Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution - Linda Hirshman (2012)

Chapter 1. Gays and the Cities: Community First, Politics Later

When twenty-year-old “Jeb Alexander” chose his seat in Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, on a hot August night in 1920, he knew it was “the best bench in the park.” In a matter of minutes, Randall Hare plucked him off that bench, and Jeb finally got laid. The shy, slender youngster with the widow’s peak and the wide-set eyes started cruising the park every night, dreaming of an ideal love, but settling for sex when he found a man who met his finicky standards.

Jeb wasn’t the first gay man to find sex in Lafayette Square. He wasn’t even the first one to get it on that particular bench or get it at all. There had to be a first one. There’s a lot of argument about who was the first person identified as “homosexual” at all. Everyone knows about the same-sex goings on at those old Greek chat-fests we call symposiums and scholars have found networks of “sodomites” in medieval Europe as well as early gay bars called “molly houses” in Reformation England. Letters and diaries reflect American women with warm “friendships” as their central emotional bond in the late nineteenth century. Of course it’s one thing to have one drunken tryst with Socrates and another to be something you only do once in a while: “homosexual.” For most of history, there could be no gay revolution because there was no category “gay.” The word “homosexual” appears for the first time in Germany in 1869.

But identifiable gay history in America really got started after people began making stuff in factories rather than in the kitchens of their family farms. Immigrants and rural youths, male and female, gay and straight, flooded into American cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Jeb Alexander, sitting on the bench in Lafayette Square, is the living embodiment of the birth of the American gay revolution. Gay men left the small towns, with their furtive bus stations and “bachelor” apartment rendezvous, and came to the anonymity of great cities like New York and San Francisco. Just like all newcomers, they wrote to friends back home about what they were finding in their new worlds. One homeboy followed the crumbs dropped by another, and, one link at a time, they created a chain of migration to American cities. Composer Gean (pronounced “Gene”) Harwood, author, sixty years later, of The Oldest Gay Couple in America, found out where to go from an older gay friend in Albany, New York. Mississippi publisher George Henri Ford learned about gay New York from one of his writers. Jeb Alexander, whose diary would one day present an invaluable record of this much neglected world, made his way to Lafayette Park, one of the many urban neighborhoods where homosexuals gathered.

YMCA

The hall monitors were mostly looking the other way. As the great urbanization began, rural-based Protestant vice squads were focused on controlling the heterosexual behavior of males, especially of working-class males, and keeping the newly emancipated female factory workers safe. The vice squads—along with the anxious families back home—saw to it that urban boardinghouses and indeed whole neighborhoods were segregated by sex.

But in building single-sex residential hotels with shared bathrooms, the YMCA became “YMCA.” The mere act of showering at the Sloane House YMCA in New York produced so many sexual encounters that gay diarist Donald Vining once had to give up bathing in order to get some rest. Because boardinghouses had no kitchens, restaurants and cafeterias sprang up nearby.

Rooming houses, restaurants, the YMCA, and soon whole neighborhoods in growing cities like Los Angeles, Washington, New York, and San Francisco became centers of gay settlement. By the time gay people started keeping the diaries available to us, the young gay men pouring into the cities from farms and small towns already knew to go to Greenwich Village and DC’s Lafayette Square.

The women were not so fortunate. In the late nineteenth century, when middle-class women started to attend women’s colleges and hold jobs, the evidence of passionate female friendships multiplied in the historical record. Society pretty much left them alone. However, the Victorian concept of the sexless woman met up with reality and passionate same-sex relationships started looking more like social subversion than innocent friendship. Being private, female relationships were extremely vulnerable to social pressure to conform to a heterosexual norm. The combination of economic independence and social indifference that made a space for lesbian relationships in the late nineteenth century was more like a brief window into the future than the beginning of a social movement. Since women were never in command of the city streets the way men were, women would have to wait decades before they got a toehold in spaces like lesbian bars.

Jeb, on the other hand, was lucky to find a vacancy on a desirable bench at all. All over DC, New York, and Los Angeles, gay men were escaping the heat and crowding of their new urban homes and taking to the parks in search of sexual partners or just to meet their friends. Once out, they formed societies, gossiping and socializing as well as cruising. They even divided into subcultures based on looks and sexual tastes. In New York, conventional-looking men gathered in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, the sailors down in Battery Park, and gorgeous painted queens up in Bronx Park. And, of course, Central Park was central.

The city streets were filling up with gay society. Gay men gathered near their work; in New York the streets around Bloomingdale’s windows and in the theater district blossomed into favorite gay gathering spots. Being on the street was a lot more dangerous than finding like-minded souls at the Y, so the men developed elaborate signaling mechanisms. They wore somewhat gaudy suits. At one point the clue was a red necktie. Gay men looked each other right in the eye and opened their eyes ever so slightly. They shared a secret language—including careful definitions of terms of self-description like “queer” and “swish”—advertising for “roommates” and “stopping by to see the apartment.”

Jeb met a young man with a perfumed handkerchief at the DC library and went to a party at his apartment in the Riggs building. Apartments sprang up everywhere in America’s growing cities between 1895 and 1920, and, as the apartments became available, gay tenants with a few extra bucks moved in and brought their friends. Sitting at the Riggs, listening to someone’s recording of Enrico Caruso and lounging in a wicker chair, Jeb felt he had found his circle. A year later he left his family home and moved into a room at the local YMCA. The other gay men at the Y and in the Riggs gang introduced him around. They went to restaurants, galleries, and shows. Jeb took the civil-service exam and got a job as a publications clerk in the United States Department of Agriculture. With its rich clerical job pool, Washington was a very gay town.

