The Commonwealth of Kentucky is recognized largely for its horses, bourbon, fried chicken, college basketball, racism, homophobia, religious zealotry, cousin-fucking, and general lack of progressive thought. While there are certainly varying degrees of truth in all of those assumptions, the oft-overlooked fact is that Kentucky has also spawned some seriously forward-thinking, way far out folks. Among the illustrious writers, musicians, actors, artists, and cult leaders to call the Bluegrass home, is one of America’s first openly trans citizens (and bastion of southern hospitality), Sweet Evening Breeze.
Miss Sweets, as she came to be known around her long-time stomping ground of Lexington, was born James Herndon in nearby Georgetown, KY in 1892. Abandoned as a child at Lexington’s Good Samaritan Hospital, Sweets was taken in by the staff and given a room in the hospital where she lived into her teenage years. During this time, Sweets worked entertaining and delivering mail to hospital patients, until being trained as an orderly; a position she held for 0ver 40 years. Sweets was considered the hospital’s best and was usually in charge of training new orderlies.
In a time when being gay, black, or trans-anything was most often met with general hostility at best (especially in the south), Sweet Evening Breeze was openly, unapologetically all of the above. Strolling Main Street in drag as early as the 1930’s, Sweets gained a local reputation not as a provocateur or deviant, but as a beloved, respected member of the community. Her kindness and fierce charisma gained her friends in many unlikely places, ranging from the washrooms of local hotels, to the pews of her church (to which she left a large sum of money upon her death). For decades, her home served as a sanctuary and party ground for the queer community, in what anyone would assume to be an intolerant environment. Despite the odds, Sweet Evening Breeze was embraced. Even by the squares.
Miss Sweets is perhaps best known for ushering in a still thriving drag scene in Lexington. She organized and performed in drag and burlesque shows throughout the city; her most notable public performances taking place in the downtown Woodland Park. Facing a judge after being jailed with a fellow drag queen for breaking an old town law forbidding the dressing as the opposite sex in public (note: except on Halloween), Sweets managed to rightfully convince the judge that the law was unconstitutional. The ladies were freed and the law was forever overturned. Without even trying to be, Sweet Evening Breeze was a one-person civil and social rights wrecking crew simply by refusing to be anything but herself. She was recently discussed in the Jean Donohue documentary, Last Gospel of the Pagan Babies, and was previously immortalized as a character in the novel Suttree, by Cormac McCarthy.
On December 16, 1983, Miss Sweet Evening Breeze died in a nursing home at the age of ninety-one. She was buried in the Lexington Cemetery, the headstone bearing her birth name. Her house still stands on Prall Street by the train tracks, and the generations of people that knew her still speak of her fondly. Thanks, Miss Sweets, for showing the rest of us mere mortals how this whole life thing is supposed to be done.