Posted: 9th September 2020
Elsa Gidlow is not the most famous LGBTQ+ figure, but she was revolutionary in her time. As a lesbian living in 1900s America she did not hide her sexuality like many others did, instead she took great joy and inspiration from her love of women. Gidlow published the first ever openly lesbian poetry in North America, titled On A Grey Thread, and her 1986 autobiography, Elsa, I Come With My Songs, was the first lesbian autobiography published without the use of a pseudonym.
Elsa may not have spent her life in Hull, but she was born here and called the city home from her birth on 29th December 1898 until moving to Canada in 1905. She was one of seven children and was known to refer to her relations as her ‘unfortunate family’, as they had much trouble with mental illness. As she grew older Elsa began to seek out the company of other writers and to try and build a community around herself, entering the field of amateur journalism in 1917. It’s clear that even then she knew she was attracted to women as she collaborated with Roswell George Mills to publish Les Mouches fantastiques, the first magazine in North America discussing gay and lesbian issues and lifestyle, bringing both Gidlow and Mills attention, albeit through a controversial lens.
In 1920 Elsa left Canada for New York and it was during this time of her life that she published her best-known work: On A Grey Thread. The poems this volume contained cover themes such as childhood, loneliness, and time passing, but also love, specifically what is clearly the writer’s love for various other women. This poetry continued Elsa’s refusal to hide her sexuality which was first publicly seen in the publishing of Les Mouches fantastiques.
In 1926 Elsa moved to San Francisco, and she lived in this area for the rest of her life. In 1954 she left the hustle and bustle of urban life for a ranch, where she lived with her partner Isabel Quallo, her friend Roger Somers, and his family. Gidlow turned her half of the ranch into a Bohemian retreat which she named Druid Heights. Druid Heights was a sanctuary for Elsa and also for members of various counter-culture movements which she had engaged in all her life. This free environment attracted many ‘artists in residence’ which is what the retreat became best known for. Druid Heights was the world Elsa Gidlow built for herself, where she could be free to be herself and to explore new ideas and lifestyles.
In many senses, Elsa Gidlow was years before her time, but in many others her refusal to hide who she was and insistence of expressing herself openly helped to define the time that was to come, to pave the way for openly LGBTQ+ creators to be honest both with themselves and with their art.
Written by University of Hull student Laura Dean.
I recently finished studying for a History degree at the University of Hull and, although I specialised my studies in maritime history, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to take part in this project, being a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community myself. When I learned about Elsa Gidlow I knew I had to write about her. I fill a lot of my free time with creative writing, and so learning about someone who, in my eyes, was very important in the history of LGBTQ+ writers has been a very rewarding experience.
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