Okay, I’m going to admit that I just learned about this one this week and I’m pretty excited about it. Almost all of the information available comes from two — Channing Gerard Joseph, who is writing a book The House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens about this topic but the book isn’t out yet, and Netisha Currie — who dipped into some archives to verify the story. What I’m saying is, I’m not going to pretend to have one hundred percent of the information. Just wanted to throw that disclaimer out there first. I was really going to wait for the book to come out but, like, I’m kinda too excited to wait until it comes out next year and then I read it to tell you about this.
So, today we’re talking about William Dorsey Swann. Swann was born somewhere in Maryland sometime around 1858. He was a slave in Hancock, Maryland for the first several years of his life — because Maryland was not part of the Confederacy, their slaves weren’t freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and Maryland didn’t free its own slaves until 1864, only a couple of months before the 13th Amendment was ratified. Swann was thankfully freed before then — thanks to the intervention of Union soldiers. Swann is known to have developed friendships with other queer former slaves, including Pierce Lafayette and Felix Hall, two formers slaves who are documented to have been in a relationship.
By the 1880s, Swann had moved to Washington D.C. In 1882, he was arrested for stealing books from the Washington Library Company and from Henry and Sara Spencer — who employed Swann at the Spencerian Business College. Swann pled guilty and was sentenced to six months in jail. In October, having served only one month of his sentence, Henry and Sara Spencer petitioned President Chester A. Arthur to pardon Swann. Both the judge who had sentenced him and the assistant US District Attorney even supported the petition — pointing out that the theft of books was only an effort to educate himself. It’s unknown if the pardon was granted.
At some point in the 1880s — before or after his previous arrest we’ll never know — he began hosting what we would now call drag balls, of the sort that had begun in Harlem in 1867 with the Annual Odd Fellows Ball. Of course, those balls — while not, perhaps “acceptable” were charity events hosted by relatively wealthy, elite African Americans who could get away with things that poor freed slaves could not. Swann himself was regularly dressing in fabulous gowns, which his brother made, and calling himself “the queen of drag” — well before the term “drag” was being used much outside of theaters and certainly before the term “drag queen” was coined (which doesn’t become popular until the 1920’s). Swann was arrested at one of these balls in January of 1887 — which had both black and white guests in drag. Even so, Swann wasn’t exactly breaking new, unheard of ground, but was definitely pushing at its edges.
Until April 12, 1888. One of Swann’s balls was held in a two-story home near the corner of 12th St and F St. And it was raided by police. The guests made a mad dash for the exits — but Swann made a charge for the police themselves. He was supposedly a large, imposing man who — that night — is described as having worn a cream-color satin gown. Swann physically fought the police to prevent them from entering — with no success. This was, however, one of the first times queer people fought back against police oppression.
13 black men, including Swann, were arrested, charged with “being suspicious characters” and made to pay fines or spend 30 days in jail. Their names were published in various papers – although those lists of names weren’t the same in every paper so that’s a fun mystery for someone else to solve. The list of names that were the same in every paper were: William Dorsey, John Smith, Jacob Byard, Charles Myers, Samuel Jackson, James Waters, James Howard or Laura Howard, James Taylor, and Benjamin Moore. Some papers also listed Jacob Lewis, Samuel Lewis, Lewis Jackson and Albert Lee. Nearly all of those arrested made bail — Swann was bailed out by his employer. This was reported in both The Washington Post, The Washington Critic, and The Evening Star on April 13. The Washington Critic, notably, called the event a “drag party” which may have been one of the earliest uses of that phrase.
Swann managed to avoid having any of his balls raided again until New Years Eve of 1895. That ball was barely starting when police came in — they arrested Swann and three of his black guests — letting his three white guests go, although they were later summoned as witnesses. The three black guests were charged with vangrancy but Swann was charged with “running a disorderly house” — that’s a term I’ve talked about before, but essentially it means they were accusing him of running a brothel. The witnesses testified that they had danced and drank alcohol — hardly damning, I don’t think, but it also didn’t exactly help. Swann was sentenced to ten months imprisonment — the judge didn’t think that was enough and stated: “I would like to send you where you would never again see a man’s face, and would then like to rid the city of all other disreputable persons of the same kind.”
The trial went by very quickly — Swann was convicted three days after being arrested. Three months into serving his sentence, he decided (correctly) this whole thing was unjust and that there was something that could be done about it. He filed a petition for pardon with President Grover Cleveland. He stated that he would never engage in the crime again, that he was a hard worker and an upstanding member of the community. Thirty of his friends signed the petition. However, the US District Attorney, A.A. Birney, was not on board this time, writing: “This petition is wholly without merit. While the charge of keeping a disorderly house does not on its face differ from other cases in which milder sentences have been imposed, the prisoner was in fact convicted of the most horrible and disgusting offences known to the law; an offence so disgusting that it is unnamed. This is not the first time that the prisoner has been convicted of this crime, and his evil example in the community must have been most corrupting.”
In July, Swann’s friends began pushing harder — stating that conditions in jail were bad for his health. I don’t know if these claims were true, but a doctor who had examined Swann in March and said he was healthy diagnosed him with a heart condition in July, claiming that being held in prison could potentially be deadly. Now, knowing who Grover Cleveland’s sister was, one might imagine he would be somewhat sympathetic to the plight of queer people in the US. One would be very wrong. Grover officially denied the pardon on July 29, 1896 — proclaiming that the concerns for Swann’s health did not outweigh the “character of the offense.”
Although the petition was unsuccessful, this does mark the first time in the history of the United States that anyone attempted to take legal action to defend the rights of LGBTQ+ people to assemble. Swann did survive the prison sentence, but retired from drag (unsurprisingly, I would say). His brother continued making dresses for men who wanted to participate in drag balls, which were a tradition that continues even today.
Sadly, there’s no actual images of Swann — he often gets paired up with pictures of this incredible drag performers but this is actually Mr. Brown from the Vaudeville duo Gregory and Brown, who introduced the “cake walk” dance to the world. That’s no small thing either but it is a story for another day.
Last June, as you may recall, I did a whole series on the Heroes of Stonewall. Obviously, it was a massive riot, I couldn’t cover everyone who was there in just a month. I left out someone incredibly important (several someones), and I can’t think of a better time to cover the story of another transgender person of color who heroically led us at the Stonewall Riots, and afterwards, than right now — when the Trump administration is attacking the healthcare rights of transgender people.
MissMajor Griffin-Gracy was born in Chicago on October 25, 1940 in the south side of Chicago at St. Luke’s Hospital. She was assigned to the male gender at birth. It didn’t last too long — while she was still fairly young, she discovered the drag ball scene and began participating regularly. She later explained that, without the terminology we have today existing, she did not realize that she and her peers were questioning their gender identities. But they were, and Miss Major was fairly open about it. Her parents attempted to curb this, but eventually just kicked her out.
Afterwards, she was homelessness — getting by as best she could through sex work and the occasional theft. She transitioned, using hormones she purchased on the black market — something that became a booming business following the very public transition of Christine Jorgensen. She briefly had a job as a secretary for the Mattachine Society, but even that didn’t last too long.
After a run in with the law, and a six month bout in a mental institution, Miss Major moved to New York City. She became a performer at the famous Jewel Box Revue, as well as the Cherries and the Powder Puff Revue. (As an aside, I’m definitely a 90’s kid because I definitely first thought that was “Powerpuff” but it isn’t.) During these years she experimented with a handful of names, but settled on the one her parents had given her: Major. She simply added the word “Miss” in front of it.
Although many of the gay bars would not let her in, Miss Major became a frequent customer at the Stonewall Inn — probably at least in part because of her and Stormé DeLarverie‘s shared association with the Jewel Box Revue. She was there on the night of June 27, 1969 and stayed late enough to be present when the police raided the bar. She participated in the rioting on that first night, until she spit in the face off one of the police officers — he responded by knocking her out. She awoke the next day in a prison cell. While she was in police custody, her jaw was broken.
After the riot, Miss Major was deeply changed by the murder of a Puerto Rican transgender friend of hers known as Puppy. Despite plenty of evidence, the police ruled the murder was a suicide. She realized that transgender women of New York could not depend on anyone but each other — she began to build a network so that they could help protect each other. This was especially true of sex workers, who started trying to get their “johns” to exit the cars so that all of the girls could see them — just in case a girl never came back from a job.
She was arrested in 1970 for burglary after a safe-breaking job went wrong, and spent four years at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. He had a great deal of respect for Miss Major, and her gender identity, and he talked to her about how she could help her community. She spent a good amount of time in solitary confinement — she was imprisoned with men, and every time a fight broke out between her and any other inmate, she was the one who was punished. She was paroled twice — but both times the parole was revoked when her parole officer reported her for deviant behavior (once was for adopting a more feminine appearance by shaving her face, and the second time was for “entering a deviant bar.”) While incarcerated, she communicated regularly with Frank “Big Black” Smith — who had been in charge of security at the Attica Correctional Facility Riots of 1971. When she was finally released in 1974, she took those lessons to heart.
In 1978, Miss Major’s long-time girlfriend gave birth to their son Christopher. Miss Major decided the life she’d built in New York was not one well-suited for raising a child, she secured sole custody of Christopher and moved to San Diego. She would eventually adopted three other boys — runaways she met at a park. This was the start of a growing chosen family that still rallies around Miss Major to this day. She started working at a food bank and attempted to help transgender people who were in prison or recovering from addiction, but as the AIDS epidemic began to ravage the queer community of California, Miss Major turned her attention to helping provide healthcare and performing funerals. The silver lining for the epidemic, Miss Major later recalled, was that many transgender people — especially women — were able to find legitimate, legal jobs for the first time, even if that job was the heartbreaking task of providing healthcare to doomed queer people no one else wanted to touch.
