The Daily Agenda for Tuesday, July 2
July 2nd, 2013
TODAY IN HISTORY:
60 YEARS AGO: State Department Fires 381 Homosexuals: 1953. In the early 1950s, the entire country was in the grips of the Red Scare as Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy was conducting his witch hunts. One of his main platforms would be the Senate’s Subcommittee on the Investigation of Loyalty of State Department Employees. While McCarthy’s main targets were imaginary Communists in the State Department, gay employees were also seen as “subversives” in need of rooting out. Among the more high-profile targets was Samuel Reber, a twenty-seven year career diplomat who announced his retirement in May of 1953 after McCarthy charged that he was a “security risk” — which was a barely-concealed code for homosexual. By then, President Dwight D. Eisenhower had already responded to McCarthy’s witch hunt by signing an executive order mandated the firing of all federal employees who were found guilty of “sexual perversion.” (See Apr 27) He also announced a re-organization of the State Department. Rep. Charles B Brownson, an Indiana Republican with his own lesser-known witch hunt underway in the House Government Operations Committee, asked the State Department for a progress report in rooting out homosexuals. On July 2, 1953, the State Department’s chief security officer R.W. Scott McLeod revealed that 351 homosexuals and 150 other “security risks” had been fired between 1950 and 1953.
Richard Bruce Nugent: 1906. When the landmark Harlem Renaissance literary magazine Fire!! published his short story “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” in 1926, Richard Bruce Nugent became the first African-American writer willing to declare his homosexuality in print — and he would remain so for the next thirty years. A year earlier, he had been attending the “Saturday Evening” salons of poet Georgia Douglas Johnson in his native Washington, D.C., where he was introduced to the leading African-American thinkers of the day, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Jean Toomer, and Waldo Frank. He also met poet Langston Hughes (see Feb 1), and the two of them became fast friends and moved moved to New York. Nugent, Hughes, Cal Van Vechten (see Jun 17) and several others became integral players in Harlem’s intellectual and artistic life, with Nugent becoming the most notorious. Van Vechten once wrote to Hughes that he saw Nugent at a society dinner in evening clothes “with his usual open chest and uncovered ankles. I suppose soon he will be going without trousers.”
Nugent wasn’t just a writer, but also a dancer, painter and illustrator. The apartment complex in Harlem that he shared with other artists became known as “Niggeratti Manor,” where Nugent had painted the walls with mural, some depicting homoerotic scenes. Other illustrations appeared in Fire!! as well as two other African-American publications Opportunity and Palms, and other New York art magazines. Meanwhile, he continued to write short stories and even took his turn on the stage, appearing on Broadway and in an early production of the play Porgy (later adapted by George Gershwin for Porgy and Bess) In 1937, he published what is often considered his finest work, “Pope Pius the Only.”
In 1952, he married Grace Marr, with whom he shared accommodations, and with her three brothers. The marriage was her idea; she thought she could “change” him. It’s unclear why he went along with it. He warned her that it was a bad idea, but marry her he did. The relationship was never consummated. Meanwhile, Nugent remained an active booster of Harlem’s literary and arts scene throughout the rest of his life. He was also a harsh critic of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1968 exhibition on the Harlem Renaissance which, astonishingly, was put together without the involvement of Harlem artists. In 1983 he was interviewed for the film Before Stonewall. He died in 1987. In 2002 Duke University Press published Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance: Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent, a collection of Nugent’s most important writings, paintings, and drawings, many of them made available for the first time.
Dee Palmer: 1937. Jethro Tull fans would know her as composer and keyboardist David Palmer. She had provided orchestral arrangements for several significant Jethro Tull albums, including Aqualung and Thick as a Brick before joining the band as a full time musician in 1976. At the time, she presented herself as an eccentric Englishman, complete with a Sherlock Holmes pipe and a beard. She remained with the band until it broke up in 1980 over Ian Andersion’s decision to release a solo album under the Jethro Tull name.
She was also married. He had told Maggie about her transgender feelings on their second date, and Maggie was accepting. “All of my time with Maggie was blissfully happy,” she later recalled. But after her wife died in 1998, Dee was left alone to confront her sense that something was wrong. “Once she died I sat in the kitchen looking down the garden for a year, then gradually from the outermost part of my body and soul where I had consigned what I was to learn was gender dysphoria started to reassert itself as something that I had to deal with again.”
She finally decided it was time to act on the feelings that she had been having since the age of three. She changed her name to Dee in 2000 and underwent gender reassignment in 2004. The whole process for her was very difficult. “It isn’t for wimps by the way … And it isn’t for people who want to wear a frock and prance around masquerading as a female. It’s nothing to do with that, it’s a light year away from that.” Now that she has transitioned, she feels liberated, and lives with a sense that there was nothing left to hold her back. “it is like jumping from a parachute. At first it’s very easy, but then suddenly the ground is coming up at you and you can’t stop until you’ve reached the end; it’s very much that kind of experience – your writing and performance will take on new dimensions.”
Johnny Weir: 1984. The famous American figure skater is a three-time U.S. National Champion (2004–2006) and a the 2008 Worlds Championship bronze medalist, although for a number of reasons, his Olympic appearances in 2006 and 2010 were disappointing. When he appeared at the 2010 U.S. Championships wearing fox fur as part of his costume, he began to receive death threats from animal rights activists. He defended his decision to wear fur as “a personal choice,” but decided to remove the fur from his costume. By the time the 2010 Winter Olympics came around in Vancouver, he had to change his housing arrangement due to security concerns.
Weir was always a bit different — including the fact that he spins clockwise instead of counter-clockwise like most other figure skaters. He was long suspected of being gay — as are probably most male figure skaters. The fact that he designed some of his own skating costumes in a very androgynous style didn’t do much to quell the rumors. But for most of his career, he preferred to leave the questions unanswered. “It’s not part of my sport and it’s private,” he’d say. But when he published his memoir Welcome to My World in 2011, he finally came out as gay. He said his decision to come out was prompted by a string of suicides in 2010. “With people killing themselves and being scared into the closet, I hope that even just one person can gain strength from my story.”
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And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?