October is LGBT History Month. Every day since Oct. 1, Q-Notes Online has partnered with the Equality Forum to present web videos on historic LGBT icons. Remembering the past and the legendary leaders who helped to shape our community is important. Often, however, LGBT history seems to only go back as far as the mid-20th century. When people think of queer history, images of the Stonewall Inn, Mattachine Society and other mid-century organizations and visionaries come to mind. Rarely ever does the LGBT community get a peek into the varied and often well-hidden queer and gender-variant past spanning into the early 1900s. That’s especially true for conservative states like the Carolinas, and conservative Piedmont cities like Winston-Salem.
Ken Badgett, a local and regional historian who lives near Winston-Salem, brings us two historic tales of LGBT-interest, dating from the 1910s and late 1920s. With connections to the present, Badgett’s tales are thought-provoking and eye-opening — no doubt, windows into a world when “gay” still meant “happy” and “queer” still denoted the weird.
Indicative and Provocative: ‘Auriemma’ and ‘Aunt Eloise’
From the travesties of summer camp skits, womanless weddings and female impersonation on stage, screen and radio to the genuine biological and psychological necessity of gender change, men in the Carolinas have felt the need to temporarily or permanently become the “other” — a woman.
The successful performance of Toby Young as “Aunt Eloise,” whose 23 years as morning host on country-music radio station WTQR in Winston-Salem recently ended, is a contemporary example of the visible acceptance of men who have made careers of impersonating women. Young’s self-made, on-air character “Aunt Eloise” and her co-host, the late Paul Franklin, were named radio personalities of the year by the Country Music Association in 1998. “Aunt Eloise” was a sassy woman with masculine frankness on all subjects known to, well, man. “She” could say on the radio what a man could not and always get away with it.
Early in the 20th century, the most obvious people to move from one gender to the other were female impersonators on the vaudeville stage. Theaters in cities and towns across the Carolinas had their share of vaudeville acts — jugglers, racial comedies and musical virtuosi, among many others.
Vaudeville shows consisted of a variety of performers who were assembled in customized combinations to form evenings of performance. These shows, often also accompanied by racial “blackface” performances, were popular entertainment from the 1890s into the early 1930s, when movies almost completely replaced live acts in most theaters.
During the 1910s, the Dreamland Theater in Winston-Salem promoted itself as a performance place that presented “Nothing but the Best” for its patrons. Among the best female impersonators in the entertainment business at that time was Francis Renault (born Anthony Auriemma, 1893-1955), an openly gay, female impersonator who “enjoyed the attention of many bedazzled young men,” according to archivist Willie Walker. In late August 1914, Winston’s Dreamland Theater booked Renault for a week-long series of performances.
In the recent historical publication “Gay and Lesbian Atlanta,” Wesley Chenault and Stacy Braukman of the Atlanta History Center state that Renault’s visit to Atlanta in July 1913 “revealed the popularity of gender nonconformity within the socially acceptable context of the era’s cheap amusements.” In what Chenault and Braukman called a “humorous tone,” The Atlanta Constitution fully discussed the propriety and the legality of a man presenting himself as a woman on public streets in professional and private ways.
Theater historians recognize Renault among the greats of the vaudeville stage. He performed to much acclaim in London, Paris, New York, Atlanta and, of course, Winston-Salem.
Renault did not have any problems in Winston-Salem, at least none of any note in the press. He was described in The Twin City Sentinel as a “performer of the highest type.” His singing of popular songs, as well as “his display of handsome imported and American gowns,” attracted “much attention” and “won thundering applause” by audiences in the city. A large photo of him in his feminine personae was used by The Sentinel to promote his visit to the city.
Everyone alive today has benefited from female impersonators’ artistic abilities to provoke conversation about the gender roles of men and women and from their historic positions as indicators of the actual presence of feminine sensibilities in men. Whether “Auriema” in 1914 or “Aunt Eloise” in 2008, audiences in Winston-Salem and the South have accepted gender nonconformists and appreciated their presence for almost a century.
