The Past I Heard …
By Buddy Early, November 2019 Issue.
To celebrate Echo’s 30th birthday, this year I will be
catching up with some of Arizona’s LGBT personalities from past and present to
revisit the people, places and events that helped shape our community.
There is a common misconception that the
existence of trans individuals is a new phenomenon, a product of the 21st
century. The truth is people have been living their true genders since the
beginning of time — but keeping a, well, incredibly low profile, to put it
mildly. In Arizona, we know that trans individuals have lived among us for at
least a century.
Marshall Shore, The Hip Historian and
coordinator of Arizona’s LGBTQ+ History Project, was blindsided by the story of
Nikolai de Raylan when a friend doing research for the site Find a Grave tipped
him off. As Marshall is wont to do, he quickly became preoccupied with learning
more about Nicolai, and adding him to his agenda for the History Project.
Chicago resident and Ukrainian-born
Nicolai Constantinovich De Raylan had been living in Chicago, serving as
secretary to the Russian consul. Born in 1873 and assigned the name Anna
Terletsky, Nicolai was likely a descendant of Russian nobility. In order to
stake a claim to his father’s fortune, legend has it, Anna set off to
authorities that he was actually a boy who had been raised, illegally, as a
girl by her mother.
Cut to 1906 Chicago, where Nicolai resided
with his second wife and stepson. Nicolai headed west for a monthlong stay in
Arizona, a doctor-prescribed excursion to help cure him of tuberculosis. It was
no cure; Nicolai died December 18 in a Phoenix hotel room. With his wife still in Chicago, Nicolai’s
body was being prepared for burial when a surprising discovery was made:
Nicolai had a vagina.
There is so much more to this story, and
the details make it ripe for a Hollywood screenplay.
This is where Marshall Shore comes
in. Presently, Nicolai’s body lies in an
unmarked grave inside Greenwood Memory Lawn Cemetery on west Van Buren Street.
Marshall thought this man deserved better and deserved to be known. He set out
just under two years ago to raise funds for a gravestone (an eBay auction to
support the cause and the History Project can be found on Phoenix Pride’s
website) and has signed a deal with the cemetery to allow its placement.
“For me, reading that story, it was full
of such intrigue and in some ways such betrayal,” Marshall told me, not 100
percent certain the lack of a marker is an accidental or intentional slight —
but mostly sure it was the latter. “When you look at things now, and how (our
country is) trying to erase people … that’s what this is.”
It wasn’t easy. According to Marshall, you
can’t just call a cemetery and tell them you want to put a grave marker at an
unmarked grave. There are protocols to follow, and only after it was determined
there is no family that might object, Greenwood Cemetery gave the thumbs up.
A ceremony will be held at the cemetery on
November 16, at which time a grave marker that is simple and appropriate for
the time period will be placed. It will have a solid base and an above-ground
piece with Nicolai’s name, birth and death years, and the following quote from
Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“To be yourself in a world that is
constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
Marshall said it will be small affair,
with a handful of people and a few speakers. But the significance of this small
affair cannot be measured. The recognition of a man’s life lived, like any of
ours, is not too much to ask. To mark Nicolai’s existence in this way, even a
century later, is to honor him in a way The Arizona Republic would not.
The newspaper’s headline read “A Man in Lifetime, a Woman in Death.” (While
that headline was not out of line for a time when gender identification and
pronouns were not a big deal, it’s still nice to be able to correct things the
best we can.)
the way, if you’re wondering what happened to Nicolai’s modest fortune, it
wasn’t awarded to his second or even his first wife. Those marriages were both
left null and void by the courts after the revelation of Nicolai’s “down
theres.” It was Nicolai’s mother, Seraphina Terletsky, back in Russia, who
inherited Nicolai’s estate of $3,124 — the equivalent of about $81,000 today.
But it’s Arizona’s LGBTQ+ History Project that inherits the legacy of the man.