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
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.
The cultural history of the novel
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."
Many retailers reported that
was among the most widely read books that they carried. Significantly, in
several rental libraries, proprietors placed
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.
At the same time, these proprietors distinguished
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
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.
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.
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.
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
and urban social developments (the events described in
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.
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 . . ."
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."
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."
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
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 "
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
Racialization was more than a matter of reformers relying on race to
understand inversion. Ideologies of racial difference also shaped the
subculture from within.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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]
a black neighborhood suggests the possibility of cultural interchange.
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.
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."
Although Clark Street or Hobohemia were areas of not only black/white but
also male/female interaction, the leisure institutions remained sex
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
Unlike in Chicago, where the admittedly small body of evidence indicates
sex segregation, New York speakeasies frequently welcomed both men and
While there were the all-male clubs, in which women were not permitted to
enter, most New York speakeasies included women and men.
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.
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."
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
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
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."
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
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.
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]
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
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.
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
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."
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
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."
During interviews, white homosexual men revealed not only that they liked
to dance, but also that they "like music, singers, especially negro
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.
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]
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
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.
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
[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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
"Homosexual Interview," Ernest Burgess Collection, Regenstein
Library,University of Chicago, box 127, folder 8. Ernest Burgess headed
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.
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.
An excellent summary and conceptualization of the medical literature
137-74; Kenneth Plummer, ed.,
Making of the Modern Homosexual
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).
For a critique of D'Emilio's racial exclusion, see Scott Bravmann,"Telling
Histories: Rethinking the Lesbian and Gay historical
8 (spring 1990): 68-74; D'Emilio, "Capitalism and Gay Identity," 9.
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
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
18 (summer 1993): 791-815.
The pioneering theoretical essay that questions the hegemony of
genderanalysis is Gayle Rubin's "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thus in a discussion of public sexual activity, one Washington
D.C.authority reported that "under the very shadow on the White House,"
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,
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).
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.
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.
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.
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,
"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,
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
(New York, 1992).
Katz,Gay American History, 76-77; Katz,
Gay/Lesbian Almanac, 307.
Mabel Hampton, interview five, with the kind permission of Joan Nestle.
Committee of Fourteen, Investigator Report, 21 June 1928, box 85.
Committee of Fourteen, mss., 8 Jun. 1928, box 37; Committee ofFourteen,
mss., 16 May 1928, box 37;
Annual Report of the Committee of Fourteen
Committee of Fourteen, Investigator Report, 1928, box 37.
Committee of Fourteen, Investigator Report, 8 June 1928, box 37.
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.
Faderman,Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, 76; "Sex Circuses"
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.
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.
Langston Hughes,The Big Sea: An Autobiography
(1940; New York, 1986), 273.
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.
Glen Carrington Papers, correspondence from Glen Carrington, to David,8
Feb. 1926, box 5.
For an important discussion of Freud, race, and urban culture, see
Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s
(New York, 1995), 95-97.
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.
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.
Lynne Fauley Emery,Black Dance in the United States From 1619 to
(Palo Alto, Calif., 1972); Katrina Hazzard-Gordon,
Jookin': The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American
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.
Faderman,Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers,
76-78; Garber, "T'Ain't Nobody's Business," 7-16; Garber, "A
Spectacle in Color," 320.
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
"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.
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,
Wallace Thurman to William Rapp, ca. 1926, James Weldon JohnsonCollection,
Beineke Library, Yale University, box 1, file 7.
Wallace Thurman to William Rapp, 1 June 1929, James Weldon
Johnson Collection, box 1, file 7; Wallace Thurman to William Rapp,
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.
Wallace Thurman, Infants of the Spring
(1932; Boston, 1992).