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Archive for the ‘historic sites’ Category

For those readers who live in California … or maybe make a yearly trek to San Francisco … or  just love queer historic sites — there’s a new Facebook page you should definitely check out. It’s called Preserving LGBT Historic Sites in California, and it’s an online archive created by a group of preservationists, dedicated to documenting and preserving the sites of significance to queer history in the Golden State. Meeting places, homes, gay rights landmarks, bars, hangouts — you name it, you’ll find information on it there. So drop in and “Like” this great new resource!

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Lambda Rising Bookstore at its original location


For fans and friends of our nation’s capital, there’s an amazing online history project that attempts to pinpoint and chronicle the social spaces frequented by LGBT people in Washington, D.C., from 1920 to 2000. You’ll have to squint to read the map, but if you click on the database link, you’ll find an exhaustive list of places where queers congregated in the 20th century. Many, of course, were bars, which served as informal queer community centers (and in many places in the country they still serve that function today); but there were also bathhouses, social clubs, parks, churches, bookstores – see the photo above of Lambda Rising Bookstore at its first location in 1974; sadly, the store closed last month after 35 years – and other queer spaces. The author of the project is Mark Meinke, who did a wonderful job of documenting our physical past.

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Rachel Carson Sites

Environmentalist/scientist/writer Rachel Carson, the author of the historic Silent Spring, is generally credited as inspiring the modern environmental movement. She is also the most famous alumna of my own alma mater, Chatham College (when she attended, it was the Pennsylvania College for Women – see below).

Now, we can’t “prove” that Carson was a lesbian. It may be more accurate to call her a “woman-identified woman.” But see the story regarding her intimate friendship in Maine with Dorothy Freeman below.

Here are a few of the most significant sites associated with Carson:

Springdale, Pa.

Rachel Carson birthplace
613 Marion Avenue

Once surrounded by woods, this sweet farmhouse in the Allegheny Valley was the site of Carson‘s birth on May 27, 1907. Both her rural upbringing and her mother’s teaching instilled in her a deep appreciation of nature’s beauty and mystery. “I can remember no time,” Carson wrote, “when I wasn’t interested in the out-of-doors and the whole world of nature.” Her childhood love of the natural world translated into a career of interpreting environmental science for laypeople and exposing the harm being done to the physical environment by humans. “The beauty of the world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind – that and the anger of the senseless, brutish things that were being done,” Carson wrote to a friend after the publication of Silent Spring, her attack on the use of pesticides. “I have felt bound by a solemn obligation to do what I could – if I didn’t at least try I could never again be happy in nature.” Each May, the Carson homestead hosts “Rachel’s Sustainable Feast,” featuring food and music in a day-long event.

 

Pittsburgh, Pa.
Chatham College
Woodland Road

Founded in 1869 and formerly called the Pennsylvania College for Women (PCW), this women’s college claims Carson, class of 1929, as its most celebrated alumna – the school’s science building and a scholarship are named for her. Born in rural Pennsylvania, Carson developed a love of writing early in childhood, which continued throughout high school and college. At PCW, Carson started as an English major but switched to science after an inspirational biology course with Professor Mary Skinker. “I have always wanted to write,” she affirmed, “and biology has given me something to write about. I will try to make animals in the woods and waters, where they live, as alive to others as they are to me.”

And she succeeded at that. Carson‘s brilliant exploration of sea life, The Sea Around Us (1951), won the National Book Award and was an instant bestseller that made her a celebrity and earned enough royalties to secure her living as a writer. The Sea Around Us remained on the bestseller lists for 86 weeks and prompted a reissuing of an earlier book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941), which also achieved success. The Edge of the Sea (1955) and her masterpiece, Silent Spring (1962), ensured their author a place in the annals of both science and literature.

White Oak, Md.
Rachel Carson home

11701 Berwick Road (private)

The phenomenal success of her book The Sea Around Us (1951) allowed Carson to purchase this Maryland home, “Quaint Acres,” and a summer cottage off the coast of Maine. It was at Quaint Acres that she feverishly wrote most of Silent Spring (1963), an attack on pesticides, while suffering from what she called “a catalogue of illnesses,” including breast cancer and heart disease. There has been speculation that Carson suspected environmental causes for her own cancer and that of a beloved college professor, which fired her to continue working tirelessly to expose the chemical industry. Between her hospital confinements, Carson worked late into the night on what was to be her final book. “No time for anything,” she wrote to her intimate friend Dorothy Freeman, “unless it is somehow related to the great projects that are uncompleted.”

