Copyright © 1996 The American Studies Association. All rights reserved. This work may be used, with this header included, for noncommercial purposes within a subscribed institution. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically outside of the subscribed institution, in whole or in part, without express written permission from the JHU Press.
American Quarterly 48.3 (1996) 395-414

Homosex Changes:
Race, Cultural Geography, and the Emergence of the Gay

Kevin J. Mumford

In the 1931 homosexual novel, Strange Brother, white author Blair Niles explores the world of Greenwich Village bohemians and urban speakeasies. In many ways, Niles is critical of these sophisticated bohemians who, in search of pleasure and excitement, go "slumming" to the teeming underworld of Harlem. Indeed, the novel's central character, June Westbrook, represents the stereotypical slummer: one who admires but also objectifies the black entertainers and patrons of the Harlem speakeasy scene. Another white character in Strange Brother, Mark Thornton, receives a more sympathetic portrayal because he is a homosexual. Raised in a small Midwestern town, Mark reads an article in Survey Graphic, a leading social reform journal that featured the burgeoning culture of Harlem. Of course, that issue of the journal eventually was reprinted as The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke; it would deeply influence a generation of African American writers and artists. Significantly, the volume also influences Mark, who, allured by the prospects of urban excitement, leaves rural America and sets out for New York. After arriving, Mark discovers the homosexual scene and the slumming areas on the periphery of Harlem. Like June, Mark travels to Harlem to patronize the speakeasy scene. Eventually, through sexual contacts in the Harlem library, Mark is introduced to the underground world of black/white homosexual speakeasies. In search [End Page 395] of freedom, like many African Americans of the era, Mark too has made a journey to Harlem. 1

The cultural history of the novel Strange Brother tells us another important story about the place of homosexuality in the urban north, providing a precedent for Mark's claim that he felt a kind of affinity with African American culture and institutions. In the early 1930s, the sociologist Ernest Burgess and his students at the University of Chicago conducted a survey of the city's rental libraries and drug stores in order to document the circulation of novels with homosexual themes. Their reports indicated that, in general, retailers "can't keep up with public demand for risque and sex books." Homosexual men, the reports indicated, read these texts as a way to escape isolation, resist prejudice, and reconstruct their sexual subjectivities. In a sociological interview, for example, one homosexual subject recalled that he had read "'Weel of Lonlieness' [sic] as well as 'Strange Brother.'" The young man valued these books because he "would like to live their lives." 2 Many retailers reported that Strange Brother was among the most widely read books that they carried. Significantly, in several rental libraries, proprietors placed Strange Brother and other homosexual novels in the "colored section." Thus, while Mark, a white homosexual, found affirmation and tolerance by traveling to black Harlem, urban retailers displayed novels with homosexual themes in black sections, suggesting the extent to which the borders between black and homosexual geographical spaces were blurred by clandestine crossings. 3 At the same time, these proprietors distinguished Strange Brother from mainstream novels not by stigmatizing it as homosexual (many did not even have a "homosexual section"), but rather by locating it within another, readily available system of social and spatial hierarchy--race. In other words, searching for a way to classify Strange Brother, the proprietors "racialized" the homosexual text.

The definitional power of texts versus that of subculture, the significance of urban borders, the racialization of sexuality: these issues are addressed in the following attempt to enter the long-standing historical debate on the emergence of homosexuality in the early twentieth century. Through the creative use of medical texts, official investigation documents, and personal interviews, historians have identified the decades between 1890 and 1930 as a kind of turning point in the formation of homosexuality. 4 In his influential 1983 article, "Capitalism and Gay Identity," John D'Emilio argued that in the [End Page 396] twentieth century, the emergence of capitalism opened up new spaces for same-sex desire by accelerating the process of urbanization. 5 Freed from the constraints of small-town family life, homosexuals could socialize, make sexual contacts, and form social communities. The endurance of "Capitalism and Gay Identity" as a seminal piece speaks for itself. D'Emilio's history of the modern homosexual is based upon the experience of white men under capitalism. My essay centers the structural transformation of the Great Migration. 6

In addition to the social structural arguments of the new social history, scholars also have researched the medical or scientific "construction" of homosexuality. Two conceptions of homosexuality competed for authority during the 1920s. According to one theory, male/male sexual desire was defined through a model of gender inversion. In this conception, male inverts--men who desired other men--appropriated the female gender cultural mode, reflecting the dominant belief that sexual being and gender role were inextricably linked. The invert's partner performed the masculine role and did not necessarily distinguish his relations with men from his relations with women. 7 George Chauncey locates the origins of the invert in working-class neighborhoods and institutions. The available evidence suggests that, at least within the medical discourse, another model of homosexuality developed. In this model, drawing on Freud's theory of perversion, the key signifier of homosexuality was not gender reversal but the object to which sexual desire was directed. The historical problem is measuring dispersal: To what extent was the emergence of the object-relations model in medical science actually dispersed and accepted among the men who desired other men? In an essay on the social history of homosexuality, Chauncey sought to qualify his earlier discursive thesis and shift interpretive emphasis to subculture, and argued for the centrality of subcultural definitions of inverts. Currently, a generation of historians are studying the sexual dimension of everyday life, through the methods of ethnographical historiography. While not ignoring discourse--by which I mean texts and rituals--the most important recent studies privilege subculture over all else. In this method, the early twentieth century represented an era of continuity, in which gender inversion, originating in working-class culture, defined homosexual desire, while emergent theories of "object choice" may have interested and influenced doctors but not sexual life on the streets of New York. 8 [End Page 397]

