Off the Shelf #12: You Can Always Go Downtown: LGBT Urban Histories

Off the Shelf #12: You Can Always Go Downtown: LGBT Urban Histories
by Rob Ridinger

The image of a neighborhood where being LGBT is an accepted if not dominant cultural identity is usually cast within the greater life of an urban center, but the work of extracting the threads of local LGBT community history from the larger past of the metropolis is challenging, complex, and a distinct need of everyone who comes out. Being able to place yourself within an ongoing story can be done either by collecting oral histories (or writing down your own as a participant in promoting specific social changes) or by analyzing the overall city past and teasing out surviving data on lost institutions and significant personalities. A sampling of the range of works produced in this active field offers researchers and general readers some colorful surprises.

Historically, some cities have had neighborhoods which were known to be havens for diverse populations where experimental cultural expressions could be (and often were) tried out and on display for the curious to sample. Familiar examples of this are New York’s Greenwich Village, Harlem during the explosion of African American music, art, and writing that would later be termed the “Harlem Renaissance” and the Left Bank district of Paris. While general historical works on specific cities might briefly mention such areas, the idea of taking the homosexual segment of the population as a focus of study is comparatively recent. One of the most comprehensive works to date is the two-volume set A History of Homosexuality in Europe: Berlin, London, Paris, 1919-1939, volume I & II, published in 2004. A useful resource on the formation of gay communities as part of urban history in the United States is the author’s essay “Local and Regional Communities” published in 1998 as part of the St. James Press Gay and Lesbian Almanac.

While data on gay and lesbian people in individual communities is recorded in such compendia as Jonathan Katz’s Gay American History and Gay/Lesbian Almanac in 1976 and 1983 respectively, much of the publication in this area did not begin to appear until the last decade of the twentieth century. The 1980s did, however, witness several notable works in LGBT urban study. The first of these was the 1982 biography The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, 12_4written by journalist Randy Shilts, which told the tale of the career and assassination of San Francisco’s first openly gay supervisor. In the spring and summer of 1984, an exhibition on lesbian and gay life in Berlin from 1850 to 1950 was held at the Berlin Museum, and a beautifully illustrated catalog was created to accompany it. The title of the exhibition was Eldorado: homosexuelle Frauen u. Männer in Berlin 1850 – 1950; Geschichte, Alltag u. Kultur (Eldorado: Homosexual Women and Men in Berlin, 1850-1950: History, Daily Life and Culture). A year later, Denise Thompson’s Flaws in the Social Fabric: Homosexuals and 12_1Society in Sydney was published by Allen and Unwin. In her introduction, she recounts the birth of this book during the preparation of the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board’s 1980 report Discrimination and Homosexuality and the limitations said document contained by its very purpose. The first section of Flaws in the Social Fabric presents a detailed examination of the history of the gay liberation movement in Sydney (chiefly the activities of CAMP Inc., founded in 1970, and Sydney Gay Liberation) and the dissatisfaction of the lesbian feminist community with these groups. Thompson notes that the second section of the book is comprised of two chapters drawn from Discrimination and Homosexuality. A less known source of LGBT urban data is the lengthy opening chapter of Frances Fitzgerald’s 1986 work Cities on a Hill: A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures on “ The Castro.”

The 1990s witnessed the further development of the idea of LGBT urban history in North America. In 1992, American short story writer John Preston edited the collection Hometowns: Gay Men Write About Where They Belong. The twenty-eight contributors to this anthology represent a varied sample of many of the significant gay male authors writing for the U.S. market at the end of the 20th century, including Andrew Holleran, Michael Nava, Mark Thompson, Lev Raphael, and Essex Hemphill. Communities represented range from major cities such as Boston, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. to smaller cities such as Charleston, South Carolina; Portland, Maine; and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Also published in 1992 was a new work by Neil Miller (author of the 1989 work In Search of Gay America: Women and Men in a Time of Change, who extended his examination of the then- contemporary LGBT community to the rest of the globe with Out in the World: Gay and Lesbian Life From Buenos Aires to Bangkok. A dozen countries are examined, with world cities as diverse as Cape Town, Melbourne, Prague, Tokyo, and Copenhagen seen through the eyes of gay and lesbian residents. The archetypal nature of the American LGBT community as centered on the two coasts was somewhat reflected in the next two works to appear. George 12_3Chauncey’s massive treatment of fifty years of the past of New York City’s community, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 appeared in 1994 and laid the foundation for all later writing on the varied pasts of LGBT Manhattan. A year later, it was joined by Alan Helms’ more personal account Young Man From the Provinces: A Gay Life Before Stonewall. What has since come to be seen as the definitive successor to The Mayor of Castro Street was published in San Francisco in 1996. Authored by librarian and archivist Jim Van Buskirk and activist Susan Stryker, Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the 12_2San Francisco Bay Area is the first attempt to capture the varied pasts of LGBT northern California in one volume. The narrative follows the presence of LGBT people in the city and region from the berdache societies of the eighteenth century Native American peoples through World War II, the rise of the Daughters of Bilitis and other activist groups in the period 1940-1967, the time of liberation and assimilation up to the beginning of the AIDS pandemic in 1981, and the searing years of AIDS and the rebirth of a new community which followed. Of particular value are the more than three hundred photographs illustrating the text. The decade closed with David Higgs’ Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories Since 1600, which uses a variety of documentary sources ranging from diaries to journalism to track LGBT lives in Moscow, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Rio de Janeiro, Lisbon, Paris, and London.

