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Celebrating our rich and surprising history in George Chauncey’s groundbreaking “GAY NEW YORK”

Posted on October 01, 2017 by Amy Heller | 0 Comments

As Milestone audiences probably know, when we prepare to restore and/or release a film, we really “do our homework.” Frankly, research is one of the great joys of our work. 

[And we do sometimes go to great lengths... our notes on Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers is 66 pages long! You can always access Milestone’s press kits for free here.] 

Our home and office (and garage) are brimming with books on such sundry topics as Antarctic exploration, animation history, NYC’s Chelsea Hotel, ballerina Anna Pavlova, the LA Rebellion, Cuban cigar boxes, surrealism in cinema, and twentieth-century Persia. We even have an autobiography written posthumously by Rudolph Valentino! 

But every now and then a book we consult for a particular film turns out to be so much more. That was my experience reading George Chauncey’s extraordinary Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. For background, when I picked it up and starting reading, my goal was to learn some context that would help me understand the city that Jason Holliday (born, Aaron Payne) inhabited. Holliday, the solo star of Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, actually lived in New York some time after the book’s focus, and at first I thought I would skip Chauncey’s volume and just focus on post-war histories. Thank goodness I decided to go ahead and reserve all the books in my Bergen County library system that seemed even remotely applicable.

Gay New York is a revelation — or more properly, a series of revelations — about a world whose very existence was previously all but invisible. Chauncey did an extraordinary amount of original, far-reaching, and undoubtedly back-breaking research — exploring existing oral histories, less-referenced periodicals (including black newspapers), police records, sexual histories collected at the Kinsey Institute, cultural references (cartoons, songs, movies, plays), and interviewing survivors of the pre-war city. He uncovered and brilliantly describes a history that was more vibrant, complex, and fascinating than the sad underworld many earlier writers had described. 

Right from the opening pages of his introduction, the author tells us that he is going to challenge three widely-accepted truisms of about lives of gay men and women in the years before World War II — the myths of isolation, invisibility, and internalization. Despite very real and powerful societal, legal, institutional, and religious forces allied against them, gay people found ways to form communities, recognize one another (and at times assert their identities publicly), and feel joy and self-confidence. Chauncey quotes one physician who, after interviewing working-class “fags” in the New York City jails in the 1920s, found to his dismay that many were “proud to be degenerates, [and] do not want nor care to be cured.” Another doctor reported that one “loquacious, foul-mouthed and foul-minded ‘fairy’ [was] lost to every sense of shame; believing himself designed by nature to play the very part he is playing in life.” 

Chauncey also boldly asks the reader to recognize that the terms and categories we now use to describe sexual and gender orientation have changed over time. Consider this: the term “the closet” did not exist until the 1960s. When gay men talked about “coming out” in earlier years, they were often talking about coming out into the gay world.

You know who else “comes out?” Debutantes. And in 1931 the Baltimore Afro-American reported on a celebration using the headline below:

And check out the terminology the newspaper uses! In the past, the press, police, and other societal arbiters referred to gay people as “neuter gender,” “inverts,” “the third sex,” “fairies,” “faggots,” “pansies,” (and other flowers) “degenerates,” and in one Greenwich Village paper, “short-haired women and long-haired men.”

It is worth noting that these categories described classifications we might not recognize today. “Fairies” were effeminate men who wore unusual and distinctive garb (sometimes women’s clothing, but often eccentric articles like red ties or brightly colored suits) and behaved in a distinctively “feminine” manner, including holding their wrists limply and speaking in higher-pitched voices. These stereotypical behaviors signaled their identity and sexual availability to “queers” and “trade.” Non-effeminate men attracted to other men self-identified as “queer.” “Trade” were men who identified as “normal” (and often had wives or girlfriends) but had sex with other men. There was no concept that would correspond with our idea of “bisexual.” Men were not defined by their choice of sexual partner, and many “normal” men “alternated between male and female sexual partners without believing that their interest in one precluded interest in the other.”

The first home to “notorious degenerate resorts [clubs]” was the Bowery on New York’s Lower East Side. There, at the turn of the century, female prostitutes, “fairies,” working-class immigrants, and even slumming uptowners rubbed elbows... and more. Newspapers loved to bemoan the depravity in clubs like The Slide, on nearby Bleecker Street. One New York Herald headline trumpeted “orgies beyond description” and followed with descriptions of rouged and powdered men who lisped and minced. But interestingly, many of the area saloons and dance halls catered to both “fairies” and “normal” men and attracted members of the working, middle, and upper classes — all of whom mingled socially and sexually. 

Starting in the 1890s, the city was also home to huge and elaborate drag balls. By the 1920s and 1930s, thousands of “straight” New Yorkers attended these galas, which were held at such ritzy venues as Madison Square Garden, Webster Hall (seen above) the Astor Hotel, and the Savoy Ballroom. The popularity of the annual Hamilton Lodge Ball in Harlem grew from 600 guests in 1925 to 8,000 in 1937. The festivities there included celebrities like Ethel Waters, crossdressing by men and women, and (according to the New York Age): “all the the panoply of pomp and splendor to give Harlemites who stood in wide-eyed astonishment at this lavish display a treat that shall never be forgotten.”

