How Gay Culture Blossomed During the Roaring Twenties
On a Friday night in February 1926, a crowd of some 1,500 packed the Renaissance Casino in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood for the 58th masquerade and civil ball of Hamilton Lodge.
Nearly half of those attending the event, reported the New York Age, appeared to be “men of the class generally known as ‘fairies,’ and many Bohemians from the Greenwich Village section who...in their gorgeous evening gowns, wigs and powdered faces were hard to distinguish from many of the women.”
The tradition of masquerade and civil balls, more commonly known as drag balls, had begun back in 1869 within Hamilton Lodge, a black fraternal organization in Harlem. By the mid-1920s, at the height of the Prohibition era, they were attracting as many as 7,000 people of various races and social classes—gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight alike.
Stonewall (1969) is often considered the beginning of forward progress in the gay rights movement. But more than 50 years earlier, Harlem’s famous drag balls were part of a flourishing, highly visible LGBTQ nightlife and culture that would be integrated into mainstream American life in a way that became unthinkable in later decades.
The Beginnings of a New Gay World
“In the late 19th century, there was an increasingly visible presence of gender-non-conforming men who were engaged in sexual relationships with other men in major American cities,” says Chad Heap, a professor of American Studies at George Washington University and the author of Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940.
In addition to these groups, whom social reformers in the early 1900s would call “male sex perverts,” a number of nightclubs and theaters were featuring stage performances by female impersonators; these spots were mainly located in the Levee District on Chicago’s South Side, the Bowery in New York City and other largely working-class neighborhoods in American cities.
By the 1920s, gay men had established a presence in Harlem and the bohemian mecca of Greenwich Village (as well as the seedier environs of Times Square), and the city’s first lesbian enclaves had appeared in Harlem and the Village. Each gay enclave, wrote George Chauncey in his book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, had a different class and ethnic character, cultural style and public reputation.
Gay Life in the Jazz Age
As the United States entered an era of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity in the years after World War I, cultural mores loosened and a new spirit of sexual freedom reigned.
The flapper, with her short hair, figure-skimming dresses and ever-present cigarette and cocktail, would become the most recognizable symbol of the Roaring Twenties, her fame spreading via the new mass media born during that decade. But the ‘20s also saw the flourishing of LGBTQ nightlife and culture that reached beyond the cities, across the country, and into ordinary American homes.
Though New York City may have been the epicenter of the so-called "Pansy Craze," gay, lesbian and transgender performers graced the stages of nightspots in cities all over the country.
Their audiences included many straight men and women eager to experience the culture themselves (and enjoy a good party) as well as ordinary LGBTQ Americans seeking to expand their social networks or find romantic or sexual partners.
“It gave them many more possible places they could go to meet other people like themselves,” Heap says of the Pansy Craze and accompanying lesbian or Sapphic craze, of the ‘20s and early to mid-‘30s.
“At its height, when many ordinary heterosexual men and women were going to venues that featured queer entertainment, it probably also provided useful cover for queer men and women to go to the same venues.”
At the same time, lesbian and gay characters were being featured in a slew of popular “pulp” novels, in songs and on Broadway stages (including the controversial 1926 play The Captive) and in Hollywood—at least prior to 1934, when the motion picture industry began enforcing censorship guidelines, known as the Hays Code.
Heap cites Clara Bow’s 1932 film Call Her Savage, in which a short scene features a pair of “campy male entertainers” in a Greenwich Village-like nightspot. On the radio, songs including "Masculine Women, Feminine Men" and "Let’s All Be Fairies" were popular.
The fame of LGBTQ nightlife and culture during this period was certainly not limited to urban populations. Stories about drag balls or other performances were sometimes picked up by wire services, or even broadcast over local radio. “You can find them in certain newspaper coverage in unexpected places,” Heap says.
“Pansy Craze” Comes to an End
With the end of Prohibition, the onset of the Depression and the coming of World War II, LGBTQ culture and community began to fall out of favor. As Chauncey writes, a backlash began in the 1930s, as “part of a wider Depression-era condemnation of the cultural experimentation of the 20's, which many blamed for the economic collapse.”
