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Fall 2003 | Doing the Charleston

Fall 2003 | Doing the Charleston

Ever since the sinful, skin-revealing dance was invented here nearly a century ago, this gay belle of the South has remained wild but sure-footed

Despite its chaste white steeples, wrought-iron gates guarding secret gardens, and houses with front doors on the side as if too shy to face the street, Charleston is a seductive, sensuous place, shimmering with an eroticism like heat lightning. Palmettos rattle in the breeze, colors flare in gardens, and shadows stretch lazily and longingly toward evening.

Often after seeing friends or having a meal with my partner, Jonathan, I’ll steal out to the moon-drenched streets or bike to the waterfront park. I love watching the kids, the tourists, the natives, the runners in their solitary beauty, and the city. This is a place that makes you aware of your nakedness under your clothes—as well as that of the cute Southern belle or beau passing you on the street. You swear you could feel their breath on the back of your neck. Summer evenings, the old buildings exude heat, as if the walls are waking from yet another Fahrenheit-induced sleep. Come October, the city is ready—to enchant, entice, and even inspire you to seek a real-estate agent as you begin to understand what life is like here.

With its three centuries of civilization (the city’s official founding year is 1670), more than 1,000 buildings that predate the Civil War, and its alluring array of present-day culture (gay and straight), Charleston tempts many visitors.

A virtual conspiracy of one-way narrow streets makes a horse-drawn carriage or hired bicycle rickshaw an easier and more novel way to experience the city than a car. Better yet, bike or walk. Despite acres of historic district, the city is on an intimate scale.

Whatever your itinerary, though, make yourself available by 5 p.m., the start of cocktail hour, a serious event here. Local lore has it that the cocktail party was invented by Charlestonians, who typically ate their dinners at 3 o’clock, dismissing their servants by 5. Cold turkeys or hams were then laid on buffets and liquor was served to guests. Short of having friends in town who are hosting a cocktail party, your best bet for experiencing a classic cocktail event is to attend one of the preservation organization’s gala events in October or April, when historic houses are open to the public.

Most attractions are found in a rectangle bounded on the west by King, on the south by Tradd, on the east by East Bay, and on the north just north of Calhoun Street. The city’s oldest remnants are found on Tradd near Church Street, though the most colorful are on East Bay. That’s where you will find Rainbow Row, a huddle of circa 1740 pastel-colored houses that rise three and four stories—built tall by merchants so as to better see their ships coming in from the sea. Trade in indigo, rice, cotton, and slaves made Charleston the wealthiest (and some say most arrogant) metropolis in the colonies. Not until the 1920s or ’30s were these handsome dwellings painted their present-day rainbow spectrum (perhaps a foretelling of the gay life of Charleston to come?).

Elsewhere, long-galleried, pre-Revolutionary houses share fences with fanciful Victorians. North of the City Market (known for nightlife, carriage tours, and tourist tack), is the animated neighborhood of Ansonborough, opened up in the 1790s. 

Most gay visitors find a special charm in Harleston Village, with its spectacular columned mansions, built just before the Civil War erupted to catapult Charleston into the ruin and stagnation that would grip it until World War II. Although no neighborhood in Charleston could be called truly gay, Harleston Village certainly contains the most diverse community of gay men and women—a legacy, perhaps, of the gay role in revitalizing the grand houses here. On weekends especially, gay shoppers abound on King Street, the neighborhood’s main commercial thoroughfare, lined with boutiques, antiques shops, bookstores, art galleries, and cafés.

Across Calhoun Street the houses become both grander and more humble, and the shopping area takes on a bohemian feel. At Marion Square, whenever the sun is out, students from the College of Charleston can be found lying on the grass in all their shirtless and swimsuit-clad beauty (some are well-toned cadets, out of uniform, from the Citadel, the elite military training facility). They repose in juxtaposition to the soaring statue of John C. Calhoun, the 19th century’s prime defender of the South, as he glowers over the city that has changed too much to keep him happy. The Holocaust Memorial, also on the square, is notable not only for its moving tribute to all victims but also to the fact that incised prominently on it is the word homosexuals, one of the main groups, the monument relates, targeted by the Nazis.

In your wanderings, you can come across George Washington’s place of worship (St. Michael’s Church) and a dwelling where Robert E. Lee and George Washington slept (the Heyward-Washington House); visit the birthplace of America’s favorite opera, Porgy and Bess; see K.K. Beth Elohim, the oldest synagogue (circa 1840) in continual use in the country; and tour museum houses of various styles and centuries.

