Being Gay During Prohibition


I want you to imagine what being LGBTQ+ would
be like in the 1920s or 30’s. How about the 1860s? If you’re like many today, you likely imagine
the concept of the closet and assume society forced LGBTQ+ people to conform to the sexual
mores of the day. They were repressed; forbidden from expressing
themselves and living the lives they want. Now, what if I told you the closet is actually
pretty new? What if I told you LGBTQ+ culture in the 20s
thrived in a little bubble where in bars, speakeasies, and dance halls they met, loved,
and expressed themselves in a way much more free than just decades later? Let’s take a look at this bubble and focus
in on New York City. I’m Tristan Johnson and this is Step Back
History. Our story begins in Harlem in 1869. In the Hamilton Lodge was the first drag ball
in new york. It was a drag show, where people crossdress
and have a lot of fun. LGBTQ+ historians trace this drag ball to
the beginning of a craze in the Big Apple. The drag balls were fashion shows consisting
of white men. There were some black performers, but they
were expected to lighten their faces when they participated. Mainstream society didn’t approve of their
lifestyles but loved their parties. These shows would pick up in popularity over
the decades peaking in the roaring 20’s. Drag performers did shows to audiences as
large as 7,000 people. People came from out of town, to see these
shows in some of the most famous venues in New York. “Coming out” was the term used for an
LGBTQ+ person’s first night out in this community. They borrowed the phrase from the genteel
parties held by the upper class in this period to introduce young rich women to high society. This happened alongside an explosion of black
organization and culture in New York referred to as the Harlem Renaissance. (another subject I want to make a video about). In the 20s racial barriers began to come down
a little, and these balls turned into a mixing bowl of race, class and gender. The rich people would sit in the upper booths
and just say they were going to a popular show, and these were popular shows. In these days dressing outside of your designated
gender wasn’t just frowned upon, it was a crime. This nightlife often occurred in New York
neighbourhoods such as the Bowery, Greenwich village, and Times Square. Neighbourhoods known for bohemian, artistic
types. A gay man could signal his membership in the
LGBTQ+ community with signals such as bleached hair, a bright red tie, and maybe a bit of
makeup in Times Square and not draw much attention. The law is also a strange thing. It only works to the extent you feel like
enforcing it. Laws against crossdressing or homosexuality
might be on the books, but the laws were rather irregularly enforced. I mean really irregular. Variety magazine was writing about clubs with
drag performers, and effeminate gay men as the main draw. They were so popular, the police probably
couldn’t shut them down if they tried. This was also when a few bucks could make
a police officer look the other way. Well, I guess it was the 20’s so not so
much a couple bucks but maybe a nickel and a charleston chew or something. Still, many LGBTQ+ people lived double lives. Often they hid their identities from their
co-workers under threat of losing their job, and they entered into legal marriages called
“lavender marriages” as a form of cover. However, they didn’t see this as something
problematic. Back then, heterosexuality and homosexuality
were verbs rather than adjectives. Nobody identified themselves as gay or straight,
but by what gender they preferred to have sex with and to what extent they conformed
to their assigned gender roles. The categories were much less defined, and
people seemed to pay more attention to the gender thing, than the sex thing. There was homosexuality, but no homosexuals. That social construct would be built in the
30s. Those who lived in the open weren’t just
victims. Trust me, LGBTQ+ people weren’t the only
group the police harassed. These people sued for their rights, organized
against oppression and gave each other a support network to skirt the law. They had a fighting spirit, and they thrived. LGBTQ+ life wasn’t just limited to these
parties. They would meet on street corners, in cabarets,
or even in church. Even in a hostile society, they built a culture
with its own styles, language, and social structure. There were even open LGBTQ+ celebrities such
as Gladys Bently, Rae Bourbon, Gene Malin, and Bruz Fletcher. They had raunchy, openly queer song, dance,
and comedy acts that drew massive crowds. So… what happened? How did society go from this explosion of
LGBTQ+ culture to the repression of the Stonewall Riots? A violent confrontation in 1969 between LGBTQ+
people, and the police attempting to violently shut down a prominent gay bar in Greenwich
Village. Well, to begin there was always opposition. A group of party animals called the Committee
of Fourteen declared themselves moral reformers, and demanded investigations in the 19 teens. They visited these clubs and balls so they
could write more than a hundred reports about how wrong and perverted it all was. This party scene also thrived due to the underground
culture surrounding prohibition, a period in American history when alcohol was illegal. During prohibition, the drag shows and the
LGBTQ+ nightlife were well under the purview of the mafia. A high-profile mobster shooting in 1931 increased
police presence at these clubs; police who would enforce those laws against crossdressing. After the US repealed prohibition, they only
gave liquor licences to “orderly establishments” and that very much did not include drag balls. There was also a minor stock market whoopsie
doodle in 1929 that put people out of the mood for a fun nightlife. There was also a moral panic in the 30s, 40s,
and 50s against homosexual behaviour. The government banned openly LGBTQ+ characters
from film and theatre. The police began to enforce sodomy laws with
gusto. Gay men and lesbians suddenly became a threat
to society. LGBTQ+ people were no longer safe in public
and had to hide their identities. As historian George Chauncey wrote, the state
built the closet and forced LGBTQ+ people into it. Our belief today is that LGBTQ+ rights are
on a progressive machine beginning with the Stonewall riots (yet another subject I want
to make a video about) and ends with full LGBTQ+ equality with a supreme court decision. However, when you compare the 50s and 60s
with the prohibition era, there was quite a backslide. It’s almost as if… the story we tell ourself
about progress is a myth. This story is also similar to many marginalised
communities in this period. Often, even under state oppression, these
groups can carve out pockets of autonomy, and have cultures where they resist, organize,
but also create, thrive and love. We find these pockets all over the place from
slave quarters to LGBTQ+ nightclubs, and they’re quite amazing discoveries when we find them. When we study the history of marginalized
groups, it’s important to study what structures in society oppressed them, but it’s also important
to find the places they exercised agency. The areas where they could be… them. Heeey everyone, if you liked this video and
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people who are making Step Back better every month with their contributions. I want to especially thank Don and Kerry Johnson
for their generosity. Until next time, I’m Tristan Johnson and
come back soon for more Step Back.

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