‘Tis the season to be jolly. And gay. Yes, it’s time for Gay Pride, again, and time, too, for the rounds of the LGBT A-List: Ellen, Neil, Melissa, Elton, Chaz, and Lance, to start. Those on The List will be endlessly hailed as fine examples of gay culture, people who have overcome the Newsweek mindset to succeed in a straight man’s world. This is not to imply that they don’t deserve to be honorary marshals of various parades and recognized in toasts and roasts. After all, each has done his or her own to sugar the road for the rest of us.
Still, the spotlight on these same celebrities, year after year, tends to obscure focus on other deserving LGBT individuals. By this, I don’t refer to those who have made the LGBT B-List of celebs (Clay Aiken, Chad Allen) or even the D-List (Sam Harris, Samantha Ronson), who still manage to get plenty of attention. Rather, I mean those who are or were leaders in their respective fields. They aren’t necessarily famous, yet they have all made valuable contributions to society and culture as out and proud LGBT individuals.
Some have been forgotten by history, while others work in fields that don’t attract attention. Still others are well-known locally, but haven’t been noticed outside their home cities or countries. Therefore, let us give a salute to just some who have made strides in their respective fields, and thereby made life better for all—and deserve a bit of recognition.
For example: Don McLean. No, not Don the singer of “American Pie”. Fans of his live performances knew McLean as Lori Shannon, but America knew her as Beverly LaSalle from All in the Family. LaSalle made three appearances on the show, as a transvestite to whom bigoted Archie delivers life-saving mouth-to-mouth. (Classic line: after Beverly tells Edith that Beverly is a transvestite, a befuddled Edith replies, “Well, you sure fooled me. I mean, you ain’t got no accent at all.”) For her final appearance, in the episode “Edith’s Crisis of Faith, Part I”, the show explored violence against trans persons with Beverly’s murder.
However, McLean was more than America’s best known and beloved female impersonator on TV in the early ‘70s; she was a successful entertainer off the screen, as well, performing in gay bars and drag shows for years. Lori Shannon was known for her wit and sarcasm, and at 6’6” tall, was a commanding figure on stage. Unfortunately, Don McLean and Lori Shannon passed away of a heart attack in 1984.
Another entertainer often overlooked is Billy “Sweat Pea” Strayhorn, one of the great jazz and big band musicians of the last century. However, his decision to live as an out gay man in 1939 hurt his career, and even though he was strongly associated with Duke Ellington (non-romantically for those of you who instantly went there), he never enjoyed the fame that Ellington did. Together, the two are responsible for such classics as “Take the A Train”, the “Peer Gynt Suite”, “Lush Life”, and “Lotus Blossum”.
What’s more, Strayhorn once taught a young singer named Lena Horne, helping her to broaden her style and horizons by introducing her to classical music. That alone earns him a place in gay heaven.
Elsie de Wolfe, mother of The Pink Lady
Of course, when speaking of style, one must mention the queen of interior design, Elsie DeWolfe (1865-1950), the fairy god mother of every queer who has ever owned (or made) a faux marble finish anything. Elsie was the first person to declare that interior design was an occupation and art. DeWolfe not only introduced America to faux finishes, but also chaise lounges and Persian rugs, and she helped drag us out of the dreary interiors associated with the Victorian Era. (See A Decorator’s Life:Elsie De Wolfe 1865 - 1950)
Possessing a love for entertaining, she also popularized dinner parties and cocktail parties, even creating her own drink, The Pink Lady (1/3 Cointreau, 1/3 gin, and 1/3 grapefruit juice), which is still popular today.
Elsie lived for years with her lesbian lover, a fact well known amongst New York social circles, so it came as quite the shock when she married diplomat Sir Charles Mendl in 1926 at the age of 60. In fact, the wedding was such a bombshell that The New York Times reported it as “a great surprise to her friends” in their cover story on the wedding. Elsie continued her relationship with lover Elisabeth Marbury until Elisabeth’s death, making her one of the first out lesbians to hold the title “Lady”, although countless drag queens have held the title since then.
Claude McKay - photo (partial) by © James Allen
Another LGBT individual who was ground-breaking in his field was Claude McKay (1890-1948), one of the great African-American poets of the early 20th century. Known to have both male and female partners, McKay implied his homosexual yearnings in Home to Harlem. Among his best works is “If We Must Die”, a call to his fellow black citizens fighting against injustice and intolerance. His words could equally inspire those fighting for the rights of gays in those countries where homosexuality is a capital offense:
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
Our hearts can only go out to our family in countries such as Uganda and Malawi who face the challenges about which McKay wrote so eloquently.
Also inspiring a new generation of LGBT individuals is Anthony Charles Williams II, better known to fans as Tonex, one of the best-selling gospel singers of the past decade and winner of six Stellar Awards, given for gospel music, in 2005 for his album Out of the Box. Tonex lost much of his fan base when he came out 2009, making him one of several Christian musicians to come out in recent years.
Australian musician Jennifer Knapp announced she was a lesbian in 2010, while Christian superstar Ray Boltz came out publically in 2008. Young singers Jason and deMarco were out and a romantic couple before ever achieving fame as a singing duo. All follow in the footsteps of Marsha Stevens-Pino, who The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music refers to as “the mother” of the genre. Stevens-Pino came out as a lesbian in the late ‘70s, but still continues to be a force in the world of Christian recording.
While we are praising LGBT trendsetters, of course, we must pay homage to those who are leaders of tomorrow. Two of those individuals were scholarship winners last year. Ryan Dykes, aspiring actor and model, won a PFLAG scholarship. Ryan was a high school athlete and involved in numerous local and national charities. Plus, he does a mean Lady Gaga lip-sync.
Cara Cerise is straight, but her fathers aren’t. Cara won a scholarship from COLAGE, an organization that works with the children of LGBT parents. She was recognized for starting a group in her high school that worked to break down barriers between gay and straight students, and for her work with AIDS patients in Paraguay.
All of these individuals didn’t just make strides during the one month we LGBT people declare as our month for pride. Thus, in between the parades and parties and protests, set aside some time to whip up a batch of Pink Ladies and raise your glass to Elsie, Don, Tonex, and the countless unsung LGBT individuals who are blazing…no, flaming a path for us all. You go, girl!
Cheers, Queers: One might be tempted to raise a glass to Congress for finally making some progress on repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, but Congress should have never passed it in the first place. Instead, toast the countless gay men and women serving their country in their armed forces. Hopefully, the day will be soon when we can hear a strapping young man openly and proudly say, “I’m a United States Marine, and so is my boyfriend.”