The Exchange Building at the foot of Broad is pre-Revolutionary, while in the Temple at the City Market, ladies have made a shrine (the word is used advisedly) to the Confederacy. To explain the culture of the low country (named for its sea-level flatness), there’s the Charleston Museum, while the Gibbes Museum of Art balances Charleston’s historical art with traveling exhibitions. Sometimes the latter displays works by native gay artist Ned Jennings, the basis for the character Ned Grimke in my 1984 novel, Why We Never Danced the Charleston. To understand why Jennings was found in 1929 with a Bible, a champagne glass, and the gun he used to kill himself in his lap was my reason for writing the story.

The South Carolina Aquarium, east of East Bay near Calhoun, is where you can see local sea turtles, an endangered species, happily frolicking (is it just my imagination that I have spotted an unusual number of pretty lesbian mermaids at this exhibit in particular?). From lookout points, dolphins can be spotted rising from the harbor surf. Adjacent to the museum, boat tours leave for Fort Sumter, where, on April 12, 1861, Charlestonians started the Civil War by firing on Federal troops occupying the island fortress (a pagan point of pride for many). From the Battery, the battered fort and its massive gun encasements appear as an ancient ruin. It was while walking along the raised seawall here (called the High Battery) on a visit in 1905 that American-born expatriate Henry James likened the city to Venice and Sumter in the blue distance to a water lily. When Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas visited the city in the 1930s, they spent many an afternoon wandering here. Oscar Wilde had come long before, on his famous American tour, to view the harbor, remarking on the ghostly luminescence the full moon cast over everything. (He swore Charlestonians told him that even the moon had been more beautiful before the Civil War.)

When I was growing up, I discovered that men still trod where Oscar did and looked longingly over their shoulders as they walked the oyster-shell paths under the reaching oak trees. At White Point Gardens, Low and High Battery (and similar instincts) meet. The oldest families and the richest nouveaux live in this area. Here, lovers tarry, folks fish, tourists rest, and the sun rises and sets over water and through the trees. The Battery—with its mix of roiling sea and elegant mansions, quiet shade and ubiquitous breezes—may also be the most beautiful cruising spot in the country. In Battery Park you can feel the tension between the tidal urge of the moment and poignant backward pull of history. The city wavers between the hour and eternity, attractions of the flesh and the consolations of the spirit, just as surely as it shimmers between the rivers Cooper and Ashley. The Battery culminates at a decidedly homoerotic bronze sculpture depicting a toga-clad, bosomy Southern “Motherhood” sending her fantastically handsome son, garbed in a mere fig leaf, off to battle to defend the Confederacy.

Charlestonians often think their city is historic only—“preserved, like figs,” Blanche Boyd, native daughter and Lambda Award–winning author (The Revolution of Little Girls) has put it. When much of the city’s architectural legacy was at risk of being demolished in the early 1930s, a group of town mothers got together to pass stringent preservation laws, unlike any previously drawn up in America, which designated 23 square blocks off-limits to developers. Among the most important figures in this preservation movement was Laura Bragg, a museum director and lesbian “of the old school,” whose handsome likeness is captured in a bust at the Charleston Museum. Vestiges of the old city remain; there are lovely old gentlemen and ladies as fragile and blue as delft, but old Charleston is vanishing. An essence will always remain to haunt and tantalize (like the wafting sweet fragrance of tea olive in fall and spring), but much of what passes for authentic is too self-conscious, tainted by reruns of Gone With the Wind.

Contemporary Charleston accommodates many types. Republican David Schwacke, a former solicitor, works for the city’s gay monthly paper, The Loop. Reuben Greenberg, an authoritarian, roller-skating black Jew is the police chief, and gay realtor Charlie Smith recently got national attention for running for the state house of representatives against (and losing to) a Jesse Helms clone. Smith and Linda Ketner are among the officers of the Alliance for Full Acceptance, working for Charleston’s fairly visible gay population. (Look for AFFA’s billboard on the way into the city—with its wholesome images of gay folks and the organization’s motto: “Gay Americans Living and Loving Responsibly…Just Like You.” A fundamentalist group has started an opposing billboard war.) An admitted steel magnolia, Ketner, making points in her elegant pumps, has probably stepped on more toes more tactfully than a roomful of debutantes. She’s grit and grace in equal measures, and with her push for inclusion and support of change, a mover and shaker in this city.

