Introduction and Credits
A Biography on Pink Paper
Defining LGBTQIA+ Identity in the Early Twentieth
Lavender Ink: Introduction
to Writing and Publishing Queer Literature
Sexuality, Gender, and Transgression
Defining LGBTQIA+ Identity in the Early Twentieth Century
The material history of queerness is complicated. While not necessarily the labyrinth of closets and lurking
shadows that popular heterosexual portrayals would have you believe, queer life and history is nonetheless
complex, frequently difficult to categorize, and even intricate to lace together with contemporary queer
historiography and a blurred line between queer identity as personal and queer identity as political.
Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge left behind considerable materials after their deaths. Hall, a successful
controversial author, is remembered largely for her novel The Well of Loneliness that took up queer
politics in the period between the First and Second World Wars. Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge, a sculptor and
translator, lived with Hall as a romantic partner, advisor, and creative collaborator for the last few decades
of Hall's life. Outliving her partner, Una Troubridge became the guardian of Hall's estate and a major force
writing and publishing biographical materials about Hall. The vast records from the pair that found their way
the Harry Ransom Center offer educators and students an intimate look into the lives of two deeply
figures in 20th-century LGBTQIA+ history.
For Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge, we begin in a historically complicated web. Queer life has existed
always. The challenge for contemporary archivists and historians is parsing through the written and
records of the lives of queer people. LGBTQIA+ materials in museums come to us as products of different times
and are often defined by legal transgression, private letters and documents, and other material remains that
insist on evaluating queerness through cisgender and heterosexual understandings of the world. Queer material
history requires nuance and a proper historical context to understand the challenges queer people faced at any
given time and to frankly assess problematic personal and political opinions they held.
For starters, the privilege of Whiteness, wealth, and social influence aided Radclyffe Hall and Una
to avoid more serious punishment for their transgressions of social customs that until quite recently
same-sex relationships. These privileges were shared by many of the other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender,
and queer historical figures whose papers were preserved due to their proximity to fame and institutional
For Hall and Troubridge, our analysis of their material legacy seeks to place it in familiar territory for
the social context of the Modernist literary and LGBTQ+ movement. However, our goal is not to showcase their
photographs and private letters. Indeed, educators and students are invited to think critically about Hall's
Troubridge's involvement with right wing politics (which included open endorsements of fascism) and support
eugenics, and to better contextualize the social and intellectual movements of the time period which
them. We do so, however, recognizing that queer material history is a void. Millions of queer people lived
during this time. Their artifacts, too, are valuable and precious. However, multiple marginalizations such as
sexism, racism, ableism, and classism have scattered these rich, enlightening material extensions of queer
history to the wind. For queer material history, it is a loss from which we cannot truly recover. However, we
assemble this section with humility and recognition that the historical fabric from which these materials have
been cut is itself only a small fragment of the experiences of queer people who lived in the same time period
those who were deemed "worthy" of remembrance.
For those teaching with these materials, this category can be viewed as an invitation to think about other
challenges that emerge from reconstructing complicated and historically nuanced LGBTQIA+ lives through
materials. It is certainly not an exhaustive set of questions. How might you use these materials? What themes
emerge that might yield themselves to further examination?
Reading Rainbows: Writing Queerness in the Early 20th Century
There was nothing new about queerness by the time the First World War ended. From two-spirit people in some
Indiginous cultures to hijras in South Asia, queer relationships and people have appeared throughout written
history and in a range of unrelated cultures. Settler colonization and deliberate destruction and erasure of
these cultures and histories leaves a considerable gap in queer history. Modernist writing in early
Europe, however, marked an explosion in queer literature being published by openly queer people. Race and
privilege offered these authors some protection (they were frequently White, wealthy, and members of
nonconformist, "Bohemian" circles). This movement was not restricted to Europe. Queer authors across the world
experimented with unconventional styles, forms, and publishing methods. In Chile, Gabriela Mistral became a
globally beloved, Nobel Prize-winning poet. In New York City, Langston Hughes fused jazz and poetry in
innovative ways. In Paris, Sylvia Beach published James Joyce's Ulysses at great personal and financial
Joyce later sold the rights to Random House, nearly bankrupting Beach and not offering her a penny to
for her unrewarded early monetary investment in the book's publication.
For Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge, their lives as prominent figures in the queer writing community put
in proximity to other well-known LGBTQIA+ authors of the time and help contemporary readers place their work
a broader literary context. Una Troubridge, for example, gave the world its first English translation of queer
author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette's writings. During her public obscenity trial, Radclyffe Hall found support
from Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard.
Contemporary readers might find this historical contextualization of what queer writing looked like when
Radclyffe Hall and Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge lived useful when it comes to developing a more nuanced
understanding of their lives. Students can compare the way that Hall constructs and examines gender and
sexuality in The Well of Loneliness with other writers of the period taking up similar topics in their
Similarly, Una Troubridge's own contributions to this movement come to light for educators and students alike.
Partly literary history and partly an introduction to queer literary theory, these texts offer educators the
chance to introduce students to the complex and changing understandings of gender and sexuality in the early
20th century and its literary movements.