At the same time, life for gay men could often be dangerous. Effeminate men, who were often seen as less tough and who could not go to the police for help, were targeted and brutalized by gangs. When middle-class men began to self-identify as “queer,” they sometimes chose to live double lives — keeping their sexuality and partners hidden. But having a secret identity made these men vulnerable to societal rejection, blackmail, abuse, and even arrest.

Moral reformers, identifying an increase in “perversion” during the first World War, waged a crusade against homosexuality that included police raids of theaters, bath houses, streets, movie theaters, subway washrooms, restaurants, and saloons resulting in mass arrests and prosecutions. In the 1920s, groups like the Society for the Suppression of Vice also targeted burlesque shows with homosexual acts and Broadway plays featuring gay characters. The NYPD made more arrests for homosexual solicitation — the number convicted rose from 92 men in 1916 to 750 in 1920 — and surveilled known gay meeting places.

I am old (and lucky) enough to remember New York’s great automats and cafeterias and was transported back to them when I read Chauncey’s accounts of the importance of these eateries for gay society. These were public spaces where men could “let their hair down” and meet in relative safety. Some restaurants became noted for their gay clientele — a 1931 guide to NYC told readers that the Child’s cafeteria at Broadway and 48th Street featured “a dash of lavender.” 

But meeting places — especially gay clubs, bars, and dance halls — were also subject to raids organized by anti-gay reformers. The police, fire department, state legislature, and liquor authority worked with the courts to close venues and prosecute gay men — often for such degenerate conduct as camping it up or same-sex dancing.

This persecution of gay establishments picked up steam in the 1930s and accelerated in the postwar year, continuing unabated for decades. In fact, when I got the chance to meet Chauncey he told me that he had a copy of the paperwork depriving Jason Holliday of his cabaret license in the 1960s — an arrest record for solicitation in the name of Aaron Payne. It is worth remembering that anti-sodomy laws existed late into the twentieth century. New York’s law was overturned in 1980 and gay sex was illegal in many states until a 2003 US Supreme Court ruling.  

Journalists and others love to quote George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But for me one of the most powerful lessons of Gay New York is how often cultures, historians, legislators, and whole societies do forget the past. Or more properly, how often the past is obliterated — both deliberately and inadvertently.

People really do have difficulty with the concept of change. Have you ever noticed how surprised folks are every year on the first cold day of winter? Every year the temperature goes down, and every year it seems to astonish shivering individuals who forgot their coats. Part of our historical amnesia is like that.

We grew up knowing that our elders were vilified and punished for same-sex love, so we believed that this was always the case. It wasn’t so. In fact, as Chauncey writes that “gay life in New York was less tolerated, less visible to outsiders, and more rigidly segregated in the second third of the century than the first, and that the very severity of the postwar reaction has tended to blind us to the relative tolerance of the prewar years."

Our prejudices and assumptions are reinforced by our institutions. Chauncey notes that “at a time when the federal government denied funding to gay-related research,” his own work was supported by private foundations and research centers. Gay New York was published in 1994, a time that may seem halcyon by 2017 standards, but even then he wrote, “any historian writing about homosexuality cannot help being cognizant of the potential professional consequences of working on a subject that continues to be marginalized within the discipline.”

So now I step up on my soapbox, in the the tradition of so many outside voices.

At this moment there are so many forces — including our federal government — working to marginalize, disenfranchise, discredit, and erase our past. And as rights are stripped away, we risk forgetting that we ever had them.

In some states, it is all but impossible for women to obtain a legal abortion — for any reason. Schools, and neighborhoods are more racially segregated than they were a generation ago. The Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act and the present administration is obsessed with preventing nonexistent voter “fraud.” The Citizens United ruling establishes corporations as individuals even as real people are losing their civil rights. Police departments are armed with combat weapons and people of color live in fear. University tuitions are as high as $57,000 a year while the Department of Education just ended a program to oversee student loan programs. I am sure we all can go on and on, naming the terrifying changes we are seeing.

Yet we must go on. So what must we do now?

I urge us all to learn, explore and remember all our history. In 1980, Isaac Asimov wrote: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States… nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” Don’t believe it! Make it a point to discover the stories of people often left out of mainstream history: children, women, people of color, gay men, lesbians, transgender people, Native Americans, slaves, factory workers, hoboes, soldiers, prostitutes, suffragists, scientists, servants, tattoo artists, performers, and even politicians. 

Support organizations that continue the work to research and preserve our past. This includes everything from the Association of Moving Image Archivists, the Zinn Education Project, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to your town’s public library and historical society. 

Preserve your own memories and mementos of past. Hang on to those photos, home movies, and diaries! Keep your concert stubs (you can see how old I am), books, political pins, video games. Check out and support Home Movie Day!

Talk about your past in an honest way. Try not to hide the good things you remember, nor sugar-coat the bad.

Here at Milestone, we hope that we are doing the kind of preservation and education that will offer a wider, bolder, and more inclusive view of the art of cinema and of our history. But we also want to foster a community of people who cherish the power and beauty of motion pictures and honor and respect one another. With that in mind, we invite all of you to consider contributing your thoughts to our blog page. If you have something you would like to share, please send it along!

Posted in Aaron Payne, american history, gay history, Gay New York, George Chauncey, history, Jason Holliday, LGBT, LGBTQ, new york city, Portrait of Jason

 

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