In the mid 90’s, Miss Major moved to San Francisco. She continued her HIV/AIDS activism, including serving with the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center (TARC). As part of that organization, she ensured they had a refrigerator available so that homeless people could store food and medications at the center. She fought for them to acquire a washing machine and a dryer so homeless people in the community could do their laundry.
In 2003, Miss Major — who’s activism was returning more to its original focus on incarcerated transgender people — joined the newly founded Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project (TGI Justice Project), and became the Executive Director. In this position, she is one of an estimated five people in the United States that is working full time towards equal transgender rights in prison. She has testified about human rights violations towards transgender people in prisons before both the California State Assembly and the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva. One particular focus of her activism is on the healthcare that transgender inmates receive — they are sometimes denied everything from hormones to routine medical examinations. But, as she notes, transgender inmates face abuse in almost every aspect of prison life, and are overrepresented in prison populations (where they are typically housed with the incorrect gender).
She has decried the gay rights movement for ignoring the plight of transgender people as they fought for equality — a sentiment that was shared deeply by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. (And frankly, shared by me too. It’s hard to argue with.) But Miss Major herself has continued to fight tirelessly for those the rest of society wanted to ignore. She’s known to have said: “Just because there’s this umbrella, LGBT, we’re all grouped together. But guess what? Someone poked a hole in the umbrella and the girls are still getting wet.”
And recently, although those sentiments still largely hold true, Miss Major herself has finally been getting attention for her decades of work. In 2014, Miss Major was made the Grand Marshall of the San Francisco Pride Parade. In 2015, the documentary MAJOR! was released, following Miss Major’s life as an activist.
More recently, in 2018 Miss Major has relocated from California to Little Rock, Arkansas. There, she has founded the Griffin-Gracy Historical Retreat and Educational Center — also known the House of GG. On July 4, 2019 Miss Major suffered a stroke — but survived and is recovering well enough that she has been engaged in Black Lives Matters protests within the past month according to her Instagram. If you want to help with her continued recovery or with her continued activisim for transgender and gender non-conforming people, a website has been set up for donations.
While articles about Miss Major’s life and activism are plentiful, they all have anecdotes of Miss Major saving lives by simply being there, lending an ear, or offering advice and a good book. It’s little wonder so many have rallied around her, now often calling her “Mama Major” or “Grandma Major.” Janet Mock, a writer, director, and producer — one of the creators of the TV show Pose, once said, “Without Miss Major’s contributions and work, I would not exist.” There are countless transgender people in this country who say the same. That’s a tremendous legacy, but when asked what she hoped her legacy would be in a 2018 interview she said: “If ain’t right, fucking fix it, whatever it takes.”
And if that’s not a mantra for the whole world to adopt, I don’t know what is.
(PS, Miss Major also has a Facebook page you should totally follow.)
Before we begin, I do want to take a moment to apologize for my lengthy hiatus — life just got really busy around the holidays and — I’m sure you’ve all noticed — a lot has been going on since then just in the world. Anyways, craziness aside, it’s Pride month now and festivals or no, I was not about to let this month go by without writing out some queer history for you! So, we’re back! I was writing a post about Harvey Milk, but then something happened that called for me to change courses: we lost a legend. Not to spoil the end of this post or anything, but Larry Kramer passed away last week. And as he was someone who had a profound impact on our community…I couldn’t just not write about him.
Laurence “Larry” David Kramer was born in Bridgeport, CT on June 25, 1935 in the midst of the Great Depression. He was the second child of a struggling Jewish family, who had really not wanted another mouth to feed as they struggled to find work. His father George Kramer was a government attorney, his mother Rea worked variously as a shoe store employee, a teacher, and a social worker with the Red Cross.
Eventually — after the Depression — the family moved to Maryland — I’m guessing because of his dad’s job — but they were in a much lower income bracket than the family’s of Larry’s fellow students at his school. Larry had his first sexual relationship with another boy during junior high school. It was, from what I can gather, purely sexual and not romantic at all.
As he grew up, he had mounting pressure from his family. His father wanted him to marry a wealthy Jewish woman, and go to Yale, and become a member of the Pi Tau Pi fraternity. Although Larry enrolled at Yale….the rest of that is not exactly how things were going to go down. When Larry got to Yale, he found himself very isolated, feeling like the only gay guy on campus. This is 1953, so there’s not like a Gay/Straight Alliance he can just join up with — he’s pretty much stuck on his own with no way of connecting with other queer students. So, he tried to kill himself by overdosing on aspirin.
Fortunately, the attempt failed. I don’t know the details, but I’m hoping he just like…got a cramp for ten minutes and then was fine. Probably not, because he was very much changed after that. He became loud, proud, determined to fight for gay people and determined to explore his own sexuality. And determined not to marry a rich Jewish woman. The following semester, he began a romantic relationship with his German professor. He joined the Varsity Glee Club, and was an active member there until he graduated in 1957 with a degree in English. As far as I know, he never joined Pi Tau Pi.
At the age of 23, Larry became involved in movie productions, taking a job at Columbia Pictures as a Teletype operator — a job where the office happened to be across the hall from the president’s office. This led pretty directly to his first writing credit, a dialogue writer for Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. He followed this by adapting the novel Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence into a screenplay. The movie was nominated for an Oscar in 1969. Larry’s third major project was a musical adaption of Frank Capra’s movie Lost Horizon, which debuted in 1973. Though Larry later was embarrassed by the project, it made him a substantial amount of money that, due to some wise investments made by Larry’s older brother Arthur, gave him enough money to not worry about money for the better part of the 80s and 90s. Doesn’t sound all that embarrassing when you look at it like that, huh?
Having established himself, Larry began taking some risks. He started writing plays and — much riskier — he started adding homosexual elements to his work. The first of these plays was 1973’s Sissies’ Scrapbook (which would later become the play Four Friends — I gather the play is better but the title’s pretty forgettable now.) Larry found he loved writing for the stage — until the producer canceled the show despite a favorable review in The New York Times. At that point, Larry promised never to write for the stage again.
In 1978, following a break up with his boyfriend David Webster, he wrote and published the novel Faggots. The book was based around a character who was looking for love, but was caught up in drugs and partying in bars and clubs on Fire Island and in Manhattan. To say that the book was not well received is an understatement. Heterosexual readers found it appalling, and could not believe that it reflected an accurate representation of a gay man’s life. The queer community had an even harsher reaction to the book — the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, the only gay bookstore in New York at the time, refused to sell the book at all. Larry was banned from the local grocery store where he lived on Fire Island. The book was universally trashed by mainstream and queer media alike.
Despite that, Faggots is one of the best-selling gay novels of all time and has not been out of publication at all since its debut. The book is often taught in LGBTQ+ studies. It’s been noted that the themes of Faggots are still relevant to the gay community to this day — the negative reaction to the book, as pointed out by many who’ve studied the book since it was first published, such as Reynolds Price and Andrew Sullivan, is largely because it touched a nerve and was more honest than people were comfortable with.
Despite the reaction to the novel, Larry still managed to have a lot of friends on Fire Island, so when a number of them began to fall ill in 1980, he was concerned. The next year, after reading an article in the New York Times about “gay cancer”, he decided something had to be done. He invited about 80 affluent gay men to his home in New York City, where they listened to a doctor explain what little they knew about the related illnesses afflicting gay men. By the next year, this group had officially formed into the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) which quickly became the primary organization raising funds and helping to provide services for those afflicted with AIDS in and around New York. GMHC is still providing support for people who are impacted by HIV and AIDS and has been expanding every year.
Kramer led the GMHC in a fight to get funding from the city to help them provide much-needed services to those fighting the disease. He made NYC mayor Ed Koch a principle target for this fight. When doctors began to suggest that, to curb the spread of the disease, gay men stop having sex, Larry brought this to the GMHC and suggested they spread the word. His colleagues refused.
Larry was not deterred. He wrote a fiery piece called “1,112 and Counting” which was published in the gay newspaper the New York Native. The essay attacked basically everyone. Healthcare workers, the CDC, politicians — and it also went after the apathy of the gay community. The piece did something important than no one else had managed: it caught the attention of the rest of New York’s media. It finally had people talking about the AIDS epidemic. According to Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, “With that one piece, Larry changed my world. He changed the world for all of us.”
Unfortunately, it also contributed to Larry’s growing reputation as a confrontational crazy person. He had gone toe-to-toe with an NIH agency of not devoting more resources to the AIDS crisis because he was deeply in the closet. Similarly, Larry had it out quite publicly with conservative fundraiser Terry Dolan, even throwing a drink in his face, for secretly having sex with men while using homophobia as a political tool to his advantage. He argued with his brother, whose law firm Kramer Levin refused to represent GMHC. He called Ed Koch his cohorts in city government “equal to murderers.” He even attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci, the scientist who was leading the government’s response (once there was one.) Ultimately, this behavior led to the dissolution of Larry’s long-term relationship with a fellow member of the board of GMHC and — perhaps even more devastating — it led to GMHC removing Larry from the organization he’d essentially started in 1983.
