Category: usa

SEPTEMBER 5: Sarah E. Edmonds (1841-1898)

Historians speculate that over 400 women served in the American Civil War under male disguises. One of those women soldiers and an important “aspect of queer existence in Nineteenth Century America,” Sarah E. Edmonds, passed away on this
day in 1898.

An undated photograph shows Sarah’s appearance as her alter ego, “Franklin Thompson” (x).

Sarah Emma Edmonds
was born in December of 1841 in New Brunswick, Canada. At the time of her birth, New Brunswick was still an English colony. Despite growing up in a relatively happy home where she
worked on the family farm along with her sisters, Sarah ran away at
the age of 15 to avoid an unwanted marriage. Her mother was also a victim
of an early marriage forced by her parents, and so Mrs. Edmonds helped her
daughter adopt the disguise of a man and flee New Brunswick. Having adopted the
name Franklin Thompson, Sarah crossed the U.S. border and found herself working
as a bookseller in Hartford, Connecticut.

After the
breakout of the Civil War, Sarah enlisted in Company F of the 2nd Michigan
Infantry – also known as the Flint Union Greys – under the guise of Franklin
Flint Thompson. Scholars have theorized that
the middle name Flint was chosen based on the fact that she had previously
been volunteering for the Union Army in Flint, Michigan. Sarah eventually
worked her way up from male field nurse to Union spy after her close friend,
the spy James Vesey, was assassinated and Sarah volunteered to fill his spot. Her
masterful skills of disguise came in handy during her spy career, claiming in
her memoir that she frequently went undercover as both men and women.

After
contracting a deadly case of malaria, Sarah was forced to give up her life as
Franklin Thompson. Fearful that her true identity would be discovered if she went to a
military hospital, she fled from her military duty and checked herself into a civilian
hospital. Although she intended to return to her Company once she was cured,
she was forced to leave the army for good once she noticed posters declaring
Franklin Thompson as a deserter and a wanted man. Instead, Sarah decided to
serve as a female nurse in Washington D.C. for the remainder of the war.

This illustration depicts a story Sarah tells in her memoir about comforting a fellow Union soldier on the battlefield, only to have the soldier confess that he was truly a woman in disguise! Sarah never reveals the deceased soldier’s name, but writes that she personally made sure they were buried near their brother under a mulberry tree and that she ensured their secret was never discovered (x).

Sarah later
married a Canadian mechanic and old childhood friend by the name of Linnus H.
Seelye. The two lived happily and ended up adopting two sons after their own three children
died young. However, in her bestselling memoir, Sarah recounts having had a
relationship with a woman during her pre-war years as Franklin Thompson.
Sarah writes that she “came near marrying a pretty little girl” while living as a “famous” bookseller in Connecticut and then later Nova Scotia.  

It would be impossible to attempt to
label Sarah E. Edmonds under contemporary understandings of gender and sexuality. Still, she stands as a landmark figure in the long and rich history of female
cross-dressers, many of whom enjoyed relationships with other women. The historian Lillian Faderman recounts these women’s place in lesbian history in
her book Odd Girls & Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life.

-LC

SEPTEMBER 3: Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909)

Born on this
day in 1849, Sarah Orne Jewett was a lesbian writer most well-known for her
poems and short stories that richly captured life on the coast of Maine.

Sarah Orne Jewett photographed in 1875 (x).

Sarah Orne
Jewett was born to a wealthy New England family in South Berwick, Maine on
September 3, 1849. Her father was a doctor who specialized in “diseases of
women and children.” Sarah was very close to her father and often joined him on
his house calls throughout her hometown. She contracted rheumatoid arthritis at
an early age, for which her father prescribed long walks. These walks planted a
love for nature and an imaginative spirit in Sarah. She was educated at Miss
Olive Rayne’s School and then later at Berwick Academy, but she discovered her
love of books by spending many hours in the library of Hamilton House, her family’s home.

She first leaped onto the literary scene at age 19 when one of her stories was published in the
Atlantic Monthly
. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, she became famous for her representation
of country life and, as Willa Cather described, her “rich accounts of women’s
lives and voices.” Sarah’s most popular works are the novella The Country of
the Pointed Firs
(1896), the novel A Country Doctor (1884), and a collection of
poetry titled A White Heron (1886).

Portrait of Emily Davis Tyson and Sarah Orne Jewett standing in the doorway of Hamilton House, Sarah’s family home in South Berwick, Maine (x).

Sarah never
married in her lifetime and her life partner was a fellow writer named Annie
Adams Fields. Sarah first met Annie through her husband, James Thomas Fields,
who was the co-owner of the publishing house Ticknor and Fields. After James’s
death in 1881, Annie moved in with Sarah and the two would be together for the
rest of their lives. The relationship, now understood to be a lesbian partnership,
would have been called a “Boston marriage” or “romantic friendship” in the late
Nineteenth Century. Their shared home in Boston became somewhat of a literary
salon, hosting many popular writers who Sarah and Annie had
befriended. Throughout their life together, Sarah and Annie also frequently
traveled to Europe where they networked with writers such as William Thackeray
and Mary Cowden Clarke.

