Heroes of Stonewall: Miss Major Griffin-Gracy

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.

Miss Major — can’t find a date for it but this is such a fantastic picture

Miss Major 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.

Miss Major in the 90s

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).

Miss Major, Grand Marshall at San Francisco Pride

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.

Miss Major and her daughter Janetta Johnson

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.)

Griselda Blanco

griselda-blanco-20965407-1-402

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.

griselda-blanco-02

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.

griselda-blanco-04

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.

Dorothy Wilde

dorothywildeHistory usually remembers ambitious people, who applied themselves to a chosen profession or cause and excelled. That is not exactly the case with Dorothy Ierne Wilde — better known as “Dolly” Wilde.

Dolly was born in London on July 11, 1895 — three months after her uncle Oscar Wilde was arrested for committing homosexual acts. She never met her uncle, but they had a a lot in common. (Not just the whole homosexuality thing, actually. But, you know, that too.) She was the daughter of Willie Wilde and Sophie Lily Lees and had no siblings. Willie died only in March of 1899 — leaving the three year old Dolly to be raised by her mother and her mother’s new husband, the journalist and translator Alexander Teixeira de Mattos.

There’s not much else available about her childhood (except that she liked to eat sugar cubes dipped in her mother’s perfume — ew), but in 1914 she made her way to France in order to drive ambulances for the war effort. While living in Paris during the war, Dolly met Standard Oil heiress Marion “Joe” Carstairs and the two began a hot and heavy relationship. The relationship didn’t last particularly long, but Dolly seemed to have found her calling: having rich friends.

dolly-wilde-by-cecil-beaton
Photograph by Cecil Beaton

After World War I ended, Dolly became, basically, a full-time socialite. She wasn’t wealthy by any means, although her stepfather left her some money when he died in 1921, and mostly survived off the generosity of her friends. She lived in their guest bedrooms, or in hotel rooms, and even sometimes in apartments that she borrowed. She did all she could to live a wild, glamorous life. She had a great talent for telling stories (apparently a hereditary trait), which made her popular at parties and salons, though she never used this talent to actually pursue a career. during these years she went through a string of lovers including with the silent film actress Alla Nazimova (who starred in the 1922 movie Salomé which was based on Oscar Wilde’s book). She referred to these no-strings-attached daliances as “emergency seductions.” She also caught the ire of F. Scott Fitzgerald by flirting with Zelda Fitzgerald. Although only interested in women, Dolly enjoyed the attention she received from men as well — several men over the years proposed marriage to her, but she refused them all. Other than her promiscuity, Dolly was also an alcoholic, and developed an addiction to heroin.

dolly-wilde
Photograph by Cecil Beaton

If any of this sounds like Dolly had tons in common with Oscar Wilde, I’m just going to point out that her nickname was “Oscaria” and she was quoted as saying “I am more like Oscar than Oscar himself.” Which is a seriously bold claim to make about someone you’ve never met. So it’s little surprise that when Oscar Wilde-super fan Natalie Clifford Barney saw her picture, and saw the family resemblance, she invited Dolly to her renowned Friday night literary salons. Dolly fell in love with Natalie, and the two were together from 1927 until Dolly’s death. The two attended numerous parties together, raising Dolly’s profile significantly — particularly in 1930 when they attended a masquerade ball and Dolly, dressed as her uncle Oscar, was described as “looking important and earnest” in The New Yorker‘s “Letter from Paris” column, written by Janet Flanner.

Dolly attempted to get clean of heroin addiction on multiple occasions — to no avail. During one stay in a nursing facility, she developed a new addiction to paraldehyde — a sleeping pill that was, at the time, available without a prescription. In 1939, Dolly was diagnosed with breast cancer. She decided to explore alternative treatments, stubbornly refusing surgery. With hostile German forces approaching Paris in 1940, she fled back to England — where she was still living when she passed away on April 10, 1941. A coroner could not determine the cause of death, she may have died from cancer or she may have died from a drug overdose.

She left very little behind — 200 of letters to friends and lovers, a passage written in Ladies Almanack, and the testimonies of those who knew her published in Natalie Clifford Barney’s In Memory of Dorothy Ierne Wilde: Oscaria ten years after Dolly passed away.

