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steuben

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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mapft

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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Washington, D.C.

Leonard Matlovich grave
Congressional Cemetery
1801 E Street, S.E.

Air Force Sergeant Leonard Matlovich’s (1943-1988) tombstone reads “Never Again, Never Forget — A Gay Vietnam Veteran — When I was in the military they gave me a metal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.” Matlovich, who did three tours of duty in Vietnam and earned a bronze star, was discharged from the Air Force in 1975 when he publicly declared his homosexuality. After three years of fighting the decision, Matlovich won his case and was given the opportunity to be reinstated in the USAF or settle. He chose to settle and donated some of his money to lesbian and gay organizations, including the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. The rest he used to open a pizza parlor in Guerneville, the gay resort on the Russian River north of San Francisco, which he operated until illness made it impossible for him to work.

Matlovich succumbed to AIDS in 1988 and received a veteran’s burial in Washington, D.C., complete with caisson, eight-member honor guard, and an Air Force bugler playing taps. But gay activists were his pallbearers, and his mourners carried lavender flags. “I’ve always been gay,” Matlovich once said, “and for most of my life I prayed not to be that way…. However, the harder I prayed the queerer I got. That must have been God’s response.”


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Newport, R.I.

Army and Navy YMCA
50 Washington Square

Since the early 20th century, YMCAs have been gathering places for gay men. Newport‘s Army and Navy YMCA, a Beaux Arts-style building, opened in 1911, and when the fleet was in – Newport was home to an important naval training station – the building was often filled beyond capacity. Here soldiers and sailors could bank, shop at the canteen, and eat a homestyle meal. Activities included swimming, bowling, and jogging (and numerous other “indoor sports,” to be sure). The administrators also showed movies and sponsored cabaret evenings of song and performances.

In his article, “Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era,” historian George Chauncey relates the story of an official navy investigation in 1919-20 of homosexuality in Newport. Under orders from then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt, young enlisted men acted as decoys to entrap homosexuals, gathering information and later testifying before a naval court of inquiry and at several civilian trials. Twenty sailors and sixteen civilians were arrested as a result of the “investigation.”

The decoys reported that the YMCA, as well as nearby beaches and wharfs, were havens of homosexual activity. Some gay sailors lived at the Y, while others just rented rooms for the night. “Fagott” [sic] parties, the investigators found, were commonplace at the Y in the evenings. The gay men who frequented the Y also engaged in homosexual activities in other cities and maintained contacts with gay men in New York, Providence, and Fall River. But, Chauncey found, in addition to the men who identified as “queer,” there were men who regularly enjoyed homosexual sex but thought of themselves as heterosexual.

Newport‘s YMCA reached its peak in 1951, during the Korean War. When the Navy began downsizing during the Nixon administration, attendance at the Y fell off, and it was closed in 1973. It is now an apartment building for low-income residents.

“The Army and Navy Y.M.C.A. was the headquarters of all cocksuckers [in] the early part of the evening…. everybody who sat around there in the evening…knew it.”

–Navy investigator, 1920

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vonsteuben.jpg

Washington, D.C.

Lafayette Park
Boundaries:
Pennsylvania Avenue and H Street, NW; Jackson and Madison Places, NW

Across the street from the White House, this public park has long been a cruising place for gay men. As early as 1892, Dr. Irving Rosse, a professor of nervous diseases at Georgetown University, addressed the topic of “the spread of sexual crime” in the park and elsewhere around the capital. “Only of late,” he wrote, “the chief of police tells me that his men have made, under the very shadow of the White House, eighteen arrests in Lafayette Square…in which the culprits were taken away in flagrante delicto. Both black and white were represented among these moral hermaphrodites, but the majority of them were negros.”

Lafayette Park also features statues of several prominent figures of the American Revolution, whom we now claim as gay. There is a statue of Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens, who were inseparable in life and whose hands in the statue appear to be lightly touching. The two were colonels in the Continental Army and together served as interpreters for Baron von Steuben, the Revolutionary War hero and lover of men. John Laurens was killed during a battle with the British, and Hamilton later went on to become the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.

In 1777, Baron Frederick Wilhelm von Steuben, then a captain in the Prussian Army, faced charges of taking “familiarities” with young men, and, to avoid a public scandal, he accepted a commission with the Continental Army, arriving in the American colonies with a 17-year-old French nobleman whom he called his “secretary.” Von Steuben, who was well-acquainted with the rigorous drills of the Prussian Army, is credited with introducing much-needed discipline into the revolutionary forces and thus aiding immeasurably in the eventual American victory over the British. The baron is honored by a monument in Lafayette Park, at the base of which is this statue of two warriors in an appropriately suggestive position (see above).

“…I went into Lafayette Square and near the Von Steuben statue watched two fellows furtively engaged in mutual masturbation under cover of the dimness….Both were handsome, clean-looking chaps, refined and cultured.”

–Jeb Alexander (a pseudonym), August 1920

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