Unidentified photographer, Radclyffe Hall, 1936.
Radclyffe Hall Literary File Photography Collection P-8
This picture of Radclyffe Hall shows her in her trademark tailored suit. A British writer, she
one of the most notable works of unambiguously "queer" literature in the modern age, The Well of
Hall enjoyed a critically and commercially successful career as a writer prior to the book's
publication. She wrote other texts with implied LGBTQIA+ themes, and won awards and notoriety for her
1926 novel, Adam's Breed.
Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness, manuscript, undated.
Radclyffe Hall and Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge Papers 13.4
Controversial upon its release, The Well of Loneliness, depicted here through a manuscript
created considerable controversy and sparked censorship and legal challenges in both the United
and the United States.
While critical response to the writing itself was mixed, the text had an enduring legacy as a
piece of literature for the lesbian community.
With allusions to other queer women influencing English and French literature during the 1920s
(such as the lesbian American salon host Natalie Barney), the text provides a guide to queer identity
the time, while also revealing a range of complicated and problematic scientific and political
that influenced Hall as an author.
Una Troubridge, Notes on Colette, undated.
Radclyffe Hall and Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge Papers 34.5
A gifted sculptor and translator, Una Vincenzo, Lady
Troubridge was Hall's romantic partner. She is widely credited for translating the writings of
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, better known as Colette, into English. By doing so, Troubridge introduced
pioneering work to a broader audience of English-speakers. Known for her prodigious skills as a writer
relationships with other women, Colette was critically acclaimed. She cut her teeth as a modernist
writing books that her first husband published under his name and then crafting stories and novels
own name in the 1920s and 1930s.
Taking advantage of her fame and the more lax urban attitudes towards lesbian relationships in Paris,
was part of a circle of lesbian authors and intellectuals in Paris, including Janet Flanner, Gertrude
and Djuna Barnes.
Sylvia Beach, Letter to Italo Svevo regarding Ulysses petition, December 28, 1926.
James Joyce Collection 2.17
A hugely influential figure in the rise of the modernist literary movement, bookseller and
Sylvia Beach undertook considerable personal and financial risk when she chose to publish James
controversial magnum opus, Ulysses, in 1922. She undertook this daunting task from her
Co. bookstore in Paris after publishers in England and the United States refused. Beach was motivated
her deep, personal affection for Joyce and her commitment to what she perceived as the genius of the
experimental book. After Ulysses proved successful with English-speaking audiences and
decade of legal battles over censorship, Joyce took the book to a different publisher. This choice
saddled Beach with tremendous debt and almost wiped out her business. The Nazi occupation of Paris in
the Second World War shuttered Shakespeare and Co. permanently. However, from 1919 to 1941,
and Co. was an icon for modernist writers living in Paris's Left Bank. During this time in France, she
lived with her partner, Adrienne Monnier, until the latter's death by suicide in 1955.
In this letter, Beach is attempting to shore up support for Joyce's text by soliciting signatures
petition against the text's censorship in the US, which would later be the subject of a 1933 court
in which American courts determined the book was not obscene, opening up American audiences to
texts from Europe that had previously been banned due to "explicit sexual content."
Harcourt, Brace & Company, Advertisement for Orlando by Virginia Woolf, November
Edward Garland Fletcher Vertical File 205.G-2
Based on her long-term relationship with author Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf's Orlando
the story of an English nobleman who transforms into a woman. Woolf, herself bisexual, challenged
and sexual conventions in her published texts in the 1920s, such as her 1925 novel Mrs.
featured a same-sex kiss between two women. The New York Times 1928 book review of the novel
experimental nature of the text's attitude towards gender, time, and bodies. Illustrations show
in a range of times from the Court of Elizabeth I to a modern woman living in 1920s England and
to a similarly gender non-conforming sea captain.
Critically well-regarded and re-assessed since her 1941 death, Virginia Woolf is today recognized
of the most gifted and innovative English writers of the 20th century. Orlando, highly
Woolf's own aesthetic as a modernist writer, sidestepped the challenges that The Well of
faced, and both Virginia Woolf and her husband, the publisher Leonard Woolf, spoke out against the
censorship controversy that Hall experienced and the subsequent obscenity trials in the United Kingdom
and the United States.
Langston Hughes, Scottsboro Limited (New York City: The Golden Stair Press, 1932).
Nancy Cunard Library Uncat
While American poet and author Langston Hughes offered no
concrete evidence regarding his sexuality, biographers and
those who personally knew him have intensely debated his
private life since his death in 1967. Several of his unpublished
poems seemingly allude to sexual relationships specifically with
Black men, and a short story, Blessed Assurance, challenges
constructions of masculinity and "manliness" through an
effeminate black male child. Others, however, have argued that
the author was in fact asexual. Regardless, Hughes's own
prominence as a Black writer in pre-Civil Rights Era America
and his own financial hardships did not offer him the privileges
of openly expressing his sexuality that wealthier White authors
might have enjoyed.