Miraculously, Jeb’s college crush J. J. Dasham showed up one day at the YMCA where Jeb was staying and went to work at the State Department. For the first, loving months of their relationship, they had breakfast every morning at the Allies Inn cafeteria. After Dash broke it off, their morning ritual was interrupted by visits from the many men Jeb thought had taken his place. Music-loving Randall, with the “beautiful eyes and sensuous lips” of Jeb’s first sexual encounter; the tall, gangly German Hans Vermehren; the occasional cross-dresser Isador Pearson; the “effeminate” Junior Whorley all appeared, to Jeb’s torment. Postcoital or postrelational, no one managing the Allies Inn cafeteria ever said a word to Jeb or Dash about their little gay breakfast club, including the effeminate and the cross-dressing. As the cities filled with restaurants, gay city dwellers figured out which ones, like the Allies Inn, were safe to patronize and pushed the envelope of how open they could be.

After 1920, Prohibition had transformed the urban restaurant scene, replacing the tony and respectable restaurants with a whole apparatus of social defiance—cheap cafeterias like the Childs chain, illegal clubs, and speakeasies. One Halloween, a bunch of Jeb’s friends went to the DC Childs and put on “a reception there in one of the brightest spots on the Avenue, with the people inside Childs as spectators. Isador’s face was flushed and hysterical. Junior put his arms around Dash and Isador, jumping up and down.” Gay men colonized spaces like the Childs restaurants, turning their social life into a “show,” sitting heavily made up at tables by the plate glass windows, camping it up, and loudly discussing their affairs.

The making of the gay male world, as historian George Chauncey calls the process in the subtitle of his book Gay New York, comes as close as Western culture has to answering the first question of Western political thought: what kind of society would people make if they suddenly “sprang up” with no preexisting ties or institutions? These men did not all come from the same European country or town, as other migrants did. They had no preexisting cuisines, anthems, or folk dances. And yet they did not fall into the brutish and short war of all against all that philosopher Thomas Hobbes imagined, but, rather, created places to work, live, and find—or seek—sex and love, a “collective,” as Chauncey says, “social world.”

A (Ball)room of Their Own

In 1903 the police raided a bathhouse in the basement of the Ariston Apartments at Fifty-fifth Street and Broadway in New York. Like the other fancy bathhouses around town, the Ariston had provided rooms obscure with steam and “cooling” rooms with cots for the men to use afterward. Caught having sex when the bath was raided, several men were sentenced to years or even decades in the penitentiary. As early as 1903, gay men had begun to create spaces they didn’t have to share, gay speakeasies, gay bathhouses like the Ariston, and drag balls. The bars, baths, and balls were the locales that offered gay men the opportunities to transcend their private social circles of roommates, lovers, pals, and private apartments and create a web of community across race and class.

Like the Y, these semipublic institutions of gay culture were the unexpected consequence of institutions created by the dominant culture. Reformers and public officials tried to help tenement dwellers living without bathing facilities by opening public baths. Immediately, entrepreneurs began to open “Turkish” baths—private baths in hotels and apartments, with steam rooms, cafes, and other facilities, that emphasized pleasure over necessity. Some of them morphed into an extensive network of “gay” baths, which excluded people who were not gay and presumably kept the police away in the customary fashion of greasing palms. The grande dame of New York baths, the Everard, lasted as a gay institution from 1919 until it burned down in 1977.

Masked balls and masquerades mimicked the entertainments of some of the toniest groups in mainstream American society. In 1925, Jeb watched his pal Hans dressing up to go to the Bal Bohème, the annual gala of the snooty nongay Arts Club of Washington. Men routinely dressed up as women at the Bal Bohème, a contemporary newspaper reported, one guy in seven-inch heels and another in a red wig disguised as the Old Maid. Soon gay men were organizing their own, much livelier balls.

It was not a big leap. In New York, by a quirk of law, people were forbidden to appear masked on city streets unless they were going to a licensed masquerade ball (masked protesters had in the past engaged in genuinely disorderly conduct rather than the so-called disorderly conduct charge used against gays). Technically, there was no way to distinguish between something like an arts club asking to have a masquerade party and someone like the famed gay entertainer “Jackie” Mason organizing a drag ball in Greenwich Village. Men dressed up like women, the elaborately costumed “women” danced with the men, and before long Harlem’s Hamilton Ball and comparable affairs in Chicago and New Orleans were attracting thousands of participants—and spectators, including the cream of heterosexual society. The toilet, one participant at a Chicago ball reported, was so crowded with men having sex that you could not even use it to pee. By the 1920s, there were enormous gay balls filled with participants in ostrich plumes, monkey fur, sequins, chiffon, silk, and satin at places like Madison Square Garden and the Astor Hotel.

The drag queens in their sequins and monkey fur are the ultimate in camp, that gay cultural behavior that adopts and mimicks female roles in exaggerated and humorous ways, which dates back at least to the twenties. Historian George Chauncey speculates that bitchy, humorous camp behavior helped gay men express anger at the loss of status that came from their being grouped with women, but also helped them to assert their superiority through humor and mockery.

However comforting camp culture was, some people were loath to close the closet door again so quickly after the ball. After the Harlem Balls of 1929 and 1931, two men—a telephone operator in a flame red dress and a ballet dancer in a velvet cape—were arrested for trying to eat in a restaurant. After spending time in the fantastic world of the drag ball, dressed to their wildest imaginings, dancing with each other, and having sex in the toilet, having to go under cover again turned out not to be so easy.

