Where our queer ancestors lived & loved
by David-Elijah Nahmod
Elisa Rolle is an historian who has done her homework. The openly lesbian writer and editor is authoring a series of books that document the history of queer culture and the people who made it happen. Her 2014 book Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time chronicles the lives and loves of those who came before us. With that book, Rolle took us on a journey back in time, across the 20th, 19th and 18th centuries, and much further back, to revisit the lives of people who were known or believed to be LGBT.
That book was a fascinating read that offered a few surprises, such as the inclusion of blind/deaf author/educator Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, the woman who taught Keller how to read braille and to communicate. Other than Sullivan's short-lived, failed marriage in 1905, she and Keller lived together exclusively for 49 years. Is it really a stretch to believe that they may have loved each other?
In Rolle's latest book, Queer Places: Retracing the Steps of LGBTQ People Around the World, Volume 1, Rolle serves as our travel agent, taking us on a trip to all 50 states. She serves as our tour guide as we visit the homes, birthplaces and gravesites of many of the historical figures we learned about in her earlier book. Vol. 1 covers the USA. The yet-to-be-published Vol. 2 will trace the steps of LGBTQ people in the United Kingdom, while Vol. 3 will journey across the rest of the world.
Queer Places begins with Keller and Sullivan. Rolle takes us to Ivy Green, the Alabama estate where Keller was born in 1880. As we see the house where Keller lost her sight and hearing, and where she first met Sullivan, the author recounts the story of their relationship. Rolle then discusses where other queer Alabamians lived, and where LGBTQ people can go to find other queers when visiting the state. In the section devoted to Washington, DC, Rolle shows us where Keller and her "lifelong companion Annie Sullivan" rest together at the National Cathedral.
Rolle divides the book state by state. Countless LGBTQ lives are remembered as we visit the places where they lived, worked and died. Hundreds of historical photographs are included. But Rolle goes further. She lets the current LGBTQ generations know where they can go to find others like themselves while travelling. Yes, Virginia, there really are gay bars and bookstores in Alaska.
Rolle walks through the streets of neighborhoods in many cities, such as New York. Iconic buildings like the Dakota are photographed by the author in all their glory as she lists the names of historical LGBTQ figures who once occupied those elegant homes. Many were forced to live closeted lives.
The California chapter is most interesting. Old-time Hollywood was a cesspool of homophobia, where queer stars and directors were sometimes forced into fake marriages if they wanted to keep their careers. Rolle remembers those often-lonely lives as she visits graves of fondly remembered film icons. She also pays tribute to those we loved, like Judy Garland, the great singer and gay male icon.
Rolle came to San Francisco and visited the Castro, showing her readers our beloved Castro Theatre among other historic locales. She strolled over to Valencia Street. Long before the tech bros took over, Valencia served as an early mecca for lesbians. Anyone remember Amelia's, one of the first women-only bars? When in San Francisco, Rolle urges, be sure to visit the GLBT Historical Society in order to learn the complete stories of our many iconic places.
At 600 pages, Queer Places is an exhaustive work. Readers might wonder if there's a single street in the country that Rolle didn't visit. Is there an historical archive whose records she failed to study? Rolle is an important historian of LGBTQ lives.