In Scottsboro Limited, Hughes focuses on the false accusations
of sexual assault made by two young white women against nine
Black male teenagers in 1931 Jim Crow Alabama. The
1930s-40s case involved several re-trials due to flimsy
evidence, all-White juries, and mob violence. The story of these
young men is remembered today as an example of the
consistent miscarriage of justice against Black Americans in the
United States, particularly when it came to white women falsely
accusing Black boys and men of sexual assault.
Guy Davenport, Review of Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, manuscript, undated.
Guy Davenport Papers 33.1
The Chilean Nobel
Prize-winning author, Gabriela Mistral, is widely recognized as one of South America's most important
and has a nationally beloved reputation in her home country. Her life marred with tragedy, she wrote
innovative, culturally significant poems for five decades until her death in 1957.
Protective of her private life, she was posthumously discovered to have had relationships with women
death of her long-time partner in 2006 and the subsequent publication of her private letters. Publicly
remembered as a tragic, celibate Catholic figure, the existence and publication of the letters altered
memory of the poet, known as the "Mother of the Nation."
For queer writers and archivists, the 2007 publication of the author's private letters proves
What obligations do archivists have to respect privacy, particularly after death? Furthermore,
whether or not Mistral would identify as a lesbian, bisexual, or queer at all in the present day, as
and social definitions of those identities have dramatically shifted since Mistral's death in 1957.
Doubtlessly, both Mistral and Doris Dana, her partner who rejected claims that the two had formed a
relationship until the letters were unearthed after the latter's death in 2006, had their reasons for
their relationship private. How then do contemporary readers approach private material that had been
guarded by its owners while they lived? Does death overrule respect for privacy even if the richness
letters between the two women and the ability to better understand the complex life of an incredibly
poet might otherwise remain secret?
Dress the Part: Clothing and Decoding Queerness
There's no simple summary of queer life in the early 20th century. Different nations, different cities,
different social circles, and different amounts of privilege created a wide range of queer experiences. Within
these spaces, queer people crafted thriving (if hidden) communities. Dress and clothing offered queer people
chance to identify each other through subtle hints and clues. In private, drag spaces offered places for
to push the boundaries of gender expression and performance through costumes and performances. In public,
people made fashion statements that would follow their legacies to the present day. Several prominent queer
women took advantage of less restrictive attitudes towards women in men's clothes. Author Willa Cather, for
example, dressed in men's clothes while a student at the University of Nebraska and referred to herself as
"William." Margaret Chung, a lesbian and the first Chinese woman to earn a medical degree in the United
also donned trousers and neckties while a medical student and went by the name "Michael." While many of these
people today might identify as transgender or nonbinary, it is difficult to offer such categorizations based
simple photographs. Furthermore, it is difficult to fully contextualize drag photographs. Are those pictured
celebrating their own sexuality or gender identity or are they using drag to reinforce sexist stereotypes? For
example, are cisgender, heterosexual people exaggerating gender stereotypes celebrating femininity or simply
using it for laughs and reinforcing misogynistic tropes, as authors and theorists such as Judith Butler and
hooks have suggested?
For Hall and Troubridge, clothing was a significant part of their queer identities and legacies. In
Hall's own well-documented preference for skirts and suitjackets, she wrote extensively about queer women's
fashion in both her creative and private writing. When Hall published The Well of Loneliness, queer
Europe and the United States responded with deep ambivalence about how "exposed" they felt by the information
Hall included in her book. For example, Mormon lesbians in Salt Lake City, whom the lesbian sociologist
Barryman interviewed in her research shortly after The Well of Loneliness's American publication, felt
signifiers in their community that provided senses of safety and unity (such as hairstyles and fashion) now
became openly known to potentially hostile parties.
Nickolas Muray, photographer, Willa Cather, undated.
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Literary File Photography Collection 40.35
American author Willa Cather experimented with clothing while attending the University of
wearing men's suits and cutting her hair short. Known to refer to herself as "Willie" or "William" as
young person, her personal life and her relationships with women, both of which she guarded with
privacy, continue to spark debate and conversation in literary and historical scholarship. While some
argue that her personal life offers unambiguous evidence that she was a lesbian, others argue that she
would not have identified as such, regardless of her personal life.
While she did not explicitly take up queer themes in her texts, many literary scholars have
the short stories Paul's Case and Tommy, the Unsentimental as queer.
She lived with her long-term partner Edith Lewis for four decades, had intimate relationships
several other women, including Louise Pound, the first woman president of the Modern Language
Association. Recognized as one of the 20th century's best American writers, she won the 1923 Pulitzer
Prize for Literature.
Cather's Alma Mater, the University of Nebraska, is in the process of digitizing her private
papers as part of the Cather Project and the
Willa Cather Archive.
New York Journal-American, photographers, World War I soldiers dressed in drag, undated.
New York Journal-American Photographic Morgue 4053.2
Archives across the world have ample photographs of people dressing
in "drag." However, without full context, it is difficult to categorize
these images as "queer" or not. For many LGBTQIA+ people,
dressing in stereotypically "male" or "female" clothes offered a form
of self-expression, comfort, and an opportunity to display gender in a
way that made them comfortable.
