Elsa Gidlow, a poet and philosopher, was born on December 29, 1898, in Yorkshire, England. She was the eldest of seven children and immigrated with her family to a town near Montreal when she was six. Gidlow grew up in poverty and was largely self-educated. Throughout her career, despite often surviving on a meager income, she would struggle to support her family, including three siblings who suffered with mental illness, while maintaining her commitment to writing. In 1920, after spending some time in Montreal’s art circles, Gidlow moved to Manhattan. Six years later, she moved to San Francisco, where she befriended poets Robinson Jeffers and Kenneth Rexroth, as well as the journalists and activists Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin—the first gay couple to be legally wed in California. In the early 1950s, Gidlow was investigated as a suspected Communist, though she identified as an anarchist, and was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Gidlow published around a dozen books of poetry and prose, some of which were self-published and released with a limited number of copies. Many of her works are currently out of print. Her poetry book, On a Grey Thread (Will Ransom, 1923), is, historians believe, the first collection of openly lesbian love poetry published in North America. Her autobiography, Elsa: I Come With My Songs (Booklegger Press, 1986), was the first lesbian autobiography not published under a pseudonym.
Gidlow began her career as a freelance journalist and co-published the first North American newspaper that openly celebrated and discussed LGBTQ lives and issues within the community. After moving to Manhattan in the 1920s, she became poetry editor at Pearson’s Magazine. In 1954, Gidlow purchased a ranch at Muir Woods, north of San Francisco, called Druid Heights, which she used both as her personal residence and as a retreat for artists, bohemians, and feminists. Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder were among the ranch’s various famous guests and residents. In 1962, Gidlow co-founded, with British philosopher and writer Alan Watts, the Society of Comparative Philosophy. In 1977, she appeared in Peter Adair’s documentary Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, which featured LGBTQ individuals from a range of classes, ethnicities, and professional backgrounds.
Gidlow died at home on June 8, 1986. Her ashes are interred near the Moon Temple at Druid Heights.