Archive for July, 2009


Remsen, N.Y.

Baron Von Steuben Memorial Park
Starr Hill Road at Steuben Memorial Drive

I recently received an email from Lyle in L.A., informing me about a site I hadn’t heard of – the Baron Von Steuben Memorial Park in Remsen, N.Y., Oneida County. Here’s what Lyle has to say about the site:

…there is a monument, a log cabin with historical memorabilia, and huge park grounds.  (The information that I always heard is that while they were building a road on Starr Hill around there, … his body was discovered, and subsequently the park came into being.)  I first knew that Baron Von Steuben was gay from reading Randy Shilts’ book Conduct Unbecoming.

And here’s a bit more about the Baron: He was nicknamed “Drillmaster of the American Revolution.” (Hmm – no comment.) After the war and in recognition of his valuable services to the new country, Congress granted Von Steuben a large plot of land in upstate New York, where he spent summers in a two-room log cabin until his death. The cabin Lyle mentions in his email is a replica of Von Steuben’s original. The monument (see photo) that Lyle notes marks the Baron’s final resting place.

Finally, I think Lyle sums up the need for queer historic sites in one sentence:

To think that this park, which I frequented for twenty years while [I was] growing up in Remsen, was in honor of a gay man is truly fascinating, and I wonder if I had known that while growing up it would have made my life a bit easier.


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Cleveland, Ohio

2266 East 86th Street

The home where queer poet Langston Hughes lived while he was in high school – and began developing his voice as a poet – has fallen victim to the recent wave of foreclosures. The East 86th Street house was sold at a sheriff’s auction earlier this year for under $17,000. Read the complete story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

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Los Angeles, Calif.

Gay Community Services Center
1614 Wilshire Boulevard

With news that the Billy DeFrank LGBT Community Center in San Jose, Calif., which was founded in 1981, may be forced to close its doors unless it can raise $50,000 by September, I decided this was an apt time to start a series of blog entries on LGBT community centers around the country and why they are so important to our people. Thanks to Richard Burns (former ED of the NYC LGBT Community Services Center) for the idea, and Terry Stone of CenterLink for sending me some terrific photos of centers, which you’ll see in upcoming posts.

The gay community center movement got its start just a couple of years after the Stonewall Riots. As noted by CenterLink, the national association of LGBT centers, the idea was “revolutionary”: “that lesbian and gay people deserve to live open, fulfilling and honest lives free of discrimination and bigotry, with access to culturally appropriate social services, as equal partners in the cultural and civic life of the community.” Prior to the founding of centers, many gay people had no organized meeting places in which to find support, friendship, lovers, and services, other than bars and ad-hoc meeting spots, like the early gay bookstores. Now, many LGBT people will tell you how local community centers saved their lives.

The Los Angeles, Calif., and Albany, N.Y., LGBT centers both claim the distinction of being the first in the country. Since the founding of those two organizations in 1971, the community center movement has grown exponentially, with 181 now listed in the CenterLink directory.

This address on Wilshire Boulevard was the first location of what was then called the L.A. Gay Community Services Center (they added “lesbian” nine years later, and dropped the word “Services” along the way). The physical space changed locations several times over the next three decades; its main building is now at 1625 North Shrader Boulevard (there are four additional buildings). From humble origins, the L.A. center grew to be the largest in the country, with a $43 million budget, serving a quarter of a million people annually. The center provides mental health services, legal help, a cyber center, recovery services, youth programs, an HIV/AIDS clinic, a lesbian health clinic, senior services, and much more.

(Next in the series: the Capital District Gay and Lesbian Community Center, Albany, N.Y.)

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The Real Barbary Lane


San Francisco, Calif.

Macondray Lane

Macondray Lane is best known as the inspiration for Barbary Lane, the fictional Russian Hill street of Armistead Maupin‘s Tales of the City series. In 1976, Maupin’s story began as a daily serial in the San Francisco Chronicle, relating the adventures of an eclectic group of residents at 28 Barbary Lane. When it was published as a book in 1978, Tales was an immediate best-seller. Maupin followed a community of friends and lovers, straight and gay, through six volumes, ending with Sure of You in 1989. His chronicle of Barbary Lane proved a keenly observant satire of the ’70s and ’80s, and was an early chronicler of the AIDS epidemic in fiction. In 2008, he revisited the characters in a new novel, Michael Tolliver Lives.

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Harpers Ferry, W.V.

John Brown’s Fort
Shenandoah and Potomac Streets

On a recent trip to the Harpers Ferry area, I didn’t expect to find any “queer places.” But sure enough, there was a tangential one.

Among the men who joined abolitionist John Brown in his famous raid on Harpers Ferry on Oct. 16, 1859, was Lewis S. Leary, an African-American harness-maker from Oberlin, Ohio. Brown’s plan was to seize the federal arsenal, arm African-Americans for an uprising, and rid the country of slavery.

