Dragging Our Feet: A History of Arizona’s Gender Pioneers from 1906 to the Present

A historic newspaper illustration of Nicolai de Raylan. Photo courtesy of Marshall Shore.

By Jeff Kronenfeld

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a series of demonstrations that erupted in the summer of 1969 after a brutal police raid on an LGBTQ hangout in New York City. One of the seminal events in the fight for equal rights, the riots have been immortalized in popular myth and inspired numerous campaigns, films, tv shows, and songs.

Arizona has its own history of such raids, rebellions, and revelations that have been noticeably left out of the history books. While these names and places — such as Nicolai de Raylan, Monica Helms, Sam Burnett and Tony Secuya — may not be as well remembered, a group of community members, nonprofits and one very colorful historian are making sure Arizona doesn’t forget its LGBTQ past this Valentine’s Day.

“2019 is a foundational year in terms of LGBT civil rights,” said Marshall Shore, known locally as Phoenix’s Hip Historian. “When you start looking at Arizona’s queer history milestones, this is the 20th anniversary of the Trans Pride flag being designed here [by Monica Helms], and you also have the 40th anniversary of the first Spiritual Conference for Radical Faeries.”

Shore runs through a host of other notable dates and events with ease, always bringing to the fore the people behind the stories. He is passionate not just about history, but community engagement too. Partly this stems from when he joined with Arizona State University Library Archivist Nancy Godoy and Phoenix Pride to create the LGBT+ History Project after the 307 Lounge — one of the first bars in Phoenix to host drag shows — was demolished in 2015.

“We got wind that the building was to be demolished and we tried to get that to stop, which didn’t happen,” Shore said, his usually upbeat manner turning momentarily somber. However, he notes the developer did give funds for a metal plaque to be installed in the sidewalk commemorating the iconic bar and as a nod to the neighborhood’s LGBTQ history.

“That area was kind of our Castro,” Shore explained. “There was an area of Roosevelt that became later known as the Fruit Loop. That was really active since the 40s as a place where men could go find men and have 10 or 15 minutes of a good time.”

The stories of such clandestine meetups in the era before legal protections — to say nothing of dating sites and apps — sadly often feature episodes of violence and prejudice. Just as the New York Police Department targeted the LGBTQ communities through raids such as the one that sparked the Stonewall Riot, the Phoenix Police Department also conducted raids.

“One man was talking about how when he was a teenager walking down Roosevelt that he saw all these guys being thrown into a paddy wagon from a place called Eighth Day Coffee, which was a gay social club that was being raided,” Shore said. “I then found an article where the mayor congratulated the police chief on helping to rid the city of such a scourge. It’s just kind of shocking to hear the mayor saying, ‘let’s get rid of these people,’ but what was interesting about the article was at no point does it mention homosexuality.”

“If my mom were to read it, she would have no clue what was going on,” Shore added a beat later.

For Shore, community engagement is key not just in sharing the vast trove of information he’s gathered, but also for collecting it from the people who lived it. One such effort is his and the LGBT+ History Project teaming with the Arizona Historical Society to create History Labs, which are mobile micro-museums literally returning history to the streets on which it was made.

Marshall Shore by the commemorative plaque dedicated to the 307 Lounge. Photo by Jeff Kronenfeld.

“It’s a mechanism for bringing history to a broader audience out in the community,” explained James Burns, executive director of the Arizona Historical Society. “It kind of looks like a three-paneled screen, if you will, that’s on wheels. It’s easily transportable, two dimensional and doesn’t include objects. It’s information and historical photographs.”

Through the history labs and other events across the state, Shore hopes to share the stories of figures who are otherwise edited out of history, such as Sam Burnett and Tony Secuya, two men who received a marriage license in Maricopa County on Jan. 7, 1975. The fierce backlash against their marriage — including the legislation explicitly banning such marriages — presaged the more recent battles. Sadly, this couple didn’t live to see this but instead endured threats of prosecution from homophobic Maricopa County Attorney Moise Berger.

“They’ve been basically relegated to obscurity because we don’t really know what happened to them,” Shore said. “We know they passed away. They were living in the Winchester just off a Roosevelt, which has its own history as a very gay-friendly building.”

 

Another story Shore hopes to preserve is that of death and ensuing controversy surrounding Nicolai de Raylan. In 1906, Raylan was diagnosed with tuberculosis while serving as the personal secretary for the Russian Consul in Chicago. He headed to Arizona, where the climate was thought to help with the symptoms. Raylan died a few months after arriving, leading to the discovery that he had been born female and had passed as a man for years.

“His story went viral, and for the next two years he’s mentioned in papers across the globe,” Shore explains. “It was very sensationalized, and the newspapers had trouble trying to figure out whether they should refer to him as a male or a female.”

Despite the fact Raylan had lived and worked as a man, he was buried in women’s clothing. Further, his grave was unceremoniously left without a headstone, and he was even exhumed several months after his death at his wife’s insistence, who claimed to have had no idea of her husband’s birth sex. Rumors about who this mysterious European noble really was quickly spread, with some claiming Raylan had faked his death as part of an insurance scam or that he had been a spy for Czarist Russia. In the end, the true story may prove every bit as spectacular, including secret romances, an inheritance battle and a hair-raising escape from authorities.

A historic newspaper illustration of Nicolai de Raylan and his wife. Photo courtesy of Marshall Shore.

“He was from a noble family, and it was also mentioned that his first affair back in Russia might have of started all this,” Shore said, who is still working on uncovering more information about Raylan’s past. “At first I assumed that there was no headstone because there was no money, and then I realized he actually had money and it could have been covered.”

Shore is planning a fundraising effort to, at long last, purchase a headstone for Raylan, who is buried in Greenwood Memorial Lawn Cemetery in Phoenix. To find out more about this campaign and other projects, visit the LGBT+ Facebook page.