Gay Places with Dr. Jeff – 510 Tacoma Avenue

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Welcome to Gay Places with Dr. Jeffry Iovannone. PBN’s newest blog series is dedicated to celebrating and learning more about the historic LGBTQ landmarks of Western New York. With this space we will highlight the work of Dr. Iovannone and other guest writers to provide insight to the LGBTQ history associated with our existing historic built environment- narratives which are frequently forgotten, ignored, or purposely left out.

 

510 Tacoma Avenue, Buffalo, New York
By Dr. Jeffry Iovannone

510 Tacoma Avenue, on the north side of the street between Norwalk and Sterling Avenues.

510 Tacoma Avenue is located in North Buffalo between Norwalk and Sterling Avenues. Built in 1922 by Benjamin B. Lee, a prominent Buffalo contractor, the house is an example of a traditional “Buffalo double,” or two-flat residence,
with Prairie style influences. 510 Tacoma was also briefly home to one of Buffalo’s most well-known LGBTQ writers and activists: Leslie Feinberg. 

Buffalo double houses are examples of vernacular style: a standard type of housing used by middle-class workers. Most two floor, or two flat, Buffalo homes were built during the city’s industrial prime between approximately 1890 and 1929. The double house represented a step up from apartment buildings or boarding houses for workers, as families often lived in one flat and used the rent from the second to pay their mortgages. Many of the double houses in North Buffalo, particularly in the Hertel Avenue and North Park areas, were constructed by Jewish builders and realtors beginning in the 1920s. 

The vernacular double house was a common feature in architectural pattern books of the early-twentieth century, and the style was popular throughout the industrialized Great Lakes region. Representative of a double with Prairie influences, 510 Tacoma Avenue features a low-pitched, hipped roof, a hipped roof dormer, and an asymmetrical door. Prairie style originated in Chicago’s suburbs during the early-twentieth century. Most Prairie-style suburban homes were built between 1905 and 1915, and the style declined in popularity following World War I. 

A building permit for 510 Tacoma Avenue was issued to Benjamin B. Lee on March 8th of 1922 by the Buffalo Common Council. While Lee may have constructed the house based on a pattern, it is also possible that 510 Tacoma Avenue was designed by his daughter, Ethel Lee McBain, a noted Buffalo architect. Lee McBain is best known for designing the Paul Revere House, located at 46 Woodley Road in the Cleveland Hill neighborhood. Built in 1929, Lee McBain’s design was inspired by Revere’s 1768 home in old Boston and was constructed of Arkansas soft pine. The Buffalo Courier-Express reported that, on October 27th of 1929, nearly 10,000 people visited the opening and dedication of the house.

Irving D. Feinberg and his wife, Vance Hyde, purchased 510 Tacoma Avenue on September 25th of 1962. The couple’s acquisition of the property is representative of the upward mobility of Jewish Buffalonians. From the 1950s through the 1970s, the Hertel Avenue and North Park areas developed rapidly and became the locus of Buffalo’s working-class Jewish community. Indeed, the Feinbergs bought this classic Buffalo double so they could live in the downstairs flat while renting the upstairs to help pay down their mortgage.

Hyde, originally from Silver Spring, Maryland, attended the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University) in Pittsburgh where she studied child psychology and creative writing. Originally founded in 1869 as the Pennsylvania Female College, the PCW educated women such as noted biologist and environmentalist Rachel Carson, who graduated magna cum laude in 1929. 

Hyde moved to Washington, D.C., after graduation to work as a fashion coordinator for a store. There she met Buffalo native Irving D. Feinberg, who was completing his undergraduate education at George Washington University. They married in August of 1948 and relocated to Lockport, New York, where Irving worked for radio station WUSJ. Leslie, their first child, was born in 1949. Christine followed in 1951 and Linda in 1955. As the family expanded, Irving took a position as an external expeditor with the Sylvania Electric Company, and the Feinbergs moved to 203 Lovering Avenue in North Buffalo, just streets away from their eventual Tacoma residence. 

The Feinbergs were an especially artistic family. Irving was a musician and had a band that played music on the weekends. Though Vance studied creative writing at the PCW, she gave up her literary ambitions to be a wife and mother. In 1957, however, the bug to begin writing again bit her. Her first book, And Everything Nice, named after the popular nursery rhyme stating little girls should be “sugar and spice and everything nice,” was published in October of 1959 by the David McKay Company. The book, a guide to raising daughters, was based on Hyde’s own experiences coupled with her background in child psychology. Especially For Mother followed in 1960 and was published by the Thomas Y. Crowell Company. Hyde’s second publication was, according to Rita Smith of the Buffalo Courier-Express, “an affectionate anthology of poems, thoughts, bits of verse and short pieces about babies, home, husbands and rearing a family.” The inspiration for Especially For Mother came from Hyde’s personal scrapbooks, which she kept since high school.