“Cambridge Guide to American Theatre” (1993)
“Great Pretenders,” Anthony Slide (1986)
“Female Impersontors,” Avery Willard (1971)
And various articles on microfilm in copies of local newspapers at public libraries and university archives throughout the Carolinas.
The ‘Usefulness’ of Mr. Eugene Kent McNew
Efforts to acknowledge the presence of sexual minorities and to secure their safety while creating social equity in families, churches, businesses and schools are facts of life in 2008. In the early parts of the 20th century, however, LGBT people were often invisible, especially in the schools. One rare case of LGBT visibility occurred in Winston-Salem during the 1920s.
Just after his death on Feb. 27, 1952, Eugene Kent McNew was remembered on the editorial page of The Winston-Salem Journal as a teacher and a principal who had “never sought the limelight in educational or civic affairs.” McNew had been a popular Latin teacher at Richard J. Reynolds High School in the Winston-Salem City School System during the 1920s. At the time of his death, he had been a “quiet, level-headed” principal for 20 years at Old Town High School just west of the city in the neighboring Forsyth County School System.
Certainly accurate, but not complete, The Journal’s editorial obituary avoided any mention of the one time that “competent and loyal” McNew asked the local press for attention. On June 30, 1929, his open letter to the paper forced the issue of homosexuality onto the front page.
McNew’s contract with the city school board in Winston-Salem had not been renewed at the end of the 1928-1929 school year. In a private letter to McNew that was published in the Journal at his own request, City Schools Superintendent Rowland Latham stated that McNew had purposefully “spread a reproach affecting the character” of other faculty members at R. J. Reynolds High School and that his “usefulness” to the school had been irreparably damaged, that he had to be fired with “great regret.”
Reynolds High School was the crowning achievement of Winston-Salem’s rise to prominence as a modern city during the 1910s and 1920s. Arguably the best and most progressive high school in North Carolina during the time, one could accurately expect that its fine faculty and large student body would be among the first to sense changes in general social conditions in the city, including the recognition of homosexual relationships.
Urbanization, brought about by the growing tobacco and textile industries, made Winston-Salem the largest city in North Carolina by 1920 and one of the largest in the South. The city grew in physical size, population and in wealth. An expanding tax base and an increase in personal fortunes, such as those of the Reynolds, Gray and Hanes families, helped to create sources of funds for the expansion and the improvement of the city’s public schools.
In the fall of 1928, according to McNew in The Journal, news spread at Reynolds High School that a male faculty member had reportedly had a homosexual relationship with a male student who had recently graduated. In isn’t clear from historical sources who the teacher and male student were, and whether the relationship started before or after the student’s matriculation. It seems, however, McNew was the only faculty member who attempted to resolve the situation, eventually leading to the discussion of the topic in the local press.
At Christmas, the male student involved in the affair provided evidence of the reationship to McNew, who forwarded the evidence to the superintendent’s office. Latham and Assistant Superintendent Frank Koos investigated the matter, but the only action they took was not to renew McNew’s contract at the end of the school term in May 1929.
McNew, a popular Reynolds faculty member, appears to have been the first person in the schools of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County to publicly acknowledge the presence of homosexual relationships in the schools and the first to bring attention to the presence of gay students and their safety. As a result, McNew suffered the reprimand of school administrators who did not know how to deal with the situation, except to silence the individual who wanted to know the truth and to protect students’ welfare.
The “McNew incident” in 1929 provided good reason for school administrators in Winston-Salem to develop expertise on the subject of sexuality. However, such a choice was not made, and the present-day school board in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County is not aware that Mr. Eugene Kent McNew ever existed, that he had to deal with circumstances and subject matter that they face today, and that, despite Latham’s 1929 claims, McNew did indeed have a “useful” presence in the history of the school system.
— introduction by Matt Comer, Q-Notes staff