After his removal from the group, Larry traveled to Europe. While he was there, he visited the Dachau concentration camp where he was horrified to learn that it had begun operating in 1933 and no one, in or out of Germany, had seen fit to stop it. He felt this paralleled the US government’s response to AIDS. Despite having sworn never to write for the stage again, Larry churned out a script for the play The Normal Heart — a somewhat autobiographical look at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. I’m not going to talk too much about its contents, other than to say that you should absolutely watch it — you can see the 2014 film version on Hulu or Amazon Prime, starring Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer. The play itself was groundbreaking — one of, if not the, script to actually talk about AIDS. The play premiered in 1985, a full year before President Ronald Reagan would publicly mention the disease. It was produced by the Public Theater — running for over a year and becoming the Public Theater’s longest running production. It’s been produced over 600 times since then, in countries all over the world. (That’s not even counting the movie!)
Two years later, Larry was invited to speak at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in NYC. His speech was well-attended and focused on fighting AIDS. He started the speech by having two-thirds of the people in the room stand up — and then he informed them that they would be dead within five years. For the most part, the rest of his speech was rehashing his points from “1,112 And Counting.” At the end of the speech, he asked the attendees if they wanted to start a new organization devoted to political action. The audience agreed that they did, and two days later about 300 of them met again to form the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) — an direct action organization primarily focused on advocating on behalf of issues relating AIDS and HIV, such as medical research and improving public policies.
Initially, their primary method was civil disobedience. They sought to get attention for their cause by getting their members arrested. Larry himself was arrested over a dozen times. ACT UP did manage to capture a lot of attention — with new chapters forming rapidly across the United States and even into Europe. (And, if you’ve seen or heard RENT or watched the second season of Pose you already knew about them. And if you haven’t watched Pose, fix your life. After you finish reading this.)
In 1988, Larry wrote his next script — Just Say No, A Play About a Farce. Despite the title, the play is not a farce, it’s a dramatic piece that is almost entirely a commentary on the indifference the Reagan administration showed towards the AIDS epidemic. The play received a terrible review from the New York Times which kept most audiences away. However, those who did attend reportedly loved the show. After seeing it, activist and writer Susan Sontag wrote, “Larry Kramer is one of America’s most valuable troublemakers. I hope he never lowers his voice.”
The stress of the opening of the show caused Larry to suffer a hernia, which sent Larry to the a few weeks after the show opened. While there, they discovered he had experienced liver damage from Hepatitis B and, subsequently, they found that he was HIV positive. Nevertheless, Larry was not deterred, and he was not about to lower his voice.
He published a non-fiction book called Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist in 1989. The book documents his career as an activist, particularly his time at GMHC but also his work with ACT UP and a lot of letters to editors and speeches he wrote. The book encouraged gay men to take responsibility for their own health, and urged survivors to help strengthen their community by giving back to it and advocating for it. The book also, quite intentionally but definitely controversially, declares the AIDS epidemic a holocaust, stating the government ignored it because it was primarily wiping out minorities and poor people.
His next piece was a sequel to The Normal Heart called The Destiny of Me in 1992, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, won two Obie Awards, and the Lortel Award for Outstanding Play of the Year. To be honest, I haven’t seen it or read it (yet!) so I’m not going to tell you too much else about it.
In 1995, Larry reunited with his ex-boyfriend David Webster. The two were together for the rest of Larry’s life.
In 1997, Larry tried to give several million dollars to Yale to establish a continuous, permanent gay studies class, and to possibly construct a gay and lesbian student center. The proposal was incredibly narrow — something which Larry would later himself comment on the flaw of — and stated “Yale is to use this money solely for 1) the study of and/or instruction in gay male literature, by which I mean courses to study gay male writers throughout history or the teaching to gay male students of writing about their heritage and their experience. To ensure for the continuity of courses in either or both of these areas tenured positions should be established; and/or 2) the establishment of a gay student center at Yale.” The provost declined, stating it was too narrow a field of study. By 2001, however, Larry and Yale reached an agreement. Arthur Kramer gave Yale 1 million dollars to have a five year trial of the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies — a program focused on gay and lesbian history.
2001 was also the year that Larry needed a liver transplant. He was rejected by Mount Sinai Hospital’s organ transplant list because of his HIV. At the time, HIV positive patients were routinely rejected because of a belief that they were more likely to have complications. I don’t know if that was true or not at the time, I’m not a doctor and I don’t really follow advances in organ transplants. Larry certainly considered it discrimination, and — as we could predict by now — he was not quiet about it. In May — with the help of Dr. Fauci, who he had actually become very good friends with over the years — he was added to the transplant list at the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute at the University of Pittsburgh. It was too late to stop the media though — on June 11, Newsweek published an article titled “The Angry Prophet is Dying”. He received his transplant on December 21 and was moved out of the intensive care unit on December 26. There was some miscommunication about that, which led the Associated Press to release an article erroneously announcing that he had died. In actuality, he was in a regular hospital room and was released to his home the following week.
Larry managed to stay out of trouble for a couple of years after that — until George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004. Larry believed Bush’s re-election was mostly due to opposition to marriage equality, so he gave a speech entitled “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays” on November 21 of that year. The speech was published in a book the following year. In the speech, he laid out the framework for an intentional plan by the wealthy and conservative elite to destroy the lives of racial minorities, non-Christians, the poor, and gays and lesbians that went back as far as 1971 with the “Powell Manifesto”. He described the AIDS epidemic as a dream come true for this behind this — a genocide that the undesirables spread among themselves. It was mostly hailed as a passionate and truthful call to arms. Others, however, accused Larry of homophobia — pointing to his history of being anti-sex in the midst of the AIDS epidemic and Faggots to establish a pattern. I’d like to point out, though, that much of what he was warning us about is proving true right now.
The next decade was a fairly quiet one, although the Broadway revival of The Normal Heart won a Tony Award in 2011, and he married David Webster in 2013. The following year, of course, The Normal Heart was made into a movie.
In 2015 he published the novel The American People: Volume 1, Search for my Heart, a passion project he’d been working on since 1981. In it, he asserted that a number of important American historical figures were gay: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Herman Melville, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Richard Nixon…. while the novel is a work of fiction, apparently he put a great deal of research into it, but I am still really skeptical about most of those names. (But I’m definitely doing some of my own research just to be sure!)
Anyways, this year — 2020 — he released the second volume of The American People: Volume 2, The Brutality of Fact. The combined work is called The American People: A History. I haven’t read it yet. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Larry began writing a new play called An Army of Lovers Must Not Die. Unfortunately, he was unable to finish it before he came down with pneumonia and passed away on May 27.
Larry Kramer had a remarkable ability to force a spotlight to shine on issues. He probably garnered more attention for the AIDS crisis than anyone outside of Rock Hudson. He certainly reshaped the way that the government, and scientists — particularly those working with the government — respond to activists. He had a profound impact on medicine in general — it is because of him that part of the process the FDA uses to approve new drugs involves consulting with representatives from groups who will use the medicine. He will likely go down as one of the most aggressive activists in queer history, but he’ll have that reputation because when he did it…it worked.
So I may have been inspired by writing about Ronnie Kray recently, but I’ve also found a queer person who basically makes him look like an angel. She is none other than the Cocaine Godmother herself — Griselda Blanco Restrepo. The woman was basically a supervillain straight out of comic books. She was also known as “la Madrina,” “the Black Widow,” and “la Dama de la Mafia.”
Her story doesn’t even start particularly innocently — born on February 14, 1943 in Cartagena, Colombia. Her mother was Ana Lucía Restrepo and her father was Fernando Blanco. When Blanco was three years old, Ana Restrepo moved to Medellín — taking her daughter with her. It was only a few years later that she began her life of crime.
At eleven years old, Blanco kidnapped another child from a wealthy neighborhood and attempted to hold the kid for ransom — and, ultimately, shot the child. Before turning thirteen, Blanco had become an established pickpocket. At sixteen years old, Blanco ran away from home — in order to escape the sexual assaults from her mother’s boyfriend. Now living on the streets, and already familiar with crime, Blanco survived through burglary for the next four years.
Blanco entered into the drug business and rapidly rose to the top — thanks in part to her marriages to Carlos Trujillo (who she allegedly had killed after he was deported from the US) and Alberto Bravo. By the mid-70s, the cartel they’d created together rose to prominence. Bravo and Blanco had moved, using counterfeit passports, to Queens, New York. In 1975, Blanco and 30 of her underlings were indicted on Federal drug conspiracy charges — she and Bravo fled back to Colombia.
Shortly after that, Blanco realized there were millions of dollars missing from the business. She confronted Bravo about the missing money. She drew a handgun on Bravo — who answered by pulling out an Uzi. There was a brief gun battle — during which, Blanco managed to kill Bravo and his six bodyguards while only getting one superficial wound to her abdomen that she quickly recuperated from. With her business partner dead, Blanco now had complete control over her organization. With that power, she decided to thumb her nose at authority and move back to the United States — this time settling in Miami, Florida.
It’s not coincidental that her move to Miami also was about the time that Miami entered a series of extremely violent crime waves. I mean, it wasn’t all her but like, she was an important contributing factor. And these crime waves were so vicious, they’ve been called the “Cocaine Cowboy Wars” or the “Miami Drug Wars” — yeah, wars. And Blanco herself was known for her viciousness — she did things like force people to have sex in front of her at gun point. She murdered her husbands, business partners, business rivals, strippers, and even bystanders — including a kid who was only four years old.