The Cold Comfort of the Closet

Jeb Alexander did not go to the balls. Instead, his diaries record a life of discreet aversion. He certainly didn’t tell his family about his sexual orientation. When his brother Henry came to the Y to visit and remarked on what he’d like to do to the “ ‘fairies’ in the lobby,” Jeb “wondered for a hellish moment if Henry knew that I was one of those he contemptuously speaks of as ‘fairies’ and if he was saying that for my benefit.” Jeb spent many holidays eating two dinners, one with his parents and then a second one with his friends. (But, of course, they suspected. When he died forty-some years later in 1964, he left his diaries to his niece, Ina Russell. At the funeral, her parents and aunts came sidling up to her, one after another, to ask her point blank if Jeb was gay.)

Although no one actually ever confronted him directly, Jeb lived in terror of getting caught at work. When his homosexual companions Max and Junior showed up in drag at the theater where one of his coworkers happened also to be attending the play, he spent the evening in a pool of sweat. At the office Christmas party, secret Santas gave him cigarettes and a poem about “fags,” along with a stuffed doll for his “lonely hours.” When he wondered aloud why anyone would want to work at his office, his boss replied that it was the most “liberal” department in the government, except of course for that legendary refuge of the marginal, State, where, his boss noted, Jeb’s “friend” Dash worked.

Jeb never contemplated revealing himself to his family or his coworkers. Most gays were closeted from the straight world and they supported one another in their efforts to conceal their sexual orientation from the hostile environment. Many closeted gay men saw nothing to reveal. They considered their forays into the gay neighborhoods to be random events that did not identify them as “homosexual,” if they even knew there was such a category in the first place. According to Chauncey, the only moral discussion of coming out during the decades of gay community formation involved whether it was immoral for a gay man to conceal his homosexuality from other gay menwhom he happened to meet.

It was indeed a dangerous world for men who had sex with men, no matter how hard they denied or tried to hide their same-sex attraction or activities. When Jeb was in college at Washington and Lee University, two classmates got the boot when the college found out they were “that sort.” A few days later, one of them was found dead in the local river. Although the undercover cop in Lafayette Square was laughably obvious and known to all the regulars as the “Sneak,” Jeb was terrified when the “hideous plain clothesman” interrupted Jeb’s regular lunch date with his father to tell Dad to “keep an eye on this fine young man.” The Y suspected Dash and evicted him. One of the gang, Hans, had the bad fortune to be staying at the apartment of a gay friend one night in 1931 when the friend got caught shoplifting. When the police searched the apartment, they found Hans in bed with a visiting professor from Sweetbriar College and everyone got hauled off to jail. A day or two later, Hans saw his name in the local paper and decided to go back to Germany.

If Jeb did nothing to change his careful balance of private homosexual community and closeted work and family life, it wasn’t for lack of insight. Jeb knew his same-sex desires were “congenital and entirely inescapable” and that he was still the “bashful good child” he once was, not someone who should be treated as a “criminal.” “Filthy policemen!” Jeb wrote in his diary. “Why in hell can’t the beasts leave us alone?” But, cocooned in the original regime of don’t ask/don’t tell, Jeb and Dash did not organize a rebellion. Protected by their willingness to limit their confrontation with straight society and by the temporary relaxation of moral vigilance during Prohibition, they and their friends drank bootleg liquor, moved from the Y to various lodgings, worked in their liberal government departments, and went to the theater or the movies.

The Closet Gets Even Smaller

But it was not to last. Prohibition had had the unexpected consequence of making behaviors like homosexuality, which had always been criminal under the sodomy laws, part of a whole culture of socially accepted criminality. Being gay got a sort of respectability by association. At the end of the Prohibition period, several New York speakeasies openly advertised drag entertainment to their mixed clientele, what contemporaries called the “pansy” craze.

One night in 1926, Jeb went to a local movie theater to see the German movie Chained: The Story of the Third Sex, an explicit depiction of an aging artist’s infatuation with his beautiful young male model (played by the youthful Walter Slezak). Once Chained pushed the envelope, plays and other films followed. The irrepressible actress and self-promoter Mae West followed her heterosexual sex vehicle Sex with The Drag, set in a gay club and starring many of her gay friends. The Drag presented homosexuality as natural, positive, and pervasive among men not obviously gay. The newspapers went ballistic and began crusading against the featuring of gay entertainment in the nightclubs and onstage. While The Drag was in tryouts in New Jersey, the New York police raided Sex and arrested West. A prosecutor in New Jersey took after The Drag. The New York legislature passed a law allowing the theater licensing board to revoke a theater’s license and close it down if the district attorney thought a production was obscene.

The campaign against homosexuality onstage was the end of the beginning of urban gay life in New York. Slowly, the whole lawless culture of Prohibition began to unravel. The same establishment forces that had created Prohibition in an effort to control the disorderly world of the male working-class saloon concluded that Prohibition merely spread disorder to the universe of law enforcement and, finally, it was repealed.

With the repeal of Prohibition, the line between respectable, law-abiding citizens and criminals was redrawn. Liquor could be sold, but regulation of liquor was delegated to the states, which established state licensing boards to control the bars. In place of the machinery of law enforcement came state regulation. New York, for example, established a requirement that places selling liquor must be orderly. The bars were dependent on their liquor licenses to survive and were completely vulnerable to the state authorities. The final nail was driven into public gay New York when the state liquor authority deemed the mere presence of homosexuals to constitute “disorder.”

