The life of lesbian doctor and political activist Marie Equi anchors Oregon’s early LGBTQ history and reflects how a sexually transgressive individual made a life for herself during the late 19th and early 20thcentury in the Pacific Northwest. Equi managed to do so by seeking an independent financial and personal life – and a thick skin – as a defense against social norms, hostility, and discrimination.
Born to working class, immigrant parents – her father was Italian; her mother, Irish – in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1872, Equi was forced to drop out of high school to work in the city’s harsh textile mills. She escaped with the assistance of her older girlfriend who invited her to live on an Oregon homestead in 1892. For five years Equi helped manage the 120 acre site two miles outside The Dalles along the Columbia River. It was where she first made her public debut, and it was sensational.
The new biography Marie Equi, Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions, published by Oregon State University Press in 2015, describes the explosive occasion when 20-year-old Equi horsewhipped a school superintendent who was also a Baptist minister in the center of town. The ruckus captivated the town. But the incident also provoked a closer look at Equi’s relationship with her girlfriend. Newspapers reported the women’s “ardent affection” and “singular infatuation between them.” The public read that Equi’s friendship with her companion “amounts to adoration.”
By 1906 Equi was well-known as one of the Oregon’s few women doctors. She was successful and respected for her relief work following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Afterwards she became entangled in a family inheritance dispute involving her new girlfriend, a younger woman who was an heiress to the Olympia Brewing Company. Equi was portrayed as a gold-digger seeking the family’s money and wielding an unhealthy, hypnotic influence over the younger woman. The newspapers employed every innuendo to suggest the lesbian relationship. It was the second occasion that a same-sex, intimate relationship was presented to Oregonians.
These two “outing” incidents – in 1893 and 1906 – were the first to establish Equi’s life as a sexual outsider. The remainder of her life story reveals her several love affairs with prominent women of the early 1900s as well as her being the first publicly known lesbian to legally adopt a child, in 1915, and create a same-sex alternative family. She also provided medical care to a woman who gender-identified as a man, was associated with colleagues implicated in Portland's 1912 gay sex scandal.
Hear Equi biographer Michael Helquist discuss her remarkable life on Portland community radio KBOO-FM with Alan Silver, host of the Preference program at 6:30 pm, August 30, 2016. A link to the recording will be provided for later listening.
Marie Equi’s passion for living her life true to herself and to upholding her beliefs serves as a model and inspiration for all Oregonians and especially for the LGBTQ community.