A gay world, vibrant and forgotten

June 28, 1994|By George Chauncey

IT WOULD have been unthinkable 25 years ago for thousands of openly gay fans to cheer openly gay athletes at Yankee Stadium, for openly gay artists to perform to the acclaim of openly gay audiences at Carnegie Hall, or for the mainstream media to provide extensive and sympathetic coverage of it all.

The weekend's marches and the Gay Games and Cultural Festival are testimony to the legacy of the Stonewall rebellion of June 28, 1969 -- when a police assault on a Greenwich Village gay bar turned a small civil rights campaign into a mass liberation movement.

But the enshrinement of Stonewall as the genesis of gay culture threatens to deny the richness and resilience of gay and lesbian life before the late '60s and to obscure the long history of gay resistance that made the gay-rights movement possible.

Pre-Stonewall lesbians and gay men are often held up as passive victims of social hatred who lived solitary lives -- in the "closet" -- that kept them vulnerable to anti-gay ideology.

Many gay people blame previous generations for not having had the courage to come out of the closet. Or they condescendingly imagine that their predecessors internalized society's hatred of homosexuality and became self-loathing.

But the systematic suppression of the gay community was not due to some age-old, unchanging social antipathy, nor was it a sign of passivity and acquiescence by gay people.

Beginning in the 1890s, an extensive gay world took shape in the streets, cafeterias, saloons and apartments of New York City, and gay people played an integral role in the social life of many neighborhoods.

Lesbians ran speakeasies where Greenwich Village bohemians -- straight and gay -- gathered to read their verse. These men and women, who saw themselves as part of a visible, largely working-class gay world, forged a culture with its own language, customs, folk histories, heroes and heroines.

In the 1920s and early '30s, gay impresarios organized drag balls attracting thousands of gay dancers and straight spectators. Gay writers, actors and musicians produced a distinctive gay literature and performance style.

This cultural outpouring was so popular by the late '20s that gay performers moved from the margins of the city and briefly became the darlings of Broadway.

This flourishing gay world has been forgotten. It was wiped into historical oblivion by a fierce backlash in the '30s -- part of a XTC wider Depression-era condemnation of the cultural experimentation of the '20s, which many blamed for the economic collapse.

Bars, restaurants and cabarets were threatened with loss of their liquor licenses if they employed homosexuals, allowed them to gather on the premises or served them drinks. The State Liquor Authority closed hundreds of establishments for tolerating a gay presence. This continued for decades.

The public discussion of gay issues was also censored.

In the early '30s, after a generation of films had dealt with gay images, the new Hollywood production code prohibited gay characters and even talk of homosexuality in films.

In the theater, the backlash had started even before the Depression.

After the appearance of a lesbian drama on Broadway and Mae West's threat to stage a farce about transvestites called "The Drag" in 1927, a state law was passed prohibiting the representation or discussion of homosexuality on the stage.

In the '30s, the New York City police, using a 1923 state law, made it a criminal act for one man to invite another to have sex. They began sending good-looking plainclothes officers into gay bars to strike up conversations with men, lead them on and arrest them if the victims suggested going home. Between 1923 and 1967, when gay activists persuaded Mayor John V. Lindsay to end most entrapment, more than 50,000 men had been arrested on this charge.

Threatened with police raids, harassment and the loss of their jobs, families and reputations, most people hid their participation in gay life from their straight associates. But this did not necessarily keep them hidden from one other. They developed a sophisticated system of subcultural codes of dress, speech and style that enabled them to recognize one another and to carry on covert conversations.

This enabled many lesbians and gay men to build happy, self-confident, loving lives.

That the openness of gay life in the early 20th century was brought to an end after a few decades, and that the memory of it was systematically suppressed, reminds us that the growth of tolerance in recent years cannot be taken for granted.

Then, as now, increased gay visibility produced a powerful reaction.

But the relative tolerance of homosexuality in the early 20th century also shows that America has not been monolithically and inevitably homophobic, and that social conventions of sexuality are no more natural or timeless than those of race or gender.

Attacks on gay men and lesbians have often resulted from broader anxieties in American culture as much as from fears about homosexuality itself.

Above all, the past century shows us that attitudes toward gay people can change.

And can be changed.

George Chauncey teaches American history at the University of Chicago and is author of "Gay New York."

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