No longer could gay men—or lesbians for that matter—gather in pleasant illicit surroundings alongside nongay patrons. This was particularly hard on the lesbians, who would not meet on streets and beaches like the men. They had fought hard to establish and find bars in the major cities, and, later, in smaller places like Buffalo in the twenties. Now they had nowhere else to meet. “Arden” was initiated into lesbian life at Galante’s, the gay, straight, and lesbian speakeasy in downtown Buffalo during Prohibition. As the lawless years declined, Galante’s started getting raided. The cops even roughed up straight patrons who had just come for the spaghetti! Terrified, the lesbians stopped going and, after Prohibition ended, Galante’s ended too. The mixed bars that remained had to monitor their gay patrons so as not to lose their licenses and livelihoods. At New York’s famed Astor Bar, the saloon keeper even divided the actual bar into two segments, keeping the gay patrons to the most exquisite standards while the guys across the bar could throw their arms around each other in mannish camaraderie.

The crackdown weighed more on the public institutions of the gay community—the balls and the bars—than on the parallel private homosexual world of men like Jeb and fellow diarist Donald Vining. In 1932 Jeb reports that he was drunk enough to dance with other men at a mixed party thrown by a total stranger. In 1939, Vining, then an impoverished but aspiring drama graduate student at Yale, got picked up by a seductive fellow student with no more than hello and after, as he put it, years of talking and longing, finally had his first homosexual affair.

As the commercial institutions of gay life closed or went underground, Jeb’s and Donald’s lives of private homosexuality became the norm. Exclusively gay bars sprang up to fill the void but, lacking the cover of universal lawlessness, they were more like Nathan Detroit’s permanent floating crap game than the open celebrations of the pansy craze. People in the payoff business opened them, they got raided, they closed. The broad and deep gay community that had taken hold through three or four preceding decades did not evaporate, of course. But instead of exuberantly displaying their camp culture in the plate glass windows of the Greenwich Village restaurants, gay New Yorkers had to be constantly on the alert just to know where to go for a drink.

There was, however, no organized resistance. There was no organization. People who wrote letters to the editors when crusading papers proposed to close the theaters for obscenity signed them with fake names. The only bar that fought back against the state liquor authority in New York was an apparently straight-owned place called Gloria’s, which was trying to hang onto its gay business. It lost.

In these wilderness years, gay men and lesbians began to take vacations on Fire Island, a little barrier island on the south shore of Long Island. They used the power of their New York dollars during the Depression to buy property from the small, wary straight community that was there. When Willy Warren, a heavily closeted New York accountant, heard there was a place you could be gay without hiding all the time, he walked all the way from Fire Island’s straight resort of Ocean Beach until he staggered into the bar at Duffy’s Hotel in the gay colony of Cherry Grove. Warren and the rest of the rich Fire Island crowd thought they had found a place where they could buy an escape from actually having to engage in politics.

A Tale of Two Coasts

None of these concerns was on Mona Hood’s mind when she launched her bar, Mona’s, at the foot of Telegraph Hill when Prohibition ended in 1933. A classic San Francisco bohemian, the charming and popular Mona had been the center of social life in a group house of starving artists. An astute investor lent her the money to start a club. Mona’s lesbian waitresses started singing as they waited, campy men were not far behind, and the bar, with its program of show songs, became a mainstay of San Francisco’s always raffish tourist industry.

A lot of the story of the gay revolution is a “tale of two coasts”; this is one of the times that set them on a different course. California did not establish a state liquor authority, leaving the business of running the alcohol trade to a state agency interested only in taxation. The state board didn’t care about disorder, it didn’t let the cities or their police forces enforce the liquor rules, and, unlike New York, there was little or no Mafia presence.

Throughout the thirties, when New York gay men who wanted a drink were confined to a ghetto section in the Astor Bar or some rip-off Mafia joint, San Francisco’s North Beach became a center of integration. Gay men, lesbian women, straight bohemians, and voyeuristic tourists all commingled in bars and clubs that offered the whole range of sexual companions and entertainments. The legendary North Beach club Finocchio’s (“where boys will be girls”) offered open drag performances, while, on the East Coast, the New York State Liquor Authority explicitly forbade drinking while gay.

In 1950, California authorities finally turned their attention to the Black Cat Bar, home to the drag version of Carmen performed in its entirety by waiter José Sarria. When the Board of Equalization suspended the bar’s liquor license, the heterosexual owner, Sol Stoumen, sued and won. The California Supreme Court ruled that the authorities could not suspend the license merely because some of Stoumen’s patrons were homosexuals who used his restaurant as a meeting place. Although California and San Francisco harassed the Black Cat and its patrons relentlessly for years, Stoumen didn’t run out of money and give up until 1963.

The different regimes sent the West Coast and East Coast gay communities in very different directions. In New York, being forbidden to appear gay in any public place put a high premium on closeting, effective covert behavior, and sign reading. Gay New Yorkers’ private relationships, like most private relationships, were generally conducted among people of the same race and class, exacerbating divisions which the open worlds of street and park and bar and ball had to some extent avoided. While gay New Yorkers gave parties at home or dressed up like straight men to have a drink at the pricey Rainbow Room or used the Metropolitan Opera as a site unlikely to be raided, poor gay men and the youngest gay runaways, often teens who lived on the street, were excluded from communal life.

San Francisco was never so stratified or closeted. With its history of disorderly conduct, from its origins as a mining camp to the raunchy port-city ambience from its shipping trade, San Francisco was always a harder sell for the forces of conformity. By the time the legions of sexual order came down on the institutions of the West Coast gay community, the early efforts at liberation were less than a decade away. For most of the movement’s history, California gays, who faced less hostile conditions when they realized they were gay, were ahead of the curve. They recognized their common identity earlier, they claimed their difference sooner. When they made it to the threshold of the liberal state, they changed their strategy faster to move to normal politics of sameness and tolerance. Climbing higher, when their fellow Californians voted to forbid same-sex marriage in 2008, the fall was that much harder.

