Thank You Del Martin, 1921-2008
I write this last gay history guest blog on a memorable day, both in a sad way and in a hopeful way. I received an e-mail this morning telling me of the death of Del Martin while in the background the Democratic convention was cheering Barak Obama on to a new time in America. As long as I have been queer, Del Martin and her partner, Phyllis Lyon, have been part of that world. When I was a young woman in my twenties, c. 1960, I found my first copy of The Ladder in a drugstore on Second Avenue in New York City, a secret joy it was. The Lower East Side was a good place to be in the 60s, filled with counter-culture energies and it is no accident that was the only time I ever saw a copy of The Ladder for sale at a public place. Del’s death marks the ending of a time for my generation; other queer history trajectories will take the place of the old American urban coming out story I was a part of.
I have written at length about the bar culture that welcomed me in the late 1950s, but there are other public moments I would like to share with you. Like the time in 1957 when I met my younger cousin Abby in Washington Square Park and read to her from The Well of Loneliness as we sat perched on the rim of the waterless water fountain. I wanted her to know about where I thought my life was headed—not in sadness but in struggle.
When Mabel Hampton and her wife, Lillian Foster, invited my then lover Carol Betty Lipman who was to die in 1964 to attend a drag ball in Harlem. What a night that was. We sat at a table on the side of a huge hall with stunning butches and fems all around us, a long staircase leading up to the balcony that wrapped around the room, convenient for posing and cruising all that lay before. It was on that staircase with Carol walking behind me that I first felt my power as a fem—a handsome stud, as Ms Hampton would have said, paused and looked me all over, and then said to Carol, “Can I borrow your woman, she is really saying something.” All these years later I remember the flush that came over me.
The time, later in the 60s, when my lover and I went to see The Children’s Hour, playing at a Greenwich Village theater on 6th Ave, I want to say the Waverly, but I am not sure that was its name. The very gay male usher stood welcoming us with a box of tissues in his hand—“all the tough old bull dykes are in there crying their eyes out,” he said with a kind laugh. We entered the darkened theater as if we were joining our family.
And then the shining early 70s, at the old Wooster Street firehouse where one Jonathan Katz hung a sheet from the tin ceiling as a backdrop for his play, Come Out! The firehouse, the meeting place of the Gay Activist Alliance, where on the small stage people like Nath Rockhill, Arthur Evans, Morty Manford and Jim Owles helped us plan our next zap and on Sunday afternoons, the wide farm like doors of the center stood open for women like Blue London and Ginny Vida flocking to the afternoon entertainment, a lesbian cabaret sponsored by the Lesbian Liberation Committee. The afternoon panel on Lesbians and Their Mothers with my mother making a speech from her wooden chair in the audience. The dances where drag queens had to be so careful making their way up and down the treacherous spiral metal staircase.
The evening in the mid seventies when there on the stage of the Judson Street Church I saw something new under the sun -- It’s Alright to Be a Woman theater group, women in comfortable clothes dragging milk crates onto the stage and one by one performing their own story. We hung in the darkness peering down at our own lives as if we had never seen them before.
And in between these New York moments, the march from Selma to Montgomery: I walking all the days with my lesbian self held close until I met Nancy Myron, one of the members of The Furies, in the rain soaked field where we lay on pieces of cardboard trying to get some sleep before the final march into Montgomery.
The first historian that seized my attention was Benedetto Croce (1866-1952)—I was a student at Queens College (1958-1963) discovering Ideas and more then anything I wanted to study the new field of intellectual history but this was not possible. Understanding the “great chain of being” would have to be enough, but something about Croce seized my attention and just recently, so many years later, I tracked down some of his books, trying to find the young woman who had been so drawn to his thinking. In his 1921 book, Theory of Historiography, I found the idea that all past history is contemporary history because our need to understand makes it live again—the human spirit meets the documents of its wanderings.
I spent the greatest part of my life creating a home for documents of lesbian life and touch, knowing the next generation will have its own stories to tell, both of action and of thought. Del Martin will be waiting and Mabel Hampton and Jane Rule and Tee Corrine and Sonny Wainwright and Rota Pardo -- so many lives waiting for a new reading in a new time.