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Exploration

A Gloucester mansion leads the way for LGBT figures

Henry Davis Sleeper used farm house furnishings, pottery, and glassware throughout the mansion.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Henry Davis Sleeper used farm house furnishings, pottery, and glassware throughout the mansion.

To explore Beauport, a shingle-style mansion on the rocky shore of Gloucester Harbor, is to enter a new world — then another and another. Its labyrinthine rooms could be stage sets for dozens of different plays, the decor of each based on a unique period recreation, literary theme, or tribute to an American patriot.

The National Historic Landmark embodies the sensibility of Henry Davis Sleeper, one of the country’s earliest professional interior decorators, who built the mansion in stages between 1907 and his death in 1934. Historic New England opened Beauport for tours in 1942, and visitors have long asked about the private world of Sleeper, whose high-society friends included Isabella Stewart Gardner.

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Since 2008, guides have explained that Sleeper was gay, making Beauport among the earliest historic sites recognizing gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender figures in American history.

Kenneth Turino, manager of community engagement and exhibitions for Historic New England, says expanding LGBT visibility is part of a movement toward acknowledging historical experiences across social class, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. “The world is changing,” Turino says. “We need to be able to tell stories that people alive today are going to relate to.”

Such discussions didn’t seem possible when Paula Martinac began working at historic sites in the 1970s. “That was nothing that I could have ever dreamt of,” she says. Today Martinac, author of “The Queerest Places: A National Guide to Gay and Lesbian Historic Sites,” is among 18 advisers for the National Park Service LGBT Heritage Initiative to identify sites for consideration as monuments and landmarks. “Preservation has been a very conservative field, so it really is just catching up now with . . . work that we’ve been doing for years,” she says.

Some progress is incremental. At the Gibson House Museum in the Back Bay, guide Jonathan Vantassel is circumspect about the love life of Charles Hammond Gibson Jr., who preserved his family’s Victorian home for the public, but forthcoming when asked directly about Gibson’s sexuality — often by LGBT visitors.

“It’s very clear that he was very open and proud about who he was,” Vantassel says. “I think that absolutely we have to . . . give that to our visitors. Otherwise, we’re not telling the whole story.”

That Gibson’s and Sleeper’s stories can now be told is a testament to a broader societal acceptance of LGBT lives, according to Michael Bronski, author of “A Queer History of the United States.” He says the greatest achievement, though, will come when hearing about them is no longer exceptional.

“Ultimately that’s what we should be aiming for, is that there’s no such thing as gay and lesbian history — it’s just American history,” he says. “But I do think that’s many, many, many hundreds of years away.”

Jeremy C. Fox is a Globe correspondent. He can be reached at jeremy.fox@ globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.
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