Annie Adams Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett’s portraits edited to show the true nature of their romantic relationship (x). 

On September 3,
1902 – her 53rd birthday – Sarah was injured in a serious carriage accident.
The injuries she sustained virtually ended her writing career
and set Sarah on a path of failing health. In March of 1909, she suffered a stroke
that left her paralyzed. After suffering a second stroke in June of that year,
she would die on June 24, 1909 in her and Annie’s home in South Berwick, the
town of her birth and the inspiration of so many of her literary tales.
Following her death, Annie published a collected titled Letters of Sarah Orne
Jewett.
However, after pressure from their close friend and editor Mark Anthony
Howe, several passages indicating the romantic and sexual aspect of Sarah and Annie’s
relationship were taken out of the collection.

-LC

DECEMBER 30: Amanda Nunes defends her title as…

On July 10, 2016, Amanda Nunes became
the very first openly gay UFC fighter to win a major title. She made history once again on December 30, 2016 when she defeated the legendary Ronda Rousey and became the very first openly gay returning champion in UFC history. 

image

Amanda Nunes celebrates her historic win over Ronda Rousey on December 30, 2016. Despite Rousey’s bombastic reputation, she was defeated by Nunes in a devastating 48-second loss (x).

Amanda Nunes
was born on May 30, 1988 in the small town of Salvado, Bahia, Brazil. She began karate lessons at only age 4 and when
she as 16, she advanced to boxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. After travelling to
America to pursue a professional mixed martial arts career, Amanda made her
debut at Prime MMA Championship on March 8, 2008.

On July 10, 2016, Amanda became the first openly gay UFC fighter to ever win a major title when she defeated Miesha Thomas. On December 30,
2016, she competed in a second career-defining match against the famous fighter Ronda Rousey. By winning the match, she secured her place in history as the first
openly gay or lesbian UFC fighter to not only win but also defend her major title. 

image

Amanda shares a kiss with her girlfriend after her big win (x).

She attributes
her success in the ring to her girlfriend, fellow UFC fighter and training
partner, Nina Ansaroff. Amanda is quoted as saying, “She is going to be the
next UFC champion, I mean it…She is going to show everybody. She helps me every
day … and I love her.”

-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 28: Pariah is released (2011)

The classic lesbian film Pariah was first released in the United States on this day in 2011. Written and directed by
lesbian director Dee Rees, Pariah was
awarded the Excellence in Cinematography Award at the 2011 Sundance Film
Festival and also earned Adpero Oduye a nomination for the Independent Spirit Award
for Best Female Lead.

Pariah is a character study of a
17-year-old girl named Alike. The film follows her coming out journey as a
young black butch lesbian who is just beginning her process of self-discovery.
After becoming friends with an out lesbian named Laura and frequenting bars and
clubs with her, Alike begins exploring her own sexuality and dressing in men’s
clothing. Her mother, Audrey, becomes suspicious of her daughter’s nighttime whereabouts
and retaliates by forcing her to wear more feminine clothing and to attend
church services.

Ironically, it
is through church that Alike meets another young girl named Bina and has her
first sexual experience. After spending the night with Bina, Alike returns home and
comes out to her family in the middle of an explosive argument. Although her
father and sister are restrained, her mother attacks her, resulting in Alike
fleeing to Laura’s house and swearing to never return home. Despite the gritty
realness of the film, Pariah ends with Alike off on a journey to California to
start college early. The thesis of the film is summed up in a line from one of
Alike’s poems: “I’m not running; I’m choosing.”

-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 26: Queen Christina is released (1933…

Based on the
real life lesbian queen of Sweden and starring lesbian starlet Greta Garbo, the
film Queen Christina was first released on this day in 1933.

Despite the
actual documented history of Queen Christina’s life, the story of the Queen
Christina
film follows the queen as she falls in love with a fictional male
Spanish envoy. Stressed out by the demands of the throne and the continued insistence
that she marry her cousin, Karl Gustav, this fictionalized version of Christina
disguises herself in men’s clothing and sneaks out of her castle to enjoy life
as an everyday commoner. When an unexpected snow storm leaves her stranded at
an inn, she is forced to share a bed with an occupant of the inn, a diplomat
sent from Spain named Antonio. Christina eventually reveals herself to be a
woman and the two fall in love.

Despite the
erasure of Christina’s lesbianism, the 1933 film became a touchstone for
lesbian culture for its depiction of a masculine woman protagonist and the
iconic scene where Christina shares a “friendly kiss” with her lady in waiting
and real life lover, Ebba Sparre. The film The Girl King that was released in 2015 recently restored the lesbian aspects of Queen Christina’s true story.

-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 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