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Benjamin Franklin: Writer, inventor, statesman and friend to gays

There is no more fascinating character among the Founding Fathers than Benjamin Franklin

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Benjamin Franklin. (Cortesy Library of Congress)

There is no more fascinating character among the Founding Fathers than Benjamin Franklin. An intellectual powerhouse credited with an extraordinary number of inventions and writings, he also was one of the three most pivotal players in the solidifying of the new colonial government, along with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Historian Walter Isaacson, author of the definitive biography of Franklin, described him as “the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become.” It was Franklin who edited the Declaration of Independence as Jefferson wrote it, making significant changes, which altered the course of history. (For example, Jefferson had originally written “we hold these truths to be Sacred,” but Franklin altered that to read “self-evident” because, he argued with Jefferson, the new democracy could not be predicated on the old divine right of kings, like the monarchy they had just won freedom from. Thus “self-evident” — coming from the people, not “Sacred,” coming via a kingly conduit to God.)

Franklin was also a statesman, having been Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly and President of Pennsylvania — a position equivalent to governor, today.

Franklin was also known as the great communicator among the major players in the colonial era. His joie de vivre and sense of humor ingratiated him with everyone, which is why he became the primary diplomat from the colonies, an ambassador to the French and Prussian courts and U.S. minister to both France and Sweden. In each capacity he negotiated treaties and opened communication between supporters in Europe and the colonies.

It was in his role as ambassador to France that Franklin also became the nation’s first gay-friendly ambassador, helping a known homosexual escape prosecution and become a pivotal figure in the American Revolution.

Identifying Franklin’s most pivotal role in colonial America is impossible as there was no arena in which he was not essential, as Isaacson’s biography makes clear. But certainly Franklin’s most significant role in relationship to the American Revolution and the propitious outcome of the Revolutionary War was his delivery of Baron Friedrich von Steuben from the French court at Paris to George Washington at Valley Forge.

Washington himself felt that von Steuben’s military strategies were vital to his success in the war; von Steuben’s expertise was so stellar his military manual, “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States,” became the fundamental guide for the Continental Army and remained in active use through the War of 1812, being published in over 70 editions.

Had it not been for Franklin, however, Washington would never have gotten his military strategist and von Steuben may have spent the remainder of his life in prison somewhere in Europe.

At the lead-in of the Revolution, Franklin was a mediator between the French and the colonists in negotiating the support of France against the British. It was during this period of intense political complexity and foment that von Steuben was first approached.

Franklin knew of von Steuben’s homosexual encounters, but didn’t consider them relevant to a position in Washington’s Continental Army. In June 1777, rumors of homosexual activity had forced von Steuben to resign his role as chamberlain to Prince Joseph Friedrich Wilhelm of Hohenzollern-Hechige, in southern Germany. Von Steuben travelled to Paris — some say fled — seeking a position in the French army or the Continental Army, through American military representatives like Franklin.

Washington had sought a military strategist, but had insisted on someone who spoke fluent English. Von Steuben spoke German and French and very little English, so Franklin was initially leary of recommending him to Washington.

But — and this is where Franklin’s gay-friendly attitude is most obvious — Franklin had empathy for von Steuben’s increasingly problematic circumstances and decided to write letters of recommendation to Washington and bring von Steuben to America. These letters of recommendation came immediately following a crisis for von Steuben.

Having first rejected a non-paid position offered by Franklin, von Steuben found himself in danger of being prosecuted. A letter dated August 13, 1777 to the Prince for whom von Steuben had been chamberlain threatened von Steuben:

“It has come to me from different sources that M. de Steuben is accused of having taken familiarities with young boys which the laws forbid and punish severely. I have even been informed that that is the reason why M. de Steuben was obliged to leave Hechingen and that the clergy of your country intend to prosecute him by law as soon as he may establish himself anywhere.”

Franklin and von Steuben met again and Franklin expanded and revised von Steuben’s résumé to make it more attractive to Washington, wrote letters of recommendation for von Steuben and arranged for his passage to Pennsylvania.

Von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge in February 1778, with his 17-year-old French lover, Pierre Etienne Duponceau.

The rest — thanks to Franklin — is history.

It wasn’t solely as ambassador that Franklin made gay-friendly history in early America. In his role as America’s printer extraordinaire, Franklin had been responsible for facilitating the printing of the first male same-sex love story in North America through his friendship with and mentoring of French printer Fleury Mesplet.

