Our community recently lost local queer historian and advocate, Vincent Astor. Vincent was a founding member of this organization, formerly known as the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center (MGLCC). We want to take a moment to honor Vincent’s memory through these reflections from his close friends and community leaders about the legacy of his work.
Vincent was such a fierce advocate for preserving our queer history. We all could see that. But I think beyond being the history bug, it was his passion that we not be erased that drove him. It was a thumb in the eye to a larger society who demanded that we deny who we are and would force us, sometimes violently, to conform. He refused to conform. And his diligence was legendary. Once when I had the attic cleaned out, he diligently went through the mound of “stuff” to retrieve historical mementos and then shared why the items were important. Passing along the stories.
Second, and more personally, I appreciated that Vincent showed up. When I was ED, I would get opinions from every direction about what I should be doing. But not everyone showed up to help do the hard work. Vincent showed up. Whether it was a town hall meeting to discuss changing the bylaws or a meeting to build the relationship with Rhodes (his alma mater), Vincent was present. His life was about being involved…with MGLCC/OUTMemphis, WKNO, Elmwood, Mid-south Pride, and others. Vincent was present and engaged.
Former Executive Director, OUTMemphis
Vincent Astor was one of the original founding board members of and benefactors to the Memphis Gay Community Center, now OUTMemphis. He also established the center’s “Roll of Honor” and archive and was actively involved with the center for many years.
Vincent was an out and proud gay man through the early “coming out” years of the Memphis Gay Community Center, Memphis Gay Coalition, Memphis Pride, the AIDS years, and more. There was hardly a Memphis gay event or organization of the 1970s – 2000s that he did not attend, write about, raise money for, help lead or raise a ruckus in.
Known for the barbed wit of a high queen, Vincent was comfortable in drag but traveled equally comfortably in pagan faerie land, smoky leather bars, long community meetings, neck-deep in archives or tromping through cemeteries, at the pipe organ, on the dance floor or Pride parades, or onstage in various theatrical productions.
Vincent was devoted to and made a huge impact in the Memphis LGBTQ community. A fastidious historian, Vincent brought a passionate intensity to recording and collecting Memphis LGBTQ history for decades, much of which he chronicled in his columns as Lady Astor for the local gay newspaper. He introduced many of us to Memphis LGBTQ folks of the past and ensured historical markers were placed to recognize them. A few years ago, OUTMemphis formally recognized Vincent as our Memphis LGBTQ Community Historian.
In the last couple years, he and I talked occasionally about how it felt to be “living history”. We talked about aging, “legacy” and our salad years as young lesbian and gay activists. He carefully placed his personal archives and memorabilia in various local collections, ensuring others will have access to our community history for years to come. Last year, he expressed great pride in his role as a resource for the MoSH Memphis Proud! exhibit on decades of LGBTQ life in Memphis.
Vincent was, like most of us, a complicated human being. He could be a kind and generous friend or a fierce critic. But most importantly, he was passionately dedicated to being “out”, and to documenting and curating our shared stories as queer Memphians long before most of us realized they were worth saving.
Vincent, my friend of 40+ years — you made a difference and you will be remembered.
OUTMemphis Senior Services Chair/former Board Chair
Vincent Astor was a man of many talents, but I think over time he will be most remembered and appreciated for his efforts collecting, organizing and preserving the history of our local Rainbow Community.
Gay activist/Community historian
“Welcome to Ms. Daisy’s House.” The door slowly opened and creaked like something from a Victorian novel. The delicate frame that had just uttered these words was revealed to be an unforgettable character. He then proceeded, as docent, wrieith a private tour for my mother and me, of one of the old Victorian mansions still on Adams Street. With top hat, (a true Victorian gentleman would never have worn a hat inside a building) and era-minded garb, he went on about how the doors had to be wide so that the women could move from room to room with their hoop skirts, something with which he was genuinely concerned.
My second encounter with Vincent. By this time I was no longer in the closet. Inching down the cobblestones, I recognized Vincent in front of the excursion boat for the “Gay” boat ride on the Mississippi. Even in the 80’s folks would be hesitant to go on such a ride because they could be “seen”. This time in full Victorian dress, complete with fairie wand, urging the attendees for the “gay” boat ride forward. I had seen him at the bar, and by this time we were on a first name basis. Or so I thought.
“Hi, Vincent,” I said in a rather shy way. Just then I knew I had said something wrong.
In the “butchest” voice he could muster up, “When I’m dressed like this, the name is Lady A.”
Ouch. I had just joined the list of those whom Vincent had victimized with honesty.
Shortly after these two events in the early 80’s, I became an activist. Vincent and I worked on getting the community center organized with a group of hard-working individuals. He was always there for fundraisers, stuffing envelopes, and doing whatever he could to get the community center up and running.
Vincent’s life is an open book. No secrets here. Documented and archived. However, it is the unmeasurable impact of Vincent’s legacy that is probably the most important. In the 1980’s, Memphis was still in the old south. Vincent’s life was “Ready or not, this is who I am.” How many “normal” people saw Vincent and decided that they can push the boundaries just a little more, and be themselves, can never be quantified, never be counted. Inside that rather frail, unassuming little body was a man of great strength. Those of us who grew up in Memphis in the 50’s and 60’s can understand that, because almost none of us were as brave as Vincent. So the lesson here is, not all of the knowledge of cemeteries, Victorian mansions, or LGBTQI history, but that honesty, and being yourself, no matter what other people think, is what has moved us forward.
Thanks to Vincent, Memphis is a better place, and we all are better off because he and his hoop skirts and fairie wands have crossed our paths. RIP, our dear friend.
First Board President, Memphis Gay Community Center (now OUTMemphis)