Note: The description of the Salt Lake City lesbian community comes from Vern and Bonnie Bullough’s “Lesbian in the 1920s and 1930s: A Newfound Study,” which appeared in the Summer 1977 issue of Signs.
As part of a course I am taking on public history, we are writing an application to make the Henry Gerber house in Chicago a National Historic Landmark. Gerber was a German immigrant who founded the first gay rights organization in Chicago in the 1930s. He was a cantankerous man who was exasperated by the inability of his organization to attract people more respectable than a laundry queen, an impoverished preacher, and an employee of the railroad. When I took the class, I assumed that it would have very little to do with my dissertation research, which focuses on nineteenth-century Mormon missionary work. I was surprised when a historical consultant, who was visiting class to help us strategies ways to maximize the chances that the application would be accepted, mentioned that there had been a lesbian club in Salt Lake City in the 1920s.
I looked up surprised and asked, “Really?”
The response was, “Yeah, I think polygamy made it easier for them to hide and not be found out because people were used to having extra women around.”
Afterwards, I decided to try to find out as much about this community as possible. It turns out that the community was first re-discovered by historians in the 1970s when a woman known only by her initials of M.B. willed an unfinished manuscript detailing its history to her daughter and her partner. Decades earlier, M.B. had tried to write a history of her life as a lesbian woman and that of twenty-three of her friends. The women had been active in a “bohemian literary club,” which welcomed their presence as well as that of several gay men. The manuscript that she had produced – a series of case histories and their analysis – was the culmination of over twenty years of research. She had begun writing about her life and her friends when she was a college student in the 1910s. The publication of the Well of Loneliness and the outrage that ensued made her reticent to publicize her own sexual preferences.
What emerges from the case histories is an interesting portrait of lesbianism as it was lived in places like Salt Lake City in the early decades of the twentieth century. Many of the women saw themselves as living traditional lives and were conservative politically and religiously. M.B. herself saw her life as inhabiting a traditional domestic space and described herself as the “husband” and her partner as a “happy wife at home.” She described the women in her group as being of “good respectable pioneer stock” and as “good untainted middle class genteel people.” There were teachers, nurses, waitresses, secretaries, a barber, housewives, farm laborers, and mining engineers within their circle and their ages ranged from nineteen to fifty-six at the time they were interviewed. Most had been born to Mormon families, and two came from large polygamous families. M.B.’s decision to stress the respectability of her friends was partially a response to theories at the time that homosexuals were pathological, sick individuals whose bodies bore the marks of their perversion. Throughout her case studies, she refers to the morality of the women she is interviewing. In one case, she describes a teacher who is also a lesbian as “one of the best physical education instructors in the system” who “has a very high moral influence on her pupils who respect and admire her.”
It is also clear, however, that the women with whom M.B. associated were relatively accepted by their communities. None of them were arrested for their homosexuality and M.B. was able to live openly with her female partner. They were well educated and had high paying jobs. Their adoption of white, middle class understandings of domesticity allowed them to create a community that was accepting of their sexual desires while at the same time permitting them to operate under the radar of more conservative elements of Salt Lake City. Indeed, Leila Rupp uses M.B.’s experience to argue that lesbians were relatively invisible in urban spaces in the early twentieth century. The only way that we know about this community, she points out, is that one of its members decided to compile case histories of its membership. She surmises that there must have been dozens of such societies in the early twentieth century in places like Cleveland and Cincinnati that we have no record of.
Later historians like Michael Quinn have used the study, deciding to out and name the author of the study in order to make arguments about the nature of same sex relationships in Mormonism. His work also provides additional details about her life, such as her experience as a student at Westminster College, brief conversion to Mormonism, and relationship with Mae Anderson. Connell O’Donovan also briefly mentions the community in his attempts to create a history of gay Mormonism that begins in the 1840s and stretches to the present. He has also written a brief biography of M.B.
I was surprised to learn about the history of M.B. and the lesbian community she helped to create in the early twentieth century, and even more surprised to find out that historians whose work I knew and respected, had already written about its history. I consider myself a historian of sexuality. How could I not have known about its existence?
In the end, I think my lack of knowledge is symptomatic of larger issues within Mormon studies. Too much work is focused on the history of polygamy and elite Mormon women. As a result, we miss the existence of communities that are staring us in the face and make them as invisible as they were in the early twentieth century.