Rose Cleveland

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.

rose_cleveland

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.”

rose_cleveland2c_before_1918_28cropped29

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.

Heroes of Stonewall: Stormé DeLarverie

obit-delarverie-articlelarge
Photo Credit: New York Times

Sometimes called “the Rosa Parks of the gay community,” Stormé DeLarverie was a butch lesbian who’s arrest is often credited as the moment that sparked the Stonewall Riots — despite being quite adamant that “it was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience – it wasn’t no damn riot.”

DeLarverie was born in 1920 to a white man and a black woman — who worked as a servant for her father’s family. DeLarverie’s exact date of birth was never exactly known, so she celebrated it on December 24. (I’m not sure why you’d pick that if you’re given a choice, but I guess we can’t all have June birthdays…) As a kid, DeLarverie was bullied constantly. In her teenage years, she joined the circus — getting a job riding jumping horses for Ringling Brothers Circus, until she was injured in a fall and was unable to resume the work.

DeLarverie realized she was a lesbian around the age of 18. She entered into a relationship with a dancer named Diana, who she was with for about 25 years until Diana’s death in the ’70s. DeLarverie carried a photo of Diana with her for the rest of her life.

storme_delarverie_no_photo_cIn 1955, began touring as the MC and the only drag king in the Jewel Box Revue — the first racially integrated drag show, appearing regularly at the Apollo Theater. Audience members would attempt to “guess the girl,” ultimately being surprised during a song entitled “Surprise with a Song” that the girl was actually DeLarverie, who was often sporting a mustache and a tailored suit.  DeLarverie was noted particularly for having a strinkingly handsome appearance as a boy — which inspired a lot of other lesbians of the time to begin wearing traditionally masculine clothing as well. Her career as a performer would be explored in the 1987 documentary Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box.

DeLarverie continued performing with the Jewel Box Revue until 1969, becoming quite well known and influential in drag culture. 1969, however, was the year the most truly secured her place in queer history. DeLarverie was at the Stonewall Inn working as a bouncer when the police raid began in the early morning hours. Although resistance to the raid truly started inside the bar itself, the real riot on the street is often said to have begun with a woman many have identified as DeLarverie. She was brought out of the bar and through the crowd outside several times, but kept escaping — at least once by punching an officer (which she, according to friend Lisa Cannistraci, believed was the first punch of the riot.) At some point, DeLarverie was hit in the head by an officer’s baton and began to bleed from the wound — she struggled and complained that her handcuffs were too tight, before looking to the crowd and asking “Why don’t you guys do something?” At this point, the police officers picked up DeLarverie and hurled her into the back of the police wagon — and the crowd erupted. (It was at this moment that the legendary “first brick” was thrown.)

Now, it hasn’t been confirmed that DeLarverie was actually the woman that that story is about — but it has been absolutely confirmed that she was there and was one of several butch lesbians fighting against the police. In truth, it’s entirely likely that the above story did happen, and no one’s name but DeLarverie’s has ever been put forth for it, but there probably wasn’t just one inciting incident that sparked the riots — a number of things were happening simultaneously that cumulatively led to the uprising.

The riots transformed DeLarverie, who became a fierce activist and a protector of the LGBTQIA+ community afterwards. She had a state gun permit, and was known to patrol the neighborhoods around lesbian bars looking for intolerance or, as she described it, “ugliness” against her community. She was a regular staple at the Pride parades and rallies that followed after Stonewall, and also acted as a bouncer at several lesbian bars until she was 85 years old. Meanwhile, she also continued to perform, often putting on benefits for abused women and children and volunteered for queer organizations and charities as well.

She was also a well-respected member of the Stonewall Veterans Association, holding several offices there including Chief of Security and Ambassador. She also served as Vice President from 1998 to 2000.

stormebysambassett1
Photo by Sam Bassett

In 2010, DeLarverie moved into a nursing home in Brooklyn. With dementia setting in, she did not know she was living in a nursing home but she retained her memories of the Stonewall Riots and her childhood. On June 7, 2012 Brooklyn Pride Inc. honored her at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, where they also aired the 1987 documentary about her. Two years later on April 24, the Brooklyn Community Pride Center honored DeLarverie “for her fearlessness and bravery.” One month — to the day — later, DeLarverie died in her Brooklyn nursing home from a heart attack at 94 years old.

