Just in time for Pride Twin Cities, Preserve Minneapolis is presenting “Queer History: A Tour of Gender and Sexuality in Minneapolis.”
The nonprofit, which organizes summer walking and biking tours of historic Minneapolis neighborhoods, turned to Stewart Van Cleve to lead the first-time excursion.
Van Cleve is the author of “10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota” (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) and the creator of the just-debuted YesterQueer. The free app — a portable, design-your-own guided tour — is available on IOS and Android devices.
We talked with Van Cleve, who works in library and information sciences for the Metropolitan Council, about the challenges of chronicling lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) history, the gay side of the long-demolished Gateway District and how the city has reinvented itself.
Q: Are you basing the tour from material in “Land of 10,000 Loves”?
A: It’s funny, even though I’ve been studying and writing about this for years, I still find out these amazing tidbits of information. It’s an ongoing puzzle.
I just found out the other day about a restaurant named Richards Treat [in downtown Minneapolis, from 1924 to 1957]. It was owned by two women. They were business partners, and they lived together. You can’t tell if the relationship was sexual, but reading their letters, it’s so intimate, and it’s pretty clear to me that they were a couple.
But when you read about Richards Treat, that relationship is barely mentioned. People are still uncomfortable about queer history. Do you need absolute evidence? Or is that even the point? Does it make Richards Treat a site of historical interest for the LGBT community? I’d say yes.
Q: You published your first book two years ago, when you were just 24 years old. What’s the story behind that?
A: I was working as the assistant curator for the Tretter Collection in GLBT Studies at the University of Minnesota. Jean Tretter had collected thousands and thousands of items related to queer history, but he’s not necessarily an organizer. That’s where I came in.
I started working there when I was 19, and all of this stuff was completely new to me, even very recent history. The book is really a reflection of the organizational system of the Tretter Collection. That’s what you do in an archive, you give people a sense of what it is, and then let them do their research.
Q: Have you had much experience leading tours?
A: Not like this, no. I used to guide tours through Andersen Library, and the Tretter Collection, but that’s small, it’s one room. And I also have my poor friends, who have to listen to me natter on and on.
The tour is exciting for me, because I keep trying to inform people about this history in as many ways as I possibly can. It’s going to be fun because I usually don’t get to see or even talk with readers. I’m picturing myself walking backwards and saying, “And we’re walking, we’re walking, we’re walking.”
Q: What’s going to be the tour’s focus?
A: I’m trying to make it half-and-half, a mix of the familiar with the long-, long-, long-gone, the places that most people wouldn’t know about.
Q: Can you give me an example of a lost landmark?
A: One of the most exciting places is at 3rd and Hennepin, it’s now the site of the Central Library. But it used to be the location of the Onyx Bar.
I know about it because Chuck Rowland — who was later a founder of the Mattachine Society [arguably the country’s first gay rights organization] — talked about it in an early oral history interview.
He said that it was around in the 1930s, and it was a place where men could meet other men. They would wear suits — electric green suits — and lots of jewelry, all of these coded references. I would have loved to have seen that.
I kind of doubt that the Onyx was called a gay bar at the time. That’s a mystery. It showed that people had a lot of dignity, even though they were relegated to these substandard places. It was apparently a total dump, like most of the places in the Gateway. But they were the only places that would knowingly and willingly accept this clientele, because they had nothing else to lose.
Q: Why the emphasis on the Gateway District?
A: The Gateway had this general atmosphere of permissiveness. It was run down and worn out, there was tons of alcohol sold, it had this carnivalesque atmosphere. It was difficult to tell who was straight and who was gay, and maybe that’s one of the reasons why the Gateway made respectable people uncomfortable, and why they were embarrassed by it. The lines were blurred there, the rules didn’t apply.
It’s fascinating, because the city changes so dramatically all the time, it’s always willfully shedding its old self. When the Gateway was demolished, all the gay bars — places like the Gay 90’s, and the Brass Rail — remained as close to the border of the old neighborhood as possible.
I was also looking at the slums because the police paid more attention to the slums, and the police kept good records. Crime is a more tangible way to find queer history, through arrest records. That’s why the Gateway is so helpful, because there are so many arrest records.
Q: This is a walking tour, right?
A: Yes. We’ll start at the flagpole in Gateway Park, and we’ll weave down Nicollet and Hennepin and 1st Avenue through the old Gateway District, and point out these places that are long gone, more than 60 years. Basically it’s places that no one knows about, places that took me years to find. Then we’ll walk down 4th Street to City Hall.
Q: Why conclude there?
A: Because of Brian Coyle [the city’s first openly gay City Council member]. And because Jack Baker and Michael McConnell applied for a marriage license there in 1970.
It’s a good place to end things. So much of LGBT history is intangible. It’s gone, or it was secret, so it’s nice to be able to celebrate it in the physical world.