Who knew my old apartment was queer-history ground zero?
Turns out the house at 1303 P St. NW, long since chopped up into condos, was once home to the anthropologist Matilda Coxe Stevenson, who played host to a Zuni named We’Wha when the “tribal princess” came to Washington as a cultural ambassador and treaty negotiator. At Capitol Hill meetings, a National Theatre gala, even a White House chat with President Grover Cleveland, We’Wha was “the toast of the 1886 season,” according to local author and Logan Circle resident Frank Muzzy, who includes a snippet of her story in his book Images of America: Gay and Lesbian Washington, D.C.
What official Washington didn’t seem to grasp, not even when the 6-foot “princess” set up her loom on the White House lawn, was that We’Wha was a lhamana—a transgendered person all but sacred to the Zuni.
The two pictures of We’Wha in Muzzy’s photo-driven survey of D.C.’s homo history are among the sturdiest entries in an official-Washington chapter that otherwise leans heavily on innuendo in the effort to remind readers that “gay people didn’t show up 30 years ago,” as Muzzy puts it. Lincoln and his “friend” Joshua Speed get the hmm treatment. “Bachelor President” James Buchanan, Harding-administration Cabinet secretary Harry Daugherty, even Revolutionary War figure Baron von Steuben and his “protégé,” city designer Pierre L’Enfant, likewise inspire “musta-been” riffs.
More substantial sections focus on protest politics, watering holes, and localized social subcultures, including everybody from black gays and drag kings to leather queens and queer cowboys. The stories of women are perhaps scarcer than those of men, though the book owes much of its flavor to one pervasive lesbian presence: photojournalist Patsy Lynch, who opened her archives for the project.
“I didn’t want it to be a white gay guy’s idea of Washington, so I actually searched out a lot of women,” Muzzy says. But “a lot of people didn’t really want to speak…and even some of the things I knew something about, people said, ‘What makes you think you have the right to tell these stories?’ But they’re a part of our community, and I [wanted] them to be part of this book.” Ultimately, he says, “I’m just someone who put this book together; it was an honor to do it, and I did it to honor a lot of people who weren’t here to do it.”
The 57-year-old Muzzy came to Washington just a decade ago from Los Angeles, where he grew up in a Hollywood family, but the capital city got under his skin fast. A sideline in curating photography exhibitions acquainted Muzzy with Ron Henderson, who later enlisted Muzzy’s help with the opening of Pulp, the 14th Street NW exercise in camp retailing where Muzzy still works. Henderson is a co-founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, himself a bit of gay history.
“Coming here, it’s a whole different set of history,” Muzzy says. “And it’s more real. The history of Hollywood is based on fantasy….I was just reading about the War of 1812, and the British came in over where the Social Safeway is.
“Many, many more people have the same battle stories,” he continues—and if nothing else, his book and its idiosyncratic portfolio of images is proof that it’s personal stories that add up, finally, to history. “The research just led me to so many interesting people, and there was no way to include everybody,” Muzzy says. “I just more or less did the best I could.”—Trey Graham
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.