Greenwich Village, New York. The Castro, San Francisco. Boystown, Chicago. The most famous and nationally recognized “gayborhoods,” or gay neighborhoods, of America drape the nation from shore to shore. While the most well-known events and people in the gay rights movement were concentrated in New York and San Francisco, what events and places of gay history have occurred in between? Even without frequent national coverage, the Kentuckian LGBT community stretches from the bustling cities of Louisville and Lexington to the green plains of Paducah and Henderson. Though the stunning progress the LGBT community has made in the twentieth century alone interconnects every state and county, what places in Kentucky hold the same sense of revolution and resistance as New York and San Francisco? How have LGBT individuals occupied space in the 20th century? How can we better preserve the LGBT existence, and how has archivist research affected LGBT historical scholarship?
In the beginning of the 20th century, gay life in Kentucky was similar to gay life nationally: kept quiet and behind closed doors. Thus, Kentucky gay life was restricted to private homes, often of the rich and wealthy. Due to the economic privileges they had, famous artists like Enid Yandell and Oscar Wilde were among the first Kentucky gay people to afford certain luxuries other gay folk may not have had, and their lives are still well-documented due to their fame.
Enid Yandell, a sculptor from the late 1800s until the 1930s who trained with Auguste Rodin, was once described as “Louisville’s Bachelor Maid.” Yandell is accredited with sculpting the statue of Hogan’s Fountain in Cherokee Park, which would later become a cruising spot for gay men. Yandell was born in Louisville yet would move on to live in Chicago, Paris, and Boston. While in Chicago training under a male sculptor, Yandell moved in with multiple women and had a flat filled with only other female sculptors as part of the “White Rabbits.” She never married, and spent most of her time with her roomates. Due to lack of documentation, as well as the secrecy of gay life at the time, historians aren’t sure of her sexual orientation or the true nature of the companionships she had with these other female sculptors. However, due to the all-female communal living space, which was already revolutionary for the time, one cannot rule out the possibility of lesbian or bisexual women in these circles.
All-female communal living spaces not only occurred with artists in training, but with women’s rights activists as well. Women’s rights activists involved in the first-wave of feminism of the early twentieth century had congregated together inside private “settlements” in Louisville, Lexington, and the thick forests of Appalachia. Due to sexist restrictions, women weren’t allowed to or could not afford to live on their own, so many early feminists in the 1920s banded together in the same conditions as Enid Yandell and the “White Rabbits.” Again, there is no written evidence of definite same-sex relationships within settlements, but when considering the isolation and secrecy these settlements may have allowed lesbian and bisexual women, one can infer that these settlements could have held these relationships, being one of the few places in society where lesbian relationships could flourish without interference.
Famed Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, a national symbol for gay men and early gay activism in the nineteenth century, had visited Louisville on February 21st 1882 at the Masonic Temple on Fourth and Jefferson. Visits by Oscar Wilde often prompted gay men to don “green carnations” as a symbol of Wilde, who was accused of being a sodomite on numerous occasions. Because Oscar Wilde’s visits had these silent forms of community of white gay men in cities across the world, one can infer that this secret formation of the green carnation men had occurred in Louisville as well, at the Masonic Lodge.
However, due to their fame and finances, Enid Yandell and Oscar Wilde are outliers in LGBT history. Most of gay life before the end of World War II occured in private homes under lock and key. One of such stories of private courtship follows Lexington brothel owner and city legend Belle Brezing. Belle Brezing owned two brothels in Lexington, one was her home and another called “The Row House.” These brothels and prostitute activity weren’t significant in LGBT culture however, it was Brezing herself that was. She was rumored to have a female lover that worked inside the brothel she owned, but there is no physical evidence of this relationship. Maryjean Wall, in a biography on Brezing, barely mentions her rumored gayness. Again, because much of gay life was behind closed doors and purposefully hidden from the public without a trace, much of gay life and history is speculation or hearsay.
However, the lack of evidence of single gay person in Kentucky shatters with Sweet Evening Breeze. Sweet Evening Breeze, an African-American celebrity for Lexington citizens, was one of the first, if not the first, out LGBT person in Kentucky. Sweet Evening Breeze defied definition, for she would not have labeled herself a transgender woman in her time, but she has remained a central figure in Lexington queer life for decades. She lived from the 1892 to 1983 and was a frequent crossdresser and participator of mock weddings with UK football players. These “mock weddings” would make fun of “unusual marriages” like a tall white woman marrying a short black man, gay weddings, or other couples that were seen as deviant or different from “normal marriages.” Sweet Evening Breeze’s home on Prall street was also a gay hotspot in Lexington and shelter for closeted University of Kentucky students, since it was so close to campus.