Carson lived to see both the serialization of Silent Spring in the New Yorker and its publication as a book late in 1962. She was heartened by the public’s strong response and hoped it would bring about a ban on the use of DDT. But Carson quickly became too sick to enjoy the great acclaim that Silent Spring brought with it. “Now all the ‘honors’ have to be received for me by someone else,” she wrote to Freeman. “And all the opportunities to travel to foreign lands – all expenses paid – have to be passed up.” Carson died at her Maryland home in the spring of 1964. Two years later, the Environmental Protection Agency was born after a presidential commission corroborated Carson‘s findings about the hazards of pesticides.


Wells,
Maine
Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge
Route 2

Beginning in the early 1950s, Carson spent summers in a cottage on Southport Island off the Maine coast, studying local ecology and wildlife. It was there that in 1953 she met Dorothy Freeman, a Massachusetts native who vacationed on the island with her husband and who was a fan of Carson‘s The Sea Around Us. Both women were intensely interested in sea life and the environment. Carson and Freeman became intimate friends who exchanged voluminous correspondence during the three seasons of the year they were not together, right up until Carson‘s death. As Rachel Carson wrote to her friend early in their relationship, “I think that the rapid flowering of our friendship, the head-long pace of our correspondence, reflects a feeling, whether consciously recognized or not, for the ‘lost’ years and a desire to make up for all the time we might have enjoyed this, had something brought us together earlier.” Those are pretty strong emotions for “friends.”

Freeman’s granddaughter was the recipient of the women’s correspondence, and she published it (hesitantly) in 1995. She explained that on one of Freeman’s visits to Carson‘s home in Maryland, the two women burned packets of Freeman’s letters together in the fireplace. In addition, each women independently destroyed some of the other’s letters. They were concerned how the intensity of their relationship might look from the outside. The “lesbian question,” however, was never raised by Freeman’s granddaughter.

In Wells, a wildlife refuge was dedicated to Carson‘s memory in 1970, six years after her death. In her best-selling Silent Spring, the book that helped launch the environmental movement, Carson decried the “senseless destruction” of Maine’s natural beauty, its “evergreen forests, roads lined with bayberry and sweet fern, alder and huckleberry.”

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Monroeville, Ala.

Old Courthouse Museum
31 North Alabama Ave.

I’m currently reading Mockingbird, a portrait of writer Harper Lee, and enjoying the bits and pieces of her life that match up with her classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. That novel is a favorite of mine, as is the movie of the same name – I even have much of the dialogue committed to memory. (“Miss Jean Louise – Miss Jean Louise, stand up! Your father’s passing!”)

Scout Finch is, of course, the quintessential queer kid, along with her friend Dill (based on Lee’s childhood friend and neighbor Truman Capote). I dissected the queerness of Lee’s story and the film a few years back – on the occasion of Gregory Peck’s death – in an article called “To Queer a Mockingbird.”

The town of Monroeville – where Lee still lives part of the time – boasts Lee as its claim to fame. The town hosts an amateur performance of a play based on Lee’s novel every May (billed as “Alabama‘s hottest theater ticket”). The play is staged in the Old Courthouse, which was the inspiration for the Maycomb County Courthouse of Lee’s story – the place where Atticus Finch makes his impassioned defense of Tom Robinson (see photo above). The courthouse is also a year-round museum with three permament exhibits, including one on Lee and another on Capote. In town, there is also a guided tour, pointing out local spots of note to fans of Lee and Capote.

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Washington, D.C.

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Oh, come on, you’re saying – the White House? A queer place?

Yes, the White House. The resident who comes immediately to mind is Abraham Lincoln, who, as a young lawyer in 1837, rode into Springfield, Ill., looking for a place to stay and found that storekeeper Joshua Speed had a large double bed that he was more than willing to share.

And then there’s James Buchanan, the 15th president, who enjoyed an intimate friendship with William Rufus King, whom he met when both were U.S. senators. King was referred to by Washington insiders as “little Miss Nancy,” “she,” and “Aunt Fancy” – need I say more?

But the person I was really thinking of in listing this most famous address wasn’t a president at all, but a president’s sister. When Grover Cleveland took office as president for the first time in 1885, he was a bachelor in need of a First Lady and White House hostess. His spinster sister, Rose Cleveland, a teacher and editor of a literary magazine, stepped in to help her brother during his first term.

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19th-century view of the White House East Room

Cleveland was defeated for re-election, and Rose was once again her own woman. In 1890, she met and fell in love with a young widow named Evangeline Marss Simpson. Gay historian Jonathan Ned Katz has written in detail about the two women’s passionate relationship, including their intimate correspondence: “Oh, Eve,” Rose wrote, “I tremble at the thought of you….Sweet, Sweet, I dare not think of your arms.” The two lived together until 1892, when Eve backed away from the relationship to seek a traditional heterosexual one. In 1893, Rose (once again ensconced at the White House, following her brother’s successful campaign in 1892) wrote to Eve on White House stationery, wishing her dear companion “my best blessing – whatever you do.” Eve went on to marry an elderly Episcopal bishop, Henry Whipple.

