By Emelina Minero
While in Palm Springs, CA for the Dinah Shore Weekend, I went on the Gay Icons jeep tour, one of three gay jeep tours from Desert Adventures. I was the first to arrive in front of LuLu California Bistro in down town Palm Springs, and Bob Gross, the creator of all three gay jeep tours, and our host, greeted me with a warm and welcoming smile. I was on the tour with another writer and two men from Palm Springs who worked at one of the gay men’s resorts. I had a blast. The Gay Icons jeep tour was one of my favorite experiences from my weeklong trip at the Dinah Shore.
The Gay Icons jeep tour took us around different neighborhoods in Palm Springs where gay icons had or are currently living, tying into many Hollywood stories, and Bob would delve into the history not only of Palm Springs, but he would connect the tour to our larger known mainstream history and the history of the gay rights movement. I felt like I had my own documentarian on gay Palm Springs and gay Hollywood. Not only was Bob knowledgeable on gay history, but so were the three people on the tour with me.
Being able to tap into our gay history was just one takeaway of the jeep tour; another takeaway was the environment. I felt at home, and I felt at ease. There’s a special energy that’s fostered when you are around other queer people in a safe environment without any pretenses. The Gay Icons jeep tour was both relaxing and invigorating. I was among a small group of queer people who all felt comfortable being their authentic selves, in a casual, non-party environment that fostered easy conversation.
The company, the conversation and the wealth of knowledge and history shared made the Gay Icons jeep tour an incredible experience. Plus, it was amazing to hear about all of the gay Hollywood history and to see the houses where Marilyn Monroe, Liberace, and so many other people lived. I also got a picture of the house Leonardo DiCaprio recently bought, which used to be Dinah Shore’s house, the namesake of the largest queer female party and music festival in the world that brought me to Palm Springs in the first place.
I got to talk with Bob more in-depth about the Gay Icons, San Andreas Fault and Indian Canyons jeep tours, and we also chatted about his knowledge on gay Palm Springs and what brought him to Palm Springs originally.
How long have you been living in Palm Springs, and why did you decide to move there?
My partner and I have been visiting Palm Springs since the early 1990s as a way to escape the fog and cold of San Francisco where we lived for 30 years. We bought a condo down here in 2000 and always planned to make this area our permanent home when we both retired. That opportunity presented itself in 2008, so we have lived here full-time for almost six years. We chose Palm Springs for its weather, culture, easy, laid back lifestyle and, of course, its gay friendly environment.
What do you find most fascinating about the gay culture and community in Palm Springs?
I guess the most fascinating thing about the gay culture and community down here is how pervasive it is. San Francisco was a very gay friendly city, but in Palm Springs, due to the sheer numbers of gay people who have chosen to call this desert paradise home, it’s almost like “our” town. We have political power, social services to meet the community’s needs and a sense of security that I haven’t experienced in any other place I have lived. It’s just not a big deal to be gay down here, and that’s a refreshing change from most places in the United States.
What inspired you to create these gay jeep tours?
I am one of several gay tour guides working for Desert Adventures and have always felt that while our community was welcome to join in any of our tours, it would be fun to try to create tours that catered to our specific interests and create a space where the LGBT community could feel comfortable touring among their peers so they could feel safe being themselves.
We began this effort by offering two of our most popular tours, San Andreas Fault and Indian Canyons, in an LGBT safe environment, and from that, I began to create the Gay Icons tour to specially address the rich gay history of the Coachella Valley from the early days through to today, when the gay population in Palm Springs is estimated to be as high as 50%.
What about gay history impassions you?
I have always been a bit of a history geek! I find what went before and how it shaped who we are today both fascinating and invigorating. Ever since I came out in the mid-1970s, I have always looked at our community as an exclusive club. If the widely used estimates are correct, about 10% of the world is gay and lesbian, then we really are a very special small group of people. History tends to be the story of the dominant culture and as a minority, one that has mostly been feared and hated throughout most cultures, our history has been sanitized, discounted or made invisible. I find it fascinating, therefore, to learn more about our community and how people negotiated being gay way back even before we used that word to identify our community.
In researching what to talk about on each tour, what is the most interesting thing you’ve found out?
Wow, there has been so much interesting information I’ve uncovered it’s hard to select just one, but I guess, if pushed to select just one, it would have to be that some of the earliest women of the valley were lesbians: Lois Kellogg, Rose Dugan and Dr. Florilla White. As I said during the tour, since sexual identity was not often discussed back then, we need to read between the lines to ascertain their sexuality, which is part of the fun of doing this research.
I loved Lois Kellogg’s story. She had a lot of autonomy and power for a woman of her time. Could you share her story again?
Lois Kellogg, she arrived from Chicago in 1914 at the age of 20. A fairly out person for the times, she was described as “singularly beautiful, with a strong personality, a soft, low voice with which she spoke several languages and a devastating charm that could captivate everyone she dealt with” (from: A City Comes Out – page 46). She lived here for about 25 years, building that fabulous Persian-Moroccan home between Palm Canyon & Indian Canyon know as Fool’s Folly, helping with the actual construction. She sold the property in 1939 as the city of Palm Springs began to grow, cutting off her views, and apparently moved to a ranch she bought in Nevada, where, in 1944, she contracted rabbit fever (tularemia), which caused her death on August 27th of that year at age 49.