In the late 1930s to 1940s, Breeze housed a young white man at her home on Prall Street, an up-in-coming gay artist named Henry Faulkner. Faulkner was born in Egypt, Kentucky but moved to Lexington and quickly took shelter underneath Sweet Evening Breeze’s wings. Faulkner was an eccentric and openly gay man, often dressing in drag or makeup for some photographs. He later moved out of the Prall Street home and bought his own on West Fourth Street in Lexington. This house was often used to solicit young men for sex, and Faulkner was charged with a disorderly home and faced beatings and violence due to his sexuality. However, as his fame as a visual artist grew, so did his public acceptance. His vibrancy was excused by others as he befriended other famed artists such as playwright Tennessee Williams and actress Bette Davis. Today, Faulkner and Breeze are admired as one of the first LGBT pioneers in Kentucky, along with Henrietta Bingham.
Henrietta Bingham, heiress to the Bingham estate and family tycoon, was active from the 40s to the 60s. Henrietta was the daughter of Robert Bingham, who owned the Louisville Courier Journal at the time. Due to her family’s wealth and power in the city, Henrietta was able to throw lavish, sexually exploitative parties at their family estate, the Bingham’s Melcombe, out in Glenview. Henrietta Bingham had multiple affairs with both women and men, one of which was with tennis star Helen Hull Jacobs. This affair had resulted in both of Henrietta and Jacobs being kicked out of Jefferson County. Afterward, the Binghams then established the Harmony Landing Farm in Oldham County where Henrietta continued to live with Jacobs. Henrietta also had a tight circle of fellow lesbians and bisexual women. Some of which were Edie Callahan, Anne Bruce Halderman, and Louise Leland (the first female architect in Kentucky).
With figures such as Henrietta Bingham, Enid Yandell, and Sweet Evening Breeze dominating most of LGBT historical scholarship, one can’t help but realise the “requirements” one must have to be remembered as a gay person in the early twentieth century. Much of it has to do with rumor, hearsay, and gossip as a form of evidence and preservation of artifacts. The burning of incriminating letters, photographs, and journals of possibly gay or trans individuals is common in narratives such as these. Families with reputations to uphold burn evidence of a deviant daughter or son, leaving their queerness in the ashes. The difficulties of researching individuals with intentionally hidden pasts pervades even in this map, so much of early evidence is based on oral history, and focuses more on possibly-gay people rather than places. However, after World War II, previously straight bars begin to have a dual clientele of both gay and straight people, with the demographics of these bars becoming gayer and gayer over time. The first of these many mixed bars in Kentucky was known as the Beaux Arts Lounge.
The Beaux Arts Lounge, centered in the Henry Clay Hotel, was possibly the first gay bar in Louisville – a place with a “dual clientele” that would serve gay men at night after suburbanization led to less straight men after happy hour. The “Bar Complex” in Lexington was a result of the same phenomena and has been a designated LGBT space since the 1930s.
Through mapping over 300 sites in all of Kentucky, results show LGBT history and heritage being concentrated in urban areas and industrial cities. Most early LGBT hubs of activity where inside bars or nightclubs that had a “dual clientele:” a straight audience during the day, a gay audience at night. These “mixed bars” were among the only places LGBT individuals could gather, mostly due to suburbanization and less straight men attending. Bar owners allowed gay men (mostly white) to meet here because of financial gain, as long as patrons weren’t overly affectionate. Gay bar raids didn’t occur at frequently until 1969, when the new Louisville sheriff had followed a declaration by the Alcoholics Beverage Commission to crack down on “immoral behavior:” in bars. This period of police raids lasted from 1969 to 1971.
We have also found that the first ever lesbian marriage case in America, which was in Louisville, had more local repercussions than previously assumed. In 1970, Marge Jones and Tracy Knight walked into the Jefferson County Courthouse downtown for a marriage license. Though Kentucky law did not mention gender in marriage laws yet, Jones and Knight were declined a marriage license. The Jones v. Hallahan court case had sparked three years of local activism in Louisville known as the Louisville Gay Liberation Front, headed by Lynn Pfuhl and Mike Randall. The LGLF, once posting ads in the Free Press of Louisville, got traction and held university classes on gay life at UofL. They had bought a “Gay Lib house” on 420 Belgravia Court, which members lived in until it was raided by police in 1971. The organization had died by 1973, and gay activism in Louisville would not have another spark until 1982: the Sam Dorr trial.
