Summer Escapes: ‘Sanctuary’

Published in: July-August 2024 issue.


THE IMPULSE for any minority to seek out safe spaces or sanctuaries exists in proportion to the oppression they suffer in their social world. From the Catacombs of Rome to the colony of Plymouth, the upshot of this quest is well attested. Members of sexual minorities have undoubtedly been forming their own private communities for centuries—would Plato’s Symposium be an early example?—but it was only in the 19th century that sexual identity became a criterion for forming associations of like-minded individuals.

            Most of the early associations of LGBT people arose in large cities like New York, London, and Paris. An exception is explored here by William Benemann, who takes us to a small island called Tuckernuck off the coast of Nantucket, which itself is the “far out” island for Bay Staters. There, a wealthy physician named Sturgis Bigelow built a summer home in 1871 and turned it into a retreat for men who shared an interest in the arts and exotic travel and each other. The island’s isolation provided a perfect spot for both quiet contemplation and manly interaction of all kinds (including sports!).

            A century later, in the 1970s, a community for lesbians called the Pagoda was taking shape in St. Augustine, Florida. The Pagoda provided a similar kind of refuge from the outside world, like Tuckernuck attracting people who were focused on the arts. The colony was initially purchased by members of a dance company called Terpsichore that expanded their mission to include theatrical and musical training and performance. They also expanded its living capacity to fourteen cottages in addition to a large main building.

            A more famous example of an artists’ commune was Andy Warhol’s Factory, whose name implies that it was a hive of industry for Warhol’s art. And while art was certainly produced there, Alfred Corn makes the point that most of the Factory’s denizens were not there to work. Many were druggies and misfits—most were “queer” in one way or another—who sought refuge in a space that allowed them to be as crazy or creative as their situation dictated. For Warhol, they were all part of his tableau for the manufacture of pop culture parodies.

            Most everyone reading this has probably experienced the sense of safety and exhiliration that gay and lesbian bars and clubs have provided since long before Stonewall. The importance of their function as sanctuaries rises in proportion to the anti-gay hostility of the surrounding world. Thus, for example, as Lucas Belury explains here, for a city like San Antonio in the 1970s, the arrival of a club called the SA Country was a huge deal for an LGBT population living in a Texas border city with a large Army base nearby. There were frequent raids both by MPs and local police. In what became a landmark case, the SA Country sued the city for the right to safe haven, and—spoiler alert—the good guys won this time.