But the fact that Blanco was so terrifying and so successful also gave her some freedoms most people did not enjoy in that time. She was very open about being bisexual, and hosted frequent orgies. She had a wealth of luxurious and glamorous possessions — including a gold and emerald MAC-10 machine pistol, pearls that had belonged to Eva Perón, and a tea set that the Queen of England had used. She was also a drug addict herself, using copious amounts of an unrefined cocaine substance called “basuco.” The drug addiction did weigh on Blanco’s health.
By the mid-80’s, however, Blanco’s violence had brought serious government attention to Miami that was beginning to unravel her organization — her family life wasn’t going so well either. In 1983, her third husband Darío Sepúlveda left her and relocated back to Colombia — kidnapping their child Michael Corleone Blanco. This was a big mistake — Blanco sent someone to kill Sepúlveda and bring the kid back to Miami to be with her. It was probably because of him that she decided she needed to stop the regular attempts on her own life, however, and in 1984 she fled Miami for California.
On February 17, 1985, DEA agents finally arrested Blanco in her California home, and she was held without bail. The Miami-Dade State’s Attorney Office was able to flip one of her subordinates, and gained enough evidence to indict her for three murders — however, a phone-sex scandal involving the star witness and secretaries in the D.A.’s office led to the case falling apart. Blanco continued running her cocaine empire from prison, with help from Michael.
In 2002, Blanco had a heart attack while imprisoned. At some point after that, according to her son, she became a born-again Christian. She was released from prison in 2004, and deported back to Colombia. She kept a low profile for several years, and then — after being seen at the El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá, Colombia — disappeared entirely until September 5, 2012. On that day, she was seen purchasing $150 worth of meat at a butcher shop in Medellín, Colombia — with no explanation as to what she planned to do with that because nobody had seen her anywhere for five years — and then a middle-aged guy on a motorcycle showed up, walked into the shop, and shot her twice. Once in the head. And then he walked out, hopped back on his bike, and drove away. If that leaves you going “wait, what?” trust me, I can relate. But that’s what happened.
Blanco, of course, is legendary. She’s been mentioned in a multitude of rap songs, including twice by Nicki Minaj. She’s been featured in TV shows, including being the focus of an episode of Drunk History where she was portrayed by Maya Rudolph, and has been the focus of three movies in which she’s been portrayed by Catalina Sandino Morena and Catherine Zeta-Jones. There is also an HBO movie in development (since 2016) where Blanco will be played by Jennifer Lopez.
Griselda Blanco was definitely a bad person — but she was really good at it. And she pretty much obliterated any glass ceiling there may have been in the illegal drug smuggling industry. If you were to ignore what she was, y’know, actually doing, that would be pretty admirable.
In a lot of these articles, we’ve talked about how governments tried their best to sweep people’s queerness under the rug. That’s not exactly the case with Sir Roger David Casement.
Casement was born in Sandycove, Ireland on September 1, 1864 (why, yes, the timing of this article is intentional, thank you very much!) His father, Captain Roger Casement, was active in the military and fought in various regions — including present-day Afghanistan. The family moved to England around 1867, where Casement’s mother secretly had him baptized as a Roman Catholic (although there’s some dispute over the exact details of this baptism.) Casement’s mother died six years later, and they returned to live in Ireland. Four years after that, his father died. Casement and his brother (Thomas Casement, who helped establish the Irish Coastguard Service) were forced to live on the generosity of relatives. By 16 years old, he had abandoned a formal education and taken a job with a shipping company in Liverpool.
By 1884, Casement had taken a job working for Henry Morton Stanley and the African International Association — which was basically a front to allow Belgium to take over the Congo. Casement was employed to conduct a survey to improve communication within the region. As part of this, he recruited laborers and supervised them as they built a railroad to help traders bypass the Congo River. When he arrived in the Congo, Casement believed that colonization would help bring moral and social progress to the continent of Africa — something he still believed in 1890 when he met Joseph Conrad. Over the course of the next nine years, both became disillusioned with the supposed benefits of colonization on the African people — Conrad expressed this by writing Heart of Darkness. Casement would write something else entirely.
In 1901, Casement began serving the British consul in French Congo. It was in this position that he was commissioned, in 1903, to investigate the human rights situation in the colony under King Leopold II of Belgium’s leadership. Casement spent weeks traveling throughout the Congo, interviewing everyone from workers to mercenaries. And then he wrote the Casement Report. The document painted a picture of Leopold exploiting the Congolese and using the natural resources of the land — primarily rubber — for his own personal profit, as an entrepreneur and not as the king of Belgium. Furthermore, his private military force the Force Publique were terrorizing and murdering the Congolese to increase profits and productivity. The report was incredibly controversial, and many doubted its veracity. However, the report became public in 1904 — which made the Belgian Parliament force Leopold to set up an inquiry, which confirmed the report’s findings. As a reward for his efforts, Casement received a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (CMG). Ultimately, this all resulted in Leopold’s reign over the Congo being usurped by the Belgian Parliament, and the Belgian Congo being formally established.
By that point, however, the British consul had reassigned Casement — in 1906, they sent him to Brazil. In 1909, a journalist named Sidney Paternoster wrote an article in a British magazine called Truth that accused the Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC) of abusing their rubber-harvesting laborers, and destroying and stealing rubber from their Colombian competitors. As most of the economy of the British-controlled parts of that region depended heavily on PAC, the consul took the article very seriously and assigned Casement — at that point the consul-general — to investigate. Casement made his way to the Putumayo District, which was technically outside the jurisdiction of the national government and was near the border of Colombia but was also where a lot of PAC’s rubber was harvested.
Casement found the conditions at least as bad as those in Congo, and his subsequent report has been called a “brilliant piece of journalism.” Using first person accounts from both the victims of abuse and from their abusers, he painted a clear and undeniable picture. Much of PAC’s labor came from unpaid indigenous people, who were kept nearly starving and sometimes branded with hot irons. The indigenous women and girls were frequently raped. Any indigenous person was liable to be casually murdered and forgotten.
Casement’s first report about this was made public in Great Britain in 1910. The British people were outraged. The heads of PAC and the Peruvian government vowed to make changes and improve conditions, and to that end the Peruvian government attempted to prosecute the men Casement had exposed to be murderers — most of them managed to escape arrest and were never seen again. In 1911, the British government asked Casement to return to the region to see if conditions had improved. Though some things had improved, Casement’s scathing report explained of terrible and sometimes fatal punishments inflicted on entire families — having parents and their children held in pillories, sometimes for months. He described parents, held in the pillories, being flogged to death while their children were forced to watch.
The scandal cost PAC huge business losses, and ultimately the company collapsed. The head of PAC, Julio Cesar Arana, was never prosecuted and ultimately went on to have a successful political career in Peru. Casement, meanwhile, returned to England where he was knighted. In 1913, Casement retired from the British consul and began to focus on politics. Or rather, on his political view that Great Britain should just rule over Britain — which meant that Ireland should be independent. Casement had joined some groups that wanted an independent Ireland years earlier, while on leave from the Congo. Several of his Irish nationalist friends and he formed a new group, called the Irish Volunteers.
Casement traveled to the United States to raise money for the new organization, and to reconnect with some exiled Irish nationalists such as those of Clan na Gael. Clan na Gael initially believed Casement to be too moderate, though he eventually won them over — partly by helping organize and get funding for things like the Howth gun-running, where 1500 rifles were delivered to the Irish Volunteers on July 26, 1914. In this event, the guns were delivered on a yacht to Howth harbor, unloaded in broad daylight in front of a huge crowd, and yet the Irish Volunteers were able to completely avoid law enforcement.
In August of 1914, World War I broke out. Casement traveled to New York to meet with John DeVoy (of Clan na Gael) and the German diplomat Count Johann Berstorff. Together, they cooked up a plan — if Germany would supply weapons to the Irish, they would revolt against the British, forcing Britain to divert military forces from fighting the Germans. To secure this plan, Casement donned a disguise and traveled to Germany. Along the way, the British government offered his traveling companion Adler Christensen a great deal of money to betray Casement — and the diplomat Mansfeldt Findlay also subtly implied that Casement was involved in homosexual relationships, and that this could be used as leverage. (I know you’re all like “finally some gay stuff!” Not really, but we’ll get there, I promise!) Christensen did not take the bait, and Casement successfully made it to Germany.
In Germany, he spent most of his time negotiating. He managed to secure a written promise from Germany to never invade Ireland, no matter the outcome of the war. Meanwhile, Casement also attempted to negotiate the release of 2,000 Irish prisoners-of-war, on the condition that those POWs fight for Irish independence. 52 of the prisoners committed to the cause and were freed on December 27, 1914. Around that time, he was also helping connect some of his American contacts with the people behind the Hindu-German Conspiracy — which was a similar cause, Indians hoping to use the war to their advantage and secure independence for India.
In April 1916, Germany offered 2,000 rifles to the Irish revolutionaries, and ten machine guns. However, Casement could not secure any German officers to help train the Irish in the use of the machine guns. Casement came to believe the Germans were toying with him — giving just enough support to lead to a rebellion that would distract the British, but that was still doomed to fail. (He was pretty smart, y’know?) With the promise of these weapons, the other leaders of the Irish rebellion — home in Ireland — planned out the Easter Rising. The plan was completed by the time Casement learned it was happening — and, when he heard about it, he realized it could not succeed without more support from the Germans. On April 9, he set off for Ireland in the submarine SM U-19 determined to stop or, at least, delay the plan.
However, the plan started going badly pretty much right away. The men Devoy sent to the docks to collect the weapons drove off the pier and drowned. The weapons themselves never arrived — the British had been tipped off that weapons might be smuggled into Ireland, and were able to stop and intercept the ship carrying them even though it was disguised as a Norwegian freighter. The ship was scuttled, and the German crew were taken as prisoners of war.
