Category: people

JUNE 6: Violet Trefusis (1894-1972)

The English
author and socialite Violet Trefusis was born on this day in 1894. She is most
well-known for having been the lover of fellow writer Vita Sackville-West.

Photographer unknown, Violet Trefusis climbing through a window c. early 1900s (x).

Violet was born as
Violet Keppel on June 6, 1894 in London, England. Her father George was a notable
Lieutenant-Colonel in the British Army and her mother Alice was a famous socialite and the mistress of King Edward VII. There were many
rumors that Violet’s biological father was the Conservative politician William
Beckett, but nothing substantial ever came of the gossip. Violet’s early years
were spent at the family home in London’s Portman Square. She was only four
when her mother began a relationship with King Edward VII and “Bertie,” as he
was called, visited the house around tea-time almost every day until his death
in 1910.

Throughout her
life, Violet published two memoirs and nine novels between 1920 to 1940; twelve of
her writings remain unpublished. Her active social life and friendships with a
multitude of writers and artists guaranteed Violet a place in the fictions of
writers such as Nancy Mitford, Cyril Connolly, and Harold Acton. Most famously, the character
of Princess Sasha in Virginia Woolf’s
Orlando: A Biography
was based on Violet. 

Artistic renditions of Violet Trefusis by Jacques-Emile Blanche (1926) and Sir John Lavery (1919) (x)(x). 

Despite her
prolific writing, she is most well-known today for her relationship with Vita
Sackville-West. Violet married her husband Denys Trefusis in 1919, but theirs was a sexless relationship and the real love of
her life was Vita. The two first met at a party when Violet was only ten-years-old and Vita was twelve. After bonding over their love of books, Violet began pursuing Vita and the two wrote letters back and forth
throughout their adolescence. The relationship began in earnest when they crossed paths once more in Italy and fourteen-year-old Violet confessed her love
to Vita, even going so far as to give her a ring. Unfortunately, familial duties and geographic distance frequently interrupted the courtship and their eventual marriages put strain on the
relationship.

In 1920, rumors
of Violet and Vita’s affair had reached a fever pitch and their two husbands,
Harold and Denys, interrupted the lovers’ vacation in France to bring their wives
home and restore their reputations. The final crack in the relationship
occurred when Harold lied to his wife Vita, telling her that Violet had not
been faithful. Vita then left for England, with Violet being sent off to Italy
and being forbidden to write to her estranged partner. The affair ended in
flames, although the two women were ultimately able to become friends when they
met again in 1940.

You can read the “breathtaking” love letters between Vita and Violet here

Although Violet
also had an affair with the sewing machine heiress Winnaretta Singer, it was
always Vita who she considered to be the love of her life. The grand affair was
chronicled by both women in their writings. The love story in Violet’s novel Broderie Anglaise is based on her
experiences with Vita. Following the death of her parents, Violet retired from her
artists’ circle and became the overseer of L’Ombrellino, the large estate in
Florence once owned by her mother. It was there where she died on February 29,
1972 from complications of malabsorption disease. Her ashes were placed
alongside the remains of her parents. Violet’s turbulent life and love affairs
were presented in the 1990 BBC mini-series Portrait
of a Marriage
.

-LC

MAY 30: Joan of Arc (1412-1431)

On May 30,
1431, nineteen-year-old Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in Compiègne after
being declared guilty of heresy in the midst of the
Hundred Years’ War. In the near seven decades following her death, Joan of
Arc’s gender and sexual identity has been a heated source of debate, with many
calling her a “lesbian icon” and a “cross-dressing warrior saint.”

Albert Lynch, “Jeanne d’Arc” (x).

Joan of Arc was
only seventeen when she sheared off all her hair, dressed in a full suit of men’s
armor, and led a 5,000-man army against the British forces. With her at the
helm, the French army won battle after battle and before long Joan was a symbol
of divinity – a saint-like war hero in the eyes of the French peasants and
nobles alike. She was so revered that there came to be an urban legend that said white
butterflies followed her wherever she went. She was even asked to accompany
King Charles VII at his coronation ceremony in 1429.