My reading of Chauncey's Gay New York, combined with my own research, nevertheless suggests, first, that the early twentieth century was an era of sexual change and, more importantly, that the social and textual remain interrelated and reciprocal. The issue can be most clearly stated as a collegial question to the ethnographic approach: If discourse actually followed social historical developments, then what precisely causes and shapes sexual change? The point is that one can go too far in centering subcultural experience, or memory, to the detriment of discourse--to the detriment, that is, of an individuality constituted through the idiosyncratic absorption of material culture, novels, music, and films. In searching for the moments of historical transformation of homosexuality in the 1920s, then, I would not dismiss discursive events, but I would not end my historical analysis there. One answer to the question of historical causation is to suggest that both discourse (a novel like Strange Brother) and urban social developments (the events described in Strange Brother) caused the diversification of models or modes of homosexuality. The purpose of this article is to understand the ways in which "race" and African American cultural discourse figured in this transformation.

Through re-reading some documents from 1930s sociology of deviance, it is possible to provide preliminary theoretical answers to these questions of group relations and cultural interaction. In one such essay written for a seminar on "social deviance," a University of Chicago graduate student argued that the homosexual, like other social outcasts psychically injured by modern anomie, suffered from social ostracism. 9 The student's comparison was more accurate than he realized: African American urban culture, specifically black/white vice districts and institutions, directly influenced white homosexual men.

Historians have located male invert communities in several northern cities as early as the 1890s. According to sexologist Havelock Ellis, "the world of sexual inverts is, indeed, a large one in any American city." Further, "every city has its numerous meeting places: certain churches where inverts congregate; certain cafes well known for the inverted character of their patrons." Inverts gathered in clubs that, according to one observer, "were really dance-halls attached to saloons, which were presided over by [invert] waiters and musicians . . ." 10 In Chicago, reformers reported on "men who impersonate females [and] are among the vaudeville entertainers, in the saloons. Unless these men are known, it is difficult to detect their sex." A similar report stated that [End Page 398] the clubs included "men who dress in women's clothing and women who dress in men's clothing." 11 The central distinguishing feature of invert institutions, at least to outside observers, was the creative reversal of gender roles--men behaved like women and women like men.

Some of the invert dance halls and social rituals included interracial association. According to one report, for example, invert meeting places included "certain cafes patronized by both Negroes and whites, and were [considered to be] the seat of male solicitation." 12 In 1893, Charles H. Hughes reported "that there is, in the city of Washington, D.C., an annual convocation of Negro men called the drag dance, which is an orgy of lascivious debauchery." According to Hughes, a "similar organization was lately suppressed by the police of New York city." 13 One authority on sexual disorders, after witnessing such a dance, believed that the participants were "Homosexual complexion perverts"--men who suffered from a kind of "social reverse complexion" syndrome, in which color or racial difference substituted for the gender difference in the sexual relationship. In discussing the prevalence of this disorder, the observer compared homosexual with heterosexual relations, noting that "even white women sometimes prefer colored men to white men and vice versa." In 1913, prison reformer Margaret Otis observed intense personal relations between black and white female inmates; in her nascent theory of "situational lesbianism," she argued that the difference in color substituted for gender difference. Otis refers to the white women involved with black women as "nigger lovers," suggesting the extent to which reformers understood black/white homosexual relations through reference to the taboo against black/white heterosexual relations. Likewise, one observer termed a social gathering of black and white homosexual men a " miscegenation dance." 14 These references to race reveal the extent to which social outsiders relied on racial difference--specifically the ideology of "miscegenation"--to conceptualize sexual attraction between people of the same gender.

Racialization was more than a matter of reformers relying on race to understand inversion. Ideologies of racial difference also shaped the subculture from within. 15 In an interview between a University of Chicago sociologist and a black homosexual, the young man recounted his earliest experiences socializing with other male inverts. Leo reported that at age 16, he had read about same-sex desire and learned [End Page 399] that men who desired men were effeminate--a lesson that made a deep impression on him. At age 18, Leo was introduced to the sexual underworld of inverts "through a friend from Milwaukee," who invited Leo to a party: "I saw boys dance together, calling each other husband and wife, and several of them were arguing about men." Indeed, Leo's choice of terms that denoted homosexuality--words like "sissy" and "nelly"--ultimately described a kind of gender reversal. 16 One can read this evidence from both black and white participants in the invert clubs to reveal a shared language, a common set of social practices, and similar constructions of sexuality. At the same time, fragments of evidence describing black/white male homosexuality before 1900 almost always indicate that black men adopted the female role The opposite was true of black female inverts, who were seen as more manly. 17

I want to suggest that the invert's performance of polarized gender roles--the exaggeration of the difference between the highly feminine female roles and the masculine male roles--paralleled the constructed opposition between blackness and whiteness. Miscegenation dances were, first and foremost, racial events, and yet when inverts formed black/white dances, the fundamental opposition between "races" historically central to "miscegenation" rituals probably enhanced the pleasurable opposition between gender roles within the invert culture. After 1900, many inverts gathered in "Black and Tans," which were saloons that catered primarily to black men and white women. Established in New York in the early-nineteenth century, and in Chicago in the 1870s, the Black and Tans were considered outlaw institutions because they fostered a sexual world turned upside down--with black men dancing the lead and, symbolically, on the top. Given the marginal position of the Black and Tan, it was possible for inside-out, upside-down inverts, and their potential partners, to enter some Black and Tan-style clubs and enjoy the pleasures of forbidden nightlife.

