I had hoped to get this blog entry up soon after the one entitled, “What So Gay About the Novel, Juliana,” but other things intervened. One of the biggest and most exciting things to occur is that we are now going to be performing JULIANA, the novel, at The Duplex Cabaret Theater, a couple of doors down from The Stonewall. It’s a great space and I hope those of you in the neighborhood will all join us on March 31 @ 7pm. More about this will be coming in our newsletter that you’ll receive soon.
This is the Real Beginning
Last month we talked a little about how far out an out-group gays and Lesbians were in the 1940s. Before we continue our exploration of 1940s attitude toward gays, I think it is important to clarify some of the language that was used back then around this topic.
The Term Lesbian:
Although the word ‘gay’ was in use by gays in the 1940s and hidden from the outer world, (as mentioned in last week’s article) the word Lesbian was not generally used by gays. The word “Lesbian” was considered a street word and derogatory, used by the outer world and intended to be insulting. “Lesbian” did not become a positive term until the 1970’s when gay women claimed the word for themselves and re-claimed its original meaning in relation to Sappho, the Greek Female poet, who lived on the Island of Lesbos.
Terms for People in the Outer World
Gays called non-gays: Jams, Straights (since 1941) and Normals (Prior to 1940s and probably into the forties. See Gore Vidal’s The City and The Pillar, 1948)
Medical Terms In Use During the Time
Medical men who were trying to be objective about the “disease” of homosexuality used the following terms:
Invert (used for both men and women)
Third Sex (used for both men and women)
Tribadist (used for women)
The Positive Terms Women Used for Themselves
Gay girl (most popular)
Sapphist (used somewhat)
Homophile (used more often for men, but also applied to women)
A little background history: The early 1940s in Greenwich Village has been a very difficult time to research because nothing outstanding really happened. Most people tend to think of the 1940s Greenwich Village as an artsy time, but here’s a quote from the New York City Market Analysis, done in 1943:
“Greenwich Village is not a neighborhood of artists and writers, although many of them still live in its old brick and brownstone houses.”
Greenwich Village earned its reputation as an enclave for artists and writers in the 1920s and 30’s and it would become so again in the mid 1950’s. Early 1940s Greenwich Village, however, was mostly a working class neighborhood where a great many people lived in rooming houses and “overflowing tenement houses.” At the same time it had the most “expensive types of modern hotels and apartment houses,” that were “located near the park and along Fifth Avenue.”
Artists actually did live in Greenwich Village at that time, but they were unknown. For instance, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando used to meet for breakfast at the Life Cafeteria, which catered to gay boys and girls. Jackson Pollack was struggling to find his own style in his apartment at 46 East 8th Street.
Another problem with doing this research has been that the early 1940s is sandwiched between two more exciting time periods: the 1930s and the 1950s so researchers just lump the 194o’s in with the ’30s or 50s without noting that the 1940s was a very different time.
Late 1920s-1930s Greenwich Village:
Slumming. In the late nineteenth century a new “fashionable” activity became popular among white upper middle and upper class ladies and gentlemen called “slumming.
These slummers would come into the neighborhoods of immigrants and African Americans for the purpose of observing “some of the lowest beer saloons in the city, dingy and dirty, frequented by the vilest characters of both sexes.”
Some even went so far as to walk right into the homes of these Italians, Chinese, Jews, African Americans and others to “observe.” Can you imagine being in your bed at night and you turn over to find a group of strangers, dispassionately discussing you as if you were some form of lower species?
By the turn of the century the slummers stopped actually going into these people’s homes but they continued to visit their neighborhoods to observe the “low life” there with an aura of racial and class superiority.
By the late 1920s, early 1930s slumming expanded to the observing of “bull daggers and faggots,” in speakeasy clubs. Greenwich Village was a prime spot to do this.
During Prohibition in the speakeasies gay men, in flamboyant dresses, and gay girls in tuxedos would entertain heterosexual audiences or “the jams” by singing and dancing.
Upper middle class and upper class men and women would go into these
clubs to be entertained by the homosexuals. They felt very sophisticated and superior being entertained by these “unnatural, freaks of nature.” Men could now feel exceptionally virile when compared to the pansies and this was supposed to impress their girl friends and wives.
To flaunt their male superiority the men would often bring a girl friend into a club knowing that the bulldagger would frighten the girl by flirting with her. Often his girl gave the expected reaction of fear and disgust. But sometimes the girl would surprise her beau by flirting back with the tuxedo’d gal and genuinely enjoying herself. Sometimes the two women would dance. It was now the gentlemen’s turn to be upset.
These clubs did not only provide new adventures for women, the men, too found opportunities to flirt and dance with the female impersonators without having their “normality” challenged.
My next entry, coming soon, will be about the Live Sex Shows, Society’s Concern over the Proliferation of Pseudo Lesbians & New Laws and Police Raids.
Chauncey, G. (1994). Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World: 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books.
Heap, C. (2000). The Pansy and Lesbian Craze in White and Black. In Slumming: Sexual and racial encounters in American Night Life, 1885-1940 (pp. 231 – 276). Chicago: The University O Chicago Press.
New York City Market Analysis (1943) New York: The Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Porter, D. (2006). Brando Unzipped. New York: Blood Moon Productions.
Solomon, D. (2001). Still Struggling: 1939-41. In Jackson Pollack. (pp. 93-106) New York: Cooper Square Press.