DeLarverie led a long life, but her legacy with the LGBTQIA+ community will continue for many many years to come. Every time there is ugliness against this community, I hope you hear her asking that question that changed the course of history for queer people everywhere: “Why don’t you guys do something?”

Mariasilvia Spolato

Let me tell you about a remarkable woman from Italy who gave up everything to live her truth — Mariasilvia Spolato. She was born in Padua on June 26, 1935. She didn’t leave Padua for quite some time — remaining there until after she earned a degree in mathematical sciences.

Degree in hand, she departed for Milan with the plan to teach. She also became a part of the Italian civil liberation movements of 1968. By the following year, she had published a  mathematics book, and begun to write for magazines — as well as publishing her own photographs and poems in magazines. She had earned a great deal of respect in a fairly short amount of time.

movimenti-omosessuali-liberazione-6b8aaa31-db4a-4c74-ade6-70d1f47c1fda

In 1971 she founded the Homosexual Liberation Front (FLO) — which would later merge with the Italian Revolutionary Unified Homosexual Front (FUORI) — and founded the magazine Fuori! with Angelo Pezzana. In 1972, she published her second book: The Homosexual Liberation Movements (not at all like her first book! Less math, more queerness! I haven’t read either but I’m sure this one’s a way better read.)

And then, on March 8 1972, she marched on Rome while carrying a sign that openly and defiantly declared that she was a lesbian — “I love a woman” it read. She was photographed, and the picture was published in a magazine called Panorama. This made Mariasilvia the first woman in Italy to publicly come out as a lesbian. The nation went absolutely nuts — Mariasilvia was dismissed from her teaching position by the Ministry of Education, who determined her to be “unworthy” and her family abandoned her. She was left homeless and jobless.

Mariasilvia was spent most of the rest of her life wandering through Italy, engaged heavily in activism. She spent many nights sleeping on benches, or staying in homeless shelters or with friends. She claimed half of the train conductors on the continent knew her, she traveled by train so frequently.

maria_silvia_spolato_2During the 90’s, after many years of this, she developed an infection in her leg that ultimately put an end to her travels. She was admitted to a hospital in Bolzano, and afterwards stayed in a newly opened homeless shelter for women that had recently opened there. In 2012, she was given a place to stay at the Villa Armonia nursing home in the same city. Mariasilvia was not eager to give up her freedom, and adamantly refused to do anything but sleep inside the nursing home for the first three years then. After those first years though, she warmed to the idea and began to participate in picking the movies for theme nights, having meals with the other residents, and taking pictures of them all. Eventually, she even gave the books she had been traveling with for decades to the nursing home’s library. She remained there until she passed away at 83 years old on October 31, 2018. She died still estranged from her family and, sadly, forgotten by many despite the momentous act that cost her so much.

Sappho

1024px-alkaios_sappho_staatliche_antikensammlungen_2416_n2
Earliest known depiction of Sappho, c. 470 BCE

This woman really needs no introduction, she’s basically the mother of all lesbians. And by that, I mean, they wouldn’t be called lesbians without her. I’m talking about Sappho.

Now, like, Sappho was around in really ancient times and she was a woman, and it kind of took a bit for people to notice she might be someone to pay attention to and maybe write things down about. So, there’s a lot of her life that’s isn’t known for sure or that we have to get from reading in between the lines of things. We’re literally not even sure how to spell her name because there’s a few different ways to spell it, sometimes appearing in her own native dialect.

2882
“Sappho” by John William Godward

But we do know for sure that she originally came from Mytilene, the capital city of the island of Lesbos — sometime around 630 BCE. Some scholars have guessed that her mother was named Cleïs, but the evidence for that is flimsy at best. The best guess for her father is a dude named Scamandronymous (and I’m not kidding when I call it a guess) but Sappho tells us in her poetry that he died when she was seven.

From her poems, we can also gather that she had three brothers: Erigyius, Charaxus and Larichus. Larichus, apparently, had a job pouring wine in the town hall which also tells us that their family was aristocratic. Charaxus was the black sheep of the family, it seems, who once ransomed off an Egyptian courtesan for a whole lot of money — and Sappho wrote a scathing poem shaming him for it.