Photo accompanying Rita Smith’s article “‘58 Mrs. Buffalo Writes Two Books” from the Buffalo Courier-Express, July 19th, 1959.

Hyde credited her confidence as an author in part to her 1958 crowning as “Mrs. Buffalo,” a local division of the national Mrs. America contest. A pageant for Buffalonian housewives, Mrs. Buffalo judged contestants on their cooking and homemaking abilities, poise, and personality. Contestants were also required to give a three-minute talk on the topic of “Why I Want to Be Mrs. America.” “I want to be Mrs. America because I’m angry,” the 35-year-old Hyde said in an interview with the Buffalo Courier-Express published on April 2nd of 1958. If victorious, Hyde said she would use the national crown “to rebuff all those people who say that being a housewife is an easy job, an unimportant, boring or unrewarding one… I love homemaking and I represent millions of women who think homemaking is the most exciting career a woman can choose.”

Despite her professed love of homemaking, Hyde was not the typical Buffalo housewife. She was college educated and a published author, which afforded her the opportunity to speak publicly, host book signings, and be written about in the press. In a July 1959 author profile published in the Buffalo Courier-Express, Hyde explained how her husband bought her a used dictating machine because she perpetually scorched shirts and burnt kettles when she abandoned her household chores to jot down a sudden idea or flow of words. 

“I’m probably the only housewife in Buffalo who has one of those gadgets on her kitchen table or cupboard,” Hyde said of her dictating machine. “Since I spend most of my time in the kitchen, we decided to plug the machine in there. Now, while I wash the dishes or prepare the dinner I can write at the same time. When an idea comes to me I just start talking as if I were writing it and the machine records it.” When Hyde did have time to sit down at her typewriter, usually when her children were asleep, she used a Turkish towel to muffle the busy clacking of the keys. In 1976, after her children were grown, she returned to the workforce as a manager for Adam, Meldrum & Anderson’s (AM&As) department store at the Olean Center Mall. Though she struggled to understand and accept Leslie’s gender nonconformity, Vance Hyde was not the most gender-conventional woman herself. 

The Feinberg siblings attended Bennett High School, a racially-diverse school located at 2885 Main Street in the University Heights section of Buffalo. Christine, the middle sibling, became involved in theater, sang in a folk group, and wrote poetry. In 1967, she starred in Bennett’s production of Antigone and aspired to study drama in college. Linda wanted to become a writer like her mother. 

But Leslie, despite artistic inclinations of her* own, did not thrive like her sisters. Growing up differently gendered in blue-collar Buffalo of the 1950s was not easy. As a butch lesbian, she was harassed simply for walking down the street. The Feinbergs were not particularly accepting of Leslie’s difference either. As a result, she dropped out of school at the age of fourteen and worked various low-wage jobs to support herself. Her first position was in the display sign shop of a local department store.

Around this time, Feinberg entered Buffalo’s gay social scene which, like many other mid-twentieth-century American cities, centered around bars. Buffalo’s gay bars were both a space of community and a source of fear. The harassment and physical violence gay and gender nonconforming Buffalonians faced at the hands of the Buffalo Police Department was little different from the conditions that precipitated the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco or the much-mythologized Stonewall Uprising of 1969.

Feinberg later described this period of her life, and her relationship with her biological family, as follows:

I had to ask my parents to sign working papers, so that I could get a job after high school and not have to come home until it was time to go to bed.

Outside my parents’ home, and beyond high school corridors and classrooms, I was able to find wage work during the Vietnam War, and loving relationships. I found communities, struggle, my voice and pride…

I later moved out of my parents’ home before the legal age of consent, despite the fact that I was still their legal ward. After years of living independently, I had to return shortly before my 21st birthday, in order to ask my parents to sign permission for me to begin taking hormones. I did not self-identify as transgender at that time.

Several years later, when I told my parents that I was going to stop taking hormones, my biological father ridiculed me and my biological mother sat silently in another room, her back towards me as I left…

My biological parents reportedly debated, for the second time in my young life, whether they should sign legal papers that would forcibly confine me to a psychiatric institution. I did not self-identify as transgender at that time in my life, either.

These early experiences shaped Feinberg’s first, and most celebrated, book, the novel Stone Butch Blues, published in 1993 by Firebrand Books. Stone Butch Blues recounts the story of Jess Goldberg, a so-called “he-she” from a working-class background who, like Feinberg herself, comes of age in Buffalo. Despite similarities to Feinberg’s own biography, she insisted the novel was a “work of fiction, written by an author who has lived the non-fiction.” In reality, Stone Butch Blues is a composite of queer experience, spanning the decades between 1950 and the early 1990s. Feinberg combined elements of her own biography, stories told to her by older butches and drag queens, and research into the history of gender nonconformity to create the narrative of her protagonist. 

