Queer Art History Tour

About the tour - A constant work in progress!

Much of the language used in today’s LGBTQIA2+ conversations did not exist until recently and other language has been reclaimed. “Queer” is one of these words, and its reclamation is not without controversy. For this tour, we understand queer to mean “reclaimed by activists to describe a range of gender and sexual nonconformists.” (Out in Chicago Exhibit, Chicago History Museum, 2011).  The compounding effects of Christian colonization, forced assimilation, enslavement, and racism on Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color, religious minorities, and immigrants, intersect with the full range of human gender expression and sexuality. Using “queer” invites us to think about gender and sex in relationship to structural power. It also helps us see people who used different language, cultural markers, and expressions than today, and  describe their survival despite enforced societal norms.

This entire tour takes place on occupied Wampanoag land. New Bedford and the area around it were settled and exploited for natural resources by European industrialists after their violent decimation of Metacomet and his allies in 1676. Some Wampanoag people survived and their descendants still live here and in many other places. The Mashpee Wampanoag and Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah are two of the communities who continue to carry their history forward.

The Orpheum

10005 South Water Street

In the early 20th century, Orpheum theatres across the country booked mostly White vaudeville performers from their central booking office. Some acts used homophobic and racist tropes (“cross-dressers” and blackface minstrels) for comedic effects.  As early as 1898 many Black vaudeville performers traveled on their own circuits, performing at Black establishments. This Orpheum Theatre opened April 15, 1912,  and was built for the French Sharpshooters Club, a French-Canadian Benevolent Club. The building also housed a prone-shooting range, a ballroom, and other kinds of entertainment. The theatre closed by 1959.  There is a potential for undiscovered queer performance art history if posters, newspaper articles or adverts, payment logs from the box office records, or photos and stories from locals who attended or worked at the Orpheum can be identified and documented.

The Zeiterion

684 Purchase Street

This theatre opened in 1923, named for the Zeitz brothers (a Jewish family) who intentionally commissioned the theater to host vaudeville and other live performances. It quickly transitioned to showing Talkies and was renamed the State Theatre. The world premiere of Moby Dick, the film based on Melville’s novel, took place here in 1956.  Today, the interior has been restored- the marble walls, the crystal chandeliers, and friezes of dancing Greek statues (like the one you can see on the southeast corner door at Spring and Purchase) are brightly visible.  It reopened as the Zieterion again in 1982, became home to New Bedford Festival Theatre in the 1990s, and has since begun expanding its culturally queer performances.

Black Lives Matter Mural

Union Street, West of Pleasant

Tanesha Ferrer organized this mural in 2020 and it was installed in February of 2021 after a few locations turned the project away. The Material Creative Studio provided support as creative director. Community members designed letters with what “Black Lives Matter” means to them. Some of the designers painted their own work, while other community members painted for those who were unable to. Check out this video to hear about the project in the artists’ own words!

Wings Court/Superflat Mural

Wings Court & enclosure

Mandy Fraser, a founding member of the QAC, AHA! Pride Block Party and board member of the SCLGBTQ Network designed and painted "F '' In "New Bedford is Lit '' SuperFlatNB mural. Chelsea Arruda created the “N”. In nearby Wings Court, look for the three wooden trees- Mandy painted those too! And just like the folks in our city, they’re each a little different (one is even a rainbow).

State Pier

Across from Union & Rt 18 intersection

Elias Trotter docked at this pier in the year 1845 while aboard the whaling vessel Illinois. Many Whaling vessels were homosocial environments, which created strong bonds between men working together for the years they were at sea. Trotter describes some of the relationships and experiences he shared with men along his travels in his journal.  Trotter returned to Albany, New York after his voyage and married Margaret Wendell shortly thereafter. The Illinois was later purchased by Wood & Nye of New Bedford in 1850. Trotter’s journals are currently under study by local historian, Dan Everton. 