Franklin had befriended Mesplet after meeting him in London during one of his many sorties there. There are different versions of how Mesplet arrived in Philadelphia, but he was both a revolutionary and a printer and his friendship with Franklin deepened during his time in Philadelphia. He then moved to Montreal with the American Army in 1775 as a printer for the colonial Confederation. But when he failed to convince Quebec to engage in the American Revolution, he was imprisoned as the British Crown retaliated, charging him with sedition.

Mesplet would become one of the most historically significant printers in Canada. In 1785, he founded the Montreal Gazette, now the oldest continuing newspaper in Canada. For LGBT historians, however, Mesplet is famous for printing the first book in Montreal, which was also the first homoerotic publication in North America.

In 1776 Mesplet, whose friendship with Franklin bolstered his revolutionary fervor as a printer, bookseller and writer, published the play “Jonathas et David,” or “Le Triomphe de l’Amitie.” The play details the homoerotic relationship between Jonathan and David in the Old Testament — a depiction still considered controversial today, 235 years after Mesplet’s publication.

Franklin was known as a sexual profligate — he spent little time with his common-law wife, Deborah Read, once he began to travel abroad, and was known for his many dalliances with women and writings on the topic of womanizing. He had one illegitimate son whom he recognized and may have had others. One presumes Franklin’s own expansive sexual appetite allowed him not just tolerance but empathy with regard to von Steuben and also kept him from suggesting to Mesplet that homoerotic plays might not be the very first thing to publish in his new Canadian home, when he was already under suspicion for his political views.

Franklin’s life was mesmerizingly rich and the breadth of his contributions to America incalculable. Added to that, now, can be his own significant contributions to LGBT history in North America.

This piece is the final piece in the National Gay History Project series.

Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist. She is the author and editor of nearly 30 books, including the award-winning “Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life” and “Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic.” In 2010, she founded Tiny Satchel Press, an independent publisher of young adult books for ‘tweens and teens, which specializes in books for LGBT youth and youth of color.

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Linlin M

    October 28, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    Franklin wrote that “Steuben is accused of having taken familiarities with young boys”; does this mean young boys as in victims of pedophilia, or young boys as in merely younger than he? Because if it means Steuben was a pedophile, then I really don’t think Franklin’s interaction with him should be considered an example of Franklin being a friend to the gays. Aren’t we constantly fighting the misconception that homosexuality is related to pedophilia?

    • Kathy

      November 4, 2011 at 8:37 am

      You should check out her article where she asks a youth to inspect their genitals & describes them in detail.

      “I ask him how old he is. He turns away as he mumbles “18” and I subtract two, possibly three years.”
      Philadelphia Gay News 2008

      [URL removed]

  2. Michael Bedwell

    October 31, 2011 at 11:01 am

    Ms. Brownworth may be many things, but a credible historian she is not, as repeatedly evidenced in her recent orgy of assertions masquerading as “LGBT History.”

    At least in this one she doesn’t elevate someone to the Presidency as American voters never did as she did Alexander Hamilton in her still circulating, laughable excretion on George Washington in which she tried to paint the proverbial father of our country as some kind of 18th century male fag hag. But this one is hardly less intellectually insulting. Let’s go to a REAL source on the period—Randy Shilts, whose writing she TOTALLY misrepresented in her screed on our first ACTUAL president. In his landmark study on gays and the military, “Conduct Unbecoming,” he states unequivocally:

    “The acceptance of General Steuben and his contributions to the fledgling American military did not mean there was even tacit acceptance of homosexuality.”

    As for her irresponsible CLAIMS about the play “Jonathas et David ou le Triomphe de l’Amitié,” she is either ignorant of or chooses to ignore the fact that its author, Father Pierre Brumoy, specifically stated in his prologue that his drama was about “saintly friendship” and not about what “resides in hearts prone to crime.”

    Ms. Brownworth’s assertions of fantasies as facts remind me of the “Peanuts” cartoon containing this exchange:

    “Van Pelt: Aren’t the clouds beautiful? They look like big balls of cotton. I could just lie here all day and watch them drift by. If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud’s formations. What do you think you see, Linus?
    Linus Van Pelt: Well, those clouds up there look to me look like the map of the British Honduras on the Caribbean. That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. And that group of clouds over there gives me the impression of the Stoning of Stephen. I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side.
    Lucy Van Pelt: Uh huh. That’s very good. What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?
    Charlie Brown: Well… I was going to say I saw a duckie and a horsie, but I changed my mind.”