In her cover letter to Firebrand founder Nancy K. Bereano, Feinberg described the inspiration and intentions behind her novel:

I grew up in Buffalo. As a working class Jewish lesbian I came of age in and worked at the factories until they closed. Like the other butch women Liz Kennedy’s oral histories document, I had few options. We were unwelcome in the post-Stonewall gay and lesbian movement and beaten, harassed and murdered on the streets. For some of us, the only alternative was to try and pass… 

My novel is the first to be written by a self-identified passing woman and because of that, I think it will make room for other lesbians who are also struggling to understand and represent their own gender struggles. And these experiences offer rich insight for all women into the ways race, sex and class impact on gender. 

Jess, who initially identifies as a butch, faces hostility from straight society and within the gay community. After uncomfortably straddling the gender binary for most of her life, she transitions to live full time as a man, Jesse, and takes testosterone. Some lesbian feminists, however, accuse Jess of masculinizing herself as a way to escape the oppression of living as a woman. Jess feels that although “passing” as a man allows her to be seen as a person and not a “freak,” it also erases the complexity of her history. “Believe me… you’re not alone in feeling that you’re not a man or a woman,” Edna, one of Jess’s femme lovers, tells her. “You’re more than just neither, honey. There’s other ways to be than either-or. It’s not so simple. Otherwise there wouldn’t be so many people who don’t fit.”

After Jess moves to New York City, she becomes involved in political activism and realizes she can live outside conventional boundaries of gender with legitimacy. Feinberg, like her character, also left Buffalo to live in New York City for a time. And like Jess, she came back to Buffalo to make peace with her community and her past. 

Flyer from the book launch event for Stone Butch Blues. Courtesy of Carol Speser.

In April of 1992, Feinberg returned to Buffalo as a featured speaker at “Passing Fancy,” a tribute to women who have “passed” as men throughout history. The event, held at M.C. Compton’s bar on Niagara Street, featured an introduction and talk by Feinberg and a drag king performance staged by a diverse cast of Buffalo lesbians. Buffalo was also the logical place to launch Stone Butch Blues. The book’s release party was held at the Ascension Church Hall, located at 16 Linwood Avenue, on February 20th of 1993 and was sponsored by noted Buffalo activists such as Madeline Davis, Bernadette Hoppe, Marge Maloney, Dottie McGavern, and Carol Speser and organizations like ACT UP WNY, the Buffalo Gay and Lesbian Community Network, Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, and Workers World.

In addition to Stone Butch Blues, Feinberg wrote several works of non-fiction that brought knowledge of transgender people, issues, and language to mainstream awareness. In Transgender Warriors, an historical study of gender nonconformity, she expansively defined “transgender” as: “all people who cross the cultural boundaries of gender.” Feinberg came to describe herself as transgender as well. “I am transgendered,” she explained. “I was born female, but my masculine gender expression is seen as male. It’s not my sex that defines me, and it’s not my gender expression. It’s the fact that my gender expression appears to be at odds with my sex.”

Feinberg was also a leader of the Workers World Party (WWP), an independent Marxist-Leninist political party, and served as the managing editor of its newsletter. An avowed anti-racist, she was always attentive to the ways gay and trans liberation intersected with the liberation struggles of other oppressed peoples. As part of her work with the WWP, Feinberg took on America’s racist criminal justice system by co-founding Rainbow Flags for Mumia, a coalition of LGBTQ organizers who, on April 19th of 1999, marched in support of a new trial for death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. In 1981, Jamal had been wrongfully sentenced to death for his alleged shooting of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Jamal maintained his innocence, and in 2011, his sentence was commuted to life in prison with no chance of parole.

Beginning around 2007, Feinberg discovered the health issues she struggled with since the 1990s were the result of Lyme disease. The illness had long gone undiagnosed due to the discrimination she faced from the medical community. Despite being critically ill, she continued her revolutionary work. Feinberg agitated for the release of CeCe McDonald, a black transgender woman from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who stabbed and killed Dean Schmitz, a white man, in self defense after he attacked her at a bar in 2012. McDonald was the only person arrested following the altercation.

Portrait of Feinberg. Source: Beacon Press.

Feinberg passed away on November 15th of 2014 from complications related to late-stage Lyme disease. However, as transgender activist Camille S. Hopkins concisely explains: “Lyme disease did not kill Leslie Feinberg; transphobia killed Leslie Feinberg.”

510 Tacoma Avenue was not a happy place for young Leslie Feinberg—but it was a formative one, as were the corridors and classrooms of Bennett High and Buffalo’s factories and bars. The history of 510 Tacoma reveals the Buffalo Feinberg came of age in: the place of her becoming. A place—because of the marks it made and the community she found there—she never fully left behind, but returned to time and again. It was here she found, and regained, in her own words, “communities, struggle, my voice and pride.”