Following the bishop’s death in 1901, Eve and Rose renewed their correspondence and finally reunited in Italy, where they lived together until Rose’s death in 1918. Eve died in 1930 and requested that she be buried beside Rose.

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San Francisco, Calif.

Harvey Milk home and Castro Camera
573-575 Castro Street

While we’re on the topic of walking tours…

Cruisin’ the Castro is a popular walking tour of the oh-so-gay Castro district of San Francisco, led by community historian Trevor Howard. The tour includes stops at many sites associated with Harvey Milk (1930-1978), the most famous openly gay politician of our time. Reservations can be made by calling 415-550-8110.

Originally from Brooklyn, Milk moved to San Francisco in 1968, where he worked as a financial analyst and eventually owned a camera shop in the Castro district. This Victorian storefront was the site of Castro Camera, which Milk opened with his lover, Scott Smith, in 1972 and operated for four years. The couple didn’t care that they knew little about cameras – Milk wanted to own a real neighborhood store, like his family back in Brooklyn had. The roomy store had a hand-painted shingle on the door that read “Yes, We Are Very Open.” Harvey and Scott lived upstairs.

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As Milk became increasingly active in local politics, Castro Camera functioned as an ad hoc community center and Milk was the “unofficial mayor of Castro Street.” Signs in the store’s large picture windows advertised demonstrations, protests, and neighborhood meetings; camera and film sales became secondary to politics (the store’s sorry financial picture led the couple to close it in 1976). At night, Milk transferred the addresses from every check written to the store into his own political mailing list.

Milk became involved in organizing gay voter registration drives, helping to establish the first Castro Street Fair, speaking out against Anita Bryant’s antigay campaign, and working against the Briggs initiative, a proposal to bar lesbians and gay men from teaching in California public schools. During the mid-1970s, he made several bids for public office, all of which were unsuccessful. His goal, he once told a friend, was to be mayor of San Francisco.

Then the election of the liberal, gay-supportive mayor George Moscone in 1975 paved the way for Milk’s election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, making Milk the first openly gay elected official in the city’s history. Sadly, both he and Moscone were gunned down by the radically conservative supervisor, Dan White, the following year. White’s lawyer pleaded the infamous “Twinkie defense” – that eating too much junk food had diminished White’s ability to reason. White went to jail anyway, but on the charge of manslaughter rather than murder one. After he was released in 1985, he committed suicide.

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I received this press release today, so I’m excerpting it here – those of you living in Southern California, or visiting the area, will be interested, I’m sure:

Frontiers Magazine, Southern California’s oldest and largest gay magazine, will be launching a series of audio walking tours on the gay & lesbian history of Los Angeles beginning March 28 and available online through the magazine’s website or iTunes. Frontiers readers will be able to download the tours onto their portable media devices and explore the hidden and mysterious history of gay life in downtown Los Angeles, as well as Silver Lake and West Hollywood.

Frontiers partnered with Stuart Timmons, a Lambda Literary Award nominee and co-author of the first comprehensive history book on Los Angeles gay life, Gay L.A., to produce the series. Listeners will join Stuart as he shares sordid tales of backroom trysts, cruel oppression, and defiant struggle at the very places these events occurred. An accompanying map and guide will be printed in the magazine, and will also be available online to download.

Arts & Entertainment Editor Japhy Grant explains the program, saying, “We wanted to present the history of gay Los Angeles in a way that would be compelling and fun for our readers. Much of our history has been covered over, both physically and through ignorance and homophobia. L.A. is such a dynamic and transient city that we don’t have a real sense of the past. Through the Frontiers Historywalk program, we’re helping people find a new way to connect to their community on foot and online.”

Frontiers Historywalk is not only the first audio walking tour of gay Los Angeles, but the first professional audio walking tour of gay history anywhere.

Frontiers Historywalk consists of three audio walking tours: Downtown, Silver Lake and West Hollywood. This progression matches that of the gay community in Los Angeles.

The release dates of each tour are as follows:

Frontiers Historywalk- Downtown – March 28
Frontiers Historywalk- Silver Lake – April 11
Frontiers Historywalk- West
Hollywood – April 25

Each tour will be available through the website at tours.frontierspublishing.com, as well as on iTunes. They will be available in a variety of formats, including a format that will display photos of the sites as the tour is playing (requires video iPod).

 

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Camden, Maine

Edna St. Vincent Millay memorial
Whitehall Inn

52 High Street

A local girl born at 200 Broadway in Rockland, Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) used to work at this tourists’ inn during the busy summer season. In 1912, “Vincent,” as she preferred to be called, did her first public reading here for guests and employees at the inn’s end-of-summer party. The first lines of the poem she read, “Renascence,” described the view of the Maine countryside from nearby Mount Battie, which Vincent loved to climb. “All I could see from where I stood,” the poem began, “was three long mountains and a wood.”