By the beginning of the 1910s, another formation of same-sex desire, distinguishable from inversion, filtered through the sexual subcultures in Chicago and New York. As the traditional historiography suggests, beginning in the 1890s, scientists and physicians reconceptualized the theory of same-sex desire from one based on a model of gender inversion to a theory that we would recognize as modern homosexuality. In the theory of inversion, the man who desired other men adopted the gender identity of a woman. This was the only way to make sense [End Page 400] of same-sex desire. By the 1920s, physicians were likely to formulate theories of individual deviance, attributing more power to sexuality as a singular force shaping human personalities. Freudian theories of polymorphous perversity reinforced the new conception of homosexuality. With this historical separation of gender from sexuality, it was now possible for a small minority of physicians, psychologists, and sexologists to conceive of a man who desired men and who still behaved like a man. But within the subculture, as recent ethnohistories demonstrate, the older cultural tradition of gender inversion did not disappear. 18

Whether through flamboyant bohemianism or, as I emphasize, the entrance of more black people into the city, it is possible to map the transformation of definitions of homosexuality emerging in the 1920s. The Chicago School sociologist Harvey Zorbaugh's study indicated that the bohemian section of Chicago, Towertown, included homosexual men and women. Also known as the "Village," this enclave was inhabited primarily by white homosexuals. Noting the events of a Sunday tea party, Zorbaugh observed that "there was a good deal of taking one another's arms, sitting on the arms of one another's chairs, and of throwing arms about one another's shoulders. Soon the men were fondling each other, as were the women." These were "fairies" and "lesbians." Like bohemianism in New York, Towertown bohemians constructed homosexuality as a mode of cultural rebellion in the tradition of Free Love. For the most part, these were white men and women. Indeed, as an example of racial prejudice, Zorbaugh noted that a man named "Alonzo," who claimed to be a Spaniard, was shunned by "Village" homosexuals because he was reputed to be an "octoroon." The more renowned homosexual restaurants were also predominately white. Public sex institutions--bathhouses "frequented by queers" or public toilets "notorious" for same-sex activity--were located on the predominately white North Side. But these institutions were not all-white, since African American men had occasion to travel to the North Side and to use the toilets. In addition to the bohemians, there were also the "hobos" who formed homosexual attachments, often involving age difference; while their ranks may have been interracial, the manuscripts dealing with homosexual hobos do not indicate racial background. 19 Zorbaugh did overhear a conversation between two men in a tearoom change suddenly, when "a group of 'homos' from the [predominately African American] South Side also came in." That homosexual men [End Page 401] resided near a black neighborhood suggests the possibility of cultural interchange. 20

Sociological interviews are more suggestive of cultural interaction within specific areas located in black neighborhoods. In his interview entitled, "My Story of Fags, Freaks, and Women Impersonators," a young black man, Walt Lewis, recalled in explicit detail his experiences with both men and women. One incident of public sex with a woman occurred in Washington Park, near Cottage Grove, deep in the heart of Chicago's Black Belt. Washington Park was also known as an area where white and black homosexual men found sexual partners. 21 In Chicago, then, homosexual men, but not lesbians, explored African American neighborhoods for public sex encounters. The few available fragments of evidence suggest that lesbians and homosexual men were more likely to socialize separately. In one Chicago report, the investigator pointed out that "there are very few lesbians and those that do come do not seem to mingle with the others." 22 Although Clark Street or Hobohemia were areas of not only black/white but also male/female interaction, the leisure institutions remained sex segregated. 23

In New York, homosexuals congregated in several areas, including Times Square and Greenwich Village, but some also participated in the black/white vice districts in Harlem. The black gay artist, Richard Nugent, recalled his numerous visits to the Village; the black dancer, Mabel Hampton, remembered the Village as the "place where other lesbians hung out." 24 In the 1920s, the Village became a kind of urban homosexual satellite (and remains central in gay American culture) but another New York neighborhood--Harlem--should also be understood as sexually historic, even if today few gay New Yorkers socialize there. In 1927, in its special investigation, the New York vice commission known as the Committee of Fourteen revealed the existence of black/white homosexual institutions in Harlem. In their published report, the Committee made only a veiled reference to the establishments, referring to "dives" that catered to "specialized types of degeneracy and perversion," but the investigators filed detailed, sometimes sexually explicit, reports. In one, an investigator described the typical underground club: "there were the usual trappings--a large speakeasy room and four rooms for prostitution," with "liquor being served from a five gallon jug." "Couples committed acts of sexual intercourse, unashamed, in view of others." Indeed, on "one visit the investigator saw three couples in the act at the same time." However, the investigator then [End Page 402] noted, almost as an afterthought, that in addition to black and white prostitutes and customers, there were "some fairies." It would be too much to say that the multisexual institutions were ubiquitous in the underground, or even that they were common, but it is worth noting that the investigator was not particularly shocked or surprised by the presence of homosexuals, making only a brief statement buried underneath a descriptive paragraph. 25