 

*Though Feinberg used the pronouns “she” and “her,” as well as the gender-expansive pronouns “zie” and “hir,” I intentionally use she/her throughout this piece for purposes of readability. Additionally, in interviews I have conducted with persons who knew Leslie during her lifetime, all interviewees referred to her using “she” and “her.” As I, regretfully, never knew Leslie in person, I defer to the perspectives of those who did. 

 

 

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Dr. Jeff Iovannone is an historian, writer, educator, and third-generation Buffalonian who holds a Ph.D. in American Studies, specializing in gender and LGBTQ studies. He is currently at work on a book about Buffalo’s gay liberation movement from the late 1960s to the early 1980s and is an avid collector of LGBTQ historical materials. He is the coordinator of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at SUNY Fredonia and a board member of the Buffalo-Niagara LGBTQ History Project. You can find more of his writing on Medium and other platforms at https://linktr.ee/drjeffgenderprof

 

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

“Building Permits.” Buffalo Evening News (Buffalo, NY), Mar. 10, 1922. 

Feinberg, Leslie. Stone Butch Blues, 1st ed. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Press, 1993.

Feinberg, Leslie. Stone Butch Blues, 20th anniversary ed. Self-published by author, 2014. https://www.lesliefeinberg.net/

Feinberg, Leslie. Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.

Feinberg, Leslie. “While a Hostile Relative Re-writes My Life.” Lambda Literary, Jan. 19, 2011. https://www.lambdaliterary.org/2011/01/leslie-feinberg-catherine-hyde/

Feinberg, Leslie and Minnie Bruce Pratt. “Self.” https://www.lesliefeinberg.net/self/

Firebrand Books Records, 1984-2001. Human Sexuality Collection, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

“Home Beautiful Exhibits Win Praise of 50,000 Buffalonians.” Buffalo Evening News (Buffalo, NY), May 22, 1928.

Iovannone, Jeffry J. “Leslie Feinberg: Transgender Warrior.” Queer History For the People, Jun. 23, 2018. https://medium.com/queer-history-for-the-people/leslie-feinberg-transgender-warrior-fcb1bcaf15b2

Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky and Madeline D. Davis. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Leslie Feinberg ephemera. Personal collection of Carol Speser, Buffalo, NY.

LGBTQ Collection. The Buffalo History Museum Research Library. 

“Local ‘Mrs.’ Winners Named.” Buffalo Courier-Express (Buffalo, NY), Mar. 30, 1958.

“New AM&A Head Named.” Olean Times Herald (Olean, NY), Jan. 29, 1979.

Pratt, Minnie Bruce. “Transgender Pioneer and Stone Butch Blues Author Leslie Feinberg Has Died.” The Advocate, Nov. 17, 2014. https://www.advocate.com/arts-entertainment/books/2014/11/17/transgender-pioneer-leslie-feinberg-stone-butch-blues-has-died

Smith, Rita. “‘58 Mrs. Buffalo Writes Two Books.” Buffalo Courier-Express (Buffalo, NY), Jul. 19, 1959.

Smith, Rita. “Buffalo Housewife Author 2nd Time.” Buffalo Courier-Express (Buffalo, NY), May 1, 1960.

Smith, Rita. “Contest Entries to Speak Out.” Buffalo Courier-Express (Buffalo, NY), Apr. 2, 1958.

Stein, Gregory P. “‘Buffalo Doubles’: Industrial Vernacular Style.” Buffalo as an Architectural Museum. https://buffaloah.com/a/archsty/indver/stein/

Taussig, Ellen. “Young Mother Starts Writing Career.” Buffalo Evening News (Buffalo, NY), Mar. 12, 1957.

“Thousands at Dedication of Revere Model.” Buffalo Courier-Express (Buffalo, NY), Oct. 28, 1929.

Vanderhorst, Roger. “Olean Center Mall Merchants Elect Officers.” Olean Times Herald (Olean, NY), Jul. 20, 1977.

Wartenberg, Carol. “Bennett Student Aims At Career in Theater.” Buffalo Courier-Express (Buffalo, NY), Apr. 15, 1967.

“Weddings and Engagements: Feinberg-Hyde.” Buffalo Courier-Express (Buffalo, NY), Sat. May 29, 1948.

 

Interviews

Camille S. Hopkins with author, September 14, 2018. 

Marilyn Kern with author, December 17, 2019.

Nancy K. Bereano with author, September 27, 2019.

Virtual Summer School with PBN

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Welcome to PBN’s 2020 Virtual Summer School! Below you’ll find course descriptions for this summer’s 6-part lecture series. While each course is free and open to the public (donations are encouraged and appreciated), you must pre-register for each course individually to receive the webinar log-in information.