12_8The new millennium opened with a look at an aspect of local LGBT history that is seldom considered, the role(s) played by the academic community of an individual city as it related to the LGBT population as both professional clientele and subjects of investigation. In this case, the city was Chicago, and the publication of the exhibition catalog Homosexuality in the City: A Century of Research at the University of Chicago in 2000 showcased the potential of local special collections 12_7as sources for LGBT urban history. It was created to accompany the conference “The Future of the Queer Past” held at the university September 14-17, 2000. The catalog opens with an introduction by George Chauncey (then faculty at the University of Chicago) and presents forty-five pages tracing the activity of sex researchers in the city from the 1880s through the 1920s and 1930s up to then-contemporary times as mirrored in the special collections of the University of Chicago’s libraries. It was joined later that year by the publication in book form of Marc Stein’s doctoral dissertation, City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972.

The next burst of publishing in LGBT urban histories began in 2003, with the more specific focus seen in Homosexuality in the City continuing. The story of New York City begun by George Chauncey in Gay New York was added to by A.B. Christa Schwarz with Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance from Indiana University Press, and the Pacific Northwest joined San Francisco in the historical stream with Gary Atkins’s Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging, locally published by the University of Washington Press. Coverage of New York was expanded in 2004 with David Carter’s work Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution from St. Martin’s Press, and David Bergman’s literary history The Violet Hour: The Violet Quill and the Making of Gay Culture, published by Columbia University Press. The Violet Quill was the name given to a group of seven influential gay male writers who met together in 1980 and 1981 in New York City to share their works. The group’s membership included Andrew Holleran, Robert Ferrro, Edmund White, Felice Picano, George Whitmore, Michael Grumley, and Christopher Cox. By 1990, all but three of them had died of AIDS. The city where much of the homophile organizing of the 1950s took place was chronicled in book form by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons in 2006 in Gay L.A: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians.

The body of research in the disciplines of history, anthropology, political science, literature, sociology, and psychology on past patterns of same-sex behaviors have also made a contribution to lost pieces of the American LGBT urban story. In 2007, an anthology mixing original and reprinted articles, Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America, appeared from NYU Press. The sections most relevant to the urban past are “Colonial British America” and “Reformers in the New Nation.” Readers will also find the “Afterword” discussion of the problems of tracking the history of sexuality and its relationship to the colonial era of interest. A second edited volume the following year made accessible the past of the city where the first gay organization in the United States was founded by Henry Gerber in 1924. Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City’s Gay Community was edited by longtime community journalist and activist Tracy Baim, and was the first book-length treatment of any Midwestern city’s LGBT past to appear. In 2009, Pre-gay L.A.: A Social History of the Movement for Homosexual Rights by C. Todd White augmented the pool of writing on Los Angeles.

12_9In the last sixteen years, LGBT urban life has continued to be chronicled in many deep and surprising ways. The second decade of the twenty-first century opened with the 2010 publication of Out of the Shadows: How London Gay Life Changed for the Better After the Act: A History of the Pioneering London Gay Groups and Organisations, 1967-2000, which usefully complements the London coverage in the two-volume set A History Of Homosexuality In Europe published six years earlier. The “Act” of the title is the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967, by which Parliament decriminalized private same-sex conduct between men over the age of 21 in Britain. And in 2012, an excellent treatment of the LGBT past of the Twin Cities, Land of Ten Thousand Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota, appeared from the University12_5 of Minnesota Press. This work is based on primary sources held in the Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies housed at the University of Minnesota and numerous items are used to illustrate the text. Chicago’s LGBT literature was also augmented in 2012 with Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago Before Stonewall written by local columnist St. Sukie de la Croix. The first monograph on the gay past of New Orleans authored by a bartender and regular patron 12_6of The Café: Lafitte in Exile, In Exile: The History and Lore Surrounding New Orleans Gay Culture and its Oldest Gay Bar, was published in Scotland in 2012. The European focus initiated in 2004 with the History of Homosexuality returned in 2014 with the edited volume Queer Cities, Queer Cultures: Europe Since 1945, augmented by Robert Beachy’ s Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity.

