplified and complemented by the author’s. Trujillo’s fluid and dynamic writing is queer itself, offering the reader sharp bits of shade that highlight how necessary the work is — “While the records of mediocre heterosexual couples may live on for centuries, queer people rarely get that luxury” — and reminding us that it was created by authentic voices. Trujillo and Hastings speak to their own experiences understanding their queerness and coming out on their own terms; von Steuben’s story stands in heroic relief.
This is a tale the authors wanted to read when they were kids. It’s a history queer kids (and all kids) need, that the world needs.
Von Steuben’s story is astonishing unto itself. Not only did he — a gay man living relatively openly as such in the 18th century — transcend a modest childhood to become inspector general of the Continental Army, he also wrote a seminal book on military strategy that remains influential to this day. Yet he’s hardly a household name, which is partly why this book is so important. Queer historical figures have made profound contributions in the United States and around the world. So why do we know so much about, say, Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father, and almost nothing about Baron von Steuben, a founding daddy?
For a modern pop-culture corollary, take Kevin Aviance, a legendary drag performer and staple of the New York ballroom scene. Sampled in 2022 on Beyoncé’s Renaissance album, Aviance surfaced in mainstream conversations because Beyoncé, whose work has always drawn from queer (and often Black) performers, made the choice to highlight him. Aviance’s track “Cunty” transformed Beyoncé’s “Pure/Honey” into the house track it needed to be, pouring even more concrete onto Beyoncé’s already cemented icon status.
Arguably, Baron von Steuben was the Kevin Aviance to George Washington’s Beyoncé. There would be no Renaissance tour — like there would’ve been no audacious crossing of the Delaware — without queer people. Trujillo and Hastings know that.
Washington’s Gay General is a masterclass in artistic multitasking. It’s funny, poignant, and informative, and it’s also a testament to the need for greater attention to be paid to the queer histories so far untold. And hopefully, it’s just the start of the creative partnership between Josh Trujillo and Levi Hastings.
Nick Havey is a senior manager at First Book, a nonprofit social enterprise focused on improving educational equity, a thriller and mystery writer, and a lover of all (but particularly queer) fiction. His work has appeared in the Compulsive Reader, Lambda Literary, and a number of peer-reviewed journals.