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Archive for the ‘historic sites’ Category

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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Baltimore, Md.

Gertrude Stein residence
2408 Linden Avenue (private)

Gertrude Stein’s (1874-1946) first ambition was not to be a writer, but a psychologist. After studying psychology with William James at Harvard, Stein was accepted at the John Hopkins Medical School, where her brother, Leo (with whom she was very close), was also enrolled. She lived with relatives at this address (on the National Register of Historic Places since 1985) for about a year, then moved in with Leo at 215 East Biddle Street.

Stein was unhappy and unfulfilled in medical school. She was also on the brink of discovering her lesbianism. While living in Baltimore, Stein ran with a lesbian crowd, a group of Bryn Mawr College graduates led by a young woman named Mabel Haynes. Sadly for her, Stein fell unrequitedly in love with Haynes’ “romantic friend,” May Bookstaver. The experience made a deep impression on Stein, whose first novel, Q.E.D., completed in Baltimore in 1903, was an autobiographical account of this lesbian love triangle.

Unlike most of Stein’s work, Q.E.D. was openly lesbian in content and language. Stein put the finished manuscript away for 30 years, and then, in 1932, unearthed it and showed it to her agent, who advised against trying to publish it because of its “controversial” theme. Q.E.D. was finally published in 1950, four years after Stein’s death.

Stein left Baltimore in 1903 to visit Leo, who had moved to Paris, and to try to forget May Bookstaver. Paris agreed with her, and she lived there the rest of her life, meeting Alice B. Toklas, her life companion, in 1907. And May Bookstaver and Mabel Haynes? They both pursued much more traditional lives, ending their affair and marrying men.

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