 

Preservation 101 – Thursday July 2, 2020, 6:00-8:00pm
This introductory course provides an overview of the history of historic preservation, discusses how preservation projects are accomplished, and explores the social, economic, & environmental benefits of preserving our historic built environment.
CLICK HERE to register for Preservation 101

 

Landmarks 101 – Thursday July 16, 2020, 6:00-8:00pm
In this course, we’ll discuss the different types of local, State, and National level historic designations that exist, and explore the rules and regulations associated with each nomination process.
CLICK HERE to register for Landmarks 101

 

Landmarks 201 – Tuesday July 21, 2020, 6:00-8:00pm
This course delves deeper into the different types of historic designations that exist, focusing on the regulations and financial incentives associated with each type of designation, and how property owners and community members can establish new designations.
CLICK HERE to register for Landmarks 201

 

Research to Landmark – Thursday July 30, 2020, 6:00-8:00pm
This course will guide participants through the various tools and strategies needed to successfully research a property. Learn about the key document types to consult, key repositories to visit, and how to access building information online.
CLICK HERE to register for Research to Landmark

 

Owning a Landmark: Buffalo Edition – Tuesday August 4, 2020, 6:00-8:00pm
Is your property locally landmarked either individually or as part of a historic district? Are you unsure of how that designation impacts you as a property owner? In this course we will focus on what a local landmark is, the goals and purpose of local level landmarking, and how local historic preservation commissions regulate changes to landmarked properties. While this course will focus on the City of Buffalo, the general themes and principles discussed will be relevant and useful to property owners in any municipality that has a local preservation ordinance.
CLICK HERE to register for Owning a Landmark: Buffalo Edition

 

Architectural Styles of WNY – Thursday August 13, 2020, 6:00-8:00pm
This course is a magical architectural mystery tour through over 200 years of architectural design, exploring the terminology and characteristics of the styles and types that define Western New York’s unique built environment.
CLICK HERE to register for Architectural Styles of WNY

 

Gay Places with Dr. Jeff – 9500 Clarence Center Road

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Welcome to Gay Places with Dr. Jeffry Iovannone. PBN’s newest blog series is dedicated to celebrating and learning more about the historic LGBTQ landmarks of Western New York. With this space we will highlight the work of Dr. Iovannone and other guest writers to provide insight to the LGBTQ history associated with our existing historic built environment- narratives which are frequently forgotten, ignored, or purposely left out.

 

9500 Clarence Center Road, Clarence, New York
By Dr. Jeffry Iovannone

9500 Clarence Center Road is located in Clarence Center, a hamlet of the town of Clarence, New York. Established on March 11th of 1808, Clarence was the first township in Erie County and progressed from a heavily-forested rural town to the suburb it is today. The land upon which Clarence was established was originally inhabited by Indigenous peoples. By the early nineteenth century, white settlements became part of the town’s development. 9500 Clarence Center Road, built circa 1835, is a classic and well-preserved example of Greek Revival architecture. It also, perhaps surprisingly, holds a prominent place in Western New York’s transgender history.

9500 Clarence Center Road, looking northwest from Railroad Street.

The property is located on the northeast corner of Clarence Center Road and Railroad Street and is a two-story, cross-gabled Greek Revival style residence. It features a cut-stone foundation, wood clapboard siding and shingles, a frieze band, frieze band windows, corner pilasters, and a wood shingle roof. The residence is divided into three building campaigns. The main block is front-gabled facing Railroad Street and features the residence’s primary entry and prominent gable wall chimney. The secondary block is a rear wing to the main block that features a one-story full width porch that faces Clarence Center Road. The third block is a one-story rear addition to the secondary block. An original large board and batten barn remains at the back of the property.

Greek Revival style was popular in the United States from 1825 to 1860. So dominant was Greek Revival, particularly in states that between 1820 to 1860 experienced significant population growth, that it was called the National Style. The style originated in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with buildings such as the Bank of the United States before, beginning around the 1830s, gaining prominence within domestic architecture. The character defining features of Greek Revival include gabled or hipped low-pitched roofs, cornices emphasized with wide bands of trim, and porches (either entry or full-width) supported by prominent columns that typically reference the Doric style of classic Greek architecture. Additionally, Greek Revival houses may have frieze band windows, which are windows set within the band of trim set beneath the cornices. 

Looking from the southwest corner of the residence, you can better see the different building campaigns. Photo from the 2008 Intensive Level Historic Resource Survey of the Town of Clarence by Clinton Brown Company Architecture pc.

On October 19th of 1954, 9500 Clarence Center Road was purchased by Peggie Ames and her then wife, Gladys L. Dietterich, from Roy W. Wilson, a local Clarence accident and health insurance agent, and his wife Betty. Peggie and Gladys, however, were not a lesbian couple, and Peggie was not publicly out as her true self. Born in 1921 in Buffalo, New York, Ames was identified as male at birth. Beginning around the age of 12, she sensed she was “different.” She dressed in her mother’s and sister’s clothes and borrowed their cosmetics when alone. She enrolled in Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, and joined a fraternity in an attempt to fit in with her male peers. It was also at Westminster where she met Gladys. The pair married and had a child, David, before Ames was drafted into the Air Force during World War II. Honorably discharged a year later, she completed dual degrees in Business and Psychology at the University at Buffalo, opened, with Gladys, an insurance business, and had three more children: Cynthia, Marsha, and Daryll. 