The sale of liquor was legal again, but newly enforced laws and regulations prohibited restaurants and bars from hiring gay employees or even serving gay patrons. In the mid- to late ‘30s, Heap points out, a wave of sensationalized sex crimes “provoked hysteria about sex criminals, who were often—in the mind of the public and in the mind of authorities—equated with gay men.”
This not only discouraged gay men from participating in public life, but also “made homosexuality seem more dangerous to the average American.”
By the post-World War II era, a larger cultural shift toward earlier marriage and suburban living, the advent of TV and the anti-homosexuality crusades championed by Joseph McCarthy would help push the flowering of gay culture represented by the Pansy Craze firmly into the nation’s rear-view mirror.
Drag balls, and the spirit of freedom and exuberance they represented, never went away entirely—but it would be decades before LGBTQ life would flourish so publicly again.
Surprising Things We Owe to the Gay Community
The cultural influence of the gay community has been considerable throughout the 20th century. Queer subculture has participated in the enrichment of both the European and American cultural heritage, but do you know just how much of a role the gay community has actually played? From the major artistic and literary creations to the first experiments with electronic music, here are 11 things we can definitely thank the gay community for.
The New York School
Popularized by illustrious artists such as Pollock, De Kooning, Kandinsky, and John Ashbery, The New York School was one of the major cultural movements of the mid-20th century. It was a group of urban gay-friendly painters and poets who were very active in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s.
At that time, many changes were occurring in the gay community. The emergence of a U.S. gay movement transformed the way gay people identified themselves and talked about their social conditions. Such changes founded a new gay culture on the recognition of homosexuality as an identity, which notably influenced the artists of the New York School.
Just as the Beat Generation supported the gay rights movement, the New York School was concerned with sexual freedom more than any other liberal or leftist art movement of that time.
“He waves his hands and through the vocalese-shaped spacesof naked elms he draws a copper beech ignited with a few late leaves. He bluely glazes a rhododendron ‘a sea of leaves’ against gold grass.”
In the 1960s, a cant language known as Polari appeared all over Britain and was spoken by some actors, prostitutes, sailors, and more significantly by the gay community. It consisted of an ever-changing collection of slang words coming from English, Italian, and various Gypsy dialects.
Despite the language never developing a fixed grammar, its speakers enjoyed playing with sounds and rhythm. Such creativity gave birth to new forms of backwards speaking and rhyming.
Although Polari was spoken by a wide range of people, the language was not inclusive enough to survive over time. But, with the progress of gender equality as well as the growing acceptance of homosexuality, some gay slang terms have become increasingly popular among millennials.
queer: became the preferred label for many gay people who preferred a less-fixed label
queen/camp/nancy: flamboyant or effeminate gay man
fierce: of “exceptional quality”
“That was a read”: used to mock someone in a humorous way
Way before the emergence of the gay movement, sex was already hugely prevalent in the gay community.
This idea of using sex for pleasure rather than procreation was a way to mark a split with the patriarchal and productivity-based 1970’s society.
The idea of “play” gave birth to a whole philosophy based on pleasure and freedom, as well as a rejection of consumerism, to some extent. Hence, new forms of art and culture emerged from DIY societies living on this ethos.
The Cockettes, for instance, were an avant-garde theater group founded in 1969 by gay liberation leader George Edgerly Harris III. They pioneered an outrageous style of costume that was inspired by silent cinema, Broadway musicals and surrealist art. Their philosophy was to produce fashion and art for free while enjoying a hedonist life in their “hippie genderfuck troop”.
New forms of social activism
The gay community wouldn’t have been granted freedom and equality by law if they hadn’t fought for their rights.
It took half a century for the Western gay community to succeed in ending legal discrimination, from the early days of the gay rights movement in the U.S. to the first same-sex civil union in the U.S. in 2000. They were not alone. In the U.K., for example, a group of social activists who called themselves Lesbians and Gays Support The Miners supported the Welsh miners’ strike of 1984 and managed to raise $13,663.48 (£11,000) in London alone. They were granted the respect and support they deserved after this courageous act, and the Welsh miners led the Gay Pride march in London in 1985
Erotic pop art
At a time when the gay community was claiming their sexual freedom, art experienced considerable changes.
