Queer Historic Sites in
The next time you're traveling across the western United States, soaking up the big-sky vistas of the Southwest or the glitzy shopping and nightlife of Los Angeles and San Francisco, consider taking the time out to visit a museum or historic site of gay significance. With so few openly lesbian and gay figures in all but recent American history, attractions with direct queer relevance are somewhat uncommon. But they do exist - from the former studio of the 20th century's most acclaimed female American painter to the world's largest lesbian and gay historical archive.
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If you've ever been to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico - or admired her paintings in hundreds of collections around the world, you might want to find out a little about the woman behind the art by visiting the area where she had two homes, Abiquiu (about 50 miles northwest of Santa Fe). O'Keeffe first came to this remote area in North-Central New Mexico as a guest of conservationist Arthur Pack, who owned a 20,000-acre dude and cattle ranch nearby. O'Keeffe became enamored of Ghost Ranch, and eventually Pack sold her a 7-acre plot that contained the small house in which she spent nearly every summer for the rest of her life.
You can't actually visit the house today, but you can view the exterior - along with the red-rock buttes and sagebrush-strewn plateaus that so inspired O'Keeffe. Just drop by the Ghost Ranch Living Museum, a small open-air facility with an arrangement of wildlife enclosures - from here, albeit in the distance, you can see the old O'Keeffe house sitting pretty in the shadows of New Mexico's craggy mountain peaks. The rest of Ghost Ranch is now owned by the Presbyterian Church, which uses it as a religious (but quite gay-friendly) retreat center and oversees the operations of both the Florence Hawley Ellis Museum of Anthropology the Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology.
Although she had female lovers throughout her life, O'Keeffe was married to photographer Alfred Stieglitz until his death in 1946; following this, she decided to make New Mexico her year-round home. To this end, she bought a 5,000-square-foot adobe compound in the nearby village of Abiquiu, and it's here that she spent her fall and winter months.
It's not easy getting a glimpse of this ramshackle home whose interior looks largely the way it did when O'Keeffe lived there, but tours are given by the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation on a limited basis (April-November, reservations required at least two weeks in advance, $22 per person). Keep in mind that Abiquiu is an insular Hispanic village whose residents cherish their privacy - visitors are asked not to take pictures, either of the O'Keeffe compound or any portion of the village itself.
Los Angeles is something of a Mecca for lesbian and gay history buffs. At West Hollywood's June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives you can thumb through videos, photos, records, T-shirts, and quite a few misguided psychological studies of the female love that dare not speak its name. This is one of the foremost lesbian cultural archives around. And in downtown L.A., the ONE Institute & Archives is the world's largest collection of historical material relating to lesbians and gays. You could spend days at either of these facilities and never scratch the surface of their contents.
For a more gossipy brush with homo history, check out the star-studded Walk of Fame along Hollywood Boulevard, from La Brea to Vine. Luminaries with star-shaped plaques along this giddy celebrity stroll include Bette Midler, Little Richard, Liberace, Roddy McDowall, Edith Head, and Cary Grant. At 6925 Hollywood Boulevard, you can see the foot- and handprints of more than 175 celebs embedded in the pavement outside Mann's Chinese Theatre. Check how closely your paw prints match those of Rock Hudson, Bette Davis, Whoopi Goldberg (who also left an imprint of her famous braids), Judy Garland, Barbara Stanwyck, Van Johnson, and other notables with strong queer followings.
But perhaps the most memorable site of queer significance in L.A. is the poignant Museum of Tolerance, which houses original letters from Anne Frank, artifacts from several Nazi Germany death camps, and dozens of interactive exhibits that help visitors consider how people have been oppressed on the basis of race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. Behind the museum is a striking Memorial Plaza dedicated to the many victims of prejudice over the centuries, including a walkway remembering gays and lesbians. The museum hosts lectures and programs touching on specific events and issues, some of which concern lesbian and gay issues.
Of course, San Francisco has enough points of gay interest to fill a few books. An excellent place to get acquainted with the city's rich queer history is the state-of-the-art San Francisco Public Library, which is as famous for its imposing exterior as for its 11 special-interest collections, whose materials focus on specific themes and groups, including Asian-Americans, African-Americans, art and music, the environment, and lesbians and gays. The James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center is where you'll find the queer collection, whose holdings include books (including hundreds of pulp paperbacks from the 1940s and '50s), periodicals, photographs, buttons, flyers, and other artifacts. Exhibits and documents trace local history but also provide an excellent overview of queer culture around the world. The room is filled with plush armchairs and writing desks - brushing up on our history has never been such a treat.
The wild-west Lone Star state is home to an impressive, if rather diminutive, shrine to arguably the 20th century's greatest athlete. The Babe Didrikson Zaharias Museum is in Beaumont, about 80 miles east of Houston, and it celebrates the life and accomplishments of this six-time Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year. Although married, Zaharias is believed to have been bisexual - she, her husband George Zaharias, and her close companion and fellow golfer Betty Dodd lived in the same house together for some years. Zaharias purportedly kept her same-sex relations as private as possible, knowing full well that exposure would result in her public downfall.
The small museum contains nary a trace of evidence related to the athlete's sexual orientation, but it does vividly illustrate Zaharias' prowess not only as a golfer - she helped to form the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) - but also a competitive baseball and softball player, bowler, roller-skater, diver, tennis player, high- and long-jumper, javelin hurler, and runner. She won Olympic gold medals in Track and Field in the 1932
Olympics. It's difficult to think of a field in - or on - which she didn't excel. Zaharias passed away in 1956 and is buried in Beaumont's Forest Lawn Cemetery, a couple of miles north.
A city quite rich in kitsch, Las Vegas is largely devoid of historically and culturally significant points of interest. The precious and much heralded Liberace Museum is one exception. This campy tribute to the late and famously flamboyant entertainer is set inside a small one-story building that looks as though it might once have housed a Chinese fast-food restaurant. Inside are photos, costumes (including Lee's beloved Czar Nicholas II uniform), mannequins, and pianos (one was played by Chopin, another by Gershwin). Be sure to catch a glimpse of Liberace's patriotic red, white, and blue hot pants and feathered cape, which he wore for a celebrated performance at Radio City Music Hall. A small gift shop sells, among other colorful mementos, Liberace soap and ashtrays. Goofy as it all sounds, the museum supports an excellent cause - the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts, which funds more than 100 schools, universities, and organizations with scholarship grants.