In 1981, Sam Dorr had been working at First National Bank on Bardstown Road for over forty years when he decided to tell his boss he was running for president of the Louisville chapter of Dignity/Integrity – a Christian gay rights group that he had been a part of in secret previously. However, once Dorr mentioned his plans to be an executive of the organization, he was offered two choices: take a new position with less interaction with the public and his coworkers or quit. Sam Dorr quit the company altogether and decided to sue on the basis of religious discrimination – since there was no legislature protecting LGBT people at the time – and lost his case in just two days.
The reaction to Sam Dorr’s trial across Louisville led the formation of GLUE – Gays and Lesbians United for Equality. This organization would lead most gay activism in the 1980s, the spearhead of the over 16 gay rights groups that formed just in Louisville during the decade.
One of the key figures of the gay civil rights movement in Louisville was Jack Kersey, a local real estate agent from Washington D.C. Kersey and his partner, a dentist with a practice on Bardstown Road, lived in Old Louisville. Kersey was responsible for the Comm10 Center on Preston Street – the first LGBT community center in Louisville.
During the 1980s, LGBT activists of GLUE, Lambda Louisville, Greater Louisville Human Rights Coalition, and other groups formed the annual AIDS walk and March for Justice in response to the detrimental harm the AIDS crisis was doing to the gay community without any government assistance. An AIDS Crisis center was built in the Urban Government Center downtown to combat the lack of action of the Reagan Administration on this medical atrocity – dropping the gay and trans population to devastating lows.
The 1980s also marked the beginning of a new age of historical research and archivism: LGBT newsletters and collection. Publications like the Lavender Letter (designed for Louisville) and the Letter (designed for all of Kentucky) spread across the state – and publications focused on LGBT rights and gay liberation sprouted all across the nation.
David Williams, a later editor of The Letter, started collecting these newsletters in his home in Old Louisville after his partner Nichols died of AIDS. This collection of LGBT artifacts, which began in 1982, would later grow into the extensive Williams-Nichols archive: housed by the University of Louisville and is now an unprecedented LGBT archive with over 3500 books, 3000 issues of periodicals and journals, and 1500 items of LGBT memorabilia. This collection and David William’s dedication to preserving the LGBT experience across the state and across the twentieth century has been the basis of my research thusfar, and I can’t thank him enough for his work.
In May 1990, a PFLAG meeting determined the need for an organization specifically for gay youth, and thus, Louisville Youth Group first met in an undisclosed location – but still meets today at the First Lutheran Church in Louisville.
The 1990s symbolized a time of solidification and serious political activism in the gay community. Born out of the hectic craze of organizations in the 80s, the Fairness Campaign (headed by Carla Wallace and Pam McMicheals) aimed to pass anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBT individuals across the state. After 7 years of activism, The Fairness Ordinance passed in Louisville in 1999, and has passed in 10 cities in Kentucky since. The Fairness Campaign continues to fight for gender, racial, sexual orientation, and ability equality across the state.
In conclusion, LGBT history in Kentucky may be concentrated in Louisville and Lexington – but the breathe of its progress spreads far from them. The rural areas of Kentucky are much more elusive in LGBT history and scholarship. However, the lack of evidence of a gay past doesn’t necessarily disprove it’s existence. So much of LGBT history stems from oral tradition and personal narrative; so how can one find an entire demographic intentionally kept from the public eye – either by their own accord or by their family and friends?
The answer is this: preserve your story. Write all experiences down, and discuss the past with those you love. When a museum or archive burns to the ground, a piece of our past goes along with it. History as an entire discipline aims to amend the weaknesses of our fleeting memory, and only by recording and protecting all different forms of the past may we come close to our heritage.
Fosl, Catherine, et al. “Kentucky LGBTQ Historic Context Narrative.” Report for the Kentucky LGBT Heritage Initiative, prepared by the University of Louisville Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research 2016.
Fosl, C. (2012). “”It Could Be Dangerous!” Gay Liberation and Gay Marriage in Louisville, Kentucky, 1970.” Ohio Valley History 12(1): 45-64.
Fosl, C. and L. Kelland (2016). “”Bring Your Whole Self to the Work”: Identity and Intersectional Politics in the Louisville LGBTQ Movement.” Oral History Review 43(1): 138-152.
Johnson, J. J. (2012 ). Oral history interview with John Johnson, September 6, 2012. . Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research. A. Duke. Louisville, Kentucky University of Louisville Archives and Records Center 18.
Kleber, J. E. (2001). The encyclopedia of Louisville. Lexington :, University Press of Kentucky.
Williams, D. (1982-present). Williams-Nichols Archive. U. o. Louisville. University of Louisville Archives & Special Collections