Who is Natalie Clifford Barney, the Star of Ohio's First LGBTQ+ Historical Marker?

20th century Paris toasted the proud Ohioan lesbian, author and salon hostess

click to enlarge Dayton native Natalie Clifford Barney is the subject of Ohio's first LGBTQ+ historical marker. - Photo: Library of Congress
Photo: Library of Congress
Dayton native Natalie Clifford Barney is the subject of Ohio's first LGBTQ+ historical marker.

This story was originally published by the Buckeye Flame and is republished here with permission.

Ohio’s first LGBTQ+ Ohio Historical Marker was installed in Dayton’s Cooper Park in 2009. The marker recognizes Natalie Clifford Barney, an affluent and famed expatriate  – Parisian feminist, writer, and cultural salon hostess. Born in Dayton in 1876 to a wealthy and prestigious family, Natalie went on to make an international impact for women and LGBTQ+ folks with her writing and organizing. 

Why, then, have so few queer Ohioans heard of this Ohio heiress’s intercontinental legacy? Although the answer isn’t clear, pre-Stonewall LGBTQ+ history is frequently more difficult to interpret, as historical actors were rarely able to be direct and unequivocal about their sexuality and gender identity. Natalie, however, leaves us no room for misinterpretation – she was an unapologetic, proud lesbian.

According to Natalie’s writings, she first became aware that she was a lesbian at age 12. She spent her childhood and adolescence growing up in Dayton, Cincinnati, Paris and Washington D.C. and was educated according to her means, attending the prestigious French boarding school Les Ruches as a youth. The school and Paris in general during the turn of the century proved to be a hospitable place for Natalie to explore her budding sexuality. In fact, during her time at Les Ruches, Natalie frequently cross-dressed as a page and even played at being a “husband” to other girls.

Natalie had many romantic partners throughout her long lifetime. Not only did she not try to conceal these relationships – she wrote about them openly and passionately. As a young adult in 1900, Natalie wrote Quelques Potraits-Sonnets de Femmes (Some Portrait-Sonnets of Women). Each poem was dedicated to a different woman, whom Natalie identified only through the woman’s initials. Natalie’s mother, Alice, even illustrated the book, although it’s not clear how much Alice knew or understood of the poetry’s meaning.

Natalie wrote 12 books that were published in a range of genres, including fiction, essays, and memoirs. Each of these books contained Sapphic themes. Her life and relationships also inspired characters in at least 12 books, many of which became the backbone of the lesbian fiction genre. The novel Sapphic Idyll (A Woman’s Affair) was written by French courtesan Liane de Pourgy in 1927 and charted the passionate love affair between Natalie and Liane. Natalie also inspired a character in perhaps the most infamous and impactful lesbian novel of the 20th century, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928).

The public love affairs, her writing and the writing she inspired placed Natalie at the center of much public gossip in Western high society. However, the privileged space Natalie occupied – as an affluent white woman living in one of the most liberal cities of the early 20th century – allowed her to weather these scandals with relatively little impact to her position or safety. Natalie never apologized for her sexuality. Her best-known quote, written in a 1902 unpublished letter, read, “My queerness is not a vice, is not deliberate, and harms no one.”

In addition to her own direct impact on lesbian culture and literature, Natalie facilitated the development of some of the leading literary giants of the early 20th century through her weekly salon gatherings. For 50 years, Natalie held informal gatherings at her French villa, hosting such regular guests as T.S. Eliot, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and fellow Ohioan Sherwood Anderson, among dozens of others. Even during World War I, Natalie’s salon endured and allowed writers and artists a safe space to continue their creative collaborations. Natalie also founded the Women’s Academy for female writers, as women were banned from other literary salons around Paris.

It’s clear that Natalie’s affluence, family background and education placed her at an extreme advantage in life during the late 19th and early 20th century. However, the Ohio heiress used this privilege to live and love unapologetically, while at the same time clearing the way for others to do the same. Her works and persona inspired generations of young lesbians to take pride in their sexuality.

The Natalie Clifford Barney historical marker was the first to recognize an Ohio LGBTQ+ story, but it was not the last. In the intervening years, two more markers have been installed. The Gay Ohio History Initiative (GOHI) at the Ohio History Connection is currently working on a project called Marking Diverse Ohio to create at least 10 more Ohio Historical Markers that recognize Ohio’s queer history. The goal of the project is to spark discovery of Ohio’s LGBTQ+ stories and to preserve these stories for future generations. If you have a story to share, reach out to the GOHI team at [email protected].

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