Casement was dropped off in Ireland on April 21 — three days before the Easter Rising was planned. He was suffering from a bout of recurring malaria (a condition he’d suffered from periodically since his days in the Congo), and was too weak to travel any further. As a result, he was rather quickly discovered at McKenna Fort (which is now, as a result, known as Casement’s Fort) and arrested on the charges of high treason, sabotage, and espionage. The Irish Volunteers were ordered not to try to rescue Casement, so as not to use any of the precious ammunition they’d managed to acquire for the Easter Rising (which was still scheduled to take place. I mean, literally everything was going wrong, so why not?) The rebellion did take place, lasted six days, and was ultimately a failure with tons of people being imprisoned and executed.
Casement was brought to Brixton Prison and placed under suicide watch. This seems to have been primarily because they wanted to make absolutely sure he was still alive for his trial, which was very public and very publicized. Prior to this trial, Treason Act 1351 had only applied to crimes committed on British soil, but Casement’s crimes had been committed in Germany. The courts adopted a new interpretation of the law, basically just so they could try Casement for his actions. This whole interpretation was basically legitimized by the court saying that a certain comma wouldn’t have been included in the original Norman-French text. Casement later wrote that he was “to be hanged on a comma” — which is where that saying originates.
Apparently, during the search for evidence, the prosecution came into possession of what is now referred to as “the Black Diaries” which described various sexual experiences that Casement had had with other men throughout his life — mostly sex that he paid to have with other men. The prosecutor, F.E. Smith, suggested to the defense that they release these and that, with those in evidence, Casement might be found guilty but insane and thereby escape the death penalty. Casement rejected the idea. So, instead, the government surreptitiously leaked the diaries to the public in an effort to turn opinion against him — as Casement was still fairly popular for his work in the Congo and Peru.
Casement was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. He appealed both the conviction and the death penalty. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw, and W.B. Yeats all petitioned for leniency, for Casement to avoid the death penalty. Yeats, specifically, was convinced that the diaries were fake and that Casement was the victim of a conspiracy meant to defame and destroy him. The United States Senate also sent an appeal against using the death penalty for Casement, which the British cabinet soundly rejected at the behest of F.E. Smith — proving that his idea to have Casement’s defense release the diaries was never actually intended to save his life. Unfortunately, partly because Casement was now being painted as a sexual degenerate and partly because a lot of British people were so offended at the idea of an independent Ireland, many of his other friends and family had abandoned him — including his old friend from Africa, Joseph Conrad. A few relatives covertly donated to his defense fund, but none of them publicly spoke out on his behalf. As such, Casement’s appeals were denied. His knighthood was stripped from him on June 29, 1916 and he was hanged at Pentonville Prison on August 3, 1916.
Initially Casement’s body was buried at the prison cemetery. The British government rejected requests to repatriate the body to Ireland for years. They finally relented in 1965 and — despite Casement’s knighthood having been rescinded — the paperwork for the body calls him “Sir Roger Casement.” Although Casement’s last wish was to be buried on Murlough Bay, the only condition of the repatriation was that Casement could not be buried in Northern Ireland — as they feared what stirring up the Catholics might cause. Casement was given a state funeral with military honors, and buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. His funeral was attended by 30,000 people including the President of Ireland, Éamon de Valera — the last surviving participant in the Easter Rising.
You may have noticed that Casement’s sexuality only seems to appear in his biography when it’s being used as blackmail. Casement was very good at keeping his private life private, as one would need to do in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and really doesn’t seem to have had any substantial or impactful romantic or sexual relationships with other men. This has led to some seriously heated debates about whether or not Casement was, in fact, queer at all. Were the Black Diaries fake? There’s been some pretty convincing arguments that they were. I’ve taken the opinion that they were not — or at least not entirely. I’ve been convinced by two things: firstly, Casement’s friend John Harris viewed the diaries in 1916, and was himself skeptical of them. Harris wrote: “I was so firmly convinced, that the diary was not Roger Casement’s handiwork. Alas, when it was put before me and I had examined certain parts, my confidence was shaken. Then I came upon two or three facts only known in Europe to Casement and myself, and then my hopes were scattered…” The second thing that convinced me was a handwriting analysis done in 2002 that compared the diaries to things Casement wrote while in the Congo, and matched them. So its pretty convincing at this point that Casement was — as Jeffrey Dudgeon put it when he published a compilation of the Black Diaries in 2016 — a “busy homosexual.” I can only hope that 100 years after my death, someone will describe me that way too.
I always say that you can find someone queer connected to virtually any major historical event. The American Revolution is no exception — and, in fact, without this person being queer, we would almost certainly have lost the war.
Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben was born in Magdeburg in the kingdom Prussia on September 17, 1730. His father was the Royal Prussian Engineer Captain Baron Wilhelm von Steuben and his wife Elizabeth von Jagdovin. In his childhood, his father went into the service of Empress Anna of Russia, and young von Steuben traveled with his father to his various posts. They returned to Prussia in 1740, where von Steuben began to a formal military education, taught to him by Jesuits. This education — despite being from a Roman Catholic order — left him extremely critical of the Roman Catholic church. This was probably partly because his parents were devout Protestants.
Although it’s said he participated in one of his father’s campaigns when he was 14 (in the War of Austrian Succession) Von Steuben did not formally join the Prussian military until he was 17. He served as a second lieutenant in the Seven Years War, suffering an injury in the Battle of Prague in 1757. By 1759, he was promoted to first lieutenant — and then, in August, was injured again. After he recovered he was given the role of deputy quartermaster for the generals headquarters. In 1761, he became the adjutant of Major General Von Knobloch (who — according to my real quick research, is now most renowned for having had von Steuben as his adjutant. Not the most illustrious military career, it seems.) They were taken prisoner by the Russians, but eventually returned to the ranks of the Prussians and von Steuben was later promoted to captain and became the aide-de-camp (personal assistant, basically) to King Frederick the Great. In 1762, von Steuben was one of 13 officers chosen for instruction by the Frederick the Great himself.
However, despite his great success, at the end of the war in 1763, von Steuben was unceremoniously out of a job. Later in his life, letters would point to this being due to an “inconsiderate step and an implacable personal enemy.” While that’s definitely vague enough for lots of interpretation, given later problems in his life, it is easy to speculate exactly what might have been going on — he probably needed to take the discharge in order to keep someone quiet about his sexuality.
The next year, von Steuben joined the service of Petty Court of Hohenzollern-Hechingen — a little principality in Germany. He remained with the court until 1777 — earning himself the title of “Baron” along the way. He was the only member of the court to accompany his prince to France in 1771, hoping to borrow money. They returned to Germany in 1775 deeply in debt and with nothing to show for their efforts.
By 1777, von Steuben was pretty desperate for any sort of job where he could actually make some money. Fortunately, he’d impressed the Comte de Saint-Germain, Claude Louis, when they had met in 1763, and the count also believed that the Americans could really use someone with Prussian officer’s training. He summoned von Steuben back to Paris and introduced him to Benjamin Franklin. The Continental Congress was certainly eager for von Steuben’s experience and training, but they were already running into morale issues among the men when they would hire mercenaries from other countries and immediately make them officers. Franklin could not offer von Steuben an officer’s pay (or really any pay), and von Steuben was unwilling to work for less — he rejected the offer to fight in America and headed back to Prussia.
Where he was immediately accused of engaging in homosexual acts with soldiers while serving in the Hohenzollern-Hechingen court. Although the accusations were never proven, von Steuben realized they would cost him any chance at furthering his career in Europe — and might land him in jail or worse. He returned to Paris — while rumors about his sexual activities made their way to the colonies in America ahead of him — and spoke to Franklin again. I’m not saying Franklin was being open-minded for the time, so much as he was just desperate to get a really skilled Prussian officer on board in the war. He wrote a letter to George Washington exaggerating von Steuben’s credentials (calling him a “Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia’s service”) — there is some debate as to if this was an unintential mistranslation, or if Franklin was trying to counter the damage rumors might have done to von Steuben’s reputation.
Whether or not Washington had heard the rumors is unclear, but there is some evidence that Washington was more open-minded about homosexuality than most people of the time. More to the point, Washington knew the Continental army was hanging by a thread and had even written that without “some great and capital change…this Army must inevitably…starve, dissolve or disperse.” So Washington was very eager to work with von Steuben, and since the baron had agreed to work — at least initially — without pay, the Continental Congress was also quite eager. They forwarded travel funds, and so on September 26, 1777 von Steuben boarded the ship the Flamand and set off for the colonies. They arrived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on December 1, 1777.
He and his companions — including Pierre Etienne Du Ponceau (who was probably his lover at the time) — traveled to Boston, and then to York, Pennsylvania where they met with the Continental Congress on February 5, 1778. There, arrangements were officially made — von Steuben would be paid for his service at the end of the war, if he survived and if the Americans won. He made the trek from York to Valley Forge, where conditions for the troops were pretty dismal after months of low supplies and an Inspector General who was a complete deadbeat. He was appalled at the conditions — though impressed at the American’s ability to withstand them — and immediately set to work whipping the Continental Army into shape. He did not speak English, but was fluent in both German and French which allowed him to communicate with some of the officers — Alexander Hamilton, Nathaniel Greene, and Captain Benjamin Walker helped translate for him. The former two also helped him write out his training program for the men.