At first the plan seemed to work, as Brown’s “army” stormed the town and took captives. But then the U.S. Marines, under the command of J.E.B. Stuart, were called in, and Brown and his men holed up in this “fort” (above), which was actually the town fire house. The raid was squelched, Brown was executed, and Leary died at age 24 of wounds he suffered during the raid. The event, which has its sesquicentennial this year, is widely considered a prelude to the Civil War.

So what’s the queer part? Leary’s widow, Mary Patterson Leary, went on to marry a second time, to abolitionist Charles Henry Langston. Among her grandchildren was queer poet Langston Hughes, who lived with her in Lawrence, Kansas, during his early childhood.

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San Francisco, Calif.

California Hall
625 Polk Street

You’ve probably been reading about the police raid on a gay bar in Fort Worth, Texas, just last month – an unusual and shocking event these dayss. In the 1960s, however, police harassment of gay people was de rigueur. Take the New Year’s Ball of 1965, held at this San Francisco site on January 1. The ball was a “respectable” event, organized by six homophile organizations to raise money for the newly formed Council on Religion and the Homosexual, which was designed to open communication between the established church and the city’s gay community. Though council members met with police in advance to ensure a smooth-running event without incident, the police didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. (Surprise!) As intimidation, they took photographs of each person entering the fundraiser and parked patrol wagons outside the hall. Several attorneys were arrested for arguing with a policeman at the entrance.

Despite the deliberate police harassment, 500 people, gay and straight, lay and clergy, attended the ball. Outrage against police interference ran high after the event and led to a greater politicization of the homophile community, which demanded certain changes in police dealings with gays. Concessions ultimately obtained from the city included having a police liaison to the gay community, a hotline for minority groups against police brutality, and a National Sex Forum to educate officials and police about human sexuality.

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Fort Meade, S.D.

Fort Meade
Highway 34/79

When the Seventh Cavalry under General George Armstrong Custer was stationed here in what was then “the Dakota Territory” in the 1870s, the company laundress, “Mrs. Corporal Noonan,” was a popular midwife, seamstress, cook, and nurse. She had three soldier husbands between the years 1868 and 1878, the last of whom was John Noonan, an orderly. According to historian John Wilke, General Custer’s wife, Elizabeth, also employed Mrs. Noonan privately, praising the woman’s handiwork: “When she brought the linen home, it was fluted and frilled so daintily that I considered her a treasure.”

But Mrs. Noonan also had a well-kept secret. Elizabeth Custer remembered that the laundress “kept a veil pinned about the lower part of her face.” When Mrs. Noonan died in 1878, the women at the post who had the task of preparing her body for burial discovered that she was a biological man. Her husband would have undoubtedly been court-martialed and sent to the penitentiary, but the corporal committed suicide before he could be prosecuted, just a month after his wife’s death.

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Philadelphia, Pa.

Annual Reminder marker
6th and Chestnut Streets

This state historical marker, erected in 2005 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, was the first in the country to recognize and celebrate LGBT history. It commemorates the “Annual Reminder,” the first public demonstration for LGBT rights, which began on July 4, 1965 – four years before the rebellion at the Stonewall Inn in New York. The peaceful, orderly protest – in which the lesbians wore dresses and gay men wore suits and ties – circled in front of Independence Hall, the placards bearing slogans such as “Homosexuals Should Be Judged as Individuals.” The “Annual Reminder” continued at this location through 1969, but after the Stonewall riots moved to New York City.

Behind the protest was Barbara Gittings (1932-2007), who had moved to Philadelphia in the 1950s and became one of the country’s most important LGBT activists. (That’s her in front in the photo above.) She also helped organize picket lines at the White House and the U.S. State Department. Among her many accomplishments, she was instrumental in getting the American Psychiatric Association to drop homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1972.

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America the Beautiful Plaque

Colorado Springs, Colo.

“America, the Beautiful” plaque
Pikes Peak

With a height of 14,110 feet, Pikes Peak is a formidable challenge for any climber, but in 1893, a young Wellesley College English professor named Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929) made it to the top. That summer, Bates had taken a teaching position at Colorado College to supplement her income, even though it meant lonely months apart from her life partner, Katherine Coman. Bates and Coman were part of a community of “Wellesley marriages,” and were a couple for 20 years.

After scaling Pikes Peak and admiring the breathtaking view of “spacious skies” and “purple mountains’ majesty,” Bates was inspired to write the poem “America the Beautiful” in just one day, penciling four verses quickly into her notebook. Bates once recalled that she was “disheartened” with the poem. But when it was published in 1895, it became an instant public hit and was later set to music. With the royalties, Bates built “a dear little house” in Wellesley for herself and Coman. Today, a plaque at the summit of Pikes Peak memorializes Bates’ poem.

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