This Is the Army, Miss Jones

But first, New York, California, and the rest of the United States went to war. World War II changed the lives of everyone in America. Eighteen million American men were drafted. Women, not subject to the draft, signed up for the Women’s Army Corps and Navy’s WAVES. They were called in, classified, inducted or rejected, moved to cities they’d never dreamed of or seen, and sent to faraway places, sometimes to kill and sometimes to die. If they were not drafted, they changed jobs to work in the defense industries that had quickly started making what the government needed, again, often in places they’d never dreamed of living in.

Before the war, there was always an element of choice when gay Americans engaged with the nongay world. It may have been a hard choice, but gay people could decide the extent to which they wished to engage in a dialogue about their sexual orientation. They stayed in the closet or they revealed themselves. They stayed with Mom and Dad or moved to New York. They made a life in the gay community or they divided themselves in two—or three—or ten.

Conscription took that choice away from them. “Are you gay?” They might still lie, as most of them did. But they had to answer the question. They lost the option not to decide. In the course of making war, the US government subjected an entire generation of its citizens to a national examination of their physical and mental fitness. Gay and lesbian Americans, who had created an alternative world in the shadows—and, now and then, in the face—of the mainstream society, were tossed into the intake pipe, just like everyone else.

Fear of Freud

Self-described bottle blond and lisping nineteen-year-old Robert Fleischer was pretty sure of his physical fitness, but he was scared to death of the Army psychiatrist. He was sure the shrink was going to figure out he was gay and reject him, revealing his homosexuality to his family and all the world and depriving him of his much desired chance to fight.

Fleischer was correct to fear the doctors. The psychiatric profession, which had risen to power and some respectability in America during the years since World War I, had also become the proverbial friend that makes it unnecessary to find an enemy. The gay revolution would probably have happened sooner—although it would not have been as epochal—if the “science” of psychiatry had never happened. Before the cult of Freud developed, people’s mental lives were considered mostly a matter of physical illness or religious belief. The only reason sex was treated as criminal in Western culture was that the American legal system, like its English progenitor, took much of its lead from the church, which forbade not only sodomy but also adultery and fornication. Had there been no psychiatric intervention, homosexual sex acts might sooner or later have gone the way of all criminal regulation of sexuality. Death of God, sexual revolution, right to privacy, game over.

But instead of that simple progression, the psychiatrists, starting with University of Vienna psychiatry professor Richard von Krafft-Ebing in 1886, began to analyze same-sex sexual attraction as a matter of mental health. Krafft-Ebing classified all sexual behaviors according to how they differed from the “norm” of heterosexual reproductive sex, which just happened to be the traditional Judeo-Christian standard. Following Krafft-Ebing, the ensuing “scientific” work adopted, without acknowledgment, the religious definition of sexual normality. The doctor then applied the concept of “degeneration” as it was used since the Middle Ages to mean the distance from God. Homosexuals found themselves categorized, along with masochists, fetishists, and the like, as “degenerate” invalids, people who fell away from the sexual ideal.

Krafft-Ebing also offered the smiley face of psychiatry: he was the first in a line of doctors who opposed throwing their sick patients in prison. Thereafter, many sex specialists, most notably the German homosexual activist Magnus Hirschfeld, argued for moderation of the criminal regime. The appeal of the medical model is understandable when the sheriff is after you, but the psychiatric establishment’s offer of mental illness was a dangerous temptation. Over time, the treatments the psychiatrists prescribed for their sick patients went from Krafft-Ebing’s innocuous-sounding prescription of hypnosis to treatments like electric shock.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, homosexuals kept going back to their purported ally, medical science. In 1935 New York lesbian activist Jan “Gay,” née Greenburg, recruited the famed feminist and birth-control advocate Dr. Robert Dickinson to produce a scientific analysis of homosexual case studies. Gay had already amassed a wealth of information about lesbians from her own circles and from Hirschfeld’s work in Germany before the Nazis closed him down in 1933. Dickinson raised a pile of money, added a committee of psychiatrists, and set about constructing a profile of “sex variants.”

But the committee assigned Jan Gay to be the research assistant for one of their own, Robert Henry, who, unbeknownst to Gay, brought to the study his preexisting belief that homosexuality was an inversion. By the time the study, Sexual Variants, was published, Gay’s perspective was nowhere to be found. Henry’s version turned out to be a paean to the social importance of the heterosexual family along with ambitious prescriptions for parents and doctors to work together to ensure the rearing of children to become heterosexual adults. The subjects who had volunteered to participate in the study, including early self-consciously political lesbians and gay male prostitutes recruited by Gay, were furious.

The unraveling of Gay’s relationship with the psychiatrists involved in the study perfectly symbolized the problem of homosexuality and psychiatry. The psychiatrists looked like possible allies to her and to many early activists. They consistently and honorably denounced the jailing of their patients. But the decriminalization of sexual behavior in the sexual revolution would eventually have ended the criminal punishment of homosexuals anyway. The tradeoff for the docs’ support against the cops in the dark days was the medicalization of homosexuality. And the medicalization of homosexuality categorized same-sex attraction as a disease for which the sexual revolution was no cure.

