Archive for the ‘political figures’ Category

Pittsburgh, Pa.

LeMoyne Billings grave

Allegheny Cemetery

4734 Butler Street

Jack and Lem became best friends as teenagers, bonding over a shared sense of humor and fun and hatred of their strict, stuffy school. Jack was a “ladies’ man” from his youth; Lem was a closeted gay man, deeply devoted to and in love with his best friend. When Lem propositioned Jack, the latter’s response was a curt “I’m not that kind of boy.” Sounds like the story of many gay men and their crushes on straight male friends, right?

Except in this case, Jack grew up to be John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States, and Lem was his lifelong pal, Kirk LeMoyne Billings (1916-1981). And in this case, Jack didn’t discard his friend when he learned he was queer. Rather, he invited him on family vacations, sought his advice on matters of state, and even gave him his own room in the White House. Ted Kennedy once said that, as a young child, he used to think Lem was one of his older brothers, too.

If your estimation of President Kennedy just went up a notch, it’s not surprising. Jack and Lem met in 1933, when being homosexual was a deep, dark secret, a criminalized status in our society. Jack would not have been alone in turning his back on a queer friend, especially when he moved into the political arena. When he became president, he showed even deeper loyalty to Lem by offering him a position in his administration. Instead, Lem–who worked as an advertising executive in Manhattan, à la Mad Men–seemed to prefer the unofficial role of “First Friend.” His intense friendship with Kennedy is chronicled in David Pitts’  2007 biography, Jack and Lem: The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship.

Lem remained close to the Kennedys after Jack’s assassination, and was also a friend and confidant of Bobby Kennedy. When Bobby, too, was murdered, Lem became increasingly despondent and alcoholic. He died of a heart attack at age 65; he is buried in historic Allegheny Cemetery in his hometown of Pittsburgh, next to his parents.

Jack made a big difference in my life. Because of him, I was never lonely.”

-LeMoyne Billings


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Lancaster, Pa.

James Buchanan home
1120 Marietta Avenue

James Buchanan (1791-1868), the 15th president of the United States, was also this country’s only confirmed bachelor chief executive. His sexual orientation has frequently been questioned, primarily because of his intimate friendship with William Rufus King, whom he met in 1834 when both were U.S. senators and with whom he shared a flat in Washington. According to historian Jonathan Ned Katz, their relationship was the source of many biting comments in the nation’s capital. King was perhaps more “queen” than “king,” and was referred to by Washington insiders as “Miss Nancy,” “she,” and “Aunt Fancy.”

Buchanan bought this estate in 1848, when he was James Polk’s secretary of state. He had greater political ambitions, and Wheatland, a 17-room federal-style mansion, seemed to him more “presidential” than his Washington digs. Running for president in 1852, Buchanan lost the Democratic nomination to Franklin Pierce, and party bosses selected Senator King as the vice-presidential candidate in a bid for Buchanan’s support (and the votes he could deliver). Pierce and King won, but King died of tuberculosis after only a few weeks in office.

Buchanan became his party’s compromise candidate in the 1856 presidential election, and Wheatland served as his campaign headquarters. Unlike today, when candidates traverse the country in search of votes, Buchanan stayed at Wheatland, receiving visitors who could help his bid for election. This proved a good P.R. move, since newspapers across the country carried accounts of Buchanan’s beautiful estate and of the many dignitaries who passed through Wheatland.

Buchanan served only one uneventful term as chief executive. After his retirement, he returned to Wheatland, which is today run by the National Park Service. Buchanan is buried nearby at the Woodward Hill Cemetery.


I am now solitary and alone, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a- wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”

–James Buchanan, 1844,
when William Rufus King was on a trip to France

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Washington, D.C.

1736 G Street, N.W.

Though never intended as such, since the early 1900s YMCAs provided gay men with places to meet, live, and have sexual encounters. For that reason, though, they also became targets of the police, as in the following incident.

In a crackdown on “tearoom” sex in October 1964, members of the Washington, D.C., vice squad began a stakeout of the men’s room in the basement of this YMCA (no longer standing), just a few blocks from the White House. Concealing themselves behind the locked door of a shower room that was no longer in use, they spied through peepholes that afforded them a clear view of activities in the men’s room, which the New York Times later described as “a 9-ft. by 11-ft. spot reeking of disinfectant and stale cigars.”

Did they expect to catch big game? Arrested were Walter Jenkins (1918-1985), President Lyndon Johnson’s chief of staff, and a Hungarian immigrant named Andy Choka, who were charged with “disorderly conduct.” Jenkins was at first calm, but soon was admitted to George Washington University Hospital and put on a 24-hour suicide watch.

Though few of us know of him now, Jenkins was a household name at that time. A married man described as “retiring and camera-shy,” he had worked for LBJ for 25 years. He was forced to resign from office when the incident was reported in the Evening Star. (LBJ had tried unsuccessfully to get the news report killed.)

“A great deal of the president’s difficulties can be traced to the fact that Walter had to leave,” Johnson’s press secretary, George Reedy, later said. “All of history might have been different if it hadn’t been for that episode.”

Johnson never replaced Jenkins, but simply parceled his duties out to other staffers. Jenkins returned to his home state of Texas, where he worked as an accountant. Reportedly, he was frequent visitor to LBJ’s ranch after the president left office; to his credit, Johnson didn’t shun his friend.

Here’s a link to an interesting contemporary report on the scandal in Time magazine, dated October 30, 1964.

