How Gay Culture Blossomed During the Roaring Twenties … The Captive … WorkPride: Global 5-Day Virtual Pride Conference

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How Gay Culture Blossomed During the Roaring Twenties

During Prohibition, gay nightlife and culture reached new heights -at least temporarily.

On a Friday night in February 1926, a crowd of some 1,500 packed the Renaissance Casino in New York’s Harlem neighbourhood for the 58th masquerade and civil ball of Hamilton Lodge.

Nearly half of those attending 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 organisation 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 LGBT+ nightlife and culture that would be integrated into mainstream American life in a way that became unthinkable in later decades.

A portrait of a couple, circa 1920s
Paul Hartnett/PYMCA/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

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 theatres 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 neighbourhoods 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.

A 1927 illustration of three transgender women and a man dancing at a nightclub.
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

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 recognisable 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 LGBT+ nightlife and culture that reached beyond the cities, across the country, and into ordinary American homes.

Though New York City may have been the epicentre 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 LGBT+ 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 Savagein 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 LGBT+ 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.

A cross-dresser being taken away in a police van for dressing like a woman, circa 1939. 
Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

“Pansy Craze” Comes to an End

With the end of Prohibition, the onset of the Depression and the coming of World War II, LGBT+ culture and community began to fall out of favour. As Chauncey writes, a backlash began in the 1930s, as “part of a wider Depression-era condemnation of the cultural experimentation of the ’20s, 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 sensationalised 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 LGBT+ life would flourish so publicly again.

The Captive by Edouard Bourdet (1926)

The following review from The New York Times presents a picture of a play premiered on Broadway in 1