In whatever matter they were described, the speakeasies were almost always portrayed as the most immoral and degenerate of leisure institutions. I argue that it was largely because of their location within African American neighborhoods--and because of the presence of black/white mixing--that the speakeasies were stigmatized. To that extent, homosexuality anointed rather than fundamentally constituted the status of the speakeasies as outlaw institutions. For the most part, the colored clubs were located in Harlem, in the area from 126th Street to 152nd Street between Fifth and St. Nicholas Avenues, with a few in Brooklyn. 26 In Chicago, they were located in the "Bright Lights" district, a black neighborhood located between 33rd and 35th Streets, along State Street. Some were black/white clubs, catering to black and white, heterosexual and homosexual, patrons. The investigator also classified some clubs as colored, though white homosexuals also patronized these establishments. One Committee of Fourteen file contained reports of approximately 400 investigations, of which approximately eighty were classified "white and colored" and an additional sixty were considered "colored." The remainder were exclusively white clubs. Reports of homosexuality occurred most often in the colored clubs, and then in the colored and white establishments, while none of the reports within this folder indicated the presence of homosexuality in the "white" speakeasies. 27 To draw a non-systematic, tentative conclusion regarding the investigations into New York sex districts: where African Americans socialized, New York investigators most often identified explicit homosexuality.

From the perspective of the investigators, all black/white mixing was immoral, but some investigators seemed especially disturbed by the presence of same-sex commingling or intimacy. Investigators characterized the homosexual clubs as the "worst." In the margins of one report, the New York investigator noted in pencil: "Very Bad." Another report opened with the familiar statement: "This place is very disreputable." Like the clubs that included black homosexual men, the lesbian [End Page 403] clubs were also viewed as immoral. For instance, one investigator wrote that he was introduced to a "Pussy Party," located in a basement where "various forms of sex perversion [were] committed." Near the top of the entry, his penciled notation reads: "Very Bad." 28

Unlike in Chicago, where the admittedly small body of evidence indicates sex segregation, New York speakeasies frequently welcomed both men and women. 29 While there were the all-male clubs, in which women were not permitted to enter, most New York speakeasies included women and men. 30 Even at a so-called "women's party," in which lesbians performed various sexual acts on each other, there were some men in attendance. Outside the speakeasies, as well, black lesbians socialized with men, at rent parties and buffet flats. Mabel Hampton remembered a series of parties given by A'Leila Walker; she attended one party with a white friend, and witnessed homosexual men and women conversing, dancing, and sometimes engaging in sexual activity. The major exception to the rule that lesbians mixed with homosexuals seems to have been the "sex circuses," in which lesbians often engaged in sexual relations. 31 In general, there were fewer separate lesbian institutions than separate male homosexual institutions, probably because women had less access to the resources necessary both to own and to patronize clubs.

If one were to make a kind of speculative historical thesis about the changing nature of marginal, or underground, sexual institutions, then it would be that the 1890s invert institutions were predominately male but that, in Prohibition-era speakeasies, lesbians were active participants in clubs located in African American geographical spaces. My reading of the sources, as well as my historical interests, point to a central characteristic of the underground speakeasy: the diversity of patrons. A rare but telling observation of a nightclub makes the point: "Every night we find the place crowded with both races, the black and the white, both types of lovers, the homo and heterosexual." 32 Some of these underground speakeasies included Chinese and Filipino men (who, according to the evidence, were heterosexual). This multitude of differences--racial, gender, sexual, ethnic--helped to create a speakeasy culture of fluidity that sharply contrasted with the ritualized rigidity of gender or racial dichotomy characteristic of the old-style Black and Tan and invert drag dance. The earlier invert rituals persisted into the 1920s--Langston Hughes termed them the "Spectacles in Color"--but, in this instance, gender reversal and cross-dressing were [End Page 404] less the direct expression of a thriving subculture and more a performance for white tourists in search of the exciting and exotic. In the "new" clubs, inversion was only part of the story--one among several options of erotic pleasure. 33

Drag dances, cross-dressing, sex inversion did not, of course, disappear from the 1920s speakeasy. Rather, in the clubs, on the margins, "sexual inverts" were joined by homosexual men and women who did not necessarily privilege gender--specifically the cultural accoutrements of manhood and womanhood--as the mode through which to express sexual desire. The point I am making is far outside current theorizing, and cannot be supported with extensive evidence, but the available sources, combined with my critical position, prompt me to argue for a discursive rupture in the definitional structure of sexual desire that originated in the urban matrix of georgraphical transformation, border crossings, and cultural interchange.

One indication of the softening of the rigid inversion model and the diversification of modes of sexual expression is found in the reports written by virtual insiders, the vice investigators. From the perspective of the investigators, cross-dressing itself did not serve as the privileged signifier of homosexuality. In classifying a given patron's sexuality, an investigator surely would label as homosexual any man dressed as a woman; but the investigator classified a man as homosexual, however he dressed, whatever his comportment, when he exhibited sexual attraction toward another man. If there was cross-dressing--and there probably was--in sharp contrast to the witnesses of turn-of-the-century invert rituals, 1920s vice investigators did not find the practice especially notable. The underground speakeasies most often investigated were not apparently popular among sex inverts, and "sexual behavior" rather than gender performance was an increasingly popular way to express intimate desire.