Although women
wearing “that which pertaineth unto a man” is forbidden in the Bible, many
scholars argue that Joan of Arc’s cross-dressing was an important factor in her achieving
sainthood. Her pageboy haircut and men’s armor grouped her in with the
medieval archetype of the “holy transvestite,” which became popularized by
classic tales of women disguising their sex in order to join monasteries. In
spite of the French seeing her cross-dressing as sacred, during
her time in captivity, the Burgundians, French allies of the English, often
called her “hommase,” a slur that translates to “man-woman” or
“masculine woman.” At her final trial, the judges even referred to Joan’s cross-dressing
as “an abomination before God.”

“Zendaya’s femme-take on Joan of Arc and “

Fiona Apple in a suit of armour on the subway,” also a take on Joan of Arc’s iconic look, have been cited in the 2018 article “Notes on Dyke Camp” as examples of lesbian aesthetic. 

In the 2016
book Joan of Arc: Her Trial Transcripts
by Emilia Philomena Sanguinetti, the epilogue includes extensive evidence that
Joan may have either been a transgender man or a lesbian. Despite conservative
scholars’ claims that Joan of Arc’s cross-dressing was simply a logical defense against rape or sexual assault, her trial transcripts show that Joan
viewed her gender expression as something that was holy and as being at the core of her identity. Transgender writer
Leslie Feinberg also wrote about Joan of Arc, saying “she was a transvestite –
an expression of her identity she was willing to die for rather than renounce.”

The first
scholar to suggest that Joan of Arc might have been a lesbian was Vita Sackville-West,
lover of Virginia Woolf and popular writer in her own right. In her 1931
biography Saint Joan of Arc, Vita suggests that Joan was a lesbian due
to her documented penchant for sharing the beds of young women during her
military campaigns. Although there is no hard evidence of her assumed sexual desire
for women, Joan’s lack of sexual desire for men is well-documented and her
“virginity” came to be an integral part of her image as a saint. More
recently in 2018, writer Mikaella Clements defines “Joan of Arc with her
pageboy haircut” as an example “dyke camp.”

-LC

JANUARY 31: Patricia Velásquez (1971-)

Happy birthday
to actress and supermodel, Patricia Velásquez! You might recognize Patricia
from her starring turn in The Mummy,
but today she is most well-known for being a lesbian icon as well as one of the
very first Native American supermodels.

Patricia has over 20 film and TV credits to her filmography, including lesbian classics The L-Word and Liz in September (x).

Patricia Carola
Velásquez Semprún was born on January 31, 1971 in Maracaibo, Venezuela. She was
the fifth out of six children born to her mestizo father and Wayúu mother, a
member of the indigenous Wayúu people of Venezuela. Both of her parents were teachers and due to the fact that her father worked for the United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), parts of Patricia’s
childhood were also spent in Mexico and France.

After
graduating high school in 1987, she made it to the Miss Venezuela pageant
in 1989 where she represented the state of Guárico. Although she only placed as
second runner-up, the pageant still served as the catalyst for Patricia’s
modeling career. After finishing three years of college, she moved to Milan and
began to pursue modeling and acting full time. She modeled for designers such
as Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana throughout the 90s, but didn’t reach
mainstream fame until the 1999 film The
Mummy
where she played the role of Anck-Su-Namun.

Patricia would
reprise her famous role in The Mummy Returns in 2001, as well as be featured in
episodes of Arrested Development and The L-Word. In 2002, the founded the Wayúu
Tayá Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting the Wayúu, a
Venezuelan indigenous group of which her family belongs. After disappearing from the spotlight for a while,
Patricia resurfaced in 2015 with the publication of her memoir Straight Walk. In the book, she comes
out as a lesbian and opens up about her relationship with the actress Sandra
Bernhard. In addition to frequently being dubbed the world’s first Native American
supermodel, many also consider Patricia to be the world’s first openly lesbian
supermodel!

