A proud history: A look back at the pioneers of Kentucky’s LGBTQ movement

The Commonwealth of Kentucky is synonymous with any number of features from its loud and proud culture. Among them, horse racing, bourbon, basketball and Bluegrass come to mind – “masculine,” traditional pursuits peppered with a few less-flattering stereotypes. It may be surprising to some, then, that Kentucky is home to the first and only statewide LGBTQ historical narrative in the country, presently a 126-page account of queer history extending beyond metropolitan havens and into rural America.

Made possible by a unique grant from the National Park Service and the U.S. Real Estate Commission to document more LGBTQ heritage sites around the United States, the study represents the first effort of its kind to document and preserve Kentucky’s rich LGBTQ history. Thanks to work by the Fairness Campaign with the Kentucky Heritage Council, the Kentucky LGBTQ Heritage Project began as an effort to document historical locations significant to queer history and now serves as a self-described “baseline that future researchers can refine, revise and extend.”

The narrative’s principal author and researcher is Dr. Catherine Fosl, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Louisville and director of the Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research. After applying for and receiving the grant in summer 2015, she embarked on what she now calls a “whirlwind” venture with invaluable help from dedicated volunteer leaders such as David Williams, whose donated collection of LGBTQ memorabilia comprises the unparalleled Williams-Nichols Archive at UofL.

“It’s really ultimately a part of the queer equality movement to legitimate its own history as part of American history,” Fosl elaborates. Despite her background as an oral historian whose accomplishments include an article published in Ohio Valley History on the first lesbian marriage trial in the United States, this pursuit proved a new challenge: “A lot happened really fast. I had never done anything to look at heritage sites. I had never worked with anything like national register nominations. That idea of place history was really new for me.”

Arguably, Fosl’s experience as an advocate of “people’s history” made her the ideal author. The completed narrative illustrates the significance of places as their setting for noteworthy people, placing life and color amid the four walls of any given landmark. Among them, Fosl lists Sweet Evening Breeze, Henry Faulkner and Lige Clark as particular fascinations, yielding her equal attention to eccentric, activist and the common threads between them.

Sweet Evening Breeze (right) at the Living Room Bar, Lexington, circa 1971 Photo courtesy of Faulkner-Morgan Archive.
Sweet Evening Breeze (right) at the Living Room Bar, Lexington, circa 1971.

The history of LGBTQ identity, not unlike other human classifications, has experienced eras of contention in which early civilizations saw no grievance. For centuries, sexuality was a private aspect of any person’s life, as it remains today largely for heterosexual, cisgender men and women. The narrative explains, “Sexual conduct was therefore, especially for women, far less subject to labeling, legislation or harsh punishment than it became with the increasing modernization and medicalization of American culture in the second half of the 19th century. … Thereafter and until the middle of the 20th century, an increasing array of penalties and intense social sanctions for homosexuality (especially for men) followed as it became increasingly demonized and subject to public scrutiny and censure.”

As variance from the heteronormative status quo became criminalized over time, those who didn’t conform to traditional ideals but saw less persecution became anomalies, the proverbial “lucky ones” in a broader sea of frightened souls. Sweet Evening Breeze, who Fosl lists as a favorite, was one such outlier.

Born James Herndon in the late 19th century in Scott County, “Sweets” was allegedly abandoned at Lexington’s Good Samaritan Hospital as a young child, residing there under the wing of a prominent donor until he began catering to patients as a teenager. He eventually rose to the position of head orderly, an impressive station for a black man in segregated Lexington.

After purchasing a home near the University of Kentucky, Sweets became known for his gender-bending style that included cosmetics and accessorizing with feminine scarves or jewelry. He was known to take regular walks through downtown not uncommonly in full drag. Despite any number of precarious circumstances, not least among them being a nonconformist, successful black man in the Jim Crow-abiding South, Sweets was regarded as a sort of local celebrity with connections to the Pleasant Green Baptist Church and the UK football team. He even served one year as the bride in an annual mock wedding to the quarterback, a Southern entertainment tradition known as “Womanless Weddings” in the early 20th century.

Though he faced criticism in his community, Sweets’ saga is a fortunate one. Later in life, he was instrumental in overturning Lexington’s ordinance requiring people to dress according to their gender lest they face arrest. One need not look far to find records of oppression and injustice, but it’s stories like that of Sweet Evening Breeze that many of us go unaware of. His was a triumph not just for the gender-fluid among us but also for the broader queer community, and further, minorities.