However, non-LGBTQIA+ people frequently used and continue to use
drag as a joke to reinforce sexist stereotypes. Men performing shows
in dresses might include comedy based on misogynistic tropes, such as
emphasizing ideas that women were overly-emotional, materialistic, or
not to be taken seriously through comedy and jokes. Men in dresses in
these contexts were typically meant to be funny and did not challenge
cultural expectations of gender. Similarly, early 19th century minstrel
shows, featuring white performers in blackface, frequently used drag
and racist tropes to demean, humiliate, and emasculate Black men and
portray Black women as either sexually promiscuous or domineering.
Furthermore, Black men who wished to have any career on the stage
were essentially compelled to participate in these sorts of shows if they
wished for a career in professional acting. These kinds of
performances were tolerated and not seen as obscene, as women were
not allowed in minstrel shows until the 1890s, and the army would not
have had women performers in World War One. Context matters, though it is frequently difficult to
identify, especially considering that
dressing in clothes not assigned to one's gender was illegal in many
places until the late 20th century.
Further exploration into the Harry Ransom Center's vast collection of
minstrelsy might be of interest to those wishing to further examine
sexuality, gender, and race in American performance history.
Guillermo Kahlo, photographer, Frida Kahlo and family, February 7, 1926.
Book Collection ND 1329 K33 A4 2007
A young Frida Kahlo is photographed with her family, standing to the far left in a suit and with
hair slicked back. Openly bisexual, the Communist painter frequently used her trademark fashions as
only a form of self-expression, but as a recurring theme in her self-portraits. Disabled from polio
a bus accident in her youth, she was known as an adult for wearing colorful, pre-columbian skirts that
covered her injured legs, but would also wear men's suits, especially in her self-portraits, and cut
hair short after her first divorce from her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera.
Unidentified photographer, Radclyffe Hall reading newspaper, undated.
Radclyffe Hall Literary File Photography Collection P-9
Hall is seen here reading a newspaper in one of her trademark tailored suits. While short hair
wearing a combination of tailored men's jackets and shirts with a skirt was a somewhat popular fashion
statement for those female-assigned people in post-World War I Europe and North America, queer women
frequently used subtle choices in fashion to signify lesbian or bisexual identity to other lesbian and
bisexual women. Hall included details about queer women's dress in The Well of Loneliness,
polarized reaction to the text from queer women who felt their identities, long "hidden in plain
and only noticeable to others within their community, were now publicly available and would expose
Unidentified photographer, Marlene Dietrich in film Morocco, 1930.
Book Collection P1167-43
Bisexual actress Marlene Dietrich stars as cabaret singer Amy Jolly in the 1930 film, Morocco.
featuring a same-sex kiss between Dietrich and another actress, was made prior to the Hays Code. This
production code dictated what could and could not appear in American movies from 1934 to 1968. Under
these rules, queer characters could only appear in films as villains and had to be punished in some
by the end of the film.
Dietrich, however, drew inspiration for this role from her time in Berlin's cabaret nightclubs of
1920s, which gave birth to a thriving community of queer artists and performers known collectively as
the "Weimar period" in Berlin. Dressing in drag was not uncommon and art and performance regularly
challenged popular notions about gender and sexuality.
Romaine Brooks, artist, Una, Lady Troubridge, 1924.
Smithsonian American Art Museum 1966.49.6
Painted by American lesbian artist Romaine Brooks, this likeness of Una, Lady Troubridge features
the tailored suits of the day that provided some recognition of queerness. While Hall wore tailored
suits, Troubridge typically appeared in feminine attire. However, for this painting, Troubridge adopts
modern wardrobe that contains multiple levels of subtext. Similarly, Romaine Brooks frequently wore
clothing usually worn by men, capturing herself and several other women subjects in tailored suits
painted in her signature gloomy palate of black, white, and grey. Subjects include not only
but also Brooks's lover Ida Rubenstein.
André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, photographer, Rosa Bonheur, undated.
Wellcome Library 15246i
Rosa Bonheur was one of the most commercially
successful women artists of all time and one of the few to achieve success in her life. Living
openly as a lesbian, she obtained special permission to wear trousers in 19th-century Paris so she
through the muddy fields where she painted horses. However, she also would wear ties, waistcoats, and
dress-shirts even when not painting, citing the comfort and practicality of such clothing,
compared to restrictive women's fashion of the time.
Best in Show: Dogs and the Aesthetics of Queer Modernism
These photographs represent the devotion between several queer modernists and their pets. By the modern
dog breeding had become an increasingly popular fad for middle- and upper-class people. Born out of the rising
gaps in wealth and the rise of a post-industrial revolution "middle class" in the Victorian Era, dog breeding
offered queer authors and historical figures something of a "living brand." Several queer authors became
synonymous with certain breeds (such as Hall's and Troubridge's dachshunds). To be sure, this movement was not
apolitical. American and European governments were actively using pets and "animal compassion" to justify
foreign colonization. Obsessed with scientific "genetic engineering," dog breeders and "pure-bred" enthusiasts
likewise tended to dabble in the eugenics movement. Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Radclyffe Hall, and Una
Troubridge all offered at least some soft support for eugenics in their respective writings, casting a
shadow of where middle-class fascination with "pure-bred" dogs ended and "pure-bred" humans began.
