“Tangible Relics”: An Introduction to Gay and Lesbian Historic Sites
“A past lacking tangible relics seems too tenuous to be credible.”
–David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t attracted to historic places. As a child, my parents didn’t have to drag me to Civil War battlefields and historic house museums; I went willingly. As an adult, my first professional job was at a restored historic village. I still think a vacation is incomplete unless I’ve taken in at least one town that time forgot. Once asked about my favorite magazines, I named Preservation - the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation – at the top of my list. Judging from the popularity of places like Plimoth Plantation and Colonial Williamsburg, there are a lot of other people out there like me.
But one thing that historic sites and travel guides never taught me was about a most important part of myself – my heritage as a gay person in this country. If it weren’t for the work of lesbian and gay historians in the past few decades, queer history would be buried, right where many homophobic people would like it to be. Even in the late 1990s, when I first compiled a print guide called The Queerest Places (published by Holt 12 years ago; now out of print), many gay people I spoke to were unaware that they had any significant collective history at all. “That’ll be a short book!” one lesbian actually said to me when I told her about the project. On the contrary, I found an abundance of historic sites related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender history. Some were popular tourist attractions that had never been written about from a queer perspective. Others were sites that had not been written about at all. Still others no longer existed, victims of time or urban renewal projects. Now, the age of blogging seems the perfect time to revive and expand my project.
For my purposes, I define a “historic site” as any house, structure, or geographic location with an association to an historic queer person or event. A site need not be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, nor does a structure need to be still standing to be included in this study. By “queer” I mean individuals of gay, lesbian, or bisexual orientation, either of an affectional or sexual nature, and also transgendered people.
Some folks will undoubtedly find this site and snort, “Hrmph! Herman Melville’s gay? Where’s her proof?” I don’t always have the kind of evidence that would hold up in a court of law or that traditional (heterosexual) scholars would accept. In fact, I don’t actually believe that “proof” of gay or lesbian sexual relations is required to reclaim a historical figure as queer, any more than “proof” of heterosexual intercourse is required to name a person straight. The very idea that we need “proof” assumes that being queer is “wrong” and that to “accuse” someone of homosexuality is a terrible thing to do.
Like others investigating the queer past, I have had to devise an alternate detective system. Because lesbians and gay men have had to hide for such a long time, many of the rules of evidence simply don’t apply. Something as seemingly cut-and-dried as heterosexual marriage and children, for example, can’t rule out that someone was gay – how many of your gay friends were in heterosexual marriages once, too? In claiming people as queer, I look at how they lived their lives – their friends and community, their work, their relationships. And yes, I sometimes rely on rumor and gossip, which has been called the “oral history” of queer people.
So welcome, read and learn, suggest sites you’ve visited, and come back often to explore some of the “tangible relics” of the queer past.