America's Only LGBTQ Historic District Is Falling ApartHistorians in the News
tags: historic preservation, California, literature, urban history, counterculture, LGBTQ history, Elsa Gidlow, Bay Area
One of North America’s first openly lesbian poets launched her career by pissing off H.P. Lovecraft.
In 1918, at the age of 19, Elsa Gidlow started publishing North America’s first known LGBTQ-themed magazine out of her home in Montreal. Combining queer poetry, one-act plays about young gay love, and progressive social commentary, Les mouches fantastiques quickly gained a cult following far beyond the city and even Canada—culminating in a back-and-forth literary journal spat with the noted horror writer (and racist), who decried the magazine’s promotion of an “ancient selfish hedonism.”
In 1920, Gidlow moved to New York City, bringing Les mouches to a close after a five-issue run. Three years later, while living in Manhattan, she published On a Grey Thread, making history once again as the author of what historians believe to be the first openly lesbian poetry book released in North America. By attaching her real name to the work, Gidlow risked the very real possibility of imprisonment on indecency charges—a common tactic the federal government used against other gay writers of the era. Somehow, she evaded repercussions.
Before long, Gidlow made a permanent move to the Bay Area. But it wasn’t until her 50s that she felt she’d finally found a place to call home: In 1954, she established what she called the “unintentional community” of Druid Heights, a collection of idiosyncratic, eco-friendly buildings scattered across 6 acres in Marin County. It was there—holed up in a small cottage up a windy mountain road, living off pesticide-free crops from her garden—that she would complete work on nine more books and live out the rest of her days. One of them was Elsa, I Come with My Songs, regarded as the first autobiography by a lesbian in which the author did not use a pseudonym.
From the 1950s to the mid-70s, Druid Heights attracted a revolving cast of guests and short-term residents that included some of the biggest names in the American cultural avant-garde, from Beat Generation writers like Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, to musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Steve Miller, to prominent feminist reformers Catharine A. MacKinnon and Margo St. James. For 12 years, it would serve as a hangout spot, and eventually a base of operations, for the influential philosopher Alan Watts, who popularized the practice of Zen Buddhism and the study of Eastern philosophy in the West.
At its height in the late 1960s, the community was home to around 34 people—and to one of the most fascinating chapters in American counterculture and LGBTQ history. Gidlow had plans to turn it into one of America’s first retreats for women artists. That is, until the federal government decided it wanted the land in 1972, setting off a chain of events that would not only threaten the community’s continued existence, but to erase it from collective memory.
“It's high time for the NPS to take responsibility for preserving this site of national significance for LGBTQ history, women's history, and bohemian and countercultural history,” LGBTQ historian Gerard Koskovich said. “The apparent federal obfuscation, foot-dragging and practice if not policy of demolition by neglect with regard to Druid Heights is a scandal.”
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