Lesbian recalls '60s love affair with Joplin

  • by Alex Madison
  • Wednesday July 12, 2017
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A standing-room-only crowd filled the GLBT History Museum in the Castro recently, to hear the story of Jae Whitaker, an African-American lesbian who experienced San Francisco at the height of the Beat Generation.

Whitaker rubbed shoulders with the likes of the late gay poet Allen Ginsberg, poet and City Lights Bookstore co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and had a 10-month romantic relationship with rock star Janis Joplin.

"It was a special time. It all was special because I was living it. When I look back on it, it will all be special," Whitaker said at the July 6 event.

Joey Cain, curator of the museum's current exhibit, "Lavender-Tinted Glasses: A Groovy Gay Look at the Summer of Love," sat down with Whitaker as part of the museum's commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the summer when young people, many self-described hippies, flocked to the city's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.

Whitaker, 79, did not lack an ounce of the spunk that shines through the picture of her in her early 20s that hangs in the museum. The audience was in stitches during the two-hour event reacting to her jokes, stories, and wittiness.

Born in 1939 in Brooklyn, Whitaker said by the time she was 5 years old, she knew she was different. After graduating high school, she traveled across the county with a woman, eventually landing in San Francisco in the early 1960s.

Whitaker talked about her memories living with Joplin, discovering Bob Dylan's music, and brought the audience back to a time when being a black lesbian was far from acceptable.

"Blacks were not accepted too well," Whitaker said. "I was like a fly in the buttermilk everywhere I went, but we made it."

Stories of segregated facilities and even attempted attacks on Whitaker were discussed. Times became even tougher when she entered a biracial relationship with Joplin after meeting her at a bar.

Being a black lesbian dating a white woman in those times, Whitaker said that she was often vilified. Because of this, Joplin herself did not accept her own bisexuality, she said.

"She didn't want anyone to know she was gay," Whitaker said. "She wouldn't let anyone even take our picture together."

Whitaker and Joplin still had an eventful relationship and hobnobbed at North Beach bars Gino & Carlo and the Coffee Gallery, the first of which still stands today.

"There were never any exclusively lesbian bars back then," Whitaker said. "We couldn't afford to have an exclusively lesbian bar."

Maud's, a lesbian bar in the Haight, had just opened.

Joplin was performing and writing music, while Whitaker worked various jobs. The relationship eventually faded, and Whitaker went on to work for the U.S. Postal Service and play music herself in a trio band. Whitaker has since been featured in the documentary, "Janis: Little Girl Blue," which discusses Joplin's multiple lesbian relationships.

In the ACT production "A Night with Janis Joplin," playing at the Geary Theater through July 16, Joplin's none-too-secret bisexuality is ignored, as Bay Area Reporter critic Richard Dodds wrote in his review. Joplin died in 1970 of a heroin overdose at the age of 27.

The history museum event ended with a standing ovation for Whitaker and the fulfillment of the exhibit's purpose, which as Cain said is, "to reclaim the major queer figures who were responsible for the Summer of Love."

One audience member, Arthur Corbin, a San Francisco LGBTQ activist for more than 40 years said, "There is almost no one left from her generation." He spoke about the significance of learning from the past.

"History is really important," Corbin added. "It's important for people like Jae to speak out and talk about their history and support the younger generation who are still struggling. History helps us to understand that times like now are manageable. It's not without its challenges, but we know we can do it."

For Kerby Lynch, a student at UC Berkeley who identifies as a lesbian, Whitaker's talk inspired gratefulness.

"I have great appreciation for Jae. She has so much wisdom," the 22-year-old said. "African-American women in history have faced intense times of oppression. We have much more freedom today and we have to appreciate the times we live in."

After the event, two women sat side-by-side discussing Whitaker's tenacity, spirit, and the influence of the Beat Generation on today's LGBTQ community.

"She has an incredible spirit despite the things that happened to her," said Grace Santana, a San Francisco native. "The freedom we have today is based on how people fought and lived then. They changed the public's view."

Her friend, Erika Huggins, said, "What I took away was her jokes, resistance, joy, and her complete wholeness. She's just a wonderful human being."

"Lavender-Tinted Glasses: A Groovy Gay Look at the Summer of Love" runs through September 17. For more information, visit http://www.glbthistory.org .