-LC

DECEMBER 31: Isabella of Parma (1741-1763)

The granddaughter
of King Louis XV of France, Princess Isabella of Parma, was born on this day in
1741. Isabella was related to the royal families of both France and Spain and
is remembered for having an affair with the Archduchess Maria Christina.

16-year-old Isabella of Parma as painted by Jean-Marc Nattier in 1757 (x).

Isabella Maria
Luisa Antonietta Ferdinanda Giuseppina Saveria Dominica Giovanna (*gasp*) was
born on December 31, 1741 in Madrid, Spain at the Buen Retiro Palace. Her father
was Prince Phillip of Spain and her mother was Élisabeth
of France, the eldest daughter of King Louis XV. Élisabeth’s marriage had
been arranged when she was very young and she was only 14-years-old when she
gave birth to Isabella. Undeniably due in part to her mother’s young age,
Isabella’s parents did not have a happy marriage and her childhood was riddled
with family drama. She was estranged from her father and grew up very close to
her mother, which only ended in grief when Élisabeth died of smallpox in 1759.
The tragedy of her mother’s death convinced Isabella for many years that she
too was cursed to die a young death.

In 1760, she
was married off to Archduke Joseph of Austria, the eventual king of the
Habsburg Monarchy (and also the older brother of fellow lesbian icon Marie Antoinette). Isabella was only 18 at the time of their marriage and despite Joseph
affectionately welcoming her to her new home in Austria, she isolated
herself in the palace and is believed to have been plagued by depression for
much of her married life. It was her sister-in-law, Joseph’s sister Archduchess
Maria Christina, who Isabella truly felt romantic feelings for rather than her
husband.

Mimi, as Maria
was nicknamed, was the one of the few people of the Viennese court who Isabella
spent time with and allowed into her personal chambers. While they were at
court together, they exchanged over 200 letters and were nicknamed Orpheus and
Eurydice in reference to the romantic Greek myth. In two separate letters to Mimi,
Isabella writes: 

“I can think of nothing but that I am deeply in love. If I
only knew why this is so, for you are so without mercy that one should not love
you, but I cannot help myself,” and 

“I am told that the day begins with God. I,
however, begin the day by thinking of the object of my love, for I think of her
incessantly.” 

Sadly, the two women’s affair was ended once Mimi was shipped off
to Hungary to be married. Only Isabella’s letters to Mimi were preserved, as Mimi’s to
Isabella were destroyed after her death.

With her lover
gone and the Habsburg monarchy eagerly awaiting a new heir, Isabella was forced
to confront her royal duty. Despite feeling little to no affection for her
husband and being plagued by anxiety over sex with him, Isabella was able to
give birth to a daughter on March 20, 1762. She would go on to have three more
pregnancies, but her first daughter was the only one to survive infancy.
Isabella’s health declined rapidly after her third miscarriage; she
would pass away only a week after her infant daughter on November 27, 1763.

-LC

DECEMBER 29: Elsa Gidlow (1898-1986)

One of the most
famous lesbian poets of all time, Elsa Gidlow, was born on this day in 1898.
Her 1923 collection titled A Grey Thread was the first instance of openly
lesbian love poetry to be published in North America.

image

Elsa Gidlow photographed in 1925 at age 27 (x).

Elsa Gidlow
was born on December 29, 1898 in Hull, Yorkshire, England. When she was only
6-years-old, the Gidlow family emigrated to Canada and settled down in Tétreaultville,
Quebec. When she was 15, they would move once again to Montreal. Elsa’s very
first contact with the literary world occurred when a friend of her father’s
hired her to work as an assistant editor to his magazine Factory Facts.

In 1917, she began seeking out fellow gay and lesbian writers to collaborate with. Along
with the journalist Roswell George Mills, she eventually published Les Mouches
Fantastiques
, which was the first magazine to be published in North America that
openly discussed LGBT issues. Elsa being relatively unknown at the time, the
magazine only came into the mainstream when the famous author H.P. Lovecraft
publicly attacked its contents. Despite the backlash, Elsa would eventually publish 13 books of lesbian love poetry throughout her career. 

An original copy of Elsa’s 1923 collection of poetry, On a Grey Thread, is preserved in the collection of San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society (x).