Urban sociologists in the field reported examples of homosexual men who actually behaved like "men." These scholars were now more likely to employ a popularized version of Freud to describe the same-sex phenomena. Certainly the tradition of inversion persisted--at least to the extent that some social scientists believed that the homosexual personality was "effeminate"--but now gender inversion was but one among several theories of same-sex desire. In a discussion of homosexuals and speakeasies, a University of Chicago graduate student pointed to a club "located in the Negro district of the south side where [End Page 405] a cabaret of the black and tan variety operates mainly for their [homosexuals'] benefit." In his view, in such clubs "the social taboos of a conventional society have been raised and the repressed individual can find full expression for those smoldering desires burning within." 34 Rather than gendered artifice, homosexuality is an overwhelming sexual instinct. Throughout his essay, the student draws on concepts like "polymorphous perversity," "instinctive craving," and "neurotic state" to make sense of his observations of black and white homosexual men dancing at a Black and Tan. The student's relatively novel conception of Freudianism--the opposition between society and individual desire, the language of "repression" and "expression"--mark this description of homosexuality as decidedly more modern than the racialized discourse of miscegenation employed by the authorities who studied inversion. But the significance of race did not decline with the rise of Freudianism. For the point of the graduate student's Freudian description was to suggest that a black context--a "black and tan" cabaret in a "Negro district"--was critical to releasing the "internalized inhibitions of civilization." Because they were the most marginalized of dance clubs, the Black and Tans tolerated stigmatized behavior, providing a context in which homosexual men and women could experience and perform their desires. Rather than a world turned upside-down, I want to suggest, the Black and Tan speakeasy attempted to offer a place in which there were no prohibitions or inhibitions. Indeed, the above description ultimately reveals the extent to which Freudianism in America relied on a particular racialized conception of the id. Some black men probably accepted the Freudian theories. In his correspondence, gay black social worker Glen Carrington sometimes invoked Freudianism, particularly the drive theory of homosexual desire. 35 Nevertheless, psychological concepts like internal drives and sex instinct were associated with the primitive. By the 1920s, as Ann Douglas demonstrates, the primitive in turn had become closely linked to the construction of black sexuality. 36 By absorbing black sexuality in the vice districts, the figure of the feminized (sexually impotent) invert was, in effect, sexualized--transformed into the modern homosexual, with a powerful, if pathological, erotic instinct.

The contacts between African Americans and homosexuals in speakeasies constituted direct cultural exchange through the creation of sexualized social practices. The reports can be read to suggest that in the diverse, fluid context of the speakeasy the single unifying theme [End Page 406] was explicit sexuality. In one speakeasy, for instance, the investigator reported that "two men were dancing with each other kissing and sucking tongues." In another club, an investigator observed, the "women were dancing with each other, imitating the motions of sexual intercourse and the men were dancing with each other, all indecently." Another report on an all-black speakeasy indicated that "the women were dancing with one another and going through the motions of copulation, and the men were dancing with one another." 37 Patrons probably danced the "Black Bottom" or the "Turkey Trot"--dances brought by African Americans from the south that circulated in a variety of northern urban venues--but the underground homosexual speakeasy versions were sexualized. These reports support the thesis that African American cultural practices, especially dance, shaped homosexuality not in some abstract, indistinct way, but directly through the communal molding of dance forms that were often indistinguishable from sexual intercourse. 38 It does not require a huge leap of faith to believe that this public, interactive construction of sexualized dance extended its influence off the dance floor, choreographing the supposedly "private" performance of sexual intercourse. 39

The music of the speakeasy reinforced the sexualized dancing. As the historian Eric Garber has demonstrated, black blues singers, including Gladys Bentley, Alberta Hunter, George Hanna, and Ma Rainey, performed songs with sexually explicit lyrics, featuring terms like "sissy" and "bulldagger." Some of the lyrics hinted at the fluidity of sexual desire: "if you can't bring me a woman, bring me a sissy man." 40 Lyrics dealing with women suggested the superiority of lesbian sexual practices, entreating men, for example, to perform oral sex. Lillian Faderman interprets several of the blues songs as nascent radical lesbian texts, which proclaim the superiority of lesbianism. In a sense, homosexual themes were common among certain blues lyrics, but it would be wrong to deduce from their frankness that the blues reflected a broad acceptance of homosexuality in African American neighborhoods. Faderman relies on evidence of Harlem lesbians who received marriage licenses and lived as married couples, but the countervailing evidence of antivice rhetoric among black reformers and religious leaders suggests that genuine tolerance was rare. Moreover, as indicated, the majority of Harlem clubs that catered to homosexuals were deeply marginalized, frequently located in tenement apartments. The more visible and accessible a Harlem club became, it seems, the [End Page 407] more heterosexual its patrons. The homosexual speakeasies were hypervigilant for good reason: they feared exposure and expulsion. Nevertheless, the clubs were located in Harlem, and not in white neighborhoods. This could represent the relative inability of black Harlemites to evict the institutions they viewed as harmful; or the presence of clubs in Harlem could suggest a greater acceptance of the marginalized. 41