  3. Matt

    December 7, 2011 at 9:29 am

    As one who has always admired Franklin’s contributions to the formation of our country, it is even more refreshing to here your take on his likely attitude toward gays. Certainly progrssive for the time. Thanks for the article.

  4. Louis Shaw

    September 4, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    Not much into moral the Luciferian freemason, his home was full of child bones, great personality for gay pride! Did not invent electricity, bet not others, just like thomas edition crook.
    I wonder it 17 old was the youngest in private….

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Real Estate

My Best Of’s in D.C. real estate

Favorites in buyer programs, paint colors, and more

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Forget shiplap, wallpaper is back!

As I congratulate my colleagues and friends who have received the coveted Best of Gay DC awards, I thought it appropriate to share with you my own, subjective “Best of” list. 

Best Housing to Buy. With 233 of them on the market in D.C., the one-bedroom, one-bath condominium under $400,000 may be the best option for a personal residence or investment. Given a median price of $320,000 and 49 days on the market, there are deals to be made. You have your choice of areas around the city and of buildings large and small.

Best First-time Buyer Program. D.C.’s Housing Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP) is by far the best option to use if you are eligible. This program is based on household income and size and can provide up to $84,000 toward the purchase of a D.C. personal residence. For example, to receive the full amount, the income of a party of two is limited to a total of $51,600, 50% of the median family income for D.C. Other requirements may apply.

Best Tax Reduction Program. If you qualify, you may be able to take advantage of the DC Tax Abatement Program. Using the example of our party of two working adults buying a personal residence for less than $516,800, the income limit is $79,020 or $113,500 in designated Economic Development Zones.

Approval for the program exempts buyers from paying property taxes for up to five years and reduces the closing costs for the purchase by eliminating the buyer-paid recordation taxes and distributing the seller-paid transfer taxes to the buyer instead of to the DC tax office. For the buyer of that $516,800 personal residence, that can mean a savings of nearly $15,000 in closing costs.

Best Neutral Paint Color. First it was Builder Beige, then Gray was OK, then they blended into Good Grief Greige. While neutrals can be bland and boring, these days, expect to see a variety of off-whites gracing the walls of homes for sale. Sherman Williams 7008, Alabaster, did the trick for my most recent sellers. 

Best Wall Décor. Sponge paint and other effects are long gone. Forget shiplap unless you live in a house at the beach or on an actual ship. Distressed wood may still be suitable for a cabin in the woods, but in a modern, urban setting, wallpaper is back, baby! 

This is not your grandmother’s wallpaper. No chickens, tiny prints, borders, or faux grass cloth are in sight. Today’s wallpapers are bold, geometric, or a throwback to mid-century modern and are primarily used on an accent wall so they’re not overwhelming. Love vs. Design (lovevsdesign.com) can create custom wallpaper to match your color scheme in a peel and stick application that eschews the mess of wallpaper paste.

Best Indoor Plant. For us plant growing novices, the award goes to The Easy Care Bundle at The Sill (thesill.com). For only $45, you get two potted succulents that are very hard to kill, a Snake Plant and a ZZ Plant. 

You can also set yourself up on a subscription. $60 plus a $10 shipping charge buys a medium sized plant-of-the-month with a black or cream-colored planter. Choose classic plants or select pet-friendly, non-toxic plants for only $5 more with a 3-month minimum subscription. You can even purchase these as gifts.

Best Balcony Plant. For homes with a balcony or a deck, the winner is a potted Winter Gem Boxwood. It’s an evergreen that will turn a golden shade in the winter then green again in the spring. It also grows in both full and partial shade – almost a set it and forget it type of shrub – needing water only once a week or twice in hotter climates. Cut it as a topiary à la Edward Scissorhands for a little architectural interest.

Best Freestanding Refrigerator. I would be remiss if I didn’t include a best appliance category.An upscale fridge with see-through doors and built-in versions of computers, televisions and smart home elements holds a certain appeal until one of the glitzy attractions breaks and you spend as much for a new motherboard as you would for a whole new refrigerator. 