While his legacy resounds into 2017, his immediate influence was equally palpable. In the 1940s, Sweets took in a young Eastern Kentuckian named Henry Faulkner. Born in Simpson Country, Faulkner went on to become one of Kentucky’s renowned visual artists and was once labeled  as a “decorative pillar of the gay community.” Due in part to his bold openness regarding his sexuality, Faulkner faced beatings and arrests in both Lexington and Louisville; however, he did not let this persecution interfere with his commitment to artistry and in fact proceeded to develop friendships with James Herlihy, Vincent Price, Bette Davis and even Tennessee Williams – all distinct members of the mid-century American queer scene.

Ask nearly anyone to identify a Kentucky icon and they’re likely to quickly list athletes and the odd politician. Thanks to Fosl and her associates, the scope of game changers is a little widened.

“My goal when I started the narrative was different from when I finished,” she reveals. “My goal was pretty general going into it in terms of enlarging my own lens beyond social history and the history of people. I think from the beginning, they said it would be online and available to anyone who wants to do more with respect to historic preservation or Kentucky queer place heritage work. I just wanted to make something available that would both unearth new information and legitimate the idea that Kentucky’s queer places are important. Frankly, I wanted it to appeal to more than just people who run historical societies. I wanted it to tell a story of Kentucky’s queer history, at least in a general way.”

The gay-friendly Beaux Arts Lounge opened in downtown Louisville in 1947 and was among the first such bars in Kentucky. Image courtesy of the Williams-Nichols Collection, University of Louisville.
The gay-friendly Beaux Arts Lounge opened in downtown Louisville in 1947 and was among the first such bars in Kentucky.

To the non-historian who only reads about past events or important persons after they’re tidily summarized, the notion that history must first be collected sounds more than tedious, if not somewhat peculiar. Fosl and her colleagues were entrusted to gather it as exhaustively as possible to write the narrative, which is complete with an inventory of properties significant to LGBTQ history. By conducting “history harvests” throughout the commonwealth, they were able to meet with individuals whose personal storytelling could influence the narrative, or who possessed valuable documents.

The idea for the harvests, Fosl says, is not a new one, as they’re often used in the general field of public history. Daniel Vivian, an assistant professor at UofL, supplied the idea to the LGBTQ initiative. Prior to teaching courses in historic preservation and coordinating the department’s public history program, Vivian worked with the National Register of Historic Places program in Washington, D.C.

“He acted as a kind of consultant for our team and did a lot of support work,” Fosl relates. “He had extensive contacts with people who do historic preservation work. He and I brainstormed about how to have these statewide data-gathering sessions. He talked about this idea of ‘history harvests,’ which invite people to come and bring their stories or documents.”

The harvests, and indeed the collective initiative, benefited from help wherever it was available. “The Fairness Campaign has a coalition with partner groups in places like Bowling Green, Berea and Hazard,” she adds. “Those groups were helpful to the extent that we were able to break through some barriers. Their help was crucial in Eastern Kentucky.”

To conduct a harvest, Fosl and her assistants would travel with recorders and a flatbed scanner to several state locales. Unless an individual wanted to donate a document, the team would make a scan and return the original, yielding copies of anything from photos of queer activists to lesbian feminist newsletters to flyers advertising gay liberation meetings and bars.

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Fosl’s only lament, it seems, is that they didn’t have more time to truly entrench in a community to glean as much information as possible. To do so, she laughs, would have taken a “five-year project.” Still, the harvests they did have were crucial to the final product.

“In Hindman, for instance, the richest source of material we got was from the family of Lige Clarke,” she says proudly. “He was one of the early gay journalists, he wrote as an openly gay man, and he helped to organize one of the first-ever gay rights pickets in Washington. We worked with his family members and got photographs of him from childhood to adulthood, and we got copies of things he had written or that other people had written about him.”

Lige Clarke’s significance to both Kentuckian and American queer history is substantial enough to fill seven pages of the narrative, the longest stretch to discuss any one particular person. Proudly declaring, “Gay is good!” in Washington at a time when picketing was still an extreme expression of discontent, Clarke gave validation to the idea that homosexual couples deserved to live with pride.

On January 12, 1999, supporters gathered in Louisville’s City Hall to witness the reintroduction of the Fairness Ordinance before the Board of Aldermen. The ordinance passed that night after more than seven years of organizing. Fairness Co-Founders Carla Wallace and Pam McMichael are at the far right. Photo courtesy of the Fairness Campaign.
On January 12, 1999, supporters gathered in Louisville’s City Hall to witness the reintroduction of the Fairness Ordinance before the Board of Aldermen. The ordinance passed that night after more than seven years of organizing. Fairness Co-Founders Carla Wallace and Pam McMichael are at the far right.

