Queer Reading: Book celebrates queer historical figures

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Wednesday June 21, 2023
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Author William Lipsky holds a copy of his book on LGBTQ historical figures. Photo: Brian Bromberger
Author William Lipsky holds a copy of his book on LGBTQ historical figures. Photo: Brian Bromberger

As people gather this weekend for San Francisco Pride, many can't help but remember past friends, loved ones, and community leaders who have helped to make the LGBTQ community the vibrant one that is being celebrated. The tagline on the back cover of William Lipsky's new book, "LGBTQ+ Trailblazers of San Francisco" (The History Press, $23.99) reads: "Famous or forgotten, they're all our fabulous ancestors ... whether forty-niners, bohemians, beatniks, boomers, hippies, clones, or conformists, they all contributed to the development of a vibrant community, many simply by being themselves."

Lipsky, a gay man, is the author of "Gay and Lesbian San Francisco" (2006), a docent at the GLBT Historical Society Museum, and a member of the board of directors of the Rainbow Honor Walk, which pays tribute to deceased LGBTQ leaders with sidewalk plaques in the Castro neighborhood. Some of the profiles are derived from his monthly column, Faces from Our LGBT Past, published in the San Francisco Bay Times, while others were written for the book.

Lipsky, 76, covers queer people in San Francisco from the Gold Rush to today, noting, "we've always been here." A few were open about their sexuality but many were not. LGBTQ people met each other mostly through social networks, friends, shared interests, and yes, even chance encounters, often using veiled references or symbols (i.e. green carnations, red neckties) so they could identify each other. Lipsky includes many well-known figures one would expect in this compendium, such as Oscar Wilde (visitor to San Francisco), Gertrude Stein/Alice B. Toklas (lecture tour to SF), assassinated gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, and Imperial Court founder José Julio Sarria.

But the exciting part of the book is meeting the lesser-known figures who made contributions to the queer community.

In an email interview, Lipsky explained what inspired him.

"Everyone has a history," he wrote. "Unfortunately, for too long and for too many of us, our history and the stories of the women and men who contributed to our world was unavailable to us. Too many of us grew up believing we were the only LGBTQ individual in the world. I wanted to know who I was. I wanted to know I was not alone. Discovering that some of the most important and admired people of the past also were LGBTQ helped me understand an important part of myself, showed that I was someone who belonged to a vital community with deep roots in the past, and gave me pride."

Lipsky said he is fond of the story of Charles Stoddard, an author best known for his travel books about Polynesian life and his gayish autobiographical novel, "For the Pleasure of His Company."

Another story recalls January 23, 1849, when 27-year-old carpenter Jason Chamberlin and 25-year-old wheelwright James Chaffee boarded a ship in Boston Harbor and sailed around Cape Horn to San Francisco and the gold mines in the Sierra. They had met and become "dear friends" in Worcester, Massachusetts. They didn't find great fortune but settled at Second Garrotte in Tuolumne County. They built a house and took up farming, growing vegetables and apples and manufacturing cider and vinegar. They opened a way station for visitors traveling to Yosemite Valley. They were together, almost every day, for the next 54 years. Friends and neighbors considered them a couple in every way and a double biography in the "History of Tuolumne County" (1882) described them as "an example of life-long friendship between men, that is as interesting as it is rare."

Esther Eng was born in San Francisco in 1914. She was the first woman to produce and direct Chinese-language films anywhere, but also the first to do so in Hollywood. She was the first woman to direct a film in Hong Kong, and the first woman to film in color. Working only for independent film studios, she didn't have the resources to make a major Hollywood motion picture, but positively, she was free of any Hollywood restrictions.

Tragically, most of Eng's films are now considered lost, including "Golden Gate Girl," the first feature-length Chinese-language film made in San Francisco, in 1941. She was a celebrated public figure but she never hid her love of women, especially Wai Kim-Fong, "the Chinese Sarah Bernhardt," who starred in three of Eng's films. Later in life she opened two Chinese restaurants in New York, dying at age 55 in 1970.

Lipsky was asked about why younger readers should be interested in these historical figures.

"Learning about the LGBTQ people who have gone before us helps us to understand how our own lives fit into the human experience," he stated. "It helps us to realize that as different as our world appears to be from theirs, we are very similar in our values and goals. Their lives provide insight into ourselves and our world, which they created, and which we are recreating for those who will follow us."

Lipsky said the lessons from these trailblazers are relevant today.

"Because our shared memory is the foundation of a strong, vibrant community, learning the stories of the women and men of our past is more relevant than ever," he wrote. "Now more than ever, when our LGBTQ communities are under attack, knowing who they were and what they accomplished will keep us united to defend ourselves against those who would do us harm. In their own ways, all the trailblazers fought for the right to be their authentic selves. So will we."

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