Von Steuben was also appointed temporary inspector general of the camp. He examined the living conditions and their equipment, and set changes into motion regarding the layout of the camp and the sanitation of the camp. These changes included putting the latrines and kitchens on opposite sides of the camp, and having the latrines on the downhill side of camp. A hundred years later, the changes he made would be adopted as standard practice — but they had the immediate effect of improving the health and quality of life for the soldiers at Valley Forge.
His training methods were also a hit — soldiers found him both impressive and entertaining, and found renewed confidence in themselves as they quickly mastered the tactics and maneuvers he instilled in them. He hand-selected 120 men (who became Washington’s honor guard) and trained them — mostly by barking at them, with Benjamin Walker translating. At a certain point, he began insisting that Walker translate not only his orders but also his (many) curse words. These 120 men, in turn, each trained other units of soldiers, who went on to train others, until the entire camp was trained. He had the entirety of the troops at Valley Forge trained by the end of April — just a few months after his arrival.
Von Steuben also implemented a new policy ensuring that troops received training before they were placed in a regiment — using this system of progressive training to make sure that could occur. Although commanding officers were in charge of making sure this happened, they would select their best sergeants to actually perform the training of new recruits. If any of this is sounding vaguely familiar, that’s because this is the groundwork for how our military still operates today.
Washington was greatly impressed, and suggested making von Steuben the permanent inspector general for the army with the rank and pay of a major general. Congress approved this recommendation on May 5, 1778. With this new position, von Steuben became aware of the lack of records being kept about supplies sent to the troops — he insisted that exact records be kept, putting an end to what he called “administrative incompetence, graft, war profiteering” and saving the Continental army an estimated five to eight thousand muskets.
While at Valley Forge, he was known for throwing wild parties in his quarters — to be admitted, it’s said, the only requirement to be allowed in was that no one was permitted to wear pants. I guess he figured that he’d been hired for the job in spite of fairly public allegations regarding his sexuality, so he could be more open about things than he’d been in Europe. He also began long-lasting romantic relationships with Benjamin Walker and Major General William North. This was all particularly brave since the first ever discharge of an American soldier (Ensign Frederick Gotthold Enslin) for committing homosexual acts occurred at Valley Forge at the behest of Lieutenant Colonel Aaron Burr in March of that same year — after von Steuben’s arrival.
Von Steuben’s training program was truly put to the test for the first time on May 20, 1778 with the Battle of Barren Hill. The British army attempted to entrap the Continental army — and although they technically won the battle, the Americans escaped with only three casualties. The next major proof of von Steuben’s training was the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. However, the greatest proof of the strength of von Steuben’s training was undoubtedly the Battle of Stony Point which took place on July 16, 1779 — the Continental Army launched a surprise attack on a British camp, with unloaded muskets. The Americans won the battle using only bayonets — and the tactics von Steuben had taught them for the use of bayonets.
Von Steuben compiled his training program into a book called Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States — more commonly called the “Blue Book.” The Blue Book was the manual for the United States Army until 1814, and was stilled heavily referenced until 1846. And, as I said before, it laid out the groundwork for how we are still training the military (just with a lot fewer bayonets.)
In 1780, von Steuben was part of the court martial for Major John André — who was being tried for espionage in conjunction with the defection of Benedict Arnold. Afterwards, von Steuben traveled south to Virginia with Nathaniel Greene, and then took command of a 1,000 man militia whose job was, essentially, to ensure the troops would still be able to receive supplies and shipments while in the south. They fought in the Battle of Blandford in April of 1781, before joining with Nathaniel Greene as he campaigned in the south. Ultimately, this led them to bring 450 Continental troops to Lafayette. Von Steuben took ill at this point, and had to take a leave from his services to recover — finally rejoining the army just in time for the campaign at Yorktown (you know, the climactic siege that sealed Britain’s defeat. Gotta hand it to him, von Steuben had impeccable timing.) Washington split his troops into three divisions — giving von Steuben command of one of them.
So, anyways, as you may have heard, the Americans won the war. Von Steuben helped Washington demobilize the army in 1783, and helped to create a defense plan for the United States of America. In May of 1783, he oversaw the creation of the Society of Cincinnati. That same year, he was granted an estate in New Jersey — a place now called the Steuben House. The estate had suffered some damages in the war, and had been vacant for a few years, so von Steuben spent a great deal of money repairing it — despite not yet having been paid for his participation in the war.
He ultimately settled on Manhattan Island and lived, initially, with William North — who, along with Benjamin Walker, he had adopted. (That was — at the time — a fairly common way for gay people to get around the whole lack of same-sex marraige, and worked well in polyamorous situations like theirs too.) In 1785, von Steuben began to serve as the president of the German Society of the City of New York and the following year the New York legislature voted to make von Steuben a United States citizen. That same year, von Steuben wrote — under the alias “Belisarius” –encouraging Shay’s Rebellion by calling the government of Massachusetts an oligarchy. Shortly thereafter, North married a woman and moved into a home of his own. Whether not he continued his relationship with von Steuben while he was married is unclear but they did remain in contact.
No longer working in the military, Friedrich tried to be a businessman — without much success. In 1788, he determined that his estate in New Jersey had to be sold to pay off debts. Walker handled the sale of the property and saw to it that Friedrich’s debts were paid off. In 1790, Congress finally began paying out Friedrich’s pension — $2,500 a year (that’s roughly $69,604.08 in today’s value. Thanks Inflation Calculator!) With this helping to keep him afloat — and the assistance of Nathaniel Greene and Alexander Hamilton who helped him get a mortgage — he was able to move into an estate in New York state’s Mohawk Valley in Oneida County.
In 1791, he met a young John W. Mulligan, who had recently graduated from Columbia College and begun a relationship with Charles Adams (son of John Adams) and taken a job clerking for Hamilton. Charles and John lived together for two years, until John Adams made it clear that he would disown Charles if their “intense friendship” didn’t end. Friedrich offered that both could live with him — though only John accepted the offer. He took a position as Friedrich’s live-in secretary in 1793 and they began a romantic relationship. (John also seemed to have feelings for Benjamin Walker and William North — a happy little polyamorous relationship, as far as I can tell.)
Friedrich died on November 28, 1794 at his New York estate. William North and John Mulligan were with him. His real estate property and what money he had was inherited by North and Walker — Mulligan inherited Friedrich’s library and collection of maps, as well as $2,500. The estate is now part of the town of Steuben, New York — which was just one of several places named after him. A handful of military vessels have also born the Von Steuben name in his honor — including a German submarine (the SS Kronprinz Wilhelm) captured during World War I was renamed the USS Von Steuben, and in World War II the Germans named a passenger ship that they turned into a gunship the SS General Von Steuben.
Von Steuben Day is a holiday that occurs in mid-September every year and which celebrates German-American culture and contributions to the country — the New York Von Steuben Day Parade is one of the largest parades in New York City every year. Chicago also holds an impressive Von Steuben Day parade, which was featured in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. There is a also statue of him in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C.
Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben is generally regarded as a hero in both Germany and the United States, without whom the American Revolution could never have succeeded. And while his importance to the war is absolutely significant, it seems to me that it’s important to recognize that he was also about as open as any queer person could be at the time — and that if he hadn’t been gay, he would never have left Europe to begin with, and the United States might still be British colonies.
There’s been a great deal of buzz this year about seeing Pete Buttigieg — someone who is part of the LGBTQIA+ community — doing so well in his campaign for the presidency. But what most of us don’t realize (and in fact, I didn’t even know until two weeks ago!) is that we’ve already had a queer person in the White House.
Okay, no, maybe not the President. But for sure, the First Lady Rose Cleveland. Rose Elizabeth Cleveland was born in Fayetteville, New York on June 14, 1846 to Richard Falley Cleveland and Ann Neal Cleveland. She was the youngest of nine children — counting Stephen Grover Cleveland among her older siblings. They mostly called her “Libby.”
In September of 1853, the family relocated to Holland Patent, New York where their father was appointed pastor of Presbyterian church. He died a month later, after preaching only one sermon. (I hope it was a good one!) Rose, at seven years old, took on the task of taking care of their widowed mother. Grover Cleveland — sixteen years old at the time — decided he was going to support the whole family. (One teenager supporting a family of ten — my how times have changed!) When she was older, Rose became a student at the Houghton Seminary in Clinton, New York. Afterwards, she became a teacher so she could support herself and her mother. (I guess one teenager couldn’t support a family of ten after all.) Later, she taught at the Collegiate Institute in Lafayette, Indiana and a girls school in Muncy, Pennsylvania.
In the 1880’s, Rose went back to Holland Patent and taught Sunday school so that she would be able to take care of her mother, who’s health was not doing well. In 1882, Ann Cleveland passed away. Rose remained at their homestead for some time after this and continued to teach Sunday school. In one class, she gave a lecture in which she stated:
“We cannot touch humanity at large, except as we touch humanity in the individual. We make the world a better place through our concrete relationships, not through our vague, general good will. We must each find a true partner, someone who understands and appreciates us, someone whose faith in us brings out our best efforts. Our deepest craving is for recognition—to be known by another human being for what we truly are.”
And if that doesn’t sound like a great beginning to a coming out speech, I don’t know what does. But alas, we’re not there yet. In 1885, the unmarried Grover Cleveland was elected President of the United States — and suddenly, Rose had another family member who needed her help. She took on the role of First Lady, including standing next to Grover during his inauguration. She lived in the White House for two years — and fulfilled the duties of First Lady, although she found them to be frustrating. She was not a woman made for high society — she was fond of intellectual pursuits, and did not care much for fashion. The public’s infatuation with her dresses irked her, as did her inability to go to a public market. There were some perks however — her book of essays entitled George Eliot’s Poetry was a bestseller based almost entirely on her name recognition.