Fortuitously, a professor who was vacationing at Whitehall Inn was so impressed by Vincent’s poem that he arranged to have one of his wealthy friends pay for the girl to study at Vassar College, from which she graduated in 1917 and where she wrote her play The Lamp and the Bell, the most overtly lesbian of all her works.

The “Millay Room” of the Whitehall Inn (shown above), which still operates as a bed and breakfast, contains a display of Millay’s books, a manuscript, and a facsimile of the original draft of “Renascence,” which was published in 1912. The exhibit also holds a scrapbook of articles about the poet and photographs of her at various ages. Just north of Camden, on top of the inspirational Mount Battie, an 800-foot tower bears a plaque honoring Millay. Though Millay lived most of her adult life in New York City and upstate New York, Maine remained a second home to her. (She and her husband, Eugen Boissevain, once owned a home in Camden at 31 Chestnut Street.)

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Memphis, Tenn.

Daisy Theater
329 Beale Street
Beale Street Historic District

Before emancipation, Memphis was already home to many freedmen, and after the Civil War, the area around Beale Street became predominantly black. By the late 19th century, Beale Street was the acknowledged capital of African-American Memphis and of the mid-South, also achieving a reputation as a raw, exciting center of music and entertainment. Blues composer W.C. Handy lived on the street and immortalized it in 1912 in his “Beale Street Blues.” His talent drew such great performers as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Alberta Hunter (bisexuals all), who during the 1920s regularly played in the clubs and performances spaces lining the street, such as the Daisy Theater; the theater was restored in the 1980s (it’s pictured above pre- and post-renovation) and is now the Beale Street Blues Museum. In addition, Beale Street is today a national historic district with markers pointing out its significant historic sites.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.

Billy Strayhorn marker
Westinghouse High School
1101 North Murtland Street

Billy Strayhorn home
7212 Tioga Street Rear (demolished)

Born in Ohio, composer Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967) lived in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh from his early years until he left for New York as a young adult. In those days, white families lived on the main streets of Homewood, while blacks lived in the alleys behind them (the “Rear” in the Strayhorn address). The Strayhorn home was “a four-room shack,” according to one of Billy’s childhood friends, with two rooms on each floor and a toilet in the basement. The kitchen was the biggest and most significant room in the house. Because of the crowded living conditions and Billy’s father’s alcoholic binges, Billy’s mother often sent her eldest son for long stays with his grandparents in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Billy’s grandmother owned and played a piano, and it was in Hillsborough that Billy first learned to play.

Though he was a musical prodigy, Strayhorn’s family could not afford lessons to further his talent. As an adolescent, Billy found odd jobs selling papers and working as a soda jerk to purchase his first piano, a broken-down upright. “All the money he [Billy] could get hold of,” a friend remembers, “he bought [sheet] music….the house was swamped with music.”

At Westinghouse High School (where there is now a historical marker honoring him), Strayhorn pursued music, becoming first pianist in the Senior Orchestra and playing at local social events and banquets with the school’s Orchestra Club. Though he was often made fun of at school for being a “sissy,” the shy, withdrawn Strayhorn concentrated on his work and his passion for music. After graduation, Strayhorn formed his own interracial jazz trio, The Madhatters, and played local nightspots. But he still had to work days at the drugstore soda fountain and pick up extra money by arranging music.

His big break came in 1938, when a friend of a friend got him an “audience” with Duke Ellington, who was playing with his band at the Stanley Theater in downtown Pittsburgh (now the Benedum Center, a performing arts space). Ellington was impressed by the talented young pianist who could seemingly do everything – write music, lyrics, and arrangements. But he didn’t have an opening in his band. Ellington made Strayhorn a promise of a job if the young musician ever got to New York and gave him exact directions to his home in Harlem. Eager to please Ellington, Strayhorn turned the directions into a song – “Take the A Train” turned out to be his most famous composition and eventually became Ellington’s theme song.

Strayhorn did indeed make it to New York, where he hooked up with Ellington and worked with him for the next 30 years. While Ellington was the public artist, Strayhorn worked behind the scenes as collaborator and arranger. Ellington supported Strayhorn’s career, but he also occasionally took credit for the younger man’s work. Strayhorn consoled himself with drink and died of cancer and alcohol abuse at the age of 51. His song “Lush Life” (1936) sadly defines his own short, intense life.

Strayhorn knew early on that he was gay and was open about his sexual orientation. According to his biographer, he never even danced with a girl. Ellington, who was straight, seems to have been supportive and tolerant of his collaborator’s homosexuality. Strayhorn had a number of significant relationships in his life, most notably in his final years with a graphic designer, a white man named Bill Grove. Grove was the only man Strayhorn ever brought home to meet his family.

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