Elsa’s partner
was a woman named Isabel Grenfell Quallo. The two originally lived in San
Francisco together before moving to Mount Tamalpais, California and starting a ranch
they called Druid Heights. The ranch became a meeting grounds for many famous
artists and activists throughout the years and Elsa is known to have
entertained the likes of Neil Young, Margo St. James, Alan Ginsberg, Maya
Angelou, and many more. In 1977, she was featured in the PBS documentary Word Is Out: Stores
of Some of Our Lives
, which chronicled the stories of LGBT people living in America. In
1986, Elsa made history once again when her autobiography, Elsa, I Come with My
Songs
, was published and became the very first lesbian autobiography to not be
written under pseudonym.

In the last
years of her life, Elsa suffered a series of strokes. She refused to seek
medical care and died at home in Druid Heights on June 8, 1986. According to her
will, her ashes were mixed with rice and buried underneath an apple tree. The
Gidlow Estate posthumously donated Elsa’s personal papers to the San Francisco
GLBT Historical Society in 1991.

-LC

DECEMBER 27: Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992)

The famed actress and fashion icon, Marlene Dietrich, was born on this day in 1901.
Remembered as the woman who made the tuxedo gender neutral, she also had several
relationships with women throughout her life.

Marlene Dietrich dressed in her classic tuxedo and top hat, cigarette in hand (x).

Marie Magdalene
“Marlene” Dietrich was born on December 27, 1901 in a district of
Berlin, Germany called Schöneberg. Her mother was from a prestigious German
family and was heir to a jewelry and clock-making firm while her father served
as a local police lieutenant. As a child she attended Auguste-Viktoria Girls’
School. It was during her school days when her friends began calling her
“Lena.” She soon combined that nickname with her first name, Marie, and began
going by Marlene. After graduating from the Victoria-Luise-Schule, she began
seeking a career in show business.

Her earliest
gig was as a chorus girl with the touring vaudeville troupe, Guido Thielscher’s
Girl-Kabarett. After working in the theater circuit for a while, she made her
film debut with a small role in 1923’s The Little Napoleon. Her big break came
in 1930 when she starred in The Blue Angel; her role as the seductive cabaret
singer Lola Lola struck something within American audiences. Her signature song
from the film, “Falling in Love Again,” also became a hit. Marlene would go on
to make over 45 films in her career and become known as one of the most famous
femme fatales in cinema history.

One of Marlene’s
most famous scenes occurred in the 1930 film Morocco. One again cast as a
cabaret singer, she performs an entire song dressed in a man’s white tuxedo and kisses a woman in the audience. The scene was scandalous at the time, but also indicative of Marlene’s personal breaking of traditional gender roles;
she was known to dress in men’s suits in her daily life and was also one of the first women to be
enrolled at Sabri Mahir’s boxing studio in Berlin. 

Photographs of Marlene that were taken by the woman she had one of her longest love affairs with, Mercedes de Acosta (x).

The phrase “sewing circle,”
used to describe the underground gang of lesbian and bisexual women in old
Hollywood, is said to have been coined by Marlene herself. Although she was
married to Rudolf Sieber, she had multiple affairs with both men and women.
Some of her most notable lovers included Mercedes de Acosta, Claudette Colbert, Edith Piaf, and many more. She would pass away, aged 90, on May 6, 1992.

-LC

DECEMBER 25: Donna Burkett and Manonia Evans a…

Merry Christmas to all of those who celebrate! Today we are going to cover the story of two women named Donna Burkett and Manonia Evans who were married on December 25, 1971. Their unofficial wedding ceremony came at the end of one of the very first legal battles to fight for marriage equality in American history.

In a 1971 interview with GPU News, the news magazine of Milwaukee’s gay and lesbian community, Donna Burkett said, “

The law should protect us and help us the way it does any two straight people who love each other and want to live together…That’s our civil rights; that’s what this is all about” (x).