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San Antonio, Texas

Hertzberg Circus Museum (closed)
210 West Market Street

Harry Hertzberg (1884-1940) was a prominent local lawyer and state senator, who was also gay, according to recent research. Hertzberg and his longtime partner, Tom Scaperlanda, were circus fans who began collecting Big Top memorabilia in the ’20s and amassed one of the largest collections of that type in the country, totaling more than 42,000 items on circus history from 1893 to the 1930s. Among the items collected were a miniature model of a three-ring circus, posters, photographs, sheet music, costumes, literature, and specialty items, such as an 1843 carriage built for Tom Thumb (above), and memorabilia from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows.

The two men left their collection to the City of San Antonio, and, beginning in 1968, many items were on permanent exhibit at this location, a former public library. Unfortunately, in 2001, the museum closed due to the deteriorating condition of the building. Two years later, the city reached an agreement with the Witte Museum to take in the circus collection. The book and document archives are still in the San Antonio Public Library system and are available on an appointment-only basis to researchers (210-207-2500).

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Nichols & Kameny 1965

Washington, D.C.

Frank Kameny house (private)
5020 Cathedral Avenue, N.W.

The house that gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny (b. 1925) has called home since 1962 won’t win any architectural prizes; it’s just a modest, two-story brick house built in 1955. But in February 2009, it was designated a Washington, D.C. historic landmark, in recognition of its significance, as the Washington Post put it, as “the epicenter of the gay rights movement in the nation’s capital” for 13 years.

Kameny served in World War II, earned a doctorate at Harvard, and came to D.C. to work as an astronomer for the Army Map Service. But in 1957, he was fired for being gay. He didn’t give up, and took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961. The discrimination he experienced turned him into a lifelong activist for gay rights. One of his many accomplishments was helping head up the struggle to have homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental illnesses.

Kameny’s papers are now at the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institution houses artifacts related to his gay activism, such as placards used in protests (like that shown above, in 1965). Many of those placards, Kameny has said, were made in the living room of this house. His home has now been nominated for recognition on the National Register of Historic Places.

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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.


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.


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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Maui Island, Hawaii

Brick Palace
Lahaina Harbor

The first royal capital of the Hawaiian Islands, much of the town of Lahaina has been given National Historic Landmark status. Facing the scenic harbor was the Brick Palace, which was the first royal residence of Kamehameha I (1758-1819), Hawaii‘s queer king. All that’s left now are the foundations of what was once a western-style structure, a modest two-story brick building. In some mainstream guidebooks, the story is that Kamehameha located his capital here to be close to the grave of his beloved first wife. But since he also had a beloved aikane, or male lover, we might wonder how much of the story has been “straightened out” by history.

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Hyde Park, N.Y.

Eleanor Roosevelt home
Route 9G

Intrepid First Lady, women’s rights activist, and humanitarian Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was most at home here at her private retreat, Val-kill, named after the stream that ran beside it. Orphaned as a child, Eleanor was raised by a grandmother and educated in England at a girls’ academy. At 20, she married her fifth cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, and for the next dozen years was a “proper” wife to an aspiring politician, living mostly in homes owned by her controlling mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt. But after Eleanor discovered Franklin‘s affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, she offered him a divorce, and they reached the turning point of their marriage. The ambitious Franklin opted for his wife and children – and his political ambitions. Not long after, he contracted polio, which Eleanor nursed him through and which threatened to cut short his career. While he was recovering, Eleanor kept the Roosevelt name alive by making public appearances and speeches and becoming involved in Democratic politics herself. Within the party, she made many good friends, among them the lesbian couple, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman.

In 1924, Franklin offered Eleanor, Nancy, and Marion (“the girls,” as he called them) some wooded land on the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park, on a rocky stream called Val-kill, where they could build a house and enjoy the serenity of the place without being at the large, imposing Roosevelt mansion two miles away. By 1925, a stone cottage in the Dutch colonial style (now called “Stone Cottage”) was built on the site, and Nancy laid out the grounds and gardens. Nancy and Marion began living at the cottage full time that year, with Eleanor visiting them on weekends and during the summers. According to historian Blanche Wiesen Cook, Franklin teasingly dubbed the place “The Honeymoon Cottage,” and Eleanor embroidered the linens “E.M.N.,” the women’s three initials.

After a year, the trio (with another Democratic Party friend, Caroline O’Day, a former companion of Lillian Wald) had a second cottage constructed on the grounds for Val-kill Industries, an experimental business designed to provide work for local residents. A furniture factory trained artisans to create high-quality early American reproductions, but it folded ten years later under the financial pressures of the Depression. Nancy and Marion continued to occupy the Stone Cottage until 1947, and Eleanor had the factory remodeled into her own home (now “Val-kill Cottage”), the first and only house that belonged to her. After Franklin‘s death in 1945, Val-kill became Eleanor’s permanent residence. Now operated by the National Park Service and open to the public, Val-kill Cottage is a cozy, unpretentious house filled with comfortable furnishings (most made by Val-kill Industries) and decorated with photographs of Eleanor’s friends and family. You can almost see her in the warm pine-paneled rooms, relishing her independence and freedom from the Roosevelt family.

Eleanor has largely been constructed by history as an unattractive, asexual woman whose main function was to further her husband’s career. But Blanche Cook’s biography shows Eleanor in a different light, revealing her activity within the women’s committee of the Democratic Party, her feminist activism, her circle of lesbian friends, and most importantly, her decade-long intimate relationship with reporter Lorena Hickock, nicknamed Hick. At Val-kill, however, you won’t hear even a hint about Eleanor’s lesbianism in the official Park Service interpretation and film, in which Nancy and Marion are painted as “good friends,” and Hick – one of the major relationships of her life – isn’t mentioned at all.

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