In notes for her unpublished autobiography, written on March 28th of 1979 under the subheading “Where I’ve Lived,” Ames described the purchase and history of 9500 Clarence Center Road:

One night as we glanced at advertisements in the sales portion of the daily newspaper want ads, one read most fascinatingly. Nothing would do but a phone call be made so I could stop to see it if possible, the very next morning when I would be passing through the community of its location, on a business trip. Perhaps only in a few instances of a special garment, or a carefully selected concert have I ever experienced such excitement, immediacy of knowing this is exactly what I and we the family, want. I could not stop thinking about it all day long and so that evening we made another drive out and past the ‘new old house.’ Yes, it was to be our ‘new house’ but in truth, in reality, our old house for it was what I matured into wanting, a larger, interesting, historic if possible old house. This one was at one time an inn served by its inn keeper for 17 years, and one resident had lived there for 70 years. At the time of this writing and my continued residency in it, it is 158 years old. We’ve traced it through deeds, town historical records and with one of the former town historians.*

The Dietterich family enjoyed an excellent reputation in Clarence due to their involvement in a wide variety of community activities. In 1973, their insurance agency was selected for membership in the Kemper Insurance President’s Club, the highest accolade by the Chicago-based Kemper organization for outstanding sales and service. Life carried on at 9500 Clarence Center Road, but secrets lay hidden beneath the house’s historic facade. 

Ames lived a dual existence. When she traveled for business trips, she presented herself as the man everyone assumed she was for professional commitments, but was Peggie the remainder of the time. She followed the story of Christine Jorgensen, the first trans celebrity who brought the concept of “sex change” to the forefront of American consciousness, in the media. Ames observed that, although the well-dressed and witty Jorgensen was celebrated by some, many saw her as little more than a freak. Her suspicion that the attitudes of the general public in Cold War America were not conducive to a public declaration of her identity was confirmed.

It was not until 1973 that Ames learned the word “transsexual,” and the feelings she described as “incessant, continual, obsessional, and always intensifying” fell into place. That same year, on a day when she was at 9500 Clarence Center Road alone, Ames fell asleep, and her wife returned home to find Peggie, not the husband she thought she knew. In her personal writings, Ames recounted the discovery of Peggie and the subsequent fallout:

This occurred on a Friday evening when I had arranged to be home all afternoon and lived as Peggie most of that entire day. She came home about 1:30 am Saturday and found me, unconscious due to carburetor inhalation, all dressed. Sending me to bed, I arose later that morning and we started a talk that went for some 3 ½ hours, the most meaningful communication of our entire marriage. Decided she would seek divorce, we would live together as two women. We were to see each set of married children, our friends and I was to talk with neighbors as I would be living in same community where we had been for some 18 years. Well known, active in community affairs so this seemed best way to handle it all. This lasted about 4 months when she advised she could not handle my lesbianism—it was apparently a threat to her own femininity and her Presbyterian, Scotch descent background—so violate that she was under psychological counseling and medication… It was when my father’s death occurred and that threat also removed, that we finally separated. Friends, relatives and some neighbors totally rejected me and with intense harassment, ridicule, property damage, personal injury etc… This all started when she left our home to me, during property settlement of divorce. Family was of no support all during this terrible three year period just nor terminating to almost non-existence of troubles. Those that persist are still most annoying, hurt deeply emotionally—I do not know any of the harassers, etc. 

The deed for 9500 Clarence Center Road was transferred into Peggie’s legal name on September 11th of 1973 when the couple divorced. Gladys, in turn, became the sole owner of the Dietterich Insurance Agency. She remarried Stanley M. Stone of Corfu, New York, and the couple took up residence at 10545 Cedar Road in Clarence Center. Stone, unfortunately, died on December 1st of 1977 at age 49 after suffering a lengthy illness. As a result of losing the family business and being rejected by her community, Ames struggled financially for the remainder of her life. To support herself, she opened a furniture refinishing and antique restoration business, Pyne Crafts, that she operated out of the barn located at the back of her property, and taught adult education courses on woodworking. 

Yet, Ames pressed forward with her transition. After consulting with doctors at the Harry Benjamin Foundation in

Photo courtesy of the Dr. Madeline Davis LGBTQ Archive of Western New York, Archives & Special Collections Department, E. H. Butler Library, SUNY Buffalo State.