She and her relatives were temporarily exiled from Lesbos to Sicily around 600 BCE because some sort of political conflict arose, and her family was involved with the wrong side.

She may have had a daughter named Cleïs (and that’s why its suggested that could be her mother’s name), though some sources indicated Cleïs may have actually been a younger lover. I, personally, think that’s more likely especially since the word “pais” — used in a couple of places to describe Cleïs — is sometimes used to denote a younger same-sex lover (albeit typically in a male relationship. For fun, look up where the word “pais” was used in the Bible some time. That’s a super controversial post for another day.)

And then of course, I’m also fairly convinced because of who is described as her husband in the Suda (which was like an ancient encyclopedia). Her husband was Kerkylas of Andros. The thing is, according to basically everyone, Kerkylas wasn’t a name — it was a word for “penis”…and Andros, although it is a Grecian island, is also a word that means “man”. So…yeah, Sappho was supposedly married to “Penis of Man”? I’m just a little skeptical. It’s been suggested that this was invented for a comedic play, which makes more sense but it’s still kind of at fart-joke levels of humor. Like most scholars, dating from 64 BCE to today — I am also really skeptical of the story that she ultimately killed herself for the love of a guy named Phaon. While we still don’t know how she died, this little story tells us two things: she died around 580 or 570 BCE, and straight-washing has been going on for a long time.

It’s believed that, much like Socrates, Sappho led a sort of informal “school” that was really more a collection of people, mostly women, who liked to discuss art and philosophy and culture. Theoretically, a number of these women may also have been her lovers but we really don’t know for sure.

2345

Anyways, throughout her life, Sappho wrote something like ten thousand poems in the rare Aeolic Greek dialect — making her the earliest known Lesbian poet. (To clarify — that’s Lesbian with a capital L — as in from Lesbos.) She was also one of the greatly revered Nine Lyric Poets — lyrics poets from ancient Greece who were determined to be worthy of study by the scholars of Alexandria (you know, before they torched the library.) Of those Nine Lyric Poets, Sappho is the only woman. Plato is also known to have described Sappho as “the Tenth Muse.” Statues of Sappho were built, her face appeared on coins in Mytilene — given that she was in a pretty strictly patriarchal society, and that she is the only woman who’s cultural contributions survive to this day, it’s pretty incredible that she managed to reach such high levels of respect and celebration across Greece.

220px-cropped_image_of_sappho_from_raphael27s_parnassus
Sappho in “Parnassus” by Raphael, depicted with a paper that says “Sappho” because I guess the Greeks invented name tags?

As of this writing, about 650 of them are known to have survived. Her most famous of these are lyric poems, which were intended to be played with music. Her contemporaries who wrote about her spoke mainly of her love poetry, but she also has a lot of poems about her family (mostly her brothers).

None of the love poems are truly explicit — it’s hard to say if she was actually sexually or romantically attracted to men or women or both or neither, or if it changed from day to day. The Suda states that accusations of her sexual relationships with female students were slanderous, and other ancient sources only describe her as being accused of having relations with other women. And so — for centuries — it’s been hotly debated whether or not Sappho was in love with women or just really good friends with them — and conversely, whether or not she was in love with any guys or just really good friends with them. A lot of the answers may depend on cultural context that we simply don’t have and probably will never get.

That said, it’s from her name and her life that we’ve derived the words “sapphic” and “lesbian” so I’d say that we get to claim this one.

Dung Hà

ztpnnspbDung Hà was an infamous Vietnamese gangster (whose real name was Vũ Thị Hoàng Dung) who reached the peak of her influence during the ’90s.

She was born in 1965 in Hai Phong, North Vietnam. The part of the city in which she lived was a bustling urban area, where she regularly witnessed crimes — some of which were committed by her numerous older brothers and sisters. Apparently, this inspired her. She dropped out of school at a young age and became a career criminal. She started small, with pickpocketing and robbery.

In 1986, Dung Hà was caught robbing a pedestrian and arrested. She spent twelve months in prison, but resumed her illicit activities as soon as she was released. If anything, going to jail made her more involved in crime. She started having a romantic affair with a local crime boss — Hùng Chim Chich (“the Warbler”) Their love story — if you want to call it that — became relatively famous but he started losing money and influence due to a drug addiction. Dung Hà took over his casino businesses, and left him before he died from AIDS-related complications.