Unidentified photographer, Radclyffe Hall with dachshunds, undated.
Radclyffe Hall and Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge Papers 25.5
Late Victorian England saw an overlap between rising popularity in Darwin's theories of evolution
the early eugenics movement. Eugenics, the idea that a species can be "purified" by only letting "fit"
members of it breed, led to widespread harm as it began to be applied to humans. However, upper-class
Victorians relished in the thought of having "pure-bred" dogs, going so far as to start "kennel clubs"
to certify a dog's pedigree.
While Hall expressed at least some support for eugenics, her obsession with "pure-bred" dogs was
unique to her. Countless people with the funds to do so invested heavily in dog breeding, causing
significant health problems for puppies who stood higher chances of genetic mutations due to a large
reliance on inbreeding.
Unidentified photographer, Una Troubridge with dachshunds, undated.
Radclyffe Hall and Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge Papers 25.5
Here we see Lady Troubridge walking two of the pair's dachshunds. Not unlike clothing, dogs
fashion-conscious, urban, upper-class people a chance to make dog breeds part of their "aesthetic."
Sport & General Press Agency, Ltd., Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge with their
Crufts Dog Show, February 1923.
Radclyffe Hall and Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge Papers 25.5
Here we see Hall and Troubridge, both wearing more conventionally masculine ties and hats,
Giuseppe Magrini, photographer, Radclyffe Hall with poodle, undated.
Radclyffe Hall Literary File, Photography Collection P-12
A member of the Zoological Society and an animal lover, Hall is depicted here with a white
Victorian and Edwardian England saw a significant shift in attitudes towards animals. As the violence
and terror of European and American Colonization became increasingly clear, many White Europeans and
Americans who benefited from settler colonization, sweatshop labor, and other human rights abuses
emphasized their benevolent attitudes towards pets and animals to "soften" their images and distract
from the racism and cruelty they weaponized against other people.
Americans, for example, emphasized their bans on cockfighting and bullfighting in territories
from the Spanish after the Spanish-American War. British readers turned Anna Sewall's Black
a global best seller, causing a strong public reaction in favor of preventing animal cruelty, while
British colonization ravaged human populations and ecosystems across the world.
For Hall, her adoration of dogs and other animals did not always extend to her views on humans.
controversial right-wing opinions and offered some degree of support to both fascism and anti-Semitism
at different times in her life.
Cannon, manufacturer, Hand towel with embroidered poodle owned by Gertrude Stein and
Carlton Lake Collection of Gertrude Stein 2.73
Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, known for their Paris home that became a beehive of modernist
and writers, were also the doting owners of several dogs, most famously their standard white poodle.
Their toiletry set, featuring a hand towel with a black poodle on it, demonstrates not only their
for their pet, but also the poodle's unique overlap between pet and fashion accessory.
Like Hall and Troubridge, however, Stein and Toklas held racist and ableist beliefs that
their personal politics and their creative writing. Concerned about interracial marriages and
moving to the US, Stein hints towards sympathies for eugenics and vocally supported the fascist
government in Vichy France, going so far as to offer her services as a "propagandist" for Philippe
Pétain, a Nazi collaborator and leader of Vichy France. While modern Stein scholars debate her
as a queer, Jewish woman for offering to collaborate with the Nazi puppet state, it none-the-less
her legacy for contemporary readers.
Unidentified photographer, Sylvia Beach with dog, undated.
Carlton Lake Collection of French Manuscripts 264.1
Sylvia Beach is pictured here with a dog. Both she and her partner, Adrienne Monnier, were noted
lovers and frequently traveled with their pets on their vacations.
Her interaction with animals was not limited to pets. After refusing to sell books to the Nazis
occupying Paris and threatened with arrest and forced closure of her store, Beach hid her book
collection and painted over the name of Shakespeare and Co. Later, she spent several weeks imprisoned
with other American women in cages at the Bois de Boulogne zoo in Paris.
Gerschel, photographer, Colette with dog, undated.
Carlton Lake Literary File Photography Collection 4.5
Here we see the French writer Colette photographed with a dog. The dog here serves a dual
purpose. It is
both an affectionate companion and a fashion accessory, matching the author's dark dress as she sits
posing on a table.
