Written by: Lewis Twiby.
The anonymity of big cities allows persecuted sub-cultures and identities to find room to exist. London, Berlin, and Paris are just three examples of cities with flourishing LGBTQ+ communities. In the United States, New York was one of the major sites for gay liberation. Throughout the twentieth century a flourishing and diverse LGBTQ+ community emerged where class, race, gender, and sexuality intersected, paving the way for the gay rights movement to emerge. This article aims to show a snapshot into this diverse movement over a period of a century, from around 1890 to 1990, and how LGBTQ+ culture emerged in New York.
George Chauncey argues that the emergence of a, principally, homosexual subculture began emerging in New York in the 1890s when Columbia Hall was reported as the ‘principal resort in New York for degenerates.’ An unfortunate trend in history is the marginalisation of those who are not included in the standard hegemonic order – whether by class, race, or any other reason. In the Euro-American mindset – something which was also forced on many cultures worldwide thanks to colonialism – same-sex relations, non-binary genders, and non-conforming gender roles were treated as ‘degeneracy’ or a mental illness. In the 1870s a ‘map’ was printed warning Latin American businessmen visiting New York of the type of ‘degenerates’ they could encounter including prostitutes, shoeshine boys, and a ‘fairy’. Other than the standard demonisation of those left excluded from the Gilded Era economic expansion, it shows the distrust of LGBTQ+ individuals. The term ‘fairy’ was widely used as a way to further demean male homosexuals, especially by drawing images of femininity. An investigator – homosexuality was classed as ‘indecent’ and consequently illegal – alleged that patrons to the Columbia Hall ‘are called Princess this and Lady So and So’. Misogyny and homophobia went hand-in-hand.
The working-class slums of New York, such as the Bowery, offered young men and women an ability to socialise outside more traditional bourgeois family units which emerged in the late-nineteenth century. ‘Scandalous shows’ aimed at titillating consumers soon evolved into bars and clubs where people were free to experiment with same-sex relations, or opportunities to challenge gender identities. As often what occurs in marginalised communities a new lexicon started emerging. Seeing an increase in use during the 1920s, ‘gay’ started being used as a way for homosexual men to recognise one another – by calling themselves ‘gay’ they could secretly identify other homosexuals, and those involved in the community. However, there was not one ‘gay community’ in New York. Gender and racial segregation harshly split the community, and among white men there were those who wanted to be distanced from ‘fairies’ – those who cross-dressed or were gender non-conforming.
During the 1920s and 1930s, encouraged by an air of secrecy fostered by Prohibition, New York developed two major gay enclaves: Greenwich Village and Harlem. Greenwich Village originated as a refuge for rich New Yorkers to escape the bustle of the city, but as the city expanded the rich moved out and impoverished migrants, mainly Italian, moved in. The ‘Village’ became known for its bohemian character as its quiet location and cheap housing invited in New York’s artists and writers. This bohemian character fostered an atmosphere of single-living and eccentricity allowing the LGBTQ+ community to live openly. The Village was known as the place for ‘long-haired men’ and ‘short-haired women’, and even radical challenges to society. Famous anarchist Emma Goldman would visit the Village in the 1920s and make speeches demanding gay rights. However, there was a limit to this freedom. Racism excluded gay African Americans and Puerto Ricans from the Village until after the Second World War. Following the First World War 6 million African Americans moved from the US South to escape economic poverty and intense racism. Due to Northern segregation they were forced to form their own communities, and one of these was Harlem.
1920s Harlem is best known for the Harlem Renaissance – a period of cultural revival where resident African Americans produced a wide variety of literature, poetry, art, and music. For example, jazz and blues properly emerged during this period. Part of the Harlem Renaissance saw the emergence of a gay enclave. Part of this was racialised – white artists declared that Harlem was ‘wide open…Oh, much more! Much More!’, in the words of artist Edouard Roditi, as they could enter these spaces openly. LGBTQ+ African Americans, who had to live in Harlem, could not have this luxury, but they made it their home regardless. The Hamilton Lodge ball attracted hundreds of drag queens, and their performances attracted thousands of spectators – many of them were black or Latino. From this the ‘ball culture’ emerged and subtly made an impact on white beauty standards. Contouring was originally used by drag queens in Harlem to emphasise their cheekbones to look more stereotypically feminine. LGBTQ+ people further shaped the Harlem Renaissance: the ‘Queen of the Blues’ Bessie Smith was openly bisexual, one of the creators of jazz poetry was Langston Hughes has been seen as possibly homosexual or asexual, and singer Ethel Waters went into a lesbian relationship.
It is important to not understate the levels of discrimination and outright oppression New York’s LGBTQ+ community faced. Gay clubs were often given discriminatory names, the Hamilton Lodge was called the ‘faggot club’, and LGBTQ+ people were regularly referred to as degenerates. In 1924, the play God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch opened on Broadway for the first time, and the theatre owner and the actors were charged with obscenity as it played with themes of lesbian identity. During Prohibition, speakeasies did give a new community the ability to experiment with their sexuality, while at the same time opening new excuses for the police to raid gay clubs. In 1940, New York allowed police to use a Prohibition-era law to continue raiding gay clubs until the 1960s. Post-war, issues even get worse. Joseph McCarthy said the homosexuals were communist sympathisers, or could be used by them, beginning the ‘Lavender Scare’ to go alongside the Red Scare – 420 government employees were fired between 1947 and 1950 for suspected homosexuality. The resurgence of conservative values – a view that society should be Christian, white, middle-class, and in heterosexual nuclear families – meant that any deviation from this was viewed as ‘un-American’. Gay bars across Harlem and the Village were raided, and the police at times sexually assaulted lesbians and trans-individuals to ‘prove’ their gender.