When she was 26, she began a relationship with another area crime boss named Hùng Cốm. (I guess she kind of had a type — local crime bosses named Hùng who had more influence than she did.) Hùng Cốm was basically the scariest crime boss around Hai Phong at the time, and rumors said he could not be defeated. The two went on a massive crime spree together and also opened a handful of casinos.

And then Hùng Cốm got arrested. Dung Hà orchestrated an elaborate scheme to free him and help him get to a train that would take him to Hong Kong. She convinced several of his followers to help her, and had agreed to let another convict named An Dong out of prison if he helped as well. She bribed some of the prison guards so that they would let her bring her lover a “farewell gift” — the guards didn’t realize that gift was actually a bunch of grenades. (I mean, what else do you get a crime lord on a special occasion?) Though that part worked, the rest of the plan rapidly fell apart — the gates were too tightly guarded, the grenades turned out to be duds, and An Dong was shot to death in the escape attempt.

Though the plan failed miserably and Hùng Cốm ultimately hung himself rather than face execution — but it had managed to earn Dung Hà a great deal of respect nevertheless. She became, essentially, the queen of crime in northern Vietnam — establishing a rivalry with Năm Cam who ran a criminal empire in the southern half of the country.

dungha15ff63Now, according to total hearsay, after the death of her lover Dung Hà was incapable of ever loving another man and that is why her next love affair was with a woman. That smells like fairly standard bi-erasure to me but I suppose that’s just an opinion. Anyways, Dung Hà cut her hair extremely short and was frequently seen with a beautiful, dark-haired girl who was taller than her and was extremely affectionate towards her. The woman was named Phuong but I cannot find much more about her except that she came from a nice family. She ditched our intrepid queer crime boss when Dung Hà got arrested in 1995. Phuong was, as far as I can find, the last romance of Dung Hà’s life.

Though she was sentenced to seven years in prison, she was released after only three years. Unfortunately, she was under intense police scrutiny and her criminal activities — and therefore her profits — suffered as a result. So Dung Hà decided to pack up and relocate….

….to Saigon, in the southern half of the country. Now, shortly before this, another gangster called Hải Bánh had moved south and joined forces with Năm Cam and he was all about that. He was hoping to get Dung Hà to help him expand his casino business. Unfortunately, Dung Hà had gotten pretty used to being her own boss — and, like, that’s the dream, right? So she was not giving that up. She started a new gang and began intentionally disrupting Năm Cam’s businesses — particularly his casinos.

On September 9, 2000 this new gang interrupted a business run by Hải Bánh — throwing shrimp sauce, snakes, and human feces into the middle of a dance floor. Hải Bánh was furious, and Năm Cam had had enough. Less than a month later, hired guns found Dung Hà and shot her in the head at point blank range.

But Dung Hà would end up with the last laugh — her murder led to increased scrutiny against both Năm Cam and Hải Bánh and would ultimately lead to the collapse of both their criminal organizations. Năm Cam, among several others, was given the death penalty for his involvement in her death. Meanwhile, Dung Hà’s body was brought back to Hai Phong where a truly massive funeral was held in her honor and her ex-girlfriend Phuong is reported to have been seen weeping at the event (as if they hadn’t been broken up for five years at this point but what do I know?)

So that’s the story of Vietnam’s “lesbian” gangster. I wouldn’t call her a queer hero, but she sure makes for a fun story!

Ma Rainey

MaRaineyIt’s been a really great month for queer music — we’ve got a new album from country’s first openly gay singer Steve Grand; a new album from British synthpop band Years & Years, led by the openly gay Olly Alexander; and Panic! at the Disco’s lead singer Brendon Urie came out as pansexual. With all this new news, I — of course — wanted to check out some old queer music history. It’s no surprise that led me to the incomparable Mother of Blues herself: Ma Rainey.

Born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886 in Georgia or possibly in September of 1882 in Alabama (depending on if you believe Gertrude or the U.S. census — researchers seem generally not to believe her). She was the second of five kids (the other four were pretty definitely born in Alabama — and her parents lived in Alabama. I’m just saying.) At 12 or 14 years old, Gertrude performed at a talent show in Columbus, Georgia and then began performing in black minstrel shows. According to Gertrude, she first heard blues music in 1902. The story goes that she heard a performer singing a blues song at another minstrel show — Gertrude was entranced, committed the song to memory that day, and immediately began using it as an encore to her own performances. Of course, she also claimed to have invented the name of the blues genre (she didn’t) so she’s not always the most reliable source of information. Just sayin’.

