Tom Eblen

Kentucky’s hidden gay history emerges, from drag queens to Revolutionary War vets

This Kentucky picture from the early 1900s shows two women dressed as men. It was collected by a Louisville man who spent 50 years collecting gay photographs at Kentucky yard sales and flea markets.
This Kentucky picture from the early 1900s shows two women dressed as men. It was collected by a Louisville man who spent 50 years collecting gay photographs at Kentucky yard sales and flea markets. Photo Provided

How do you document Kentucky history that has been mostly hidden and, until 1992, was technically illegal?

That has been a challenge for historian Jonathan Coleman and artist Robert Morgan as they compiled more than 12,000 items and 100 hours of recorded interviews into the Faulkner-Morgan Pagan Babies Archive of LGBTQ life in Kentucky.

Coleman, whose doctoral research at the University of Kentucky focused on the history of gender and sexuality, will discuss and display items from the archive at 2 p.m. Sunday at Central Library.

The archive documents gay rights battles, including the 1992 court case that overturned Kentucky’s law against homosexual sex. It also includes photographs of drag queens, material from artists Henry Faulkner and Andy Warhol, and the story of two Revolutionary War veterans who lived as a prominent couple two centuries ago.

The project began in 2014, when Morgan, a well-known artist and figure in the gay community, told Coleman about material he had been collecting for decades. Much of it involved Faulkner (1924-1981), a renowned Lexington painter who was “out” long before it was socially acceptable.

Morgan, 66, who befriended Faulkner as a teenager, ended up with most of his photographs and memorabilia.

“Henry started giving me stuff, and he took me to all these houses,” Morgan said. “I would meet all these old gay men who were born in the 1800s, and they would tell stories.”

When the AIDS epidemic hit in the 1980s, Morgan cared for many local victims.

“Sometimes I was taking care of people I didn’t really know, and their families would come when they would die and throw all of their stuff in the street,” he said. “I would go back that night and go through the boxes and save their personal stuff, because it upset me so much that the families just threw all that away. I ended up with scrapbooks and photographs and ephemera documenting people’s whole lives.”

When people heard that Morgan was collecting, they brought him more material. An elderly man in Louisville sold him dozens of photographs of unidentified gay couples and cross-dressers he found over the years at Kentucky yard sales and flea markets.

Coleman has organized and researched Morgan’s material and has gathered more. Their goal is to find a permanent home for the archive where it will be maintained and made available to researchers. The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University wants the collection, but Coleman hopes to keep it in Kentucky.

The famous sex-research institute already had copies of 400 photographs that Faulkner took when he lived in New York in the 1940s. That’s because one of his roommates was a Kinsey researcher who developed and printed his pictures and kept copies, along with notes and information about them.

The archive also has art by another of Faulkner’s New York roommates, Louisville-born artist Edward Melcarth (1914-1973). Life magazine named him one of America’s best young artists in 1950. But after he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, Melcarth moved to Europe and was all but forgotten in Kentucky.

Shae Metcalf left Kentucky decades later for New York, where he befriended and was photographed by Warhol. The archive includes underwear Warhol autographed for him.

The archive includes a lot of drag photographs, including black men in women’s clothing performing in 1930s shows at the old auditorium in Woodland Park.

“Sometimes the only history we have are naked men and drag queens, because they were not worried about people seeing them in photographs,” Morgan said. They’re not representative of the larger gay community, he said, but “sometimes you have to take your history where you find it.”

One of those drag queens was James “Sweet Evening Breeze” Herndon (1892-1983), a cross-dressing hospital orderly who became a famous Lexington character.

“When I was a kid and sold hotdogs at the old Stoll Field, the cheerleaders would come out on the field waving their pompons and everybody would get up and cheer,” Morgan said. “Then about a minute later, out would come Sweets running, dressed as a UK cheerleader with pompons, too, and the crowd would go insane.”

Coleman said one of the saddest stories in the archive involves a 1961 Lexington police sting targeting gay men who hooked up at the Greyhound bus station. A professional singer’s arrest prompted him to commit suicide by drinking lye.

“A lot of the gay Kentucky story has to do with people leaving Eastern Kentucky and finding secret gay lives in Lexington,” Morgan said. But, as the archive shows, some also found acceptance in small towns and rural communities.

The oldest story that Coleman has found involves the two Revolutionary War veterans, Robert Craddock of Virginia and Peter Tardiveau of France, who lived as a couple near Bowling Green. Tardiveau started one of Kentucky’s first schools for blacks before he died in 1817. When Craddock died in 1837, he left a bequest that supported Bowling Green public schools for generations.

“Tradition says they were ‘queer,’” prominent educator T.C. Cherry wrote in a 1925 paper about the couple for Louisville’s Filson Historical Society. “Perhaps they were. … Both men, doubtless, had failings, but even these ‘leaned to the virtue’s side.’”

If you go

What: Historian Jonathan Coleman will exhibit and discuss the Kentucky LGBTQ Archive.

When: 2 p.m. Aug. 28

Where: Farish Theatre, Central Library

Cost: $15. All proceeds benefit Moveable Feast Lexington, which provides meals for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Tickets and info: 859-252-2867