It all began on
October 1, 1971. Donna and Manonia simply walked into the Office of the Milwaukee
Country Clerk and attempted to apply for a marriage license. The county clerk
at the time, Thomas Zablocki, told the two women that he could not accept their
application on account of the fact that the state defined marriage as being
between a man and woman. Although Donna and Manonia were fully aware of this
fact when they walked into his office, it was that verbal rejection which
allowed them to formally file a lawsuit stating that the state’s
refusal to grant them a marriage license violated their civil rights.

America had
never seen a story such as this before. Magazines such as Jet and The Advocate
picked up Donna and Manonia’s story and followed the lawsuit until it was
dismissed by District Judge Myron L. Gordon on January 19, 1972. Before they
could wait to hear the verdict from the judge, however, Donna and Manonia held
a wedding on Christmas Day 1971. Rev. Joseph Feldhausen officiated and over 250
of their friends and family were in attendance; the two women recall Donna
having worn a black tuxedo with Manonia wearing a traditional white lace dress.

Although Donna
and Manonia’s legal case was ultimately a failure, it was cases such as theirs
which helped kick start the American marriage equality movement that would first
gain traction in the 1990s. Their story serves as a reminder that gay and
lesbian couples have always lived happy and successful lives with each other, regardless of if the government was willing to issue some piece of paper sanctioning that happiness.

-LC

DECEMBER 24: Stormé DeLarverie (1920-2014)

The lesbian
legend Stormé DeLarverie was born on this day in 1920. Stormé went down
in history on the night of June 28, 1969 when her scuffle with the NYPD incited
the Stonewall Riots.

Stormé DeLarverie photographed in the last years of her life (x).

Stormé DeLarverie was born December 24, 1920 in New
Orleans, Louisiana. She would later recall suffering much bullying due to the fact that her father was white and her mother was
black. She would also recall first realizing that she was a lesbian at age 18, As a teenager she rode horses with the Ringling Brothers Circus, during which she met her partner of over 25 years, a
dancer named Diana.

After falling
from her horse and suffering an injury, Stormé’s circus career came to an end. She
would then tour with The Jewel Box Revue – North America’s very first racially
integrated drag – as the troupe’s MC and only drag king performer until 1969.
Halfway through that fateful year, she found herself living in New York City
and frequenting the Stonewall Inn. The story goes that after the NYPD initiated
a surprise raid of the Inn and began attempting to arrest many of the
occupants, Stormé began
fighting back and screamed at the onlookers while being handcuffed, “Why don’t you guys do something?”
One first-hand witness would say that “it was at that moment that the scene
became explosive.”

Stormé posing as her drag king persona which she assumed for over 20 years (x).

Following the
Stonewall Riots and the Gay Rights Movement they helped birth, Stormé became
known as a hero in the NYC lesbian scene. She would work for several years as a
bouncer for multiple lesbian bars as well as a leading officer of
the Stonewall Veterans’ Association. Stormé also volunteered as a street patrol
worker, which gave her the reputation of being the “guardian of lesbians in the
Village.” After her partner Diana passed away in 1970, Stormé carried around a
photograph of Diana with her at all times. She herself would pass away on May 24,
2014 after suffering a heart attack in her sleep. Her obituary read: 

Tall,
androgynous and armed — she held a state gun permit — Ms. DeLarverie roamed
lower Seventh and Eighth Avenues and points between into her 80s, patrolling
the sidewalks and checking in at lesbian bars. She was on the lookout for what
she called “ugliness”: any form of intolerance, bullying or abuse of her “baby
girls.” … “She literally walked the streets of downtown Manhattan like a gay
superhero. … She was not to be messed with by any stretch of the imagination.

-LC

DECEMBER 23: Christa Winsloe (1888-1944)

The
German novelist and artist, Christa Winsloe, was born on this day in
1888. She is most well-known for having penned the play Gestern und heute,
which was eventually adapted into the iconic lesbian film Mädchen in Uniform.

An undated photograph of a young Christa Winsloe (x).