Eventually Grover married Frances Folsom, and Rose was able to leave the White House and actually, finally, do some things for herself! She became president of the Collegiate Institute in Indiana and also contributed to a magazine called Literary Life. In April of 1890, at 44 years old, she entered into a romantic and undeniably sexual relationship (the first of her life, that I can find) with a 33 year old widow named Evangeline Marrs Simpson who she had most likely met in Florida months earlier. However, six years later, against Rose’s urgings, Evangeline married Henry Benjamin Whipple. Although the women kept in touch after this, they were definitely not as…. let’s say intimate as they had been. Rose left for Europe shortly after the wedding, and did not return to the United States for three years.
Mr. Whipple died in 1901 and the pair reignited their relationship. In 1902, they traveled to Italy — and in 1910, they moved there. Evangeline told her caretaker at her home in Minnesota not to move anything. They established a home for themselves in Bagni di Lucca, in a house shared with Nelly Erichsen. Rose and Evangeline contributed a great deal to the community there, including establishing an orphanage. They also worked for the Red Cross during World War I, and helped move refugees displaced by the war to Bagni di Lucca. During the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918, Nelly contracted the illness. Rose took care of her, ultimately contracting the illness herself as a result. They died within days of each other.
After Rose’s death, Evangeline wrote “The light has gone out for me. . . . The loss of this noble and great soul is a blow that I shall not recover from.”
When Evangeline eventually died in 1930, she was buried next to Rose in Bagni di Lucca. It’s been said that, to the two of them, Italy represented the ultimate freedom to be themselves.
The letters Rose sent to her lover remained in Evangeline’s Minnesota home — untouched by the caretaker (who was way more obedient than I would have been) until they were gathered together with other papers and donated to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1969. The implication that there could have been a lesbian relationship was too much for them, so they hid the letters from the public until 1978. Rose’s letters have now been compiled into a book, Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890-1918.
Today’s the day, everyone! Fifty years since the first night of the Stonewall uprising! Deciding what to write today was difficult, but I finally decided…. this is a pretty momentous occasion, especially for a queer history web site. So I’m going to talk about what sets Stonewall apart, and what lessons we learned 50 years ago that we can still be carrying with us today.
People always like to say that Stonewall was the start of the gay rights movement but if you’ve been following us for a while, you know that’s not strictly true. There had been organizations like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis fighting for gay rights for decades. We’d already had riots like Compton’s Cafeteria, the Black Cat Riot, and Cooper’s Do-nuts, we’d already had protests like the Annual Reminders and the Dewey’s Sit-In. The gay rights movement was pretty well in effect by 1969.
So what made Stonewall so important? Why is that the moment that changed everything? Because that’s the first time we stood up against the people oppressing us together. The LGBTQIA+ community, even now, is rife with division and it was then too. The divisions were different, but they were there. The community was broken up into the “butch” gays — the “respectable” straight-passing men who could blend into mainstream society; the queens — basically any more effeminate gay men could fit into this group which was also divided up by drag queens, transvestites (who, now, we’d mostly call transgender women), street queens, and “scare queens.” There were similar divisions between lesbians — butch and femme, passing or not. And in all of those groups, of course, there was a division between the white people and the people of color.
But on June 28, 1969 none of those divisions in the queer community mattered. The divisions were still there, but it didn’t matter. We had each other’s back. Stonewall was mostly full of butch gays — and mostly white gays at that, and the police were letting most people who weren’t in the “wrong clothes for their sex” go free — but they didn’t leave, they stayed outside and watched and drew in a crowd. The street queens weren’t in the bar at all, they would have been fine — but they were the ones who started fighting back. Because — for maybe the first time ever — it wasn’t only about self-preservation. And for five nights of rioting, we all had each other’s backs. That’s what changed — that’s why we’re able to look at Stonewall as the beginning of something.
To me, that’s why Stonewall was so powerful and important. It showed that, as long as we are looking out for each other and working together, that there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.
We’re not yet at the bright future every single one of the heroes of Stonewall we’ve talked about this month — and all of the ones we haven’t talked about yet — had envisioned for us. But I can promise, that is how we’ll get there. Working together, as a community.
I know this was like hokey and sappy or whatever, but it’s over now. Go celebrate!
An important fact about the Stonewall uprising is that things were pretty chaotic. There were things going on inside the bar, outside the bar, and more than a few participants — at least initially — were intoxicated. Despite Craig Rodwell‘s best efforts, the riots were pretty much ignored by the press. So a lot of what we know has had to be cobbled together from a handful of eyewitness accounts. One of the most knowledgeable of those accounts comes from Danny Garvin.
Danny Garvin was born on March 1, 1949. He grew up in New York, raised as a Roman Catholic by his two Irish immigrant parents — Michael Joseph Garvin and Mary Theresa Kelly Garvin. In his youth, like all of the boys of his neighborhood, he was a member of a gang — the Ramrods. Garvin’s mother died while he was very young, and he was mostly raised by his father — who returned to Ireland when Garvin was 17 years old, after enlisting his son in the United States Navy.
Working as a Navy cook, stationed in Brooklyn, Garvin began coming out of the closet. Coming out proved quite difficult, especially given his religious upbringing. Drunk and off the base one night, Garvin sought out the only other gay man his age that he knew of — but he was soundly rejected. Reeling, Garvin attempted suicide and then called a psychiatrist who told him to admit himself to Bellevue Hospital. The Navy transferred him to St. Albans Naval Medical Hospital.
This presented a very serious dilemma — if he talked about his actual problems with the Navy, he’d be dishonorably discharged and would make him unemployable to most reputable businesses. Finally, Garvin signed a document stating that his psychological breakdown was rooted in his mother’s early death, and he was honorably discharged. He was discharged on St. Patrick’s Day, 1967 — roughly two weeks after he had turned 18. Deciding he needed to celebrate, he ventured to the only gay bar he knew off — Julius’. When he was there, he was told about a new bar opening up around the corner: the Stonewall Inn.
Although on his first visit, Garvin was mostly shocked to see men dancing together, he became a regular and even dated the main doorman (“Blonde Frankie“) for a time. Though he was initially living on the streets and hustling for a living — an experience he would carry with him the rest of his life — he ultimately found his way into living in what David Carter describes in his book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution as a “gay hippie commune.” Garvin began smoking pot, and started selling LSD at Stonewall.
On the actual evening of the Stonewall riots, however, Garvin was not inside the bar. He’d planned to spend the night at a new gay club called Danny’s. (Like we wouldn’t all always be at any bar we could pretend was named after us, right?) He bumped into Keith Murdoch and the two went back to the commune to smoke weed and get it on. After that, they decided the night was still young and they wanted to go out dancing — and that’s when they found the riot.
By the time they got there, the crowd was attacking the police wagon and the police had barricaded themselves inside the bar. A group had ripped a parking meter out of the ground and were using it as a battering ram to get inside. Garvin jumped in, egging on the crowd, jeering at the cops, and generally protesting — but he avoided partaking in any of the violent action, partly because he considered himself a pacifist but also largely so he could avoid going to jail and thereby publicly outing himself — and ruining any chances he had at a career. He watched the infamous chorus line that had mocked the cops trying to clear the streets — and the brutality with which the police broke it up.
Like virtually everyone else involved in the riots, Garvin was changed by the experience. He became a proud activist, marching in the Christopher Street Liberation Day parades (which would later become the Pride parades we now know and love). He was a roommate to activist Morty Manford, and encouraged Manford to come out to his parents — who would then found PFLAG. In the early 80’s, Garvin gathered together a group of gays from AA to march in the Pride parade as a group called Sober Together.
Always an advocate for homeless queer youth because of his experiences on the street, Garvin became a very involved volunteer for the Ali Forney Center in New York City after it opened in 2002. But perhaps his most important role in these later years was as a witness to history — he was interviewed by David Carter for his book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution — which was released in 2004. He began appearing in documentaries, especially about Stonewall and the gay rights movement, in 2008. Most famously he appeared in the 2010 documentary Stonewall Uprising where he summarized the importance of the riots:
“We became a people. We didn’t necessarily know where we were going yet, you know, what organizations we were going to be or how things would go, but we became something I, as a person, could all of a sudden grab onto, that I couldn’t grab onto when I’d go to a subway T-room as a kid, or a 42nd Street movie theater, you know, or being picked up by some dirty old man. You know, all of a sudden, I had brothers and sisters, you know, which I didn’t have before. There was no going back now…. We had discovered a power that we weren’t even aware that we had.“
Throughout his work as a witness to Stonewall, Garvin befriended several other “Stonewall veterans” including Martin Boyce and Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt. When President Barack Obama mentioned Stonewall, Garvin began a correspondence with him — impressing upon him the need to continue fighting for equality for the LGBTQIA+ community. In his initial letter he wrote, “I still have not gotten to dance that dance I started 44 years ago. The big joyous ‘I Am A Completely Free Gay American Dance’ yet.” Obama invited Garvin as a special guest to the White House’s Pride celebration on June 30, 2014.
However, Danny’s final years were plagued by health problems. He suffered from COPD, caused by years of smoking, and also developed liver cancer. He passed away on December 9, 2014 at 65 years old. While he may not have gotten to finish that “I Am A Completely Free Gay American Dance” that he dreamed of, his work for our community helped get all of us that much closer to it.