And as such, she is carrying on a tradition. For the city has a great history of liberality, with individuals standing up to the wrongs of the day, be it slavery, secession, or segregation. But Charlestonians also like to belong. They like to think and dress as they imagine they’re supposed to. You may never know what your neighbor really feels (they all think they have the best pedigrees and occupy the most historic city), but he or she will smile and be polite to you. Some speculate that it’s due to the narrow houses and adjacent yards. People have to observe manners in a place where those walking by on the street can watch you eat and folks two houses down say “Bless you” when you sneeze.

Every October and April, preservation groups sponsor tours of the houses and gardens that you can only glimpse in passing the rest of the year. October has the African-American Moja Festival and April the annual 10K Cooper River Bridge run. Nearby Danieü Island hosts the Family Circle’s Women’s Tennis Tournament, which brings the Williams sisters and Martina Navratilova to the city. In February, on Valentine’s Day, tens of thousands clog the streets for the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, featuring bird calls, hunting dogs, and opportunities to buy duck prints.

At the end of May, as summer ratchets up the heat, an artistic siege called Spoleto overtakes the city. This event was founded 27 years ago by gay composer Gian Carlo Menotti. At previous festivals, I saw Ella Fitzgerald perform on the grounds of the College of Charleston, heard Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson, and watched Tennessee Williams in a discotheque after the premiere of one of his plays. (Now I look out for the visiting ballet dancers doing stretching exercises in the Battery between performaÈces.) In June fireworks explode at Middleton Plantation, the oldest formal gardens in North America. Nearby Drayton Hall, a Palladian-style villa, has been left virtually unchanged since the 1740s.

Charleston is a city that worships itself shamelessly. It evokes passion, devotion, and from those it scorns, ridicule. But no one goes away without being moved by something dim and mysterious and beyond words, like the dolphins that swim off the Battery. Living in Charleston is intoxicating and thrilling. Although you soon realize that Charleston is a narcissus of a city, you gladly surrender to its charm.


Charleston’s best-known low-country favorites are shrimp and grits, she-crab soup (with roe and sherry), benne seed wafers, frogmore stew (chunky vegetables and fish), steamed oysters (at an oyster roast outside, preferably), and bacon-wrapped shad roe. Inexpensive/Moderate: Café Café (177 Meeting, 843-723-3622), and Diana’s (155 Meeting, 843-534-0043). Basil (460 King, 843-724-3490) for Thai. Jestine’s Kitchen (251 Meeting, 843-722-7224) and Hominy Grill (207 Rutledge, 843-937-0930) offer simple Carolina cuisine. Vickery’s (15 Beaufain, 843-577-5300) has a strong gay presence—particularly at cocktail hour, a portion of which takes place outside in a shady—and romantic—yard. Moderate/Expensive: Charleston Grill (in Charleston Place Hotel, 843-577-4522) and Peninsula Grill (in Planter’s Inn, 843-723-0700). Boathouse (14 Chapel, 843-577-7171) for seafood. rue de jean (39 John, 843-722-8881) has great mussels. Locals like McCrady’s (2 Unity Alley, 843-577-0025) and Carolina’s (10 Exchange, 843-724-3800.) Gay-friendly Fig serves locally grown foods (232 Meeting, 843-805-5900).

Charleston Place Hotel, a member of Orient-Express Hotels, is the premier property in town (205 Meeting, 843-722-4900; doubles from $289). For a complete list of Charleston B&Bs call 843-722-6606.

Given the scandal that accompanied the introduction of the Charleston, you’d have thought the dance was invented by gays. Well, it was the other group often responsible for establishing popular cultural trends—African-Americans, in this case kids in town who danced on the street for coins. The dance may have originated in the early 20th century. By the teens, the wide-heel-kicking dance was being done in New York clubs. A bigger public was exposed to it in the 1923 Broadway musical Runnin’ Wild and again in 1928 when Joan Crawford revealed a lot of ankle in the movie Our Dancing Daughters. Dudley’s (42 Ann, 843-577-6799; the sign outside says Boissons) is perfect for after-dinner drinks, and Club Pantheon (28 Ann, 843-577-2582) is where young gods and goddess go to dance, inviting the downfall of mere mortals. You’ll need a car or taxi for a visit to Patrick’s Pub (1377 Ashley River Rd., 843-571-3435), a very friendly, all-inclusive gay bar with bears aplenty and other types too. The most popular women’s bar in town is Déjà Vu II (near Park Circle, North Charleston—no address given, so call ahead for directions; open Wednesday through Saturday). All bars in Charleston close at 2 a.m.

The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at if you have any new information.

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