The Ark

Southbound lane of Route 18
at the intersections with Elm

What is now the Southbound Lane of Route 18 at the intersection of Elm St., was once the location of the Ark. In the early 1820s Asa Smith bought two decommissioned whaling vessels, dragged them to the intersection here, and configured them together into one structure. The Ark had, according to the Republican Standard in 1856, 30 apartments for rent a month at a time for $1-1.50; each room had its own bar built into it. The Ark was a known brothel and would have been home to sex workers, their families, their clients, and sailors between ships. It was by all accounts a boisterous and raucous environment. In August 1826, some of the townsfolk believed the Ark to be a "Pandora's Box" and assembled to physically destroy it, hauling cannons up to it and eventually setting it on fire. People evacuated with their neighbors' help and thankfully no deaths were recorded from the attack. Undaunted, Asa Smith rebuilt the Ark from newly commissioned ships and repopulated it. But by September 1828, a similar scene played out, and local papers reported that the fire broke out again. This time the Ark was not rebuilt.

While the Republican Standard’s article 30 years after the fact does not list any of the occupants' genders or sexual orientations, race or ethnicities, or explicit acts, it is likely that non-heteronormative activities and relationships could have taken place at the Ark. The Ark tells the story of people who challenged sexual and societal norms in the early days of  New Bedford and it serves as a challenge for us today, to honor and listen to the histories of all workers in this city.

Seamen’s Bethel

15 Johnny Cake Hill

Herman Melville, whose published and private writings include male homosocial environments, relationships, and affection, visited this chapel before sailing on the whaling vessel, the Acushnet. He wrote about Bethel St. (now Johnny Cake Hill)  and The Seamen’s Bethel in his 1851 novel Moby Dick. The building was founded as a non-denominational chapel by the Ladies Port Society in 1832, in part to provide literacy and financial education as well as a place for religious worship. The Bethel and the nearby Mariner’s Home were hoped to be alternatives to places like the Ark, the brothels, bars, and taverns that originally lined this road.

St Lawrence Martyr Church

110 Summer Street

Dr. Marie Equi was a suffragist and anti-war, reproductive rights, and labor activist born into an Italian-Irish family in New Bedford. She was baptized in this Church about a week after her birthday on April 7, 1872. Her father, Giovanni "John" Aque, was a masonry worker at the St. Lawrence Church and the family attended masses here for decades. While Doc, as she was known, lived and worked in San Francisco, CA and Portland, OR from 1892 until her death in 1952, the first twenty years of her life were spent off and on in New Bedford where she experienced the rapid industrialization of the city. Equi adored her father who fed mill workers at the family table during the Wamsutta strike of 1877. She struggled to control her temper and emotions in school, despite doing well in her studies. Although Equi was unable to finish high school, she completed medical school once in Oregon. In 1915 she and Harriet Speckart adopted and raised a little girl, even while Dr. Equi continued to speak at protests, disrupted Great War Preparedness Parades, provided illegal, sliding scale abortions, and other medical services to anyone who needed them. Eventually, the United States Government planted a spy in her organizing circle, arrested and convicted her of sedition, used her relationships with other women to prosecute her, and sentenced her to San Quentin State Prison for 10 months. Dr. Equi was later pardoned by FDR. She died in 1952 and is buried with her companion and co-parent, Harriet Speckart in Portland, Oregon.

8th Street

60 8th Street

Possibly, as early as the 1950s and as recently as the 1990s, gay men cruised here looking for dates. The Unitarian Church on Union and 8th Street has rented out rehearsal space to New Bedford Festival Theatre, is a welcoming congregation to the queer community, and has a Garden and Labyrinth on the grounds.  60 8th Street is the future home of the SCLGBTQ+ Network and will be the city's first LGBTQ Community Center. This street is located in the County Street Historic District in Downtown New Bedford.

This is all of our histories. 

Most folks know an LGBTQIA2+ colleague, friend, family member, or enjoy arts and culture created by a queer entertainer or athlete, whether or not they are “out”. The same has always been true. There were always queer people in all walks of life, surviving in all kinds of conditions. In many cases, their stories were not written down or were destroyed by family members after their death, or at best told in hushed voices, and rarely told by queer people. We know there are more stories out there, and if you have one of New Bedford’s queer histories we encourage you to share what you know! You can tag @queerartscouncilnb or @marie_equi_zine_library on Instagram to share your story directly, or send an email to QACNewBedford@gmail.com to help us plan and write the next tour, or be inspired to start one of your own!

All photos by Colleen MacRamos of MacRamos Photography

Marie Equi Zine Library
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