Archive for the ‘gay and lesbian’ Category

LGBT Icons

In case you haven’t seen it yet, the Equality Forum in Philadelphia has put together this video for LGBT History Month (October), which briefly profiles their picks for LGBT icons.

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New York, N.Y.

Edna St. Vincent Millay home
75-1/2 Bedford Street

Following her 1923 marriage to businessman Eugen Boissevain, bisexual poet Edna St. Vincent Millay lived at this address in Greenwich Village in what she nicknamed “the dollhouse.” The diminutive brick house on Bedford Street is only 9-1/2 feet wide, and when Millay lived there, had one room and a fireplace on each of the three floors. Behind the house was a beautiful but tiny courtyard. In 1995, New York’s Historic Landmarks Preservation Center installed an oval medallion at the residence with the inscription, “The irreverent poet, who wrote ‘My candle burns at both ends,’ lived here in 1923-1924 at the time she wrote the Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. Conveniently, Millay’s house was only a few blocks from Chumley’s, a speakeasy (still in operation as a bar and eatery) that was one of her favorite hangouts. From Bedford Street, Millay and Boissevain moved to a farmhouse in Austerlitz, N.Y., which they renovated and lived in until their deaths.

Millay’s “dollhouse” is now on sale for $2.7 – read more about it here.

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Albany, N.Y.

Capital District Gay and Lesbian Community Center
332 Hudson Avenue

One of the two LGBT community centers founded in 1971, Capital District Gay and Lesbian Community Center has a unique distinction: it has been in this same location for all of its 38 years. (See photo above.) Executive Director Norah Yates wrote to me that:

We’ve been in this building since 1971; we were started in 1970 and had a storefront at one point, but then started meeting at our address when it was the home of one of our founders.

CDGLCC provides numerous services, including youth programs, cultural events, a café, an art gallery named after lesbian painter Romaine Brooks, an LGBT library, confidential AIDS testing, and a newspaper, commUNITY. The center also sponsors Albany’s annual Capital Pride celebration in June.

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New York, N.Y.

Stonewall Inn
51-53 Christopher Street

This weekend marks a historic event in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender history: the 40th anniversary of the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, a popular gay bar and hangout in the late 1960s, a place to meet friends and lovers. But at a time when homosexuality was criminalized, police raids of gay bars were de rigueur. On June 28, 1969, when cops raided the Stonewall in the early morning hours and forced the patrons outside, drag queens, young queer people of color, gay men, and a crowd of supporters on the street began pelting the police with beer cans and rocks. The crowd then set the bar on fire, but the police extinguished the flames and “secured” the area within a few hours. A weekend of rioting ensued, during which gay people stood off city cops and claimed their right to live openly – “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad,” ran the headline in the New York Post.

The rebellion sparked a new movement that grew by leaps and bounds into the LGBT rights movement of today. The term “Stonewall” is now the international symbol of LGBT resistance and liberation, and the anniversary of the rebellion is celebrated around the world with marches, rallies, and parades. In 1999, the Stonewall Inn was added to the National Register of Historic Places, the only LGBT site on the list. Although the original bar has gone through many transformations since 1969 – in the early 1980s, for example, it was a bagel shop – it is once again a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn.


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Cherry Grove (Fire Island), N.Y.

The Belvedere
Bay View Walk

In 1956, set designer and graphic artist John Eberhardt visited Fire Island for the first time and fell in love with the barrier island just a few hours from New York City. He bought a plot of land and with his partner, Joe Fiorentino, built this imposing three-story Rococco guest house on the bay, in the heart of the country’s oldest gay resort. With its gleaming cupolas, Roman statues and columns, mirrors, fountains, and formal wisteria-draped arbors, the antiques-furnished Belvedere sits in sharp contrast to the simple, shingled beach cottages of “the Grove,” rising above them like a sort of Taj Mahal. In the early days, Eberhardt was famous for the elaborate parties he threw at the Belvedere. He and Fiorentino went on to become the Grove’s largest landowners, buying up much of the eastern end of the resort and building numerous gingerbread cottages through the late 1960s. Gay men can still stay at the ultra-campy, clothing-optional Belvedere.

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Independence, Kansas

William Inge Center for the Arts
Independence Community College
1057 W. College Avenue

Included in this center’s collections are books, tapes, and records from the private cache of playwright William Inge (1913-1973), who attended college here and gave his original manuscripts to the school in 1969. Inge is best known for four successful Broadway plays that were subsequently made into films – Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), Picnic (1953 – won the Pulitzer Prize), Bus Stop (1955), and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957). Also a screenwriter, Inge won an Academy Award in 1961 for the original script of Splendor in the Grass.

Inge was born and raised in Kansas, and all of his plays took that state as their setting. His boyhood home at 514 N. 4th Street is still standing (see above), and was the setting for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. The home is owned by the William Inge Festival Foundation, and each year, playwrights-in-residence are selected to come to Independence to live in the house and write for nine weeks at a time.

Inge’s work often focused on the repressed sexuality and stultifying social norms that he must have experienced in his own life. A closeted gay man and an abuser of alcohol, Inge included a few characters who were gays stereotypes in his later, lesser-known plays, written in the 1960s after his success had faded. His one act, “The Boys in the Basement,” dealt with a man’s discovery of his homosexuality and was his only play to address the topic directly. Sadly, Inge committed suicide at his home in Hollywood in 1973. He is buried in Independence.

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Washington, D.C.

