Sunday, July 31, 2011

USA Africa Dialogue Series - Homosex Changes: Race, Cultural Geography, and the Emergence of the Gay

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
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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

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.

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

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

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,"

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

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

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.

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