Edna St. Vincent Millay could be expertly nonchalant. According to her contemporary, journalist Max Eastman, amid cocktails and chit-chat at a Greenwich Village party the topic of her recurring headaches arose between the poet and a psychologist. "I wonder," queried the therapist, "if it has ever occurred to you that you might perhaps, although you are hardly conscious of it, have an occasional impulse toward a person of your own sex." “Oh, you mean I'm homosexual! Of course I am,” she, unfazed, acknowledged, “and heterosexual, too, but what's that got to do with my headache?”
Yet, Millay could also let loose literary cannon blasts (and not only across the bow). In her essay, Fear, she hit comfortable society broadside. The piece was her response to the executions of two anarchists—Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Many worldwide saw their trial for armed robbery and murder as biased and unjust. She herself was arrested for picketing on their behalf at the State House in Boston.
Addressing her readers directly in the text, she chastises “you [who] long to return to your gracious world . . . where people had pretty manners and did not raise their voices.” For you, “Justice is a woman of stone above a courthouse door.” “It is impossible,” she concludes, “for you to conceive that men could weep in public and women permit themselves to be thrown in jail because (as it seemed to them) the blue hem of Justice was being dragged in the mire.”
With those words, the bohemian poet hit the nail's head. What matters is justice—along with its offshoots: equality, liberty, inalienable rights, and the like—not as a figurine in stone, but as a necessity vital, robust, and real. For such, no doubt, is why so many of our LGBT ancestors refused in various ways to sit back on their haunches and accept the world, the one constructed by human foibles, as is.
Baron von Steuben threw himself into winning an American war of liberation. Abolitionist Mary Grew urged buying only “free produce” untouched by slave labor and worked vigorously within the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society to combat slavery. Harlem Renaissance novelist Claude McKay strived to give “back to the Negro race its heritage.” (Amid 1919's “Red Summer” of race riots, he provided in verse a defiant black voice: “If we must die, let it not be like hogs / . . . Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack, / Pressed to the wall, dying, but—fighting back!”) Irish national hero Sir Roger Casement, hanged in 1916 as a British traitor, earlier fought to end atrocities against natives exploited for rubber in the Congo and Peru's Putumayo river basin. Anita Augspurg and her life-companion Lida Gustava Heymann co-founded Germany's first women's suffrage group, and, for their radical feminist agitation, were forced out of Nazi Germany. Dr. Margaret “Mom” Chung co-founded the Chinese Hospital in San Francisco at a time when hospitals there denied patients of Chinese heritage healthcare access. Jean Cocteau's protégé, the poet Jean Desbordes, described as “soft-spoken . . . short, slight, like a little clerk,” became a Resistance fighter and, interrogated under torture, died revealing nothing to the Gestapo. Will Geer, withstanding hurricane winds of national hysteria in the 1950s, safeguarded civil liberties and human decency. Asked by a Congressional committee if he was a Communist, the blacklisted actor refused to name names and replied, “The word Communist is an emotional word—like the word 'witch' in Salem.” And Cecil Williams, the Caucasian freedom-fighter and militant collaborator with Nelson Mandela, as well as black South African Tseko Simon Nkoli, jailed for his anti-apartheid activism, helped to crush apartheid in South Africa.
Like the people mentioned above, each of the LBGT forebears profiled in this exhibit possessed a deep-rooted social consciousness. (One of those individuals is still living and still possesses that attribute!) All were involved in social justice efforts and movements—whether anti-slavery, women's suffrage, civil rights and civil liberties, economic justice, peace, or other endeavors—geared (to put it simply) to making things better for us all.
1. Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Penguin, 1992), 82.
2. "Edna St [sic] Vincent Millay," Spartacus Educational, http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Jmillay.htm.
3. Spartacus, n.p.
4. “Edna St. Vincent Millay 1892–1950,” under “Biography,” Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/edna-st-vincent-millay.
5. Edna St. Vincent Millay, Fear (New York: Distributed by Sacco-Vanzetti National League, n.d.), n.p.
6. Fear, n.p.
7. Fear, n.p.
8. Ira V. Brown, Mary Grew: Abolitionist and Feminist 1813–1896 (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University, 1991), 22.
9. Brown, 78.
10. A. B. Christa Schwarz, Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomington: Indiana University, 2003), 89.
11. Marcellus Blount, "Caged Birds: Race and Gender in the Sonnet," in Engendering Men: the Question of Male Feminist Criticism, ed. Joseph A. Boone and Michael Cadden (New York: Routledge, 1990), 234, http://books.google.com/books?id=H0q0ubvLxmYC&pg=PA225&lpg=PA225&dq=Caged+Birds:+Race+and+Gender+in+the+Sonnet&source=bl&ots=Lfp7qbDnEQ&sig=fnxrwIfUahHDot5ca2vBO5SYmYM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=X6yGUZSfBYjE4AOZsIHQDQ&ved=0CD4Q6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=red&f=false.
12. Claude McKay, “If We Must Die,” Liberator, July 1919, 21.
13. Brian Inglis, Roger Casement (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973), 370.
14. Hiltrud Schroeder, “Anita Augspurg,” trans. Joey Horsley, FemBio, http://www.fembio.org/english/biography.php/woman/biography/anita-augspurg/.
15. Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, Doctor Mom Chung of the Fair-Haired Bastards: The Life of a Wartime Celebrity (Berkeley: University of California, 2005), 92.
16. Wu, 91.
17. “History,” Chinese Hospital: Caring for the Community for over 100 Years, Chinese Hospital, http://www.chinesehospital-sf.org/About-Us/History.aspx.
18. Ian Young, Gay Resistance: Homosexuals in the Anti-Nazi Underground (N.p.: Stubblejumper, 1985), part “II,” http://freepages.family.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~turcault/resistance/Gay%20Resistance.htm.
19. William J. Mann, Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood 1910–1969 (New York: Viking, 2001), 306.
20. “Cecil Williams,” South African History Online: Towards a People's History, http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/cecil-williams.
21. Mark Gevisser, “Simon Nkoli,” POZ: Health, Life, & HIV, July 1999, http://www.poz.com/articles/216_10383.shtml.
22. Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, Thirteenth Annual Report, Presented to the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, by Its Executive Committee, October 15, 1850, with the Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (Philadelphia: Merrihew & Thompson, printers, 1850), .
23. Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Report of the Fourth Congress of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Washington, May 1 to 7, 1924, English Edition (Washington USA: Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, US Section, ), xv.
24. "Simon Nkoli to Visit Chicago," Gay Chicago Magazine, August 10, 1989, 36.
25. Wofford, Jennifer, "From Sharpeville to Stonewall," Gay Community News, September 24-30, 1989, .
26. "Sharpeville Massacre, 21 March 1960," South African History Online: Towards a People's History, http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/sharpeville-massacre-21-march-1960.
27. Wofford, .
28. Wofford, 11.