Still, with titles such as "Boy in the Boat," the songs left little to the imagination. But, of course, that was the point: like speakeasy dances, African American songs helped to create the performance and experience of same-gender sexual relations. So central was the institutional culture of the speakeasy to the "practices" of homosexuality that it shaped white homosexual life outside of the clubs. For example, in the 1930s, Earl Bruce, a University of Chicago graduate student, studied the patterns of behavior among white homosexual men at a private party, at which the men attempted to recreate the speakeasy scene. According to Bruce, "When we arrived at the apartment, one of the homosexuals sent out for a gallon of beer and a few pints of whiskey." The ages of the members ranged from twenty-six to thirty-seven. According to Bruce "the owner of the apartment, a homosexual about 25 years of age, runs a small dancing school downtown. Many of his pupils are homosexual." At the party a "Mr J. [the host] played a number of pornographic records sung by some Negro entertainers; a homosexual theme ran through the lyrics." These homosexual men could be found "swaying to the music of a colored jazz orchestra," providing the "unconventional sight" of "two young men in street clothes dancing together, cheek to cheek." 42 During interviews, white homosexual men revealed not only that they liked to dance, but also that they "like music, singers, especially negro singers." 43 Mabel Hampton also noted the significance of private parties, particularly because the gatherings were interracial. Of course, in the background of the typical gathering one could hear "jazz"--a word that not only denoted black music, but also, in the parlance of some African Americans, prostitutes, and homosexuals, jazz meant sexual intercourse. 44

The common usage of jazz among inhabitants of the urban sexual margins suggests the historical significance of the circulation and exchange of cultural forms. Because of the racial segregation of vice, African Americans represented the primary group influencing the [End Page 408] fundamental culture of the vice districts. Because of social repression, some stigmatized white groups temporarily inhabited these districts. Sharing space in the speakeasies resulted in shared music, dance, and language. In my work, I have chosen African American spaces as sites for historical exploration, so my findings tend to emphasize the ways in which black culture influenced, indeed constituted, groups who socialized within these marginal zones. Clearly, however, white homosexual culture also constituted black homosexuality and, perhaps, influenced African American heterosexuality in general. Thus, sociological interviews with African American men often indicate that their earliest homosexual experiences were with white men, who were already initiated into a world of same-sex desire. 45

In any case, as several scholars have argued, Freudian theories of homosexuality detached gender from sexuality and privileged sexuality as a discrete, fundamentally determinative aspect of the human psyche. 46 Freud supplied the formal modern theory of homosexuality. Yet, within African American neighborhoods, and within the outlaw tenement clubs, the carefully constructed languages, dances, and music interacted with discourses of "perversion" circulating in the mainstream. Text and context, performance and practice, combined to create a fledgling version of modern homosexuality.

To return to the story of black homosexuals: it would be wrong to leave the impression that these homosexual men and women lived in some sort of urban utopia. A brief, concluding analysis of Wallace Thurman, probably the most gifted writer of the Harlem Renaissance, makes the point. Wallace Thurman grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, attended the University of Southern California, and after reading about the city, moved to Harlem in 1925. Soon after arriving, Thurman found himself virtually alone, with few resources, and unemployed. Writing about himself in the third person, Thurman recounted his initial hardship to William Rapp, a close friend: "he [Thurman] had a little stake which has soon gone. He found no job. He had no room rent and was hungry." Thurman secured a job as an elevator man, but then lost the position. That day "he returned homeward." According to Thurman's recollection, "At 135th St. he got off the subway, and feeling nature's call went into the toilet. There was a man loitering in there. The man spoke." At this point in the letter, at precisely the moment when the homosexual act surfaces, Thurman switches from the third to the first person. Thurman wrote: "He did more than speak, making me know [End Page 409] what his game was. I laughed. He offered me two dollars. I accepted." At some point during the sexual exchange, police men burst out of a porter's mop closet, and arrested the two men. Thurman found himself in night court. He was fined twenty-five dollars. At this point, in recounting the story, Thurman draws a sharp distinction between himself and the man who propositioned him. According to Thurman, the man was a "Fifth Avenue hair dresser," who had been previously arrested for approaching men in bathrooms. 47

Over and again, throughout his correspondence, Thurman denies his allegations. His personal papers and literary inclinations suggest that Thurman was a pioneer of the black gay imagination. As Thurman proclaimed, "there was certainly no evidence therein that I was homosexual." His strident denials were not sufficient to save his reputation. "You can also imagine with what relish a certain group of Negroes in Harlem received and relayed the news that I was a homo." 48

Seven years after his arrest for the homosexual incident, Wallace Thurman published a roman à clef of the Harlem Renaissance, entitled Infants of the Spring. 49 The novel, more than any other of the several works about Harlem in the 1920s, centered on black/white sexual relations. Indeed, the central black character, Raymond, becomes enamored with the central white character, Stephen (a Swedish man visiting Harlem for the first time). Raymond believes that their relationship can transcend race: "There was something delightfully naive, and childlike, about their frankly acknowledged affection for one another. Like children, they seemed to be totally unconscious of their racial difference." Ultimately, however, Stephen begins dating two black women, then abandons Raymond, and eventually his admiration for Harlem devolves into a crude racism. 50 Thurman's Infants of the Spring is the first published novel by an African American writer that portrays black/white homosexual relations, and perhaps more significantly, the depths and expression of sexual racism.

In the marginal geographies of black/white vice districts, the fictional character whom I discussed in the opening of the essay, Mark Thornton, would have read and appreciated Wallace Thurman's novels about Harlem nightlife and homosexuality. And, certainly, Thurman could have had a brief liason with an urban explorer like Mark in a Harlem speakeasy or subway toilet. The story of their liasons suggest the complex phenomenon--social structural, ethnographic, discursive, intersubjective--that variously intersect to create American culture.

Independent Scholar

Kevin Mumford received a Ph.D. in history from Stanford University, the author of Interzones: Black/White Sex Districts in Chicago and New York in the Early Twentieth Century (forthcoming), and is at work on a book on U.S. slavery and the Works Progress Administration.