In the narrative itself and in conversation, Fosl never seems to lose sight of the narrative’s incompletion. She describes it as a “framework” and a “mini encyclopedia,” always embracing the possibility and promise of later additions. While the Kentucky narrative is certainly not the first chronicle of LGBTQ history, it represents a different approach that ultimately generated a statewide record in one accessible format.

“To a certain extent, this was just a different procedure,” Fosl considers. “A lot of people have done historical context narratives of cities before the state. We didn’t have that opportunity because this grant was for statewide studies. There weren’t any possibilities to start with only a Louisville or Lexington study.”

That burden to go beyond the obvious points of origin, she says, “is just a vivid reminder that not all the important people or places or events in U.S. queer history happened in New York City or Los Angeles. I bet your average Louisvillian – and even your average queer Louisvillian – doesn’t know much about the 1970s lesbian marriage trial. It’s really empowering to know our own history.”

Since the project is the first of its kind in Kentucky, it should serve as a jumping-off point not only for those eager to discover how queer history shapes their personal present but also for the budding historian seeking to unravel a lineage made elusive not by distance in time but instead by a cloak of not asking, not telling.

“This narrative is a lot more about larger social history than it is just historic places,” Fosl explains. “We were tasked to identify historic places, but one thing I’ve found is that Kentucky’s queer history is so embryonic in terms of what’s been written that this is really a launch pad for people who might want to go out and identify more.”

To perseverate that goal, Fosl extended the project beyond the grant’s parameters to develop and teach a course at UofL called Queer Oral Histories this past fall. She says she trained a dozen students in the gathering of oral history with the expectation that they may add to the LGBTQ narrative. Their own origins, she contends, can enable them to grasp stories she was unable to glean due to time constraints or lack of establishment in any given community. An Appalachian student, for instance, who has ties to people in her small hometown is likely better able to extract new and fascinating details from that setting as she is familiar and arguably by proxy, trustworthy.

During history harvests outside Kentucky’s two major metropolitan cities, Fosl found that definitions of history and willingness to share it vary significantly. The first harvest in Frankfort, she says, was influenced by the very recent passing of a Fairness Ordinance in 2013 after months of debate.

“We were looking for material from the 20th century. It’s interesting to see what people consider history because for them, it was 2010 and on. And of course that is history in the sense that it’s already happened, but from the point of view of this project, we were trying to document earlier.”

For a historian with years of experience, this notion of recent history as the only history available was an eye-opener. “That was probably my first real introduction to how many people in smaller communities aren’t really out. It’s not the same as being closeted – it’s more about being discreet.”

The metaphor of the closet has been widely used in the queer movement to represent concealment as a means of avoiding condemnation, though its exact origins as a popular metaphor are unknown. “I’ve found that the history in some cases was more closeted than we had anticipated,” Fosl discloses. “It’s not quite the same as a history harvest asking people to bring their documents from the Civil War. These are battles that are still being fought. People are struggling to not be singled out in negative ways or draw attention to themselves. A lot of time, even people who were eager to share their stories wanted anonymity.”

Henry Faulkner with two soldiers c. 1940s. Image courtesy of the Faulkner-Morgan Pagan Babies Archive.
Henry Faulkner with two soldiers c. 1940s.

History, by definition, is of course a record or chronicle pertaining to any number of events, people, places or time periods. More importantly, however, the word itself encompasses an entire league of knowledge. If “knowledge is power,” as we’ve all been told at one point or another, then it stands to reason that history is power.

Even for an individual without identification to a letter in the queer alphabet, a comprehension of its history, however minimal, is an asset to any passion for social reform. Without the women’s suffrage movement nearly 100 years ago, could there have been a Women’s March just this year?

As the narrative points out, the histories of varying social justice movements are interlinked. “The African American civil rights and black liberation movements of the early 1960s became the prototype for all of the identity-based movements that were to follow them,” it says. “’Gay liberation,’ which began in 1970 in Kentucky, was no exception.”

It seems only right – and to an extent, obligatory – that any among us who stands on the shoulders of a bygone social movement pay reverence to our predecessors through even a modest education. With true equality yet to be served in the present, we’re enabled to breathe a little more power into our rights by knowing where they came from.

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