In the 1950s, pulp fictions featured vibrant cover art, with daring visuals. They were the only way to consume affordable erotic art. Therefore, gay editors seized the initiative to publish what were the first gay and lesbian pulp novels.
In a similar fashion, such artists as Andy Warhol or Keith Haring produced outrageous forms of art which involved both homosexuality and nudity. Most of their artworks were directly inspired by gay underground subculture.
More specifically, Haring dedicated most of his life to creating gay art in order to educate people about the harm caused by sexual discrimination. In the early 1980s, he even created black-and-white drawings on the empty advertising panels of the New York subway in order to raise AIDS awareness.
Disco arguably emerged out of the 1970s gay nightlife. The first disco parties were launch by queer DJ sets such as New York DJ David Mancuso’s Loft or Nicky Siano’s Gallery, as well as by gay dancers from the New York.
In the late 1970s, the gay night scene nurtured disco with new sounds which later would transform the music genre into house and techno. Simultaneously, important cultural exchanges took place between the gay and the ‘straight’ night scene that marked a change in the esthetics of clubs and parties.
Since a part of the gay community had grouped into DIY society, queers became largely influenced by the punk culture. As a consequence, new post-punk musical genres started to emerge from the coexistence of the two subcultures.
New cultural movements such as Queercore started to emerge, addressing socio-political issues through music, writing and art. However, the movement that would really make an impact and would not be forgotten is undoubtedly New Wave. While it incorporated much of the punk rock sound, new wave music created a new kind of pop that incorporated electronic, disco and experimental sounds.
With help of a gay audience, several queer new wave members and synthpop acts this new music met with success on the European and US dance charts in the 1980s. We will remember Visage, Depeche Mode, The Communards or Information Society.
The indissoluble bond between fashion and the gay community is not new. In 18th-entury Europe, cross-dressers were looked down on and often ostracised by the rest of the society. This led to the emergence of small secret homosexual subcultures across the continent.
In London for instance, gay men would wear women’s clothes in public houses and pubs as a means of self-identification and social recognition. It made it easier for them to socialise, gather in groups and meet potential sexual partners.
A century later, the illegality of homosexuality forced gay men and women to live invisibly and blend into the heteronormative society. As a consequence, new dress codes and wearable accessories started to be used by gay men to recognise each other.
During the Cultural Revolution in the 60s, it became more acceptable for men to have an interest in fashion, allowing a new generation of homosexual artists to find their niche in the blossoming fashion industry. From Christian Dior, to Cristobal Balenciaga or Jean Paul Gautier, a new generation of fashion designers started to experiment with clothing in a way that was never seen before.
The esthetic revolution
Following the cultural revolution, fashion designers started to look at the gay scene to find new ideas for their collections and consequently initiated an esthetic revolution.
Androgynous models such as Grace Jones were put under the limelight, and metrosexuality would gradually become a new standard of male beauty in the 1990s.
Popularized by the drag queen culture, beating one’s face consists in adding contouring, baking, strobing and using other makeup strategies to obtain a flawless and polished result. Facebeat makeup techniques have become highly popular due to the increasing number of beauty vloggers.
The Freedom Flag
Originally named ‘Freedom Flag’, the LGBT flag has changed dramatically since Gilbert Baker’s first hand-dyed version. The original flag boasted eight colors which symbolized sexuality (pink), life (red), healing (orange), sunlight (yellow), nature (green), art (turquoise), indigo (serenity) and spirit (violet). The now-common six color flag is only one of many variations, all of which symbolize peace, sexual freedom and were used as symbol of gay pride.
A new version of the flag appeared in 2017 to oppose US President Donald Trump’s values and immigration policies. On the new flag, the orange stripe was replaced by a black one as a symbol of justice for black people suffering from racism around the world
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