New York City, she underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1974, which at the time cost around $8,000. She saw the same doctors as tennis player Renée Richards, one of the first out trans athletes. In her writing, she noted that while she admired Jorgensen and Richards, she had to forge her own path because, living in a rural community, her life was different from theirs in significant ways. Whereas Richards became a reluctant spokesperson after being outed by the press, Ames realized that staying quiet or closeted would do little to advance acceptance in Western New York.

Ames joined the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier (MSNF), Buffalo’s first gay and lesbian civil rights organization. She was elected secretary of MSNF in 1973 and 1974 and was praised for the efficiency and skill with which she performed her duties. Ames also participated in MSNF’s peer counselor training program, organized panels on transsexualism for Buffalo’s annual Gay Pride Week, and joined MSNF’s Speakers Bureau. In a 1978 profile of Ames written for the Buffalo Courier-Express, she estimated that she had lectured to around 12,000 people on the topic of transsexualism, primarily medical, nursing, and Psychology students at the University at Buffalo and other area campuses. She often began her lectures by throwing a bag of rocks on the table to get the audience’s attention and illustrate the type of harassment she faced. Broken glass was a frequent occurrence at 9500 Clarence Center Road. Boys from Clarence Center often ran by the house screaming obscenities and further expressed their intolerance by hurling rocks through the windows. 

Ames’s advocacy also had national reach. She was an established contact person for the Erickson Educational Foundation (EEF) and later, when the EEF folded in 1977, the Janus Information Facility, based out of the University of Texas. Established in 1964 by the independently wealthy trans man Reed Erickson, the EEF became the leading organization to fund research into transsexualism and to provide information and support to trans people in need of guidance. Trans people, particularly those from the Western New York area, who called the EEF for support were often referred to Ames for peer counseling or transition-related guidance. Ames, in fact, ran an EEF-registered informal counseling service out of her house and provided shelter for trans women in need of temporary living accommodations. 

In a letter to real estate agent Alvin Miller, written on April 22nd of 1975, Ames noted that “the home and my crafts shop is one of extreme psychological and economic value to me.” 9500 Clarence Center Road allowed Ames to both continue her advocacy and to support herself financially. By the late 1970s, Ames estimated she knew around 100 other transsexuals in the Western New York area, but she was one of few willing to be out in public. Though she faced great harassment for doing so, her work helped to dispel common prejudices towards trans women and provide guidance and support to her fellow trans sisters.

Despite Ames’s advocacy, she was rejected by many members of Buffalo’s gay and lesbian community. Some lesbians, particularly younger, more radical women, saw her as a threat to the local progress of women’s liberation. Ames was expelled from two lesbian organizations. Gay Rights for Older Women (GROW) wrote her a letter stating they feared her presence would would compromise the organization as a whole. The women of GROW had trouble relating to Ames’s transsexual history and regarded her enthusiasm and outspokenness as evidence of her “maleness.” Many of these women, however, had few experiences interacting with transsexual women and little knowledge of trans issues in general. As Buffalo women came into their own and found their voices, they may have been influenced by the perspectives of prominent feminists such as Robin Morgan. In 1973, Morgan, for example, famously described Beth Elliott, a transsexual lesbian feminist and singer, as “an opportunist, an infiltrator, and a destroyer — with the mentality of a rapist.”

A photo of Ames in her craft shop from Louise Leiker’s article “A Transsexual’s Anguish: Alone, Assaulted and Harassed.” Buffalo Courier-Express (Buffalo, NY), May 14, 1978.

Though Ames mostly withdrew from public advocacy after the early 1980s, she continued to educate and provide support via her peer counseling and correspondence, which allowed her to remain engaged while minimizing discrimination. The networks Ames, and other trans activists, created in the 1970s and ‘80s laid the foundation for the national and international communities trans people formed with the popularization of the internet in the 1990s and contributed to a new wave of transgender activism. Ames’s belief that trans women should be included within feminist organizations also anticipated the development of a unique trans-feminist perspective in the late ‘90s and early aughts.

The deed to 9500 Clarence Center Road was put under the name “Peggie Ames” in 1984 when, due to continued financial troubles, Ames refinanced her mortgage. Though she contemplated selling many times, Ames never did leave her historic Greek Revival house despite the pervasive mistreatment she faced. In refusing to be cast out, she turned the rocks first used to shatter her windows into tools of education and change. She built herself, and her house, up stronger than before. 9500 Clarence Center Road became her passion, her place of refuge, and a confirmation of herself—of Peggie:

Anyone who has lived in an old house, desired so intensely to restore it, will both revel and sympathize with me at all of the challenge and the heartache coupled with the costs and problems that go into such an effort. Nevertheless that was exactly what we started out to do. Pick up from the folks from whom we purchased had stopped when they had to move due to business transfer, and finish a dream.

Now this home represents an extension of me, my personality and my work. Folks who visit near immediately react to these forces. They often exclaim how warm, hospitable and much like me, my interests and the comfortableness the entire house projects. It loses its houselike character and becomes a part of the occupant. 