2015 was notable for the closure of a gap in LGBT historiography of the eastern United States with the publication of three significant works. The first was Louise Parker Kelley’s LGBT Baltimore, followed by Tracy Baim’s biography Barbara Gittings: Gay Pioneer (which added to the data on Philadelphia) and Genny Beemyn’s A Queer 12_10Capital: A History of Gay Life In Washington, D.C. Balancing the work begun in 1985 with Flaws In the Social Fabric, is Garry Wotherspoon’s Gay Sydney: A History, an extension of his earlier 1991 work City of the Plain.
The rise of a global LGBT community knitted together electronically will doubtless provide both stimulus and venues for the myriad of urban tales that still remain to be told.

References
Atkins, Gary. Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging. Seattle: University of Washington Press, c2003.
Baim, Tracy. Barbara Gittings: Gay Pioneer. Chicago, Illinois: Prairie Avenue Productions: Windy City Media Group, 2015.
Beachy, Robert. Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.
Beemyn, Genny. A Queer Capital: A History of Gay Life In Washington, D.C. New York: Routledge, 2015.
Bergman, David. The Violet Hour: The Violet Quill and the Making of Gay Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, c2004.
Bollé, Michael, comp. Eldorado: homosexuelle Frauen u. Männer in Berlin 1850 – 1950; Geschichte, Alltag u. Kultur; [Ausstellung im Berlin-Museum, 26. Mai – 8. Juli 1984]. Berlin: Frölich und Kaufmann, 1984.
Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
de la Croix, St. Sukie. Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago Before Stonewall. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, c2012.
Faderman, Lillian and Stuart Timmons. Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians. New York: Basic Books, 2006.
Fitzgerald, Frances. “The Castro” in Cities on a Hill: A Journey through Contemporary American Cultures. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986 : 25-119.
Helms, Alan. Young Man from the Provinces: A Gay Life Before Stonewall. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995.
Hometowns: Gay Men Write about Where They Belong, edited by John Preston. New York: Plume, 1992, 1991.
Katz, Jonathan. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A.: a documentary. New York: Crowell, c1976.
Katz, Jonathan Ned. Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A New Documentary in Which is Contained, in Chronological Order, Evidence of the True and Fantastical History of Those Persons Now Called Lesbians and Gay Men. New York: Harper & Row, c1983.
Kelley, Louise Parker. LGBT Baltimore. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2015.
Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America, edited by Thomas A. Foster., New York: New York University Press, 2007.
Miller, Neil. In Search of Gay America: Women and Men in a Time of Change. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989.
Miller, Neil. Out in the World: Gay and Lesbian Life from Buenos Aires to Bangkok. New York: Random House, 1992.
Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City’s Gay Community, edited by Tracy Baim. Chicago: Surrey Books, c2008.
Perez, Frank and Jeffrey Palmquist. In Exile: The History and Lore Surrounding New Orleans Gay Culture and its Oldest Gay Bar. Hurlford, Scotland: LL-Publications, 2012.
Queer Cities, Queer Cultures: Europe since 1945, edited by Jennifer V. Evans and Matt Cook. London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.
Ridinger, Robert B. Marks. “Local and Regional Views” in St James Press Gay and Lesbian Almanac. Detroit: St. James Press, 1998: 631-647.
Schwarz, A.B. Christa. Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press,2003.
Stein, Marc. City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian And Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972.
Van Cleve, Stewart. The Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
Walton, Tony. Out of the Shadows: How London Gay Life Changed for the Better After the Act: A History of the Pioneering London Gay Groups and Organisations, 1967-2000. London: Bona Street Press, 2010.
White, C. Todd. Pre-gay L.A.: A Social History of the Movement for Homosexual Rights. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.
Wotherspoon, Garry. City of the Plain: History of a Gay Sub-culture. Sydney, NSW: Hale & Iremonger,1991.
Wotherspoon, Garry. Gay Sydney: A History. Sydney, N.S.W. NewSouth Publishing, 2016.

Copyright R. Ridinger 2016

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2 comments

    • Thanks, Cal- it was a fun piece to write and I hope folks find a few titles in it that are new to them.

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