Ohio City to Honor Pioneering Lesbian Author

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday August 21, 2009

A historic marker for a pioneering lesbian writer has been proposed for a park in Dayton, Ohio.

The marker would commemorate the life and work of Dayton-born Natalie Barney (1876-1972), the author of "The Well of Loneliness," one of the earliest gay-themed novels, reported an Aug. 20 article posted at radio station WHIO's News Talk Radio.com

According to a Wikipedia article on Barney, the author went on to live for more than six decades in Paris, where she was an influential part of the writing scene and the lover of an array of artists, including a long-term relationship with the female painter Romaine Brooks.

The proposed marker would be the first in the state of Ohio to make specific reference to the sexuality of an historic figure.

Acknowledging Barney as a lesbian would be an important aspect of the marker's commemoration; Barney was open about her sexuality long before it was generally accepted to do so, even writing lesbian-themed love poetry at the turn of the 20th century.

An Aug. 19 article in the Dayton Daily News quoted John Zimmerman, spokesperson for the Greater Dayton LGBT Center, as noting that, "Barney's sexual orientation was part of her life's work.

"What she did when it comes to women's rights was significant," Zimmerman continued.

Significant, too, was her influence in the literary world: Barney established a "Women's Academy" for writers, as well as being an influence on male writers such as Truman Capote.

Noted Zimmerman, "If you wanted to meet people who published, you would wrangle an invitation to Natalie Barney's salon."

The article also quoted Dayton City Commissioner Matt Joseph, who indicated his support for the marker.

Said Joseph of Barney, "She was an important author. She has an acknowledged place in history and I support this."

Joseph spoke to the need for acknowledgment of influential figures in history, whatever their sexuality might have been. "I think if a Daytonian made an important contribution to the world we should recognize it," Joseph said.

City Commissioner Nan Whaley weighed in with similar sentiments, saying, "[Barney] had a significant life. She contributed to the world.

"When groups in our community [of the city of Dayton] want to recognize someone like that, I think we should support them."

The article noted that other markers celebrating influential GLBTs native to Dayton had also been proposed, such as a marker for gay jazz great Billy Strayhorn, and one for former Human Rights Campaign executive director Elizabeth Birch.

The article noted that the GLBT community center had helped raise funds for the marker in partnership with GLBT faith organizations Dignity Dayton and The Living Beatitudes Community. The $2,300 needed for the marker would not cost city taxpayers a dime, the article noted.

The marker's creation would take place under the auspices of the Gay Ohio History Initiative, an undertaking of the Ohio Historical Society.

The Dayton City Commission will make a decision on Aug. 26 as to whether to allow the marker.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.