The winner of this category, therefore, is Samsung’s model RF28R7351SR. This bad boy is available in both standard and counter depth and features a French door top with external water and ice, a pull-out freezer with dual baskets, and a middle drawer that can be set to one of four temperatures to accommodate food or wine.

There you have it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to judge the Best of Blake Miniature Schnauzers category. I’m thinking a 4-way tie is in order.

Valerie M. Blake is a licensed Associate Broker in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia with RLAH Real Estate. Call or text her at 202-246-8602, email her via DCHomeQuest.com, or follow her on Facebook at TheRealst8ofAffairs

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Real Estate

Helpful tips for homebuyers in seller’s market

2021 has been a great year for home sales

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COVID-19 housing market, gay news, Washington Blade

Without question, 2021 was a great year for home sales. Sellers across the country, in many cases, found themselves listing their homes and quickly having not just one, but multiple offers, many of which were at asking price or above. With limited inventory and high demand, it has been an ideal year to sell—and conversely, often a difficult year to buy. Buyers who are interested in a particular home, or even in a specific neighborhood, often find themselves facing stiff competition to have offers accepted. 

Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that many buyers haven’t had successful and rewarding home buying experiences—just that doing so often means making an extra effort and taking helpful steps to make an offer the most competitive that it can be. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few helpful tips for buyers in a seller’s market:

  • Plan ahead with mortgage pre-approval: While there are certainly a wide variety of strategies that real estate agents and financial advisors may recommend, and while those strategies might vary depending upon the buyer and the circumstances of a particular market, one thing almost all experts agree on is that obtaining a mortgage preapproval is a smart decision. A mortgage preapproval is an ideal way to reassure sellers that a reputable lender has verified your credit and approved your buying power up to a certain limit. If you’re caught in a bidding war with another potential buyer, having preapproval establishing that you are ready, willing, and able to buy just might give you the advantage you need in a competitive market.
  • Be willing to look under budget so you can bid higher: In this highly competitive market, many home buyers find themselves in a situation where they are in a bidding war with another—or even several other—buyers. In that situation, you may find yourself having to make an offer at, or even in many cases, above, the asking price. This means that you may want to adjust your budget—and bidding—accordingly. Choosing to make an offer on a home that has an asking price that is already at the top of your budget may mean that you simply don’t have much wiggle room when it comes to making an offer over that price. Choosing a home slightly under the top of your budget means you’ll have more flexibility to make a bid that is more competitive and likely to be accepted.
  • Consider offering non-price-oriented incentives: Without question, making a highly competitive offer is going to be the key to increasing your chances of having that offer accepted. It’s important to remember that there is more to an offer than just price, however. Buyers may want to consider increasing the appeal of an offer by supplementing it with other incentives beyond just the dollar amount itself. Examples of such incentives might include things like foregoing the seller-paid home warranty that is often offered as part of the process, offering a shorter closing period, not making the purchase contingent upon the sale of a currently-owned home, or other such incentives. Doing so may give you the edge you need to have your offer selected over other competitive bids.
  • Retain the right real estate agent: Often, for LGBTQ buyers, especially in a competitive market, this piece of the puzzle is particularly important. In many, although certainly not all, cases LGBTQ buyers are drawn to specific areas of a city or community where other LGBTQ individuals live. That means that in a market where inventory is already limited and going quickly, there can be even fewer homes available upon which to bid. When that is the case, you will need a real estate agent who knows the community that you’re interested in, and who can quickly help you identify and take action toward making offers on homes that fit your needs. Having the right agent can make all the difference between a smooth and successful home-buying experience, and a stressful one

Jeff Hammerberg (he/him/his) is the Founding CEO of Hammerberg & Associates, Inc. Reach him at 303-378-5526, [email protected] or GayRealEstate.com

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Dining

Jane Jane brings throwback joy to busy 14th Street

Cocktail bar characterized by warm Southern hospitality

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(Photo courtesy of Deney Lam)

There is no standing at Jane Jane, the new classic cocktail bar in the heart of 14th Street. Its 850 square feet is for sitting and savoring, drinking in the relaxed retro vibe and the thoughtful craft cocktails. 

At the foot of the mixed-use Liz development where Whitman-Walker is the major tenant, Jane Jane’s creative use of a shoebox-sized space brings throwback joy to a busy thoroughfare. 