The author wishes to thank Herman Gray, Michael Cowan, Scott Bravmann, the audiences of the history department at the University of California at Berkeley, the cultural studies reading group at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and the American studies department at the University of Minnesota.

1. Blair Niles,Strange Brother (1931; London, 1990).

2. "Homosexual Interview," Ernest Burgess Collection, Regenstein Library,University of Chicago, box 127, folder 8. Ernest Burgess headed the study of the social deviance at the University of Chicago throughout the 1920s and 1930s. An obsessive researcher, Burgess saved thousands of documents, ranging from his research notes to essays he assigned graduate students. Included in his collection are boxes of material regarding homosexuality, which, interestingly, he did not use in a published work, probably because of the stigma associated with the study of same sex desire.

3. Although theNew York Times reviewed fourteen of Niles's previous novels, they refused to review Strange Brother, probably because of its sympathetic treatment of homosexuality. See Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A New Documentary (New York, 1983), 468; on survey of rental libraries, see Burgess Collection, mss., box 89, folder 11.

4. An excellent summary and conceptualization of the medical literature isKatz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac, 137-74; Kenneth Plummer, ed., Making of the Modern Homosexual (London, 1981).

5. D'Emilio's essay was first published in Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell,and Sharon Thompson, eds., Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality (New York, 1983), 100-113; it has been reprinted in numerous anthologies, but never revised. See introductory note in John D'Emilio, Making Trouble: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and the University (New York, 1992), 3; this theory forms the theoretical structure for John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York, 1988).

6. For a critique of D'Emilio's racial exclusion, see Scott Bravmann,"Telling Histories: Rethinking the Lesbian and Gay historical Imagination," Out/Look 8 (spring 1990): 68-74; D'Emilio, "Capitalism and Gay Identity," 9.

7. Michel Foucault,The History of Sexuality, Volume I, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York, 1978); George Chauncey Jr., "From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the Changing Conceptualization of Female Deviance," in Kathy Peiss and Christina Simmons, eds., Passion and Power, 87-117; Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain From the Nineteenth Century (London, 1978).

8. Chauncey, "From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality," 93-98; Foucault, History of Sexuality, Volume I; on inverts, George Chauncey, Jr., "Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era," in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr. (New York, 1991), 294-317. The finest study of the discourse/community issue is Lisa Duggan's analysis of narratives and lesbian subjectivity, which combines a discussion of a lesbian murder trial and the popular press with a discussion of sexology. See Lisa Duggan, "The Trials of Alice Mitchell: Sensationalism, Sexology, and the Lesbian Subject in Turn-of-the-Century America," Signs 18 (summer 1993): 791-815.

9. The pioneering theoretical essay that questions the hegemony of genderanalysis is Gayle Rubin's "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality," in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin (New York, 1993), 3-44; Burgess Papers, ca. 1930s, box 145, file 10.

10. Greg Sprague, "On the 'Gay Side' of Town: The Nature and Structure ofMale Homosexuality in Chicago, 1890-1935," 7; Katz, Gay American History, 80-81.

11. The Vice Commission of Chicago,The Social Evil in Chicago (Chicago, 1911), 127; Havelock Ellis quoted in Katz, Gay American History (New York, 1976), 80-81.

12. Katz,Gay/Lesbian Almanac, 307.

13. Quoted in Katz,Gay American History, 66-67.

14. Greg Sprague, "On the Gay Side of Town," 13-15; Margaret Otis, "APerversion Not Commonly Noted," Journal of Abnormal Psychology 8 (1913): 113-17; Katz, Gay American History, 75.

15. Thus in a discussion of public sexual activity, one Washington D.C.authority reported that "under the very shadow on the White House," one could find inverts searching for partners. "Both white and black were represented among these moral hermaphrodites, but the majority of them were negroes." See Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac, 234. William Jones argues that in Washington D.C., commercial amusements and, presumably, sexual relations were strictly segregated. This was not the case for same-sex relations, as much of the evidence of Washington D.C. indicates extensive racial mixing. See William H. Jones, Commercial Amusements Among Negroes in Washington D.C. (Washington D.C., 1927).

16. "Leo," Burgess Collection, box 98, folder 11, 1, 12-15.

17. Again see Katz,Gay American History, 66-67, 75; Sprague, "On the Gay Side of Town," 13-15; Katz, Gay American History, 101-2; also see George Henry, Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns, vol. 1 (New York, 1941), 350-51, 425-26, 438-45.

18. George Chauncey, Jr., "From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality:Medicine and the Changing Conceptualization of Female Deviance," in Passion and Power: Sexuality and History, ed. Kathy Peiss and Christina Simmons (Philadelphia, 1989), 93-98.

19. On the unique sexual practices of the hobo subculture, see interviewwith J. P. Smith, 13 Oct., 1934, Burgess Collection, box 134, folder 2, 9 pp.; also see Sprague, "On the Gay Side of Town," 15-16.

20. Harvey Warren Zorbaugh,The Gold Coast and the Slum (1929; Chicago, 1976), 96, 102, 100; quoted in Sprague, "On the Gay Side of Town," 19; The corner of Randolph and State Streets, near the Navy base, was another site of public sex activity, particularly among sailors who solicited "fairies" for money. See Burgess Collection, 29 Jun. 1933, location unknown.