Peggie Ames passed away in 2000 at the age of 79. She left her estate to longtime friends Jim Haynes and Don Licht, who sold the property to its current owner in 2001. Ames dealt with many hardships, but was never solely a victim. Through her stubborn persistence, she paved the way for future generations of trans and gender-nonconforming people in Western New York and beyond. 

*In quoting from Ames’s personal writings, I have corrected spelling errors for purposes of readability. All idiosyncrasies in grammar and punctuation are Peggie’s.

 

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Dr. Jeff Iovannone is an historian, writer, educator, and third-generation Buffalonian who holds a Ph.D. in American Studies, specializing in gender and LGBTQ studies. He is currently at work on a book about Buffalo’s gay liberation movement from the late 1960s to the early 1980s and is an avid collector of LGBTQ historical materials. He is the coordinator of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at SUNY Fredonia and a board member of the Buffalo-Niagara LGBTQ History Project. You can find more of his writing on Medium and other platforms at https://linktr.ee/drjeffgenderprof

 

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

“About Our Town: Town of Clarence.” https://www2.erie.gov/clarence/index.php?q=about-our-town

Erickson Educational Foundation Publications, Digital Transgender Archive. https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/col/x059c745c.

Geiger, Jack. “Christine, Ex-G.I., Returns to U.S. As a Sleek Woman.” Times Union (Albany, NY), Feb. 13, 1953.

“Honors Given Corfu Agency.” The Batavia Daily News (Batavia, NY), Jan. 3, 1973.

Iovannone, Jeffry J. “The Life and Legacy of Trans Activist Peggie Ames.” The Establishment, Nov. 12, 2018. https://theestablishment.co/the-life-and-legacy-of-trans-activist-peggie-ames/index.html.

Leiker, Louise. “A Transsexual’s Anguish: Alone, Assaulted and Harassed.” Buffalo Courier-Express (Buffalo, NY), May 14, 1978.

Morgan, Robin. “Lesbianism and Feminism: Synonyms or Contradictions?” The Lesbian Tide, Jun. 1973, 30-34.

Peggie Ames Papers, Dr. Madeline Davis LGBTQ Archive of Western New York, Archives & Special Collections Department, E. H. Butler Library, SUNY Buffalo State.

“Reed Erickson.” Making Gay History: The Podcast. https://makinggayhistory.com/podcast/reed-erickson/

“Stanley M. Stone.” The Batavia Daily News (Batavia, NY), Dec. 3, 1977.

“Town of Clarence Intensive Level Survey of Historic Resources,” New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Jan. 2009. 

Interviews

Carole Hayes with author, August 6, 2018.

Donald Licht with author, October 9, 2018.

The Historical Development of the Gay Community in Buffalo, NY, interview by Justin Azzarella, April 11, 2002, Dr. Madeline Davis LGBTQ Archive of Western New York, Archives & Special Collections Department, E. H. Butler Library, SUNY Buffalo State.

Preservation Buffalo Niagara’s Statement in Response to Protests

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Like so many of you, we here at PBN watched with heavy hearts the events that unfolded in Minneapolis last week. While it was horrifying to learn of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, it was not unfortunately a shocking event but rather the latest moment in our nation’s history of violence toward people of color. 

And of course, it was natural that Buffalo would join in on the protest. Buffalo has its own complicated racial history. We rightly celebrate our role in the journey to freedom and equality, from our Underground Railroad legacy, the founding of the Niagara Movement, and our African American community’s contributions to civil rights, art, literature, music, architecture, academia, and culture. But we must never lose sight of the darker side of our journey. Buffalo’s current reality is shaped – physically and culturally – by a deep history of racism and racial segregation. Today the legacy of racist government and banking policies and practice, of redlining, of racially motivated disinvestment, has resulted in vast inequalities in housing, education, and quality of life among our citizens. 

Of course, as preservationists, it is hard to watch images of destruction of historic property, but we remind our members that we care about the buildings because we care about the people. The people who built them, the people who occupy them, the people whose story they help to tell, and the people who will occupy them in the future. In that spirit, we remember that buildings can be repaired, while loss of life cannot be fixed.  

As we determine how to go forward from this moment, PBN believes that historic preservation has an important role to play in helping to bridge inequalities and build understanding within our community. We are committed to ensuring that our work reflects the full and complicated story of our entire community and all of those who have helped to build it. From helping to preserve the places that are the embodiment of specific important events and people, to helping to empower existing communities to tell their own stories and protect their own legacies, to continuing to educate people about the history that brought us to the current moment, we will continue our work, and we will redouble our efforts to ensure that our own work is intentionally committed to dismantling the racist systems we all find ourselves within.   

#blacklivesmatter 

#blackhistorymatters 

#buffalove