Lucy Diggs Slowe window
Howard University chapel
Sixth Street & 
Howard Place, N.W.

Lucy Diggs Slowe (1883-1937) was the first dean of women at Howard University, a position she held from 1922 until her death. A window in the university chapel (see above) honors her memory. As dean, Slowe worked for empowerment of women, urging female students into the social sciences and other (at that time) nontraditional fields. Concerned for the safety of young women in the “big city,” Slowe expanded the university’s dorm facilities so women could live on campus. Outspoken and headstrong, Slowe often locked horns with the university president over the welfare of the female students.

Slowe shared a home at 1256 Kearney Street, N.E., with her life partner, writer and teacher Mary Powell Burrill, who had earlier been involved with Angelina Weld Grimke. Their residence was an informal gathering place for young Howard women, many of whom idolized their intrepid dean. In a bid to curb her power, Howard’s president once suggested that Slowe herself live in a dorm – a seemingly homophobic attempt to break up the household that had become a source of strength for her.

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Casting a Vote


Soquel, Calif.

Soquel Firehouse
4747 Soquel Drive

A plaque at this location honors the memory of Charlotte “Charley” Parkhurst (1812-1879), a passing woman. As a young girl, Charlotte escaped from an orphanage in the East by donning boys’ clothing and learning how to drive a six-horse team. Heading west, Parkhurst made a living as a stagecoach driver (see the painting above, from the Soquel post office), beginning in the early years of the California gold rush. On November 3, 1868, Parkhurst reputedly marched into this firehouse, the local polling place, and cast a vote in the presidential election, fifty years before women were granted suffrage. The plaque notes that Parkhurst “shot and killed at least one bandit.” Like so many other passing women, Parkhurst’s birth sex was discovered only after death. Parkhurst is buried in Watsonville.

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Baltimore, Md.

Billie Holiday home
219 South Durham Street

Billie Holiday (1915-1959) had a rough childhood. As a young girl named Eleanora Fagan, she cut school so often she was sent to live at the House of the Good Shepherd, a home for “colored girls” run by the Little Sisters of the Poor (Claverton Road and Franklin Street). There, she may have had her first lesbian experiences.

Returned to her mother after a year, the two took up residence at this address, one of dozens they occupied over the years. The house is still standing, but the original brick façade was covered over with Permastone in the 1950s. It was in this house, in 1926, that Eleanora was raped by a neighbor and subsequently sent back to Good Shepherd. But she was a handful, and the sisters refused to keep her for long.

At only 11 years old, Eleanora earned money cleaning for a whorehouse madam. The madam let her listen to the records of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, who had a combined influence on her singing style. Eleanora began singing at various storefront churches, but her first professional gig was at Buddy Love’s, a club located at Orleans and Wayside.

As a young teenager, Eleanora moved to New York with her mother, and pursued a singing career, transforming herself into Billie Holiday. After years of touring with Count Basie, she was offered her first steady job at Café Society in 1938, earning $75 a week. From that, she went on to be featured soloist at clubs all over the country, acquiring the nickname “Lady Day.” Her distinctive voice, which she used like a musical instrument, transformed jazz singing. “I don’t think I’m singing,” she once said of her style. “I feel like I’m playing a horn.”

Holiday had many affairs with both men and women, but was known as a “les” among many of her peers in the music industry. One of her female lovers reported that “Billie even got the name Mister Holiday, because she was seldom seen with fellas.” Holiday once told a colleague, “Sure, I’ve been to bed with women… but I was always the man.”

Sadly, by the 1940s Holiday was addicted to heroin and alcohol, and she was arrested on drug charges several times. Many club owners would no longer take the risk of hiring her because she was often high during performances. Her career went progressively downhill, and she finally died in 1959 of liver cirrhosis and other complications of substance abuse.

A commemorative statue of Holiday stands in Baltimore at 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue.


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Columbus, Ga.

Ma Rainey home
805 Fifth Avenue

Gertrude Pridgett / Ma Rainey (1886-1939) was born in Columbus to parents who were minstrel performers, and she began her own singing career at the tender age of 14 at the local Springer Opera House. She went on the road in 1902, and two years later married Will Rainey (nicknamed “Pa”), who led a touring company called the Rabbit Foot Minstrels (billed as “The World’s Most Famous Colored Show”).

Although her marriage didn’t last long, Rainey herself enjoyed a 30-year career, and through her live performances and recordings became a nationally recognized blues singer nicknamed “Mother of the Blues.” In 1935, she retired to this house, which she had built for her mother; she is buried in the town’s Porterdale Cemetery. Once endangered and almost demolished by the city, Rainey’s house was saved through an arduous fundraising process. It has been lovingly restored, and is now open to the public.

Besides her own prodigious talents, Ma Rainey also gave the world Bessie Smith, whom she discovered as a young girl on the streets of Chattanooga, and with whom she may have been lovers. Throughout her life, Rainey pursued affairs with women, and in the 1920s was arrested for holding a lesbian orgy in her apartment. Among her gutsy queer blues numbers was “Prove It On Me Blues,” in which she openly defended cross-dressing and lesbianism. An advertisement for the recording showed a woman in full male drag escorting two very feminine flappers. Rainey also wrote about her husband’s sexual relationship with a “queen” named Miss Kate, in a song called “Sissy Blues.”

Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
They must have been women ’cause I don’t like no men.
They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me,
They sure got to prove it on me.

–from “Prove It On Me Blues” by Ma Rainey

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