Weird Science: Modernism, Queerness, and Early Psychology
Rapid advances in science, chemistry, and the birth of psychiatry in the late 19th and early 20th
to wide-spread cultural shifts when it came to ideas of race, gender, biology, anthropology, and human
sexuality. However, for many marginalized people, the impact was harsh. Concepts like "scientific" racism,
sexism, eugenics, social darwinism, and the categorization of queer identities as "medical disorders" dressed
prejudice with the "authority" of science and medicine. While these concepts and prejudices were not new, the
use of "science" to make them seem factual rather than based on bias and white supremacy, caused new ways for
medical and scientific communities to further harm marginalized people. While philosophers and early
had theorized about the "biological qualities" that they felt made white people superior, Victorian science
it could provide "hard" facts to support these theories. Queer people of color particularly bore the brunt of
these "advances." The dead bodies of people of color (such as Sarah Baartman) were displayed in museums, with
academics seeking to produce "hard evidence" to connect race to certain physical and sexual traits. Modernists
were not immune from such racism and ableism either. Gertrude Stein expressed anxiety about immigrants in
America and fears around interracial relationships. Similarly, Havelock Ellis, who co-authored the first
English-language book on same-gender attraction and what would today be called transgender psychology, was
an enthusiastic eugenicist. Early psychologists, influenced by Freud, sought to categorize same-sex attraction
as a psychological disorder that could be medically treated. However, while Hall and Troubridge might have
pushed back on prejudice against queer people, they readily participated in other popular sciences of the time
that contained significant prejudice and biases. Some of these were relatively harmless, such as their mutual
interest in spiritualism and using advances in science to contact the dead. They, along with Arthur Conan
were members of the Society for Psychical Research. However, both were also eugenics enthusiasts and offered
support to right-wing social Darwinist political movements.
Julia Margaret Cameron, photographer, Charles Darwin, 1868.
Julia Margaret Cameron Photography Collection 964:0037:0082
Darwin's 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, sent shockwaves through Europe's scientific
sparked new interest in zoology and gave rise to anthropology, two subjects that deeply fascinated
Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge. However, it also re-ignited conversations about "scientific
The Victorian Era saw a boom of advances in science and medicine. However, those fields, dominated by
white men of the upper class, frequently sought to give scientific authority to concepts like sexism,
racism, and ableism.
Using Darwin's theories on "survival of the fittest," scientists, psychologists, zoologists, and
anthropologists frequently used "scientific" racism to argue that there were innately "fit" and
Unidentified photographer, Medium Mina Crandon, also known as Margery, during séance,
Arthur Conan Doyle Literary File Photography Collection 2.12
Both Hall and Troubridge were members of the Society for Psychical Research, along with author
spiritualism enthusiast Arthur Conan Doyle.
While the Society was interested in any "psychic" or paranormal concepts, it became most closely
associated with its role in debunking spiritualists. Born out of mid-19th-century fascination with
communicating with the dead, spiritualism and its practitioners adopted scientific innovation to speak
to those "beyond the grave." Doyle attended numerous seances, recording them, interviewing mediums,
attempting to find a scientific method of contacting the dead, or at least giving the now-debunked
some air of scientific authority. He left the society due to what he felt was a sense of hostility and
skepticism towards spiritualism.
This photograph, taken of a medium during a seance, marks the manner in which technology and
spiritualism developed. Both deep believers in Spiritualism, Hall and Troubridge used seances to
to contact Hall's deceased partner, Mabel Batten. Hall's involvement in the society was also the
of scandal. Seeking a leadership position, she faced harsh criticism from a friend of Troubridge's
ex-husband, who threatened to publicly accuse her of "immoral behavior."
Desmond Harmsworth, artist, Drawing of Havelock Ellis, 1932.
Desmond Harmsworth Art Collection 1.2
Interests in psychology in the late 19th century created complicated situations for queer people.
queer relationships have existed as long as human relationships have, it was not until the Victorian
that many terms used today became popular. "Homosexuality" as a term came from psychology, in which it
was classified as a disorder, and has since fallen out of popular usage. Hall and Troubridge used the
term "inverts." Sexologists, those who studied human sexuality through psychology and behavior,
popularized the term, specifically Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis (drawn here), who wrote
the foreword to The Well of Loneliness. The protagonist of the text, Stephen Gordon, is
described as a
"sexual invert," a term broadly used to define people whose sexuality and gender-related behavior
transgressed social boundaries for the time.
Within The Well of Loneliness, Stephen reads about "inversion" from a book by Krafft-Ebing,
define her lesbian identity in scientific terms of the day.
The term, however, was not innocent. While Ellis did not regard "inversion" as a deficit and
regarded it as "different," psychological debates over human sexuality and LGBT identity had lasting
consequences. The American Psychological Association did not change this categorization until 1975.
Psychiatrists practiced a range of medical experiments searching for a "cure," and conversion
and other quack science is still used today, drawing on now debunked early psychiatric opinions about
same-sex attraction and transgender identities.
Unidentified photographer, Spirit Exposé, circa 1920s.
Harry Houdini Papers 14.6
While spiritualism was undoubtedly in decline by
mid-point of the 20th century, passionate spiritualists still remained. Harry Houdini, a believer in
spiritualism but notorious for attempting to expose quack mediums, frequently
heads with other prominent spiritualists who he felt were too gullible in their willingness to accept
evidence as proof of contact between the living and the dead.
Havelock Ellis, "The Place of Eugenics," manuscript, 1934.