Most of the people who were at the Stonewall uprising in 1969 are primarily known for their involvement with the riot — even though most of them went on to be heavily involved in activism in the following decades. Craig Rodwell is another story. Craig was so heavily involved in activism both before and after the riots that his presence there is basically a footnote.
Rodwell was born October 31, 1940 in Chicago. His parents separated before his first birthday, and for the beginning of his life he was sent away to for “day care” — this day care, however, made him start doing laundry and working in the kitchen as soon as he was old enough. When he was six, his mother realized that maybe this wasn’t the best arrangement if she wanted to keep custody of him and so she sent him to a Christian Science school for “problem boys” called Chicago Junior School. He attended that school for seven years, where he got a reputation for being rebellious — but also for being a “sissy.”
By all accounts, the “problem boys” there frequently fooled around sexually — though with nothing serious behind it. At fourteen, Rodwell pursued a relationship with an adult man. When the two were caught by police, who refused to believe Rodwell when he insisted he’d started the relationship and was at fault, the man was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for having sex with a minor. The police tried to encourage him to lie in his testimony, asking him to say that the man had paid him money. Rodwell refused, and was threatened with juvenile detention — ultimately he was just ordered by the court to see a psychiatrist, but the experience colored his view of the legal system for the rest of his life.
Rodwell also fully believed the Christian Science teachings he was learning — particularly the idea that “truth is power and that truth is the greatest good.” As a result, after he graduated and began attending Sullivan High School, he enrolled himself in a Christian science Sunday school. It was in these classes he learned that Christian Science didn’t approve of homosexuality — something Rodwell determined he was going to have to change. After high school, Rodwell relocated to Boston to study ballet before moving to New York City in 1958 — intentionally moving to Greenwich Village, where he’d heard there was a large queer community. Rodwell was hoping to become involved in the Mattachine Society.
Unfortunately, the Mattachine Society required its members to be 21 or older. Rodwell also couldn’t get into any of the gay bars yet — so he spent his time in parks, connecting with the gay community on the streets. This made him pretty vulnerable to the police, and he was involved in more than one scrape with them. But this only made him more radical.
In 1962, Rodwell was dating Harvey Milk — who was still in the closet (and just, generally, had a lot of growing to do before he becomes the Milk we all know and love). This was Rodwell’s first serious relationship. Rodwell’s outspoken activism was unsettling for Milk, and he also blamed Rodwell for an STD that he contracted. (Not unreasonable, really.) In September, Rodwell was arrested for resisting the police when they swept through a popular cruising area of Jacob Riis Park. While in jail, Rodwell was physically abused by one of the guards. When he was released from jail, Milk dumped him. His self-confidence rattled, Rodwell tried to end his own life. Fortunately for the entire queer community, the attempt failed. He left New York to travel for a couple of years.
In 1964, Rodwell returned to New York and devoted himself to activism for the “homophile” community (as we called ourselves then — I am so glad we don’t use that term anymore). He was volunteering with the Mattachine Society — using his legal name, which was a rarity in that time — and even serving as their vice president. He founded the Mattachine Young Adults organization, and was an early member of the East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO) — which coordinated various homophile groups from around the eastern seaboard. On September 19, he and several other notable activists including Randy Wicker, Jefferson Poland, and Renee Cafiero staged a protest against the military’s exclusion of gay service members — and the practice of dishonorably discharging those who were found out. This is officially recognized as the first organized LGBTQ+ protest in United States history (though I suspect there were some before that we just don’t acknowledge).
In a coordinated protest with ECHO, Rodwell and Wicker led a protest at the United Nations Plaza in New York on April 18, 1965 — joined by Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and roughly 25 other protesters. Days after this protest, the sit-in protest at Dewey’s began in Philadelphia. With the other leaders of ECHO, including Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, it was decided they needed regular protests to remind the nation about the plight of the queer community — they could not afford to only protest when there was a crisis happening in Cuba or in Philadelphia. And so, on July 4, 1965, the first of the Annual Reminders was held at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
In 1966, Rodwell was ejected from a bar called Julius’ for wearing a pin that read “Equality for Homosexuals.” On April 21, with the help of John Timmons and Mattachine president Dick Leitsch, Rodwell held a “sip-in” at the bar. This was specifically to protest a rule by State Liquor Authority that prohibited homosexuals from gathering in places that served alcohol. Rodwell and his cohorts held that the rule encouraged bribery and corruption amongst the police. The publicity from this sit-in led directly to that particular rule ending.
In order to try make the Mattachine Society more accessible, Rodwell proposed they open a storefront. When the idea was rejected, he cut his ties with the organization. In November of 1967, Rodwell opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop — the country’s first store that focused on queer authors. The store was so named because Oscar Wilde was the most notable homosexual he could think of and he wanted absolutely not confusion about what the store was all about. The place functioned as more than just a store — Rodwell also envisioned it as a community center that didn’t have age restrictions and didn’t rely on alcohol (or the organized crime families that owned most of the gay bars in the city). To that end, he found the Homophile Youth Movement in Neighborhoods (HYMN) out of the bookshop, and led their rallies in that year. In 1968, he started publishing their periodical HYMNAL. Harvey Milk — now friends with Rodwell — was a frequent customer of the store, and it would later be the inspiration his own shop/community center/campaign headquarters Castro Camera in San Francisco. Rodwell also met Fred Sargeant at his store. Sargeant became heavily involved in HYMN and a romantic relationship blossomed.
On June 28, 1969 police raided the Stonewall Inn. (Did you forget, in all of this, that this was coming up too?) Rodwell and Sargeant were walking through Greenwich Village when they happened to see a crowd gathering outside the bar — and caught the beginning of the riots. Rodwell was a leader in fighting back, and led the crowd in various “gay power” chants. He also had a camera with him, and tried to take pictures to document the event. Unfortunately, none of the pictures were successfully developed — which is extra sad because we have hardly any pictures from the first night of riots (even though Rodwell also used a pay phone to call the press and let them know what was happening). Nevertheless, he did share his account of the night — which he described as “one of those moments in history that, if you were there, you knew, this is it, this is what we’ve been waiting for.”
The next day, Rodwell created a flyer — which HYMN helped him to disseminate through Greenwich Village — that read “Get the Mafia and the Cops Out of Gay Bars.” The flyers helped encourage further protests the next several nights — protests Rodwell participated in as well.
After the annual reminder of that year — which took place a week after Stonewall — Rodwell decided that the needs of the community had been changed after the riots. He began writing a resolution in his store. In November, Rodwell, Sargeant, Ellen Broidy, and Linda Rhodes proposed the resolution at a Philadelphia meeting of ECHO to change the annual reminders. Instead of happening on July 4 in Philadelphia, they proposed, there would be simultaneous demonstrations in cities across the country on June 28. This would be called Christopher Street Liberation Day, and there would be no dress code (as the annual reminders had had) or age limitations. And so Pride began.
Despite he tremendous work so far, Rodwell found he’d never really been able to address the homophobia in Christian Science. In 1970, he placed a biography of Mary Baker Eddy in a very visible place in his store in order to meet other gay Christian Scientists. Meanwhile, he was continuing to work on advocating for queer rights. He is often credited with inventing the word “heterosexism” in January of 1971, when he wrote “After a few years of this kind of ‘liberated’ existence such people become oblivious and completely unseeing of straight predjudice and – to coin a phrase – the ‘hetero-sexism’ surrounding them virtually 24 hours a day.” In 1973, the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop moved from its address on Mercer Street to the corner of Christopher Street and Gay Street.
In 1978 Rodwell formed Gay People in Christian Science (GPICS) with Ray Spitale, Bob McCullogh, and Bob Mackenroth. While they were not the only gay Christian Science organization in the country, they were the only one actively challenging the church’s policies — actively challenging the excommunication of three of their members. This quickly became Rodwell’s primary focus for his activism. GPICS created an eight-page pamphlet entitled “Gay People in Christian Science?” which they proceeded to mail to every Christian Science church, college organization, and practitioner that they could find. Overall, they mailed out 8,000 copies. They then made plans to hand out the pamphlets at the 1980 Annual Meeting of the Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston. To organize this in the least offensive way possible, Rodwell alerted security for the event of their intentions.
When they arrived, they discovered extremely heightened security and police presence. Undeterred, they set up their table and began distributing flyers. They were quickly informed that the booth was illegal and that they needed to leave. The group obeyed, though Rodwell and a handful of others remained on the premises and handed out their pamphlets more discreetly. Unfortunately, the pamphlet wasn’t enough to change the church’s minds and in 1981, the church fired Chris Madsen from the Christian Science Monitor for being a lesbian. GPICS returned to the annual meeting that year, this time fired up. Instead of simply handing out pamphlets, they engaged in loud and disruptive protests.
In the years that followed, queer activism within Christian Science moved to become primarily focused to areas in the Midwest. Although Rodwell remained involved, he took on a much less significant leadership role. He remained heavily involved in queer activism for the remainder of his life.
In 1992, Rodwell received the Lambda Literary Award for Publisher’s Service. In May of that year, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. In March of 1993, he sold the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop to Bill Offenbaker. He passed away on June 18 that year. It was not until 1999 that the Christian Science Church finally began to allow gay and lesbian members.
It’s honestly hard to think of anyone who, in our history, has been so devoted to our community and done so much for us. I find his name crop up in almost everything that happened for our community in New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and for some reason I’m always surprised. And given his influence on Harvey Milk, what he accomplished for us actually extended all the way to San Francisco.