Where do you get your information for your tours?
I regularly read periodicals to get more info for tours including Out Magazine and the Gay & Lesbian Review. In terms of books on our history, one I’ve got in queue is Hold Tight Gently – Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS by Martin Duberman. As for books about gay Palm Springs, one of my favorites is A City Comes Out – How Celebrities Made Palm Springs A Gay And Lesbian Paradise by David Wallace. It’s a great jumping off point for those interested in learning more about how we became the gay mecca we are today. Of course, much of our history, both here and around the world, is hidden, and thus needs to be ferreted out by combing through lots of different sources. So much of my information comes through internet research and often by talking with locals who actually lived our history.
It’s amazing how much gay history there is in Palm Springs. Why do you think Palm Springs has been such a gay hotspot from the old Hollywood days to today?
Hollywood tended to always be a more tolerant and liberal place than the rest of the country and, coupled with the creative arts and film industry, has always had a lot of LGBT members counted among their numbers. That’s not to say that being gay was welcomed and celebrated, but rather, tolerated as long as the secret was kept under wraps and not broadcast to the general film going public. There are many stories of film stars who either entered lavender marriages to hide their true sexual orientation – Rock Hudson is one that most people are familiar with – or wouldn’t play the game and got drummed out of the business. Since Palm Springs was a popular place for Hollywood to let their hair down and relax due to the close proximity of Tinsel Town, it made sense that many LGBT Hollywood stars and other industry employees also made the trek out here to relax and recharge, and party, under the sunny skies of the Coachella Valley. This began before the TMZ and cameras-in-cell-phone era when you could have some privacy and the Hollywood star-maker machinery would feed the media what they wanted them to print.
Fast forward to the late 1970s into the 1990s and our community began to be more open and political, thanks to the birth of the modern gay liberation movement that was spawned by the Stonewall Inn riots in June 1969, and we began to immigrate to areas that were welcoming and inclusive. New York City was always one of those places, along with San Francisco, where large numbers of post World War II gay enlistees began to settle and slowly build a community. Slowly, we have branched out to other places, and Palm Springs, due to its rather tolerant environment based upon the Hollywood past, was one of those locales. The beautiful weather, stunning vistas, unique architecture available at affordable prices and access to a good airport all contributed to making the area a place where many LGBT folks, especially those looking for a gay-friendly place to spend their retirement years, gravitated toward.
What makes the Gay San Andreas Fault and the Gay Indian Canyons jeep tours gay?
What makes those tours gay is that they’re led by a gay guide, either me or Carlos Salas, and typically all the guests are gay, so as I mentioned above, people can feel safe and comfortable holding hands, showing affection or just camping it up and being themselves without having to self-censor themselves. I also usually throw in a little gay history of the area if the guests are interested.
What is the layout of a typical Gay San Andreas and Gay Indian Canyons Jeep Tour?
The San Andreas Fault tour is actually our most popular one and takes place in Indio, CA, at an 800+ acre private desert wilderness. Obviously, we talk a lot about fault lines, earthquakes and tectonic plates, but also about our local water system which is influenced by the fault, the plant life that has thrived here due to that water, and the Cahuilla Indians, our local tribe which figured out how to use many of those plants to build a culture in this hot and arid region. During the tour we visit and hike around an actual palm oasis, taking time to discuss the various plants – seeing, touching and even tasting many of them – as well as (hiking around) a recreation of a traditional Cahuilla village we believe existed on that site for over a thousand years. But the highlight for most guests is the drive into the canyons of the Indio Hills, where our private wilderness preserve is located. It’s awesome to see the sheer canyon walls forced up by the quakes, and the most fun part of the tour for me is taking guests hiking through a slot canyon on our property.
The Indian Canyons are Cahuilla land and contain three different canyons with some of the largest California Fan Palm groves in the world. If you come out with us, however, you’ll get a guided tour of Andreas Canyon and Palm Canyon, two of the three, and learn even more about the Cahuilla culture, geology of the area and lots of information on our native plants and animals.
What is your favorite part of each tour?
For the San Andreas tour it’s the canyons, they are magnificent and something visitors to our valley rarely get to see!
For all tours, but especially the Gay Icons tour, it’s the interaction with my guests. Since our community is rather small in relation to the larger population, and much of the history we talk about on that tour is relatively recent, it’s always fun when guests can add personal stories about the celebrities we are talking about.
What is your favorite aspect about giving these tours?
No matter the tour, I thrive on the interaction between myself and my guests. I love sharing my home with visitors, whether it’s the rich gay history of the area or the amazing vistas of the San Andreas Fault Zone. Watching them connect the dots as we talk about how Palm Springs became the gay mecca it has grown to be or explaining how the fault line created the magnificent mountains and lush oasis that make up the unique environment of the Coachella Valley is a fun and rewarding experience for me and, hopefully, for my guests as well.