Havelock Ellis Collection 1.1
In addition to his work as a
sexologist, Havelock Ellis was an outspoken supporter of the eugenics movement. This movement, born
"social Darwinism" and the belief that genetics and selective breeding could perfect the human race,
widely popular field of interest during Hall's and Troubridge's lifetime. While the movement lost
in Europe and North America following Nazi attrocities in World War II, eugenics had a popular
the United States and England. This led to forced sterilizations, state laws that banned "ugly" people
appearing in public, and advocacy for euthanasia in some circles. People of color, particularly those
disabled and low-income, were frequent targets for eugenics advocates, whose political sympathies
left to right. Famous eugenicists included Helen Keller, Theodore Roosevelt, and George Bernard Shaw.
While eugenics was an unambiguously harmful and violent movement that led to forced sterilizations in
and Europe, many eugenicists did not necessarily believe in the widespread genocide and murder that
However, while popular, this movement had notable opponents who argued that the practice was racist,
and a poor substitute for poverty elimination and social reforms.
The House that Harlem Built: Queer Life and Renaissance in Communities of Color in the Early 20th Century
Laws in the early 20th century closely scrutinized queer people.
Victorian sexual morality laws spread throughout the world due
to settler colonization, challenging traditional beliefs about
sexuality and gender on a global level. For White and wealthy
queer people, LGBTQIA+ identities frequently were still defined
in relation to Christian understandings of sexual and emotional
monogamy. For people of color, sexual and romantic practices
connected to indigenous beliefs were at particular risk.
Furthermore, a lack of social privilege made law enforcement
much likelier to enforce Western laws against them. The Zuni
diplomat We'wha, a well-known ihamana (a male-assigned
person who lived as a woman within Zuni culture), was
eventually arrested for practicing "witchcraft," despite having
previously met with President Grover Cleveland, and despite
their close associations with prominent anthropologists of the
time. For Black Americans, segregation, Jim Crow laws, and
lingering economic and political legacies of slavery made
community building important and crucial for Black communities,
which maintained performance tradition, art, and culture. The
Harlem Renaissance era (which saw Black arts and culture
movements in a range of American cities) offered prominent
black writers and performers the chance to craft diverse gender
expressions and sexualities with relative degrees of "openness."
William Dorsey Swann crafted a notable underground culture of
drag balls and clubs in late 19th-century Washington, DC with a clientele that largely consisted of formerly
Blues singers like Gladys Bentley (who dressed in men's
clothing) and Ma Rainey sang unambiguously about having
romantic and sexual relationships with other women. Gladys
Bentley, having been familiar with Hall's work, recorded a song
entitled "In My Well of Loneliness" in 1937. However, racism,
associations between LGBTQIA+ identities and Communism in
the US, and Prohibition that closed many Black nightclubs and
performance venues have obscured significant portions of these
While there was undoubtedly social overlap between queer
people of color and White queer people, White queer people still
willfully benefited from White privilege and actively participated
in racist institutions and politics. In addition to her own right-wing
politics that were rooted in racist beliefs, Hall wrote several
pieces (including The Well of Loneliness and the short story The
Career of Mark Anthony Brakes) that relied heavily on racism
against Black and Indigenous people. While such a belief
system was not uncommon among elite white women at the
time, Hall left evidence in her writing that she found Black music
and culture interesting, though her interest did not manifest in
ways that might have lended support for racial equity and civil
Unidentified photographer, We-wha weaving, undated.
BAE GN SI 3644
Ihamana, such as the diplomat and artist We'wha,
became something of a fixation for White anthropologists in the late 19th century. A gifted weaver and
We'wha joined communities of other Zuni Ihamana people who engaged in crafts, arts, and Zuni cultural
preservation. Globally, sexualities and genders beyond European binaries and expectations of
monogamy existed and thrived in numerous cultures throughout history. With the growing influence of
colonization, however, these identities became regulated and punished by White, Christian missionaries
legal governments. Vast troves of queer history were deliberately destroyed and lost through
genocide against indigenous people. Similarly, museums frequently acquired artifacts from wiped-out
communities without much regard for culturally responsive display or treatment of those artifacts or
people who created them. While we do have historical records of a few notable people who practiced
beliefs that did not comply with gender binaries and Christian sexual ethics, it is impossible for
audiences to know how many of these stories were deliberately or inadvertently erased from history.
Carl Van Vechten, photographer, Bessie Smith, February 3, 1936.
Theater Biography Collection PA-00089
Singer Bessie Smith was one of the most highly regarded and highly paid blues and jazz performers
time. Openly bisexual, she had numerous romantic partners over the course of her life.
She grew up in poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee, performing on street corners and in vaudeville
minstrel shows. Fellow queer blues pioneer Ma Rainey mentored Smith in her early years, and by the
of her premature death in a car accident in 1937, she became globally known for her gifts as a
Despite her popularity, she was buried in an unmarked grave until 1970 when former employee
Green and bisexual singer Janis Joplin (who cited Smith as a major influence) purchased a grave stone
Similarly, pioneering blues singer Big Mama Thornton (whose recording of "Hound Dog" is excerpted
transgressed expectations for Black American women, frequently dressing in men's clothing and
in an industry dominated by men. While many biographers speculate that she was a lesbian, her personal
style of wearing fedoras, slacks, and men's button downs certainly challenged the more feminine
aesthetics that dominated dress and behavior for Black women in mid-century America.
