by Paul Bowers
An openly gay writer with a house on Rainbow Row. Military men meeting at a bus stop in Marion Square for casual sex. An artist with homoerotic paintings in the Gibbes Museum of Art.
A new interactive map from the College of Charleston's Program in the Carolina Lowcountry & Atlantic World (CLAW) highlights these and other glimpses from the history of gay lives in Charleston, stories that rarely get told in historic tours and museums.
The project, dubbed "The Real Rainbow Row: Charleston's Queer History," was created by authors Harlan Greene and Sandy Slater and is described as beginning the task of "documenting the presence of the LGBTTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Queer, Intersex, and Allies) community in the Lowcountry."
Greene, head of special collections for the College of Charleston library, has written about prominent gay figures in Charleston's history before. In his 1983 novel Why We Never Danced the Charleston, the character Ned Grimke is based on the real-life Edward I.R. Jennings, a gay man with a speech impediment who was one of Charleston's first abstract artists in the 1920s. According to a map entry for his studio at 62 Broad St., Jennings committed suicide in 1929 after having an affair with a man and was found dead with "a Bible, an empty bottle of champagne, and a gun."
(Click here to view the map on CofC's website, where it's wider and easier to read.)
Try clicking around on the map for a while and you'll find plenty of surprises: A hotel where Oscar Wilde stayed, a transsexual woman who sparked international furor by marrying a much younger black man in the 1960s, a bookstore owned by a gay couple that became a meeting place for civil rights groups. Greene and Slater give the following reason for creating the map:
Currently no history of homosexuality of the Charleston area and the Lowcountry exists. Disapproved of for centuries, outlawed, frowned upon, disowned and discriminated against, gay men and women, as well as bisexuals and transgendered people, had every reason to hide in the shadows. Those who did not were often chastised and faced severe and often aggressive social consequences. When people left the area for more liberal places or died, families often erased any surviving trace of what was considered unpleasant facets of their gay relatives. Yet some traces remained and these unheard voices echo through this project. Despite the obstacles and erasures of queer history, this project attests to a strong and vibrant queer past in Charleston and seeks to restore these individuals to their rightful place in our story."