D.C. to celebrate 150th anniversary of gay poet Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (The Washington Blade) 3/25/05
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GLAA endorses Walt Whitman Way Designation Act
GAY AND LESBIAN ACTIVISTS ALLIANCE OF WASHINGTON
Fighting for Equal Rights Since 1971
P. O. Box 75265
Washington, D.C. 20013
TESTIMONY ON BILL 16-169,
The Walt Whitman Way Designation Act of 2005
Delivered before the Committee of the Whole
Council of the District of Columbia
July 12, 2005
Chairman Cropp, Councilmember Graham, and Fellow Residents:
Good morning. My name is Craig Howell. I am a native Washingtonian currently living in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. It is my honor to testify on behalf of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA) in support of Bill 16-169, "The Walt Whitman Way Designation Act of 2005." We want to thank Councilmembers Catania, Evans, Fenty, Graham, and Patterson for co-introducing this bill, and we thank you, Mrs. Cropp, for convening this hearing.
It would be difficult for me to imagine a bill that engages my enthusiasm on as many different fronts as this one does. Besides having been a gay activist for more than 30 years, I have been a Civil War buff since childhood, reflecting my father's strong interest in the Late Unpleasantness. I have been conducting tours of Civil War Washington and Civil War battlefields from Manassas to Gettysburg to Appomattox for about 20 years and received my DC Tour Guide License in 1992. As a longtime member of the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman, I have led many tours for them of those battlefields such as Antietam, Fredericksburg and Petersburg where either Walt's brother George or his longtime partner Peter Doyle fought--on opposite sides, I might add. I have led the Friends' Walt Whitman's Washington Walking Tour, most recently this past April as part of the gala 150th anniversary celebration of the publication of the first edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
For good measure, I am a member of the Rainbow History Project, represented today by my friend Mark Meinke.
Walt Whitman earned a great deal of his reputation as one of the towering icons of gay American history by what he did while right here in the Nation's Capital during and after the Civil War.
It was on a horse-drawn trolley on Pennsylvania Avenue, part of the popular route between the Navy Yard and Georgetown, that Walt met the man who would be the great love of his life, Peter Doyle. Born in Limerick, Ireland, Peter had emigrated to Virginia with his family as a boy, and had been drafted into the Confederate army, serving in Richmond's famed Fayette Artillery through several hard-fought campaigns. He successfully won a discharge on the grounds that as an Irish native he was a British subject not subject to the Confederate government's draft. He then moved to Washington from Richmond to live in Southwest with his widowed mother, his sister and three brothers, one of whom became a police officer; you can find that brother's name on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Judiciary Square, in recognition of his death in the line of duty in 1871. Peter found employment as a streetcar conductor with the Washington & Georgetown Railroad.
Here is the story of how Pete and Walt met in January 1865, in Pete's own charming words:
"He was the only passenger; it was a lonely night, so I thought I would go in and talk with him. Something in me made me do it and something in him drew me that way. He used to say there was something in me had the same effect on him. [Today, this phenomenon would be called 'gaydar.'] Anyway, I went into the car. We were familiar at once--I put my hand on his knee--we understood. He did not get out at the end of the trip--in fact went all the way back with me....From that time on we were the biggest sort of friends."
(Parenthetically, I have always thought this passage foreshadowed, if not inspired the lyrics for one of Judy Garland's signature songs, "The Trolley Song, " from Meet Me in St. Louis. "Clang! Clang! Clang! Went the trolley!/ Zing! Zing! Zing! Went My Heartstrings!/As he started to leave I took hold of his sleeve with my hand/And as if it were planned/He stayed on with me/And it was grand just to stand with his hand holding mine/Till the end of the line!")
In just a few months, Peter was to witness the assassination of President Lincoln at Ford's Theater. The powerful and grief-stricken account of that tragedy he sent to Walt (who was with his family in Brooklyn at the time) animates the lecture on the assassination Whitman was to give to great acclaim in cities around the country.
Peter was unable to follow Walt to Camden, NJ after he was forced to move there in 1873 following his stroke, but their passionate friendship endured through Whitman's death in 1892. Peter Doyle himself is buried in Congressional Cemetery, thereby beginning a tradition that has led to Congressional's becoming known today as the "Gay Arlington."
The designation of the 700 block of F Street NW to honor the memory of Walt Whitman is especially appropriate because it was in the majestic building on the north side of that block, what we today call the Old Patent Office Building, where Walt worked on the ground floor for the Bureau of Indian Affairs--and became the first civilian ever fired from the federal government solely for being openly gay.
He was dismissed in mid-1865 by the new Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, a champion of "traditional family values," 19th-century style. Once in office, he instituted a systematic purge of any departmental employee whose morals or lifestyle he found objectionable. Specifically, he ordered the heads of Interior Department bureaus "to report on the loyalty of each of the employees under him, and also whether there are any whose fidelity to duty or moral character is such as to justify an immediate dispensation of their services." Secretary Harlan also targeted the department's female employees, "on the grounds that their presence there might be injurious to...the 'morals' of the men."
When Secretary Harlan stumbled upon a copy of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, he was outraged to learn that the author of such sensual, scandalous, homoerotic filth was actually working within his sacred precincts, and booted Whitman out unceremoniously. Harlan reportedly told Walt's supervisor: "I will not have the author of that book in this Department; no, if the President of the United States should order his reinstatement, I would resign sooner than I would put him back." Fortunately in those days of the "Spoils System," Walt was well connected politically by this time and found a new job with the Attorney General Office the very next day.
But thousands of gay and lesbian federal employees would unwillingly follow in Walt's footsteps and be arbitrarily fired solely because of their sexuality, especially in the era of McCarthyism and the years thereafter. This scandal endured until heroes led by DC's own Frank Kameny fought back in the federal courts, which ultimately threw out this grotesque discrimination in the late 1960s and early 70s. Unfortunately, the current Director of the Office of Special Counsel, Scott Bloch, is following in Secretary Harlan's footsteps by trying to strip gay federal employees of their hard-earned employment rights.
The Old Patent Office Building is also one of the many places converted into make-shift hospitals where Walt Whitman cared for the thousands of soldiers wounded in the war. Although today he is often described as a nurse, he had no formal medical training. Instead, he attended to the numerous personal needs of the soldiers, such as reading them letters from home, writing their own letters back, bringing them fresh fruits, sweets, and tobacco, running errands, changing their dressings, bathing them and so on. In this respect, he was a forerunner of today's Candy Stripers and AIDS Buddies.
Just being there and hand-holding, literally and otherwise, was an enormous morale booster. As Walt explained in a letter to his brother Jeff shortly after he settled in Washington in early 1863: "I cannot give up my hospitals. I never before had my feelings so thoroughly and (so far) permanently absorbed, to the very roots, as by these huge swarms of dear, wounded, sick, dying boys--I get very much attached to some of them, and many of them have come to depend on seeing me, and having me sit by them a few minutes, as if for their lives." Many of these wounded soldiers reciprocated Walt's kindness and affection; in Walt's famous words, "Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips."
So Walt Whitman's ten highly productive and rewarding years here in DC deserve public recognition and honor, and the 700 block of F Street NW is the best place to do it.
Thank you. I would be glad to answer any questions you may have.