Sign up for our free newsletter
When I think of the history of gay D.C.,I think of Walt Whitman. Walt loved Washington. Imagine him at 43, a towering 6 feet tall, heavyset and bearded, prematurely gray. He left his Brooklyn home in search of his brother, George Washington Whitman. George was fighting for the Union in the Civil War, and Walt read in the paper that he’d been injured at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Walt found him; he’d gotten only a scratch on his cheek.
But the sight of all the other, more seriously injured soldiers brought back from the battlefield moved Whitman. On the spot, he abandoned Brooklyn for good and decided to move to the capital.
<18.000000>Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
<18.000000>Straight and swift to my wounded I go
This is from his poem “The Wound-Dresser.” Whitman quickly became a familiar figure to the thousands of wounded set up in dozens of makeshift hospitals around D.C.
<18.000000>On, on I go!—(open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
<18.000000>The crush’d head I dress, (poor crazed hand, tear not the bandage away;)
<18.000000>The neck of the cavalry-man, with the bullet through and through, I examine;
<18.000000>Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard
It was brutal work. When he wasn’t in the hospitals, he used his connections (like some guy named Ralph Waldo Emerson) to get part-time work for the government as a clerk. (He lost one job because of Leaves of Grass, already a well-known and somewhat notorious book by this point.) Connections also helped him find housing and meals. With the wages he earned, he bought treats like tobacco and candy for the soldiers he tended. He spoke to them and comforted them and wrote down their messages to loved ones at home.
<18.000000>(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
<18.000000>Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)
It is, in fact, an excerpt of “The Wound-Dresser” that is carved above the escalators rising out of the Q Street entrance to the Dupont Circle Metro station. It’s a fitting memorial to the Gray Poet’s connection to our city, and in it, there echo memories of the care and treatment for the gay men lost in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. It reads:
<18.000000>Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
<18.000000>Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals;
<18.000000>The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
<18.000000>I sit by the restless all the dark night—some are so young;
<18.000000>Some suffer so much—I recall the experience sweet and sad…
Walt loved Washington, and Walt also loved Pete. This part of the story begins after he’d lived here two years. It was a stormy winter’s night in 1865. The poet boarded a horse-drawn streetcar (back when D.C.’s streetcars were a mode of transportation, not an overhyped money pit).
Walt was the only passenger, sitting alone on the silk and velvet bench, with curtained windows lit by an oil lamp. He wore a blanket around his shoulders. The conductor, a young Irishman, came back to talk with him. “He seemed like an old sea captain,” the conductor would say later. “Something in him drew me that way… 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 [he] went all the way back with me.”
That young man was Peter Doyle. He was 21 when they met, curly-haired and handsome, a slim 5 foot 8 to Whitman’s 6 feet. Ironically, for all of Whitman’s love of the Union and all his help for Union soldiers, here was a man who’d fought for the Confederacy. (Perhaps Whitman didn’t care: “was one side so brave? the other was equally brave,” he writes in “The Wound-Dresser.”) In any case, from that rainy night, Doyle and the old poet were inseparable for the next several years.
Whitman would jump on Doyle’s streetcar after his workday at the Treasury Department and ride it down to the Washington Navy Yard. A friend wrote that Whitman would sit out front with Doyle in the open air, and the two would barely speak because, the friend suggested, Doyle was as uneducated as he was good-looking. After dropping off the streetcar, the pair would go to Georgetown’s Union Hotel. “Like as not I would go to sleep—lay my head on my hands on the table,” Doyle said. “Walt would sit there, wait, watch, keep me undisturbed—would wake me up when the hour of closing came.”
They would also go on long walks together, often across the Potomac to Doyle’s hometown of Alexandria. Whitman would recite Shakespeare, or sing or hum, or “shout into the woods,” Doyle said. It was “the biggest sort of” friendship, and it would last nearly 30 years.
“From my experience at Washington I should say that honesty is the prevailing atmosphere,” Whitman told a companion and biographer at the end of his life. When someone laughed, he continued—and this, too, is etched in stone in our city, at Freedom Plaza: “I went to Washington as everybody goes there prepared to see everything done with some furtive intention, but I was disappointed—pleasantly disappointed.”
Click here for more from our 2015 Gay Issue.