Polygoon-Profilti, producer, Newsreel of Josephine Baker arriving in The Hague, August 1,
Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision
An icon of 1920s Paris, a Civil Rights advocate, and a French
Resistance member, Josephine Baker's fascinating life as a
queer woman of color made her a lasting emblem of Black art
and culture in the jazz age and a tireless soldier in the fight for
Known for her innovative and provocative dancing that made
her a superstar in pre-World War II Europe, Baker commented
publicly on the challenges she faced as a Black entertainer in
the United States and refused to perform in segregated venues,
despite highly lucrative offers to do so.
She was decorated by the French government for her efforts in
the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation in the 1940s,
using her celebrity to spy on high-ranking officials and pass
along secret messages. After the war, she performed for a
range of audiences, including sold-out performances for Castro
in Cuba and Tito in Yugoslavia.
Committed to the American Civil Rights movement, she spoke
at the March on Washington in 1963 while wearing her military
medals, one of the few women to speak at the event despite the
presence and planning of Black women civil rights leaders.
John E. Palmer, photographer, Preacher with electric guitar, undated.
John E. Palmer Papers and Photography Collection 8.4
Photographed by Galveston photographer John E. Palmer, this preacher with an electric guitar
rise of Gospel and Rock-n-Roll as musical genres in which a range of Black artists rose to prominence
the 1940s and 1950s.
Widely influential to later rock-n-roll artists such as Elvis Pressley, Little Richard, and
Sister Rosetta Tharpe scandalized and delighted audiences by
as a woman singing gospel while playing the electric guitar. Her innovative fusion of gospel music and
her skills as a guitar player helped define rock-n-roll in its early years. Speculation around her
sexuality persists, including a possible relationship with fellow gospel singer Marie Knight, with
Black excellence in music and art was not exclusive to urban areas. Popular across the country,
Rosetta's music appealed to a range of communities, including countless queer people of color, and her
considerable talents as a guitarist and singer provided incalculable influence to later rock-n-roll
Unidentified photographer, Claude McKay, undated.
William A. Bradley Literary Agency Records 43.8
Jamaican author Claude McKay, a Harlem Renaissance writer,
wrote and collaborated with a range of writers experimenting
with meter, rhythm, and subject matter during the 1920s. A
frequent attendee to openly gay L. S. Alexander Gumby's
studio, McKay met fellow queer, Black writers, such as the
philosopher, university professor, and "Godfather of the Harlem
Renaissance," Alain LeRoy Locke. Locke served as a literary
and personal mentor to many Harlem writers, queer or not, and
edited The New Negro (1925), an anthology of Black poetry,
fiction, and essays.
Both McKay and Locke spent time in Weimar Germany in the
1920s, where McKay became fascinated with modernist art and
architecture, such as works of the Dada movement. A great
many Black artists and thinkers spent time in Europe, including
educator Jessie Redmon Fauset, who also mentored McKay, to
not only escape the enormous challenges of life in Jim Crow
America, but also to further study and experiment with new
artistic and intellectual movements.
Unidentified photographer, Ma Rainey, circa 1923.
Pioneering blues singer Ma Rainey recorded the "Prove it On Me Blues" in
1928, the same year that Hall published The Well of Loneliness. The song includes explicit
lesbian attraction to women and dressing in men's clothes, both risky lyrics that could have resulted
consequences. Rainey herself was arrested in 1925 in Chicago for hosting a lesbian party. Police
arrived at Rainey's residence responding to a noise complaint and found several naked women in
"intimate" poses. She was bailed out the following morning by her friend Bessie Smith. An icon in R&B
music and a mentor to other women blues singers, Ma Rainey's openly queer persona
and lyrics during the 1920s and 1930s remains an important piece of queer cultural history. Her song,
Walk," demonstrates her style as a performer, mixing humor and her skills as a musician to fit
of blues performance.
Radclyffe Hall, "The Career of Mark Anthony Brakes," manuscript, circa 1914-1915.
Radclyffe Hall and Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge Papers 18.5
Racism still persisted in queer
communities. White queer people did not hesitate to use White privilege when it suited them, and many
openly racist and hostile to people of color, Hall being no exception.
Hall was certainly aware of the contributions of Black artists in America, citing Harlem Renaissance
performers in her writing.
Though she believed herself to be writing progressively about race and though she was familiar with
of Black thinkers like Booker T. Washington, Hall had limited contact with people who were not White.
makes references to racial essentialism, classifying Black Americans as a "race born of slaves," and
widely be regarded as racist by modern readers. Though she felt she was writing about other "misfits,"
whom she claimed to feel kinship, Hall held deeply racist and classist beliefs that, while typical of
her race and class at the time, manifested themselves through harmful stereotypes in her writing and
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correspondence, diaries, and daybooks of Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge are under copyright in the United
States. The Ransom Center is grateful to Alessandro Rossi Lemeni Makedon, the representative of Troubridge's
estate, who has granted permission for the Center to share the papers of Troubridge.