Two years later she married William “Pa” Rainey — a traveling comedian and vaudeville performer. Some time shortly after that, she and her husband formed a company called the Alabama Fun Makers Company. The troupe was short-lived, and in 1906 they both joined Pat Chappelle’s Rabbit’s Foot Company where they both performed and became quite popular.

In 1912, the Rabbit’s Foot Company was taken over by F.S. Wolcott. The Raineys stuck with the company for two more years before joining Tolliver’s Circus and Musical Extravaganza — which billed the duo as “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues”. The name stuck, and the two were soon using it on their own without being part of a troupe of performers. Soon after that, Gertrude was getting bookings all on her own — using the name Madam Gertrude Rainey, or “Ma”.

When Ma took the stage, she was a sight to behold — adorned in a diamond tiara, a necklace made out of $20 pieces, rings on each finger, wearing a golden gown with gold-capped teeth. She carried a gun and an ostrich plume. Audiences were enthralled. In fact, even though she was in the deep south, her shows were peacefully integrated between black people and white people. She was sometimes hired by wealthy white people to play private parties, but after every single one of these she would go out dancing and socializing at the local black café.

The Raineys spent winter in New Orleans, where they met a large number of blues performers — including Louis Armstrong, Pops Foster, and another queer blues singer Bessie Smith. (A story later came about that Ma had kidnapped Bessie, forced her to join the Rabbit’s Foot Company, and made her sing the blues but even Bessie’s family denied the story.) In 1916, Ma separated from her husband, ending both their working and romantic relationships.

Her star continued to rise, and in 1923 Paramount Records asked her to record songs for them. With Paramount, over the next several years, she released more than 100 singles and sold so many of them that she has been credited with saving the company single-handedly. The recordings were very popular — but, you know how some performers are better live than if you’re just listening to them? Ma Rainey was universally considered one of those — and audiences became even more eager to see her, and even more excited at her shows.

Ma was not as open about her sexuality as some of the women of early blues — Gladys Bentley for instance — however, she wasn’t in the closet either. In 1925, neighbors called the police when one of her parties became too raucous. The officers arrived just as things were beginning to get shall we say intimate with the all-female group. Ma Rainey was arrested for “running an indecent party” but was bailed out by Bessie Smith the next day. This may have been one reason Rainey’s guitarist Sam Chatmon thought the two were romantically linked.

This incident may have been part of the inspiration for “Prove It On Me Blues”, which Rainey recorded in 1928. The lyrics are a fairly explicitly about lesbianism and of breaking gender norms. As far as I can tell, this was the first recorded piece of music to celebrate a queer sexuality.

“Went out last night with a crowd of my friends
They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.
It’s true I wear a collar and tie,
Makes the wind blow all the while.”

ma-rainey-prove-it-on-meParamount ran an ad for the song — a drawing of Ma Rainey in a three-piece suit (albeit, with a skirt and heels) and a fedora, talking to a group of women with a policeman watching from across the street. The ad said “What’s all this? Scandal? … Don’t fail to get this record from your dealer!”

1928 was Ma Rainey’s last year as a recording artist. Popular music styles were changing, so her contract with Paramount ended. She toured a little bit longer, before settling down back in Columbus, Georgia. It was about this time (1932) that Sterling A. Brown wrote a poem about her called “Ma Rainey”, describing how powerful her performances were. In her later years, she opened a handful of movie theaters — the Lyric, the Airdome, and the Liberty Theatre. On December 22, 1939, she had a heart attack and died but her legacy continues to this day.

Six months after Ma’s death, Memphis Minnie wrote a tribute song called “Ma Rainey”. It was the first such song, but it would not be the last. In 1965, Bob Dylan paired Ma Rainey with Beethoven in his song “Tombstone Blues”. In 1982, August Wilson published a play about her called Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In 1983, Ma Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. In 1994, the U.S. Post Office released a commemorative stamp in her honor. Ten years later, her song “See See Rider Blues” (recorded in 1924 — you can hear it below) was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and was also added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. In 2015, a film about Bessie Smith was released (Bessie) in which Mo’Nique played Ma Rainey, and one year later the First Annual Ma Rainey International Blues Festival was held in Columbus, Georgia. Last year, in the same city, the Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts opened — named after Ma Rainey and Carson McCullers.