Meanwhile, the 1960s saw times of great changes. As women and African Americans began fighting for their rights, LGBTQ+ communities also started fighting for their rights. The first gay rights movements were formed in the 1950s, notably the Daughters of Blitis and Mattachine Society, and largely campaigned for rights in Washington. A slow rights movement started building up, but their only biggest achievement was in 1967 when ‘sip-ins’ forced New York bars to allow homosexuals to have drinks. The ball scene was still thriving and was growing. RuPaul Charles and Lady Bunny moved to New York and became famous for their presence in the ball scene, and Marsha P. Johnson viewed the Village as a ‘dream’. Johnson had moved to New York for the anonymity – as a poor, African-American, homosexual, and gender non-conforming individual she saw many layers of intersecting oppression. One of the key places to be for the gay community was the Stonewall Inn. Stonewall was owned by the mafia and only made it a gay club as they knew the LGBTQ+ would not report them to the police with homosexuality still being illegal in New York. An unexpected police raid would spark the key event in American LGBTQ+ rights.
On June 28, 1969 police raided the bar and began assaulting patrons who appeared gender non-conforming. When one was being arrested a riot broke out – in popular memory Marsha P. Johnson ‘threw the first brick at Stonewall’. Singing We Shall Overcome and chanting Gay Power, the patrons started fighting off police, and by the time backup arrived a crowd of over a hundred people had arrived to support the patrons. Sylvia Rivera, a Latino trans-woman and close friend of Johnson, later remembered that: ‘You’ve been treating us like shit all these years? Uh-uh. Now it’s our turn!… It was one of the greatest moments in my life.’ It is important to note that many of those involved were African American or Latino, and many were trans or non-conforming, as years of oppression based on race, gender, and class gave them the urge to say ‘no’. Elizabeth Armstrong and Suzanna Crage have argued that a big reason why Stonewall, and not of the other clashes with police, became the spark of the gay revolution was thanks to the first Gay Pride event. A bisexual woman, Brenda Howard, saw the impact Stonewall had and used the first anniversary of the riot to host the first Gay Pride event, and solidify the legacy of Stonewall.
In the aftermath of Stonewall the gay rights movement started in earnest. For the first time gay rights moved away from Washington and into New York – many of those who took part in Stonewall would go on to create new rights movements. Deeply inspired by the Black Panthers the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed to directly fight homophobia in society. Like the Black Panthers they viewed capitalist society as reinforcing discrimination, and vowed to fight capitalism, the nuclear family, and traditional gender roles. As a way to become increasingly diverse a lesbian chapter was formed, called the Lavender Scare, and Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera formed STAR, (Street Transvestive Action Revolutionaries), for impoverished trans and non-conforming young people. These movements were an incredible break with the past as they directly forced gay rights into the open. Directly calling themselves ‘gay’, now firmly associated with homosexuality, was an open challenge to the taboo over homosexuality.
Resistance continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s despite some monumental successes – namely having LGBTQ+ identity no longer being classified as a mental illness in 1973 and lifting the ban on homosexuality in New York in the early-1980s. Homophobia did not end here, and there were still immense challenges to overcome. A resurgence of conservatism under Richard Nixon would become amplified by Ronald Reagan’s emphasis on ‘family values’ which continued the demonisation of LGBTQ+ identity. When the AIDS crisis broke out, as it largely affected poor and non-white LGBTQ+ communities, the government did nothing to help and even cut funding to finding a cure. The shadow of the AIDS crisis still hangs over the LGBTQ+ community – the continued popularity of the musical Rent, despite its problematic treatment of non-white and LGBTQ+ characters, highlights this by having a major trans-character die due to AIDS. Tragically, Marsha P. Johnson was murdered in 1992, and a mixture of transphobia, homophobia, and racism meant that the NYPD refused to investigate – her murder remains unsolved.
During the dark years of the late-1970s and the 1980s the LGBTQ+ community continued to fight on. In 1985 black feminist Audre Lorde released her pamphlet I Am Your Sister calling for white feminists and male African American activists to understand the intersection of homophobia, racism, and misogyny proudly ending the text ‘I am a Black Lesbian, and I am Your Sister’. The ball scene in black and Latino communities remained strong, and the documentary Paris is Burning brought them to attention. Highlighting drag queens overcoming poverty and discrimination, tragically a trans-woman interviewed was murdered during filming, it gives an insight into the ball scene of the late-1980s. Although controversial as the interviewer, a white woman, never appears and the profits were never given to the community, it helped propel ball culture to mainstream eyes. Several phrases, especially thanks to their regular usage in the reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race, have since become part of wider, straight, lexicon including ‘voguing’, ‘reading’, and ‘shade’.
New York is one of the most diverse cities in the world, and the LGBTQ+ community still is a key part of this. Since 2013, the Republican party and some sections of the Democrats have been embracing homophobia, and since 2016 have been openly advocating for transphobic policies. These policies are naturally disheartening – decades of fighting appear to have been destroyed within just a few years. However, by looking at New York’s LGBTQ+ community fight for rights despite intense oppression over a century, it gives hope for the future. No matter how dark the future gets, there will always be a Marsha P. Johnson to fight back.
Armstrong, E. and Crage, S., ‘Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth’, American Sociological Review, 71:5, (2006), 724-751
Chauncey, G., Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, (New York, NY: 1994)
Duberman, M., Stonewall, (New York, NY: 1994)
Eisenbach, D., Gay Power: An American Revolution, (New York, NY: 2006)
Livingstone, J., Paris is Burning, (1990)
Lorde, A., I Am Your Sister, (New York, NY: 1985)
Shikusawa, N., ‘The Lavender Scare and Empire: Rethinking Cold War Antigay Politics’, Diplomatic History, 36:4, (2012), 723-752
Stein, M., (ed.), The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History, (New York, NY: 2019)