Christa Winsloe
was born on December 23, 1888 in Darmstadt, Germany. Her mother died when she
was just an infant and she was put in the care of distant family. However,
there was little love there and Christa was sent off to a notoriously strict
boarding school – Kairserin-Augusta-Stift in Potsdam – as soon as she was of
age. She was married off to a rich Hungarian writer named Ludwig Hatvany as soon
as she left the school.

During the
first years of her marriage, Christa wrote her very first novel. Das Mädchen Manuela (“The Child
Manuela”) was based on her years spent at Kaiserin-Augusta-Stift and her
desire to see the piece published caused strain on her young marriage; Ludwig,
a popular writer in his own right, wished for Christa to simply be his wife, not the independent artist she saw herself as. The marriage eventually ended in divorce
and in 1933 Das Mädchen Manuela would finally be published. Christa’s magnum
opus would be the play Gestern und heute
(“Yesterday and Today”). It first premiered on the stage in Leipzig
in 1930 and would be renamed to Children in Uniform when it was performed in
London in 1932. The play’s success resulted in an iconic film adaptation that
we have covered multiple times on the blog.

Christa’s first
lover was an American newspaper journalist named Dorothy Thompson. The two met in the years leading up to World War II when Dorothy was
reporting from Berlin, the same city where Christa had found a home in the Weimar era
lesbian subculture. Their relationship eventually fell apart when the Nazis
rose to power and Christa was forced to flee to France. There, she joined the
French Resistance and found a new lover in fellow freedom fighter Simone
Genet. The two women would die together on June 10, 1944 when they were gunned
down by four Frenchmen in the country town of Cluny after the men falsely
believed them to be Nazi spies.

-LC

DECEMBER 22: Ma Rainey (1886-1939)

The legendary performer and the
woman once dubbed the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey, passed away on this day
in 1939. There were incessant rumors about Ma Rainey’s lesbianism during her
lifetime and in 1925 she was arrested for participating in an orgy with
multiple women.

image

One of the only known photographs of Gertrude Pridgett a.k.a Ma Rainey, circa 1914 (x).

Ma Rainey was born Gertrude
Pridgett on April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. She was the second of five
children born to Thomas and Ella Pridgett. Her
career as an entertainer began at the young age of 12 when she began performing
in black minstrel shows with her church, the First African Baptist Church of
Columbus. After marrying a fellow performer named Will Rainey in 1904,
she was given her legendary name of Ma Rainey. The duo started out with the
Rabbit’s Foot Company of “Black Face Song and Dance Comedians” before striking
out on their own as Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.

It was while performing in New
Orleans in the winter of 1914 when Ma Rainey was first introduced to some of
the biggest names in black showbiz of the day: Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet,
Pops Foster, and her eventual lover, Bessie Smith. In 1923, Ma Rainey would be
discovered by J. Mayo Williams, who was a producer for Paramount Records. She
was signed to Paramount in December of that year and would go on to record over
100 songs in the next five years. Some of her hits include “Bo-Weevil Blues,” “Bad
Luck Blues,” and “Moonshine Blues.”

Many of the Ma Rainey’s lyrics
include hints of her lesbianism. In “Prove It on Me,” she sings

“They said I do
it, ain’t nobody caught me.
Sure got to prove it on me.
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends.
They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men…”

In 1925, Ma
Rainey and several of the women who were in her chorus were arrested at Ma
Rainey’s own home for purportedly participating in an orgy. It was Bessie
Smith, fellow blues singer, lesbian, and America’s highest paid black performer
of the era, who bailed Ma Rainey out of jail that night. Ma Rainey’s
guitarist, Sam Chatom, would later say that Bessie and she were most likely
lovers: “I believe she was courting Bessie…if Bessie’d be around,
if she’d get to talking to another man, she’d run up. She didn’t want no man
talking with her.”

As live vaudeville
acts became less and less popular with the American public and were replaced by radio in the 1930s,
Ma Rainey’s career also went into decline. In 1928, she recorded a final 20
songs before her contract was terminated by Paramount. In 1935, she returned
home to Georgia and became a successful theater owner. Until her death on
December 22, 1939, she operated three popular Georgia theaters – the Lyric, the
Airdome, and the Liberty Theater.

-LC