In 1952, Langston Hughes released a poem called “Shadow of the Blues”, in which one character proclaims of Ma Rainey: “To tell the truth, if I stop and listen, I can still hear her!” I think we still hear a bit of Ma every time an artist releases a song about queerness — and if that’s the case, I hope we never stop hearing her.

Anne Lister

Anne Lister (sometimes called “Gentleman Jack“) is a remarkable figure in history for a number of reasons — but one of them was that she was living openly as a lesbian in Regency England. Not exactly an easy thing to do (though easier than being a gay man — which you could be executed for). Anne is sometimes called “the first modern lesbian” (whatever that means) and her coded diary gives some insights into some very modern (for the time) views of sex and sexuality.

Anne was the second oldest child, and oldest daughter, in her family, born April 3, 1791. She and her younger sister were the only two of six to survive to adulthood. Anne discovered her sexuality at the age of 13, at boarding school with a girl named Eliza Raine. Eliza was terribly in love with Anne, and expected to live her when they graduated. That ultimately didn’t happen, and Eliza was “driven to despair” and institutionalized (because that was a thing you could do with emotional women, especially if they were emotional *lesbian* women.)

Instead of having a forever-kind-of-love with Eliza, Anne ultimately had for-right-now kinds of love with Isabella Norcliffe and Mariana Belcombe. All while at school. (Incidentally, Clifton Asylum — where Eliza Raine was sent — was run by a Dr. Belcombe. Mariana’s father. Coincidence?) She would continue her relationship with Mariana even into adulthood — and even once Mariana married a man. Mariana’s husband not only knew about their relationship but apparently gave his permission for it to continue.

With so few people left in her family by her adulthood, Anne Lister performed — without ever trying to — a very rare feat for the time period. She inherited land from a relative. Anne became the sole owner of Shibden Hall — which she extensively made over both to allow herself greater privacy and also because she wanted to, basically, show off how rich and influential she and her family were.

And oh boy was she rich. Anne had, aside from income from tenants living in the farming lands of Shibden Hall, but also from properties she owned in the nearby town, as well as investments she made in canals, railroads, coal mining, and other industries. This sort of business savvy was unheard of in women of the day — and ruffled more than a few feathers. But Anne had more than enough money to live life exactly as she wanted with little to no interference from anyone else.

Anne was also able to convince her lover Ann Walker to move into Shibden Hall, and the two engaged in some “marriage rituals” (I’m using quotes because I haven’t found any elaboration of what those rituals might have been) to honor their relationship — although they were not married in the eyes of the country or the church.

Aside from women, Anne other great love was adventure. And she had plenty of money to finance travels to places where she could have adventures. In 1830, Anne became the first woman to ever climb up Monte Perdido in the Pyrenees. Eight years later, she and Ann Walker would return to the Pyrenees. Together, they became the second pair of people ever to complete a climb up Vignemale — the tallest mountain in the French Pyrenees. This climb also made them the first women to climb the mountain, and the first non-locals to climb it. As a result, Anne Lister became something of a hero in France.

Anne Lister died of a fever while traveling in the country that is now called Georgia on September 22, 1840. Shibden Hall was inherited by Ann Walker — however this was disputed and Ann’s sanity called into question. She spent some time under the care of Dr. Belcombe (were there any other mental health doctors in England at the time? Seriously?) and this invalidated her ability to inherit.

Now we know a LOT about Anne Lister because, well, she was obsessive about her diary. Her diary is a 4 million word volume that she began in 1806 while in her relationship with Eliza. The writings continue, in a code, throughout her life and explicitly detail her relationships with other women. The last person to live in Shibden Hall, John Lister was able to decode the diary. His friend Arthur Burrell told him to burn the diary, but John opted instead for hiding it in a wall where it was eventually found. The diary completely re-shaped a lot of our understandings of the Regency period — and especially re-shaped our idea of what life was like for lesbians of the time.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)