In commemoration of National Coming Out Day, (October 11) SFGN recalls a few brave souls who dared to venture out of the closet long before it was safe or acceptable to do so. We salute their courage.
Quentin Crisp (1908-1999)
Born Dennis Pratt to an upper middle class family, it became clear to all that the effeminate boy was a "homosexual for all the world to see". From the early 1930s onward, Crisp lived an openly gay life in London, at a time when being out endangered one's personal safety. Crisp endured many beatings, sometimes at the hands of the police. He stood trial on trumped up prostitution charges when in fact he was waiting for a bus and not "soliciting". It's believed that Crisp coined a most familiar phrase in 1931 when he said, "I wish to live in the world and not in a closet".
Crisp recounted his experiences in his 1966 memoir “The Naked Civil Servant,” which was a best seller, becoming an international celebrity at around age 70 when Thames Television filmed the movie based on the book. He spent the rest of his life writing books, acting in movies, touring in a one-man show and speaking. He died at age 90 as he was preparing to perform his one-man show in London.
Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)
Born in Pennsylvania and raised in Oakland California, it's believed that Stein, a famous writer and art collector, moved to Paris in 1903 because her lesbianism was not considered an issue among the famous circle of artists and writers who lived in the City of Light at the time. In 1907 she met Alice B. Toklas, who became her partner. The couple lived together in Paris until Stein's death in 1946. In 1933 Stein published “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” which was actually her own life story told in Toklas' voice: the book became her best-known work.
After Stein's death, Toklas lived in poverty after the Stein family ignored Gertrude's express wishes that her estate go to Toklas--this is one of the first known examples as to why marriage equality is needed.
George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)
One of the most famous poets of his day, Lord Byron left England in 1816, never to return. His scandal prone life included accusations of incest and many incidents of extramarital affairs--it's believed he bedded both women and men. Whether he left England of his own free will remains open to debate, though at the time he wrote that he'd been advised to stay away from the theaters and not to perform his Parliamentary duties.
That same year he spent the summer in Switzerland with noted writers George Polidori, and married couple Percy and Mary Shelley. The foursome challenged each other to write a ghost story, which resulted in Mary Shelley's immortal tale “Frankenstein.”
Byron died of a fever at age 36.
Christine Jorgensen (1926-1989)
Born George Jorgensen in Bronx, New York, the WWII veteran traveled to Sweden in 1952 for sex reassignment surgery. When Christine Jorgensen returned to the USA the following year, the paparazzi were out in force. She made it work for herself, pursuing a somewhat successful career as a jazz singer--she often sang the show tune “I Enjoy Being a Girl.”
Jorgensen enjoyed greater success as an author and a public speaker, advocating for transgender rights--and gay rights--before the term transgender had been coined. In a 1967 television interview now archived at You Tube, Jorgensen stated that she wasn't the first as the media had reported, but that sex change surgeries had in fact begun as early as 1926.
The 1970 film “The Christine Jorgensen Story” recounts her life story in a soap opera-ish but still entertaining and positive manner. Not available on DVD or Blu Ray, the film was recently posted complete at You Tube.
Jose Sarria (1922-2013)
While Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man in US history to win elective office, Jose Sarria was the first to actually run. His 1961 campaign for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors may have failed, but Sarria got many more votes than anyone expected him to. A long time drag performer at the Black Cat, a San Francisco gay bar that closed in 1964, Sarria often closed his shows with his signature tune "God Save Us Nelly Queens". Many gay men have said that when they were first coming to accept their own sexuality, Sarria was the first person to tell them to embrace who they were. Sarria's many accomplishments including co-founding The Tavern Guild in the mid-1960s, a support organization that helped gay bar owners and patrons combat the police harassment that was common at that time.
Sarria's funeral at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco attracted thousands of mourners, including elected officials and the very police department that had once harassed him. At his funeral the SFPD honored the groundbreaking activist.