21. "My Story of Fags, Freaks and Women Impersonators by Walt Lewis,"Burgess Collection, mss., box 98, file 11, 2; quoted in Sprague, "On the Gay Side of Town," 20; "Mr. K.," Burgess Collection, mss., box 98, file 11.

22. Burgess Collection, mss., 21 June 1928, box 145, folder 10; virtuallyall of the literature on lesbianism supports the thesis of separate socialization, which, therefore, makes my findings on Harlem cross-gender social institutions all the more significant. See Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America (New York, 1992).

23. Katz,Gay American History, 76-77; Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac, 307.

24. Mabel Hampton, interview five, with the kind permission of Joan Nestle.

25. Committee of Fourteen, Investigator Report, 21 June 1928, box 85.

26. Committee of Fourteen, mss., 8 Jun. 1928, box 37; Committee ofFourteen, mss., 16 May 1928, box 37; Annual Report of the Committee of Fourteen (1928), 31-34.

27. Committee of Fourteen, Investigator Report, 1928, box 37.

28. Committee of Fourteen, Investigator Report, 8 June 1928, box 37.

29. An investigator reported that "in thirteen night clubs andspeakeasies, there were fourteen homo-sexual of both sexes observed." Committee of Fourteen, mss., Investigator Report, box 37.

30. Committee of Fourteen, mss., 1928, box 85.

31. Faderman,Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, 76; "Sex Circuses" were often discussed in connection with homosexuals and lesbians, but an interview with a young black men about the sexual underground of Chicago reveals that there were also heterosexual "sex circuses." See "My Story of Fags, Freaks and Women Impersonators by Walt Lewis," Burgess Collection, box 98, file 11; on lesbian circuses, see Eric Garber, "A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem," in Hidden from History, 322-23.

32. Burgess Collection, box 121, folder 6. The black gay artist, RichardNugent, pointed out that not only ethnic difference, but also class diversity was a feature of some establishments. He recalled a certain club where men could find "rough trade." See Garber, "Spectacle in Color," 323.

33. Langston Hughes,The Big Sea: An Autobiography (1940; New York, 1986), 273.

34. Burgess Collection, box 127, folder 8; The German Freudianpsychoanalyst, Wilhelm Stekel, was influential in American discussions of sexuality. See, for instance, Wilhelm Stekel, Impotence in the Male, 2 vols. (New York, 1927), including his detailed discussion of homosexuality, in Ibid., vol. 2, chaps. 18, 20.

35. Glen Carrington Papers, correspondence from Glen Carrington, to David,8 Feb. 1926, box 5.

36. For an important discussion of Freud, race, and urban culture, see AnnDouglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York, 1995), 95-97.

37. Committee of Fourteen, Investigator Report, box 36 (25 May 1928); Committee of Fourteen, Investigator Report, n.d., box 37; also "pervert practices" in majority heterosexual black/white speakeasy, Committee of Fourteen, mss., Investigator Report, box 36, "Lenox Avenue Club," investigated in February, March, June, 1928.

38. Committee of Fourteen, Investigator Report, 28 May 1928; box 36; Committee of Fourteen, Investigator Report, 8 June 1928, box 37; investigators reported sexualized dance in heterosexual speakeasies as well, Committee of Fourteen, Old Kid Morris Dance Hall, 22 June 1928. There are limitations of the evidence here: we do not know the precise movements of each dance.

39. Lynne Fauley Emery,Black Dance in the United States From 1619 to 1970 (Palo Alto, Calif., 1972); Katrina Hazzard-Gordon, Jookin': The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture (Philadelphia, 1990).

40. See Eric Garber, "T'Ain't Nobody's Business: Homosexuality in 1920s Harlem," in Black Men, White Men, A Gay Anthology, ed. Michael J. Smith (San Francisco, 1983), 7-16; Garber, "A Spectacle in Color," 320.

41. Faderman,Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, 76-78; Garber, "T'Ain't Nobody's Business," 7-16; Garber, "A Spectacle in Color," 320.

42. "Observations by Earle Bruce," Burgess Collection, box 127, file 8.

43. "Harold, age twenty-one," Burgess Collection, box 127, folder 8, 5.

44. M. Hampton, Joan Nestle's possession, interview 5; for use by a blackman in a homosexual context, see "My Story of Fags, Freaks and Women Impersonators by Walt Lewis," Burgess Collection, box 98, file 11, 1; for use by white prostitutes, see Chicago Committee of Fifteen, Investigator Manuscripts, 12:340-41.

45. "My Story of Fags," Burgess Collection, box 98, file 11; "Lester,"Burgess Collection, box 98, file 11; "Leo," ca. 1930s, Burgess Collection, box 98, file 11.

46. Chauncey, "From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality," 93-98; Foucault, History of Sexuality, Volume I; on inverts, George Chauncey, Jr., "Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era," in Duberman, Hidden From History, 294-317.

47. Wallace Thurman to William Rapp, ca. 1926, James Weldon JohnsonCollection, Beineke Library, Yale University, box 1, file 7.

48. Wallace Thurman to William Rapp, 1 June 1929, James Weldon Johnson Collection, box 1, file 7; Wallace Thurman to William Rapp, ca. 1926, James Weldon Johnson Collection, box 1, file 7; on his divorce and marriage, Wallace Thurman to Claude McKay, 4 Oct. 1928, James Weldon Johnson Collection, box 5.

49. Wallace Thurman, Infants of the Spring (1932; Boston, 1992).

50. Ibid., 34.