Before Oscar Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray, before he penned plays—including The Importance of Being Earnest—that would make him an essential playwright in the Western canon, before he went to trial and was imprisoned for “gross indecency” (i.e. being gay), he embarked on a tour of the United States to lecture about aestheticism. The tour included two stops in Minnesota.
While he had published poems by 1892, and was considered a rising star, he hadn’t reached the level of notoriety he would achieve later. In America, Wilde was treated brutally by the press, who made fun of his extravagant clothing that went against more masculine trends in American fashion. Prior to his arrival in the Twin Cities, where he would deliver his lecture on aestheticism to both cities, he was was ridiculed by local newspapers, who referred to him as an “ass-thete.”
His reception was so negative that he delivered his lecture in Minneapolis to the ceiling, never looking at the audience.
St. Paul went a bit better, in part due to the enthusiasm by Bishop John Ireland, promoter of all things Irish, who invited Wilde to St. Paul’s exuberant St. Patrick’s Day Rally. Wilde showed his appreciation by signing an autograph for the Bishop.
The story of Wilde in Minnesota is just one of the many gems that historian Stewart Van Cleve explores in his book, Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota. Published in 2012, the work reveals the hidden LGBTQ histories of people, places, and events.
Last year, Van Cleve led a walking tour through St. Paul. This Saturday, the Minnesota Historical Society is leading the way, using Van Cleve's script, for the Queer St. Paul Walking Tour.
Van Cleve's project of documenting LGBTQ histories began as a volunteer at the Tretter Collection as an undergraduate at the university. Eventually, he worked his way up to interim curator. (He recently began working as a librarian at Augsburg University after completing his Masters in Library Science.)
“What was shocking to me going through the Tretter Collection... I kept stumbling across records, and photographs, and old community newspapers that talked about people, places, and events that I had absolutely no idea about,” Van Cleve says. “I was really shocked by how quickly that information had vanished from the public conversation.”
One story that particularly struck Van Cleve happened in St. Paul in the late '70s during a well-organized backlash.
“In the early '70s, the gay rights movement [made] incredible gains in a very short amount of time,” Van Cleve says. Both the Minneapolis and the St. Paul City Councils passed non-discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation. At the time it wasn’t a big story. “It was on the back pages of the newspapers,” he says.
Enter Anita Bryant, a Miss America Pageant runner-up from the 1950s and B-celebrity famous for her orange juice commercials. She successfully lobbied to repeal a gay ordinance in Miami Bay County in Florida. That event inspired a wave of battles across the nation, including St. Paul, which overturned its LGBTQ protection ordinance by a 2-1 margin.
“It was a stunning defeat, and just seeing that kind of devastation in the faces of the activists who were there at the time, and going through those records, and reading about the people who were at risk of losing their homes,” says Van Cleve. “It really deepened my appreciation for the movement at that time.”
(Pictured: Gay and lesbian activists react to the repeal of St. Paul's nondiscrimination ordinance in 1978. They had organized a victory party at the St. Paul Hotel that quickly turned into a somber event and a protest march.)
On the tour, you’ll visit some important landmarks of St. Paul queer history, like the Rossmore Building, a former shoe factory on Robert Street between Ninth and 10th streets.
“What’s amazing about this one building is that it has hosted seven different gay and lesbian bars since the 1970s,” Van Cleve says. “One of my favorites is the Grand Finale— the best name for a gay bar possible.” The Grand Finale was a disco where the Village People and Grace Jones performed.
Later on, the Rossmore Building became a lesbian—or “women’s bar”—owned by Honey Harold, who owned a variety of lesbian bars in St. Paul from the late 1950s to the early 1990s. “They would run for about seven years, then they would shut down, and she would open up a new one,” Van Cleve says.
At the Rossmore, she opened Foxy’s. “There’s an entire generation of women who I talked to who remember Foxy’s in St. Paul,” says Van Cleve. “They remember dancing there, and also they remember that when you would go there, there wasn’t any sign.” The only way someone might figure out that there was a club inside was the billowing cigarette smoke that would escape when you opened the door.
The first known gay and lesbian bar in St. Paul was called Kirmser’s, on Cedar Street, active in the 1940s and '50s. “It was completely nondescript,” says Van Cleve. “There was no indication there was gay or lesbian action happening. You just had to know it was there.”
IF YOU GO:
Queer St. Paul Walking Tour
10 a.m. to noon Saturday, July 22
Meet at the Northwest corner of Wabasha Street and Kellogg Boulevard.
Tickets are $14; $11 for MNHS members.
Reserve a spot at MNHS.org.
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