The Library Company of Philadelphia has launched its’ exhibition “That’s So Gay: Outing Early America” revealing that early 19th century America contained a spectrum of same-sex relationships and gender identifications. The exhibition draws on a hundred books, pamphlets, photos, and illustrations from the Library’s 500,000-piece collection, including a first printing of Walt Whitman’s “Calamus” poems, in which he describes men’s relationships as “adhesive.”
Then there are Charlotte Cushman, an actress who became famous for playing men’s roles, and sculptor Harriet Hosman who made statues of heroic, historic women, who lived among other women in Rome in the mid-19th century, and were known as the “Jolly Bachelors.”
Living in the nineteenth century required considerable nerve and care. Curator Cornelia King remarks:
Take the case of two men named Fitz-Green Halleck and Joseph Rodman Drake. The two were the toast of New York for writing a series of witty, satirical poems for newspapers in 1819, under the pseudonym “Croker and Company.” They were known to have an unusually close relationship, but that’s it. “We do know they were members of a club in New York called The Ugly Club. The members were supposed to be beautiful — that was the twist on the name,” said King. “It sounds to me like there was a culture, a fabric in society that I characterize as homo-social.”
There will be a much larger exhibition next year to mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark gay-rights demonstration that took place at Independence Mall in 1965.