The Disease Model in Action

Five years after the publication of Sex Variants, two powerful and well-connected psychiatrists, Drs. Henry Sullivan and Winfred Overholser, suggested themselves and their colleagues to the War Department as ideal gatekeepers for the United States armed forces. Sullivan—who was himself gay—and Overholser did not start out intending to screen recruits like Robert Fleischer for the degenerate homosexual variance. They were interested in protecting the armed services from mental weaklings, who might suffer from shell shock and the like.

As their suggestions made their way through the Selective Service Administration, other, less sympathetic members of their profession kept adding homosexuality to the list of disqualifying mental conditions. And so, as closeted Robert Fleischer tried to join the army in 1943, a doctor asked him if he liked girls. Being a sociable guy, he later recounted, he said he did like girls. Two years later, Bronze Star winner Fleischer found himself laying mines under heavy machine gun fire, on the far side of the Main River in Germany.

That was the last thing young Yale graduate Donald Vining wanted. Vining considered himself a conscientious objector, but the army was putting conscientious objectors into a camp without pay and Vining needed to support his single mother. When Vining’s induction psychiatrist asked him about women, Vining told the doctor that he didn’t know because he didn’t associate with them much. Bingo. Although the psychiatrist tried to protect Vining with a coded diagnosis, the army brass kept leaning on him until he wrote Vining up as a “homosexual.” Vining, like most “homosexuals,” had been living part in and part out, exploiting society’s marginal spaces to make a life. When he went back home to Pennsylvania after failing the draft, his closet door was flung open. Vining himself didn’t care, but he worried about his mom, who was widely known in town.

Vining did the obvious thing and moved to New York. He felt sort of bad about it, but the war, by taking away so many competitors for jobs, made his life easy. He worked on his playwriting and held down a day job as a cashier at B. Altman’s department store, and picked up servicemen in movie theaters in New York and, on trips to California, at Pershing Square in Los Angeles.

Vining’s lovers were young military men, who, scholars speculate, being far from their families and hometowns and facing possible injury or death, experienced homosexual sex and community for the first time in the great disruption of the war. They came from military camps, some as large as small cities, where every imaginable kind of person, including many other homosexual men and lesbian women, were living together. When they got passes to go to town, they would take to the roads, thumbing for rides. In no time, the roads from bases to towns turned into cruising routes. Coming home from one of his jobs at the stage-door canteen, the ever resourceful Vining even identified a particular commuter he hoped would pick him up until somebody better came along.

The San Francisco Chronicle issued an appeal for people to pick up hitchhiking soldiers from the bases nearby. But when they arrived in town, they got a mixed reception, as MPs suddenly started patrolling in parts of San Francisco that had never known serious antivice crusades. The army’s police stood outside two gay bars, the Silver Dollar and the Pirate’s Cove, declaring them off limits to the service members whose patronage was crucial to their profits. Of course it wasn’t all bad: when published in the local papers, the Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Board lists of off-limits places soon became a field guide to the whereabouts of San Francisco gay bars. The gay action was so hot at the San Francisco Pepsi-Cola Serviceman’s Canteen that civilians poached military uniforms in order to get inside.

Combat veteran Fleischer and openly homosexual army reject Vining both enjoyed better fates than Marty Klausner, who was caught in the closet door. Although Klausner got through induction, he immediately started asking for trouble by doing things like pounding out “The Man I Love” on the service-club piano in order to attract potential mates. In the early days of the war, when every man was needed, people like Klausner could get away with it. Airman Woodie Wilson and an MP chum, “Kate,” even started a newsletter, Myrtle Beach Bitch, in the orderly room at the base at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, so that gay air corpsmen all over the country could keep up with their widespread buddies. Veterans recount dozens of stories of their commanding officers managing not to see the men who were otherwise of value to their units having sex under tarps and in deserted barracks in the desperate early years of the war.

Even as many officers were looking the other way, however, courts martial for sodomy were still choking the army courts system. By the time Klausner got caught, the army had replaced the legalistic court-martial system with a psychiatric program that applied a medical model of degrees of “perversion” to its homosexual servicemen and women. Some soldiers, “guilty” of only an infraction or two, were sent back to their units. Nonetheless, as with the medicalization of homosexuality in civilian life, the result was that many people who would never have been convicted under any criminal system with rudimentary due process standards were discharged as “undesirable.” The discharged soldiers didn’t even have to have committed the criminal act of sodomy to get the boot, because in this therapeutic system, it was the doctors’ diagnosis of them as homosexuals that led to their discharges.

The system, which doctors like Klausner’s “nice” and understanding psychiatrist devised, sent him from the army with the closest thing Americans had to the pink triangle the Nazis pinned on gay Germans—a “blue” discharge as mentally unfit for service. After the war, the Veterans Administration ruled that blue dischargees were not eligible for the G.I. Bill, with its generous benefits for education and housing. Worse, as Klausner found out when he went home to Pittsburgh, his blue badge kept him from getting a humble job as a hotel clerk or even getting unemployment compensation when he had exhausted his job opportunities. Bitterly, he asked a friend, “Why they don’t just round us all up and kill us I don’t know.”

(Klausner was, happily, overstating the case, but, despite his sojourn in a psychiatric ward, he was certainly not delusional about gay vulnerability. On October 25, 1942, gay diarist Jeb Alexander noticed a folder lying on the dining room table of his old love and State Department employee J. J. Dasham. It was a list of men incarcerated in Nazi Germany, including their gay friend Hans, who had returned to Germany against Jeb’s advice in 1931. “Are Hans and these others incarcerated for the same reason?” Jeb asked. “Dash said briefly, ‘Pretty obvious.’ ” A footnote to the published diary notes simply “Hans’ fate is not known.”)