In the pre-COVID days of 2019, Whitman-Walker approached the Jane Jane owners, hospitality veterans Jean Paul (JP) Sabatier, Ralph Brabham and Drew Porterfield, all gay men, to make good use of the vacant parcel, and ensure it would be run by LGBTQ entrepreneurs. “It required some gymnastics because of the layout,” says Brabham, “but we came up with this cozy classic cocktail concept.” 

The hangout spot is an effort by the trio to “celebrate hospitality. We want everyone who walks into the space to feel like friends of ours we are having over for drinks or a bite. Its a cocktail party in our home,” he says. They felt connected to the idea of a tiny bar—a space where they would want to have a drink.

Named for Brabham’s mother, Jane Jane is as alluring and lively as it is intimate, each detail in the experience characterized by warm Southern hospitality—right from the bowl of spiced nuts that swiftly appear at each table at the beginning of service.

Sabatier, who has held stints at D.C. institutions like Rappahannock Oyster Bar, Maydan, and Compass Rose, oversees the bar and cocktail program, organized by spirit. (For their part, Brabham and Porterfield, romantic partners, also act as co-owners of Beau Thai and BKK Cookshop; Porterfield is also the current Curator and Director of Long View Gallery in Shaw.)

Sabatier has presented classic cocktails with a few noteworthy nods to current zeitgeist, as imagined by his lengthy experience behind the bar. The booklet-like menu includes a broad selection of familiar favorites like a Negroni, Manhattan, martini, but also features Sabatier’s handpicked favorite classics like the Boulevardier (a whiskey Negroni), Last Word (gin married to herbaceous green chartreuse) and Air Mail (rum, honey and cava). Drinks fall in the $13-$16 range; a “Golden Hour” runs daily until 7 p.m. featuring beer and wine specials and a punch of the day. 

Sabatier’s creative juices flow on the first page through cocktails like the vividly named Tears at an Orgy, with brandy, orange and maraschino, as well as the best-selling, highly Instagrammable Crop Top, a gin cocktail with a red-wine floater—and a name that matches the look of the bi-color drink. “It’s fun, delicious, and speaks to the space,” says Sabatier. He notes that their vodka of choice comes from Civic, a local, women- and LGBTQ-owned distillery.

Sabatier, a classically trained chef and Culinary Institute of America graduate, also oversees the small selection of bar bites (the space has no kitchen, part of the required “gymnastics” to make it functional.)

Beyond the complimentary vessel of rosemary-flecked mixed nuts, other bar snacks run from pickled vegetables to a Southern-style Pimento cheese dip and an onion dip creamy enough to make your grandmother blush. The “Jane’s Caviar” dish is a spread of trout roe and crème fraiche and comes with a towering mound of shatteringly crisp chips. A weekend brunch is in the works, which will serve goodies from local bakeries.

The retro-style interior recalls both California and the South, with only 32 seats inside and a 14-seat patio. Cozy booths done up in a hunter green as warm and inviting as a cool aunt are slung below walnut-wood walls and bar. Bright patterned tiles run the length of the floor; the back wall has playful cocktail wallpaper. A charming needlepoint by the restrooms kindly requests of guests, “please don’t do coke in the bathroom.”

The owners note that while Jane Jane is not explicitly a gay bar, its location in a traditionally gay-welcoming institution means that it has LGBTQ in its bones.

“Supporting LGBTQ people, businesses, and causes has been in Jane Jane’s ownership’s DNA at every establishment at which they have been involved,” they say, having supported local LGBTQ+ organizations like Casa Ruby, Victory Fund, SMYAL and the Human Rights Campaign, among others. 

Porterfield says that they were surprised that, given the locale, people assumed Jane Jane was a gay bar. “It’s not a gay or straight bar, just a fantastic cocktail bar that welcomes anyone to hang out with us,” he says. 

Nevertheless, the owners have taken into consideration the significance of being in the Liz development, as both gay men and as part of the hospitality industry. “It highlights the lack of representation as gay owners in this bar and restaurant world,” says Porterfield. They note the lack of women, LGBTQ and BIPOC representation. 

“It’s very special to us that we opened in this space,” says Porterfield, “so we want to show that we have opened a place that is all about inclusivity.”

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