Forty years after Americans signed the Declaration of Independence, during a time when (white, rich) people started to have the luxury to get bored again, they decided to create some kind of culture for themselves. The theater was a spicy place at the time that some people thought was sinful, while others were just trying to watch women in mustaches act out Shakespeare in peace. One of those mustachioed women was America’s very first celebrity, Charlotte Cushman, who also happened to be a queer (surprise surprise).
Cushman officially became America’s first celeb after playing Romeo in a performance of Romeo & Juliet in London. Juliet was played by her sister which is gross but I guess normal at the time. This performance launched Cushman to real stardom. People said she was a “better man than most men” and she was named “the greatest living actress.” Some of her famous fans included Lincoln and Queen Victoria.
On her off hours, Cushman enjoyed hanging out with her “female friends,” aka queer luvvers. She had covert romantic relationships with writers and artists, like Emma Stebbins, who created the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. Fun fact, the angel on top of the Bethesda Fountain is inspired by Cushman herself! Gay herstory!!
Of course, nobody really knows about Cushman, or her queerness, because following her death in 1876, her legacy was ruined by homo- and transphobia. “In 1880, a seminal work comes out that claims to be a study of perversions and awareness,” Tana Wojczuk, author of Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity, told Jezebel. “Once there is a language for it and it’s considered a perversion, it just becomes visible in this really negative way.”
One of Cushman’s obituaries basically read, “She was great, but thank god women don’t have to debase themselves by playing men on stage anymore.” This was completely contradictory to what people were saying about her throughout her career, according to Wojczuk.
She was also subsequently left out of a collection of work about actors on MacBeth, even though her role in the play apparently inspired the Gettysburg Address. The influence! I can only imagine how much flat tummy tea Cushman would be slinging today.
Basically a queer woman dominates an art form, inspires generations of talent and is never heard or spoken of again….sounds familiar!!