For a brief period after the war, a serious number of blue dischargees resisted the system, appealing their rejections and even gathering in small numbers in Washington to plead their cases to the military Discharge Review Board. In a sign of things to come, the homosexuals were aided by the nascent racial civil rights movement, since a disproportionate number of blue dischargees, homosexual or not, were black. Equally prophetic, however, was the army’s response to pressure from institutions like the NAACP and the CIO. In 1947, after a period of administrative leniency, the government formally upgraded virtually all the blue discharges to general status and included the newly elevated dischargees in the program of veterans’ benefits. Everyone, that is, except the homosexuals. They were explicitly excluded.

Even the Military Did Not Make Militants

Whether inducted into the armed services and serving in combat, as Robert Fleischer did, or servicing the soldiers and sailors in quite a different context as Donald Vining happily did, or trying, unsuccessfully, to keep a foot in each camp, like Marty Klausner, World War II unquestionably changed the lives and outlooks of many gay and lesbian people. How could it not?

When Fleischer returned to New York from Germany with his Bronze Star, his parents tried to set him up with “the most eligible Jewish girls in New York.” Finally, he stood up at a family picnic and said, “Listen. Enough!” It was his combat experience, Fleischer told historian Allan Bérubé, that enabled him to announce his homosexuality at a barbecue in his sister’s backyard. After rowing across the Main River under heavy rifle fire and laying mines, even a matchmaking Manhattan Jewish family didn’t look scary to Fleischer.

Klausner wrote angry letters. Maxwell Gordon, a veteran who later recalled that he just could not turn back to his old life, did the obvious thing and moved to New York, where he quickly found work at the legendary Sloane YMCA.

Analysts speculate that the extraction of millions of men and women from their rural families and communities might have sped up the migration process so crucial to the formation of gay community. They think that exposure to other gay people in the huge ingathering of recruits at the various bases might have been revelatory to people who thought they were alone. Maybe the male bonding that always accompanies war legitimated some homosexual feelings.

There is no gay census. It is impossible to know how many gay veterans just stayed where they disembarked. During and just after the war, the lights went on at a bunch of gay bars, such as DC’s Chicken Hut, for instance, in all the major cities. The Chicken Hut boasted a pianist, Howard (“Miss Hattie”), who serenaded his clientele with special songs, like “Why Oh Why Oh Why-O, Why Did I Ever Leave Ohio?” for the guy from Cincinnati and “St. Louis Woman” for the queen. On a more somber front, a record number of men were arrested for disorderly conduct, often a code for homosexual behavior, in DC after the war, rising from two a day in the late forties to a thousand a year by the fifties.

We Will Surely Each Hang Separately

Except for speaking roles in the histories of homosexuality during World War II, the Robert Fleischers and the Marty Klausners disappeared from history. They formed no organizations, they made no waves. They did not organize to fight back. Briefly, it looked like they might. The New York Veterans Benevolent Association (VBA), the first significant gay organization in America, was incorporated in 1945, being approved without apparent controversy by the state incorporation authorities, which later strongly resisted certifying gay groups. The one hundred or so members of the VBA tried to help gay veterans deal with the military and other matters. They had a legal committee and a program of social dances.

The homosexual soldiers even had a prophet, the poet Robert Duncan. In 1944, Duncan, a central figure in the California Beat scene, founder of his own small magazine, and friend to sexual radicals Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, signed his name to an article in Dwight Macdonald’s monthly, politics, laying out the platform for a gay revolution: “What can one do . . . both those critics and artists, not homosexual, who are, however, primarily concerned with dispelling all inhumanities, all forces of convention and law that impose a tyranny over man’s nature, and those critics and artists who, as homosexuals, must face in their own lives both the hostility of society in that they are ‘queer?’ ” Duncan asked. And, as always with a rhetorical question, he gave the rhetorical answer: “They must recognize homosexuals as equals, and, as equals, allow them neither more nor less than can be allowed any human being.”

Duncan took direct aim at the silence of the Left: “Although hostile critics have at times opened fire in attack as rabid as the attack of Southern senators upon ‘niggers,’ critics who might possibly view the homosexual with a more humane eye seem agreed that it is better that nothing be said.”

One of the unknowns of gay history is what would have happened if Duncan had picked up his pen right there. But, instead, he went on to rip into everything that passed for community in the homosexual world. It’s understandable that their allies are so laggard, he continued, because a large part of the fault was in themselves (that they were underlings). Where later historians would see a noble and necessary pre-political community in the previous half century, Duncan saw a fatal flaw. A self-conscious homosexual community was nothing more than a “ghetto,” Duncan suggested portentously as the actual Warsaw ghetto burned—cozy, but ultimately deadly. Where historian George Chauncey would see a subversive strategy for dealing with the disconnect between men’s assumption of their entitlements as men and gay men’s experience of their punishment for acting like girls, Duncan saw a suicidal separatism: “Almost coincident with the first declarations for homosexual rights was the growth of a cult of homosexual superiority to heterosexual values; the cultivation of a secret language, the camp, a tone and a vocabulary that are loaded with contempt for the uninitiated.” And as a result, he suggests, “there is in the modern American scene no homosexual who has been willing to take in his own persecution a battlefront toward human freedom.”

Macdonald had warned Duncan not to sign his name to the article, but Duncan thought that his broadside in favor of homosexual rights as human rights would be meaningless if he himself was afraid to step forward. After he published his manifesto, John Crowe Ransom, editor of the prestigious Kenyon Review, returned one of Duncan’s poems, which he had accepted for publication. Ransom wasn’t going to run a poem that seemed, now that Duncan’s “secret” was out, to be an argument in favor of homosexuality. Duncan’s career as a poet had been at takeoff. Although he was ultimately recognized as one of the main Beat poets in the fifties, he washed dishes for a living for much of the rest of his life.

Although Duncan’s article led nowhere, his critique of gay “New York” (and California and all the rest) sets the terms of the argument ever since. Duncan’s assertion that homosexual rights are human rights is absolutely necessary to make a revolution and squarely in the American tradition that fuels so much of the great civil rights movements. The humor, the drama, and the defiant assumption of the mantle of inferiority that constitute the camp culture he decried, have all too often offered an escape from the hard work of breaking into boring old straight society, which still monopolizes much of what passes for the goods of a flourishing human life. When, in 1947, the government interpreted the general discharge policy explicitly to exclude homosexuals, there is no evidence of effective protest from the VBA. The VBA dissolved in squabbling. The communities of gay New York and all the other gay cities that developed from 1890 to 1945 did not produce one guy willing to stand up when the armed services pinned the blue rectangle on the sleeves of tens of thousands of its members.

But Duncan was also terribly wrong. His invitation to dismantle such community as there was in favor of the radical individualism of liberal and universal rights was a recipe for paralysis, and paralysis is indeed what it produced. Equal rights for all may be the goal, but, for a despised and marginalized minority, individualism is never the way to equality. Its members must recognize themselves as an oppressed class and act collectively.

First a Community, Then a Movement

Even while recognized as a category unto themselves, “homosexuals” face every imaginable challenge to organizing. They are frequently strangers to their biological families. Too often, gay family experiences resemble the story young Ryan Kendall told to the horrified audience in the California marriage trial in January 2010: “I wish I’d had an abortion, or a child with Down’s syndrome,” his mother had said, when she discovered his boyhood journals. Martin Luther King Jr. had a black man for his father. Gloria Steinem’s mother was a dysfunctional schizophrenic, but she was still a woman. Even with every scientific advance, babies are still the product of heterosexual something, usually the heterosexual, reproductive family. No matter how loving their families are, most gay people grow up surrounded by strangers. Growing up thinking you’re the only person in the world with sexual desires for your own sex doesn’t immediately generate confident identity, much less confident identity politics. One of the few unchallenged leaders of the gay revolution, Harvey Milk’s right-hand man, Cleve Jones, was saved from suicide, he says, only by finding a book about people like him (“homosexuals”) in his high school library.

Unlike religious, ethnic, or racial minorities that start out from an established history of tribal or religious identity, the orphaned immigrants to gay New York and other cities first had to construct a political identity that others are born with. Nobody had to tell the seventeenth-century Puritan Oliver Cromwell that he was God’s chosen or the twentieth-century Irish nationalist Gerry Adams that he was the representative of a “risen people.” But the only group identity homosexuals started out with was a disease label from the censorious sex “doctors.” With only the fragile tie—that their sexual desire was directed toward people of their own sex—gay urban migrants created strong neighborhood enclaves, widely publicized dances, bars, cafeterias, and restaurants. Gay New Yorkers organized male beauty contests and drag balls, gay clubs, and cultural events. They had a sexual underground in the parks, streets, bathhouses, and saloons. They had a secret language. But although the “homosexuals” claimed a territory and created safe havens, they did not have a political identity. Cromwell’s claim that the godly should rule goes back to the Old Testament. Adams’s call to nationalist self-governance dates back to the creation of the European nation-state in the Renaissance. Even the racial civil rights movement, which most resembles the world Duncan desired for gays, got its start out of the community of African Americans, who lived in segregated areas in both the North and the South and who were served by institutions like the black churches and civic clubs. No one had ever suggested that people could make a collective political claim based on their sex life.

But African Americans, whose differences from the dominant majority are arguably only skin deep, always had the option of rejecting their communal identity, as Duncan advised for “homosexuals,” and demanding only to be admitted to the society of white individuals they otherwise resembled. Indeed, the option to leave the “ghetto” was one of the forces that ultimately split the racial civil rights movement and stopped it short of achieving its full goals. The women of the feminist movement differed more dramatically from politically and socially dominant males if only by virtue of their tie to childbearing. They, too, however, had a path to integration by virtue of their value as sexual companions and mothers. And many women, too, eventually split from the movement, leaving it well short of meaningful equality.

But homosexuals were lucky. They never had any of those options. Homosexuals differ from heterosexuals in their orientation to and usually also choice of sexual partners. If there was ever to be a gay revolution, gays could not walk away from the differences that divided them from the majority into some imagined paradise of universal human rights. They had to contend that Gay Is Good. Once the revolution got going, the assumed superiority and the community-building institutions of camp culture helped the movement to assert its goodness. And that made all the difference.

Better Red

It took a Communist to start the revolution. After 1914, it almost always has. Martin Luther King Jr. probably wasn’t ever a party member, despite the Right’s fondest fantasies, but Bayard Rustin, his right-hand man, was. Feminism’s Betty Friedan spent a lot more time writing for the fellow travelers’ news service, the Federated Press, than leading the life of a suburban housewife as she claimed. Gay veteran Chuck Rowland tried garden-variety New Deal activism when he got out of the service, joining the lefty, but noncommunist, American Veterans Committee in 1945. When he noticed that the Communists, accused of infiltrating the organization, were the only ones who got anything done, he signed up. Three years later Rowland answered the call to action of a homosexual comrade, Harry Hay, and the first real gay-rights organization was born.