The Daily Agenda for Sunday, November 3
November 3rd, 2013
TODAY IN HISTORY:
Aaron McKinney Found Guilty of Matthew Shepard’s Murder: 1999. After ten hours of deliberation, a jury in Laramie, Wyoming found Aaron McKinney guilty of first-degree murder of Matthew Shepard, after having been acquitted of the higher charge of premeditated first-degree murder. Testimony would begin the next day for the penalty phase to determine McKinney’s eligibility for the death penalty. The jury would ultimately reject that option and McKinney instead drew two consecutive life terms.
McKinney confessed to his role in beating Matthew Shepard with a .357 magnum and tying him to a fence outside of Laramie. After Shepard died from severe brain damage, McKinney’s attorneys spent the trial fighting for a reduced conviction to escape the death penalty. Co-defendant Russell Henderson plea bargained two life sentences without possibility of parole earlier in the year.
Jeanette Howard Foster: 1895-1981. A pioneer of what would later be known as lesbian studies, Foster had graduated from Rockford College with a degree in chemistry in 1918. Her biographer, Joanne Passet, said that Rockford College was valuable in contributing “to her health, sense of self and confidence.” Perhaps some of that occurred when, as a junior, she was on the student council deciding the fate of two young women who were judged in a “morals case.” No details were given except that the two women had taken every opportunity to lock themselves together in a dorm room. Foster realized that she was the only one on the student council who didn’t understand the implications of what that might mean. She went to the library and, guessing that the “morals case” reflected something sexual, looked into a copy of Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex and discovered that there was a phenomenon called Sexual Inversion in Women.
Recognizing herself in that description, Foster quickly recognized that if it was that difficult for her to find published information about women like herself despite having access to a major university library, how hard would it have been for women in small towns or rural areas to learn anything about others like themselves. Thus began a lifelong passion for compiling a massive bibliography containing everything she could find about female sexuality, a task that was initially made difficult by the very closeted nature of most lesbian and bisexual women. She earned a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago’s Graduate Library School, which opened doors to jobs at libraries and universities across the country, wherever she could have access to libraries which might have examples of lesbian literature. As Passet observed:
In her lifetime, she lived in 17 states and changed jobs frequently in order to gain access to library collections that would advance her research. The gay activist and Professor Karla Jay, who interviewed Foster in the mid-1970s, claims that she would have become a nun if it would have gained her access to lesbian literature in the Vatican Library.
Along the way, Foster became the first librarian for Alfred Kinsey’s Institute for Sex Research at the University of Indiana from 1948 until 1952. By 1956, she was ready to publish the result of more than two decades of research. Sex Variant Women in Literature: A Historical and Qualitative Survey was the first text to systematically document works by and about lesbian, bisexual and cross-dressing women in literary texts. Foster’s choice of title was very deliberate. “I had learned from searching bibliographies a title beginning with the word sex couldn’t be ignored.” As for “variant woman,” she reasoned that because its meaning was “no more than differing from a chosen standard,” it was neither judgmental nor emotionally charged. As if that weren’t groundbreaking enough, Howard Foster published the text under her own name in the immediate wake of the McCarthy era. She also contributed fiction, poetry and reviews to the Daughters of Bilitis’ groundbreaking magazine The Ladder. Much of her fiction and poetry however was published under a variety of pseudonyms because she wanted to preserve her own name’s association with what she regarded as her most important work, her ever-expanding bibliography.
Today, Sex Variant Women in Literature is considered the founding document for an entirely new area of scholarship. Without it, it is certain that so much of lesbian-themed literature would have been lost to history. In 1974, Foster was honored with the 1974 Stonewall Book Award, and her bibliography was reissued the in 1976 and again in 1985. It remains to this day a definitive bibliography for libraries seeking to establish a core collection of lesbian literature. Foster eventually retired to Pocahontas, Arkansas with two other women, where she died in 1981 at the age of 85.
[Sources: Virginia Elwood-Akers. “Jeannette Howard Foster (1895-1981).” In Vern L. Bullough’s (ed.) Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context (London: Routledge, 2002): 48-55.
Marcia M. Gallo. Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement(Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2007).
Joanne Passet. Sex Variant Woman: The Life of Jeanette Howard Foster (Cambridge, MA: Da Cappo Press, 2008).]
Charles Nolte: 1923-2010. His 1947 Broadway debut was in a production of Antony and Cleopatra staring Charlton Heston and Maureen Stapleton, but it was his 1951 appearance as the title role in Billy Budd which earned him critical acclaim, even as those same critics ignored the play’s homoerotic subtext:
Nolte recalls, “Not one of the reviewers, and there were dozens in those days, mention the fact, of course, that Claggart has the hots for Billy Budd, and so did Captain Vere. But what is so fascinating is the fact that you could not discuss it, although everybody knew it. But they had to find ways of obfuscating the basic facts. Making end runs around. Using similes and metaphors. The whole canon of Billy Budd is replete with people trying to avoid saying what is perfectly obvious.”
In 1954, Nolte played opposite Henry Fonda in the premiere of the hit play, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. After appearing in several live television dramas and four feature films — War Paint (1953), The Steel Cage (1954), and two other uncredited roles in Ten Seconds to Hell (1959) and Under Ten Flags (1960) — Nolte decided to return to his native Minnesota to earn a Ph.D. and teach acting at the University of Minnesota’s Theater Department. He also taught acting at the Guthrie Theater drama school at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. He continued writing plays, including “Do Not Pass Go” which was produced off-Broadway. He also appeared in a local production, this time as an openly gay man in “Exit Strategy,” about two senior citizens who are about to lose their home. Nolte died in 2010 at the age of 86, reportedly while doing what he loved: listening to a recording of one of his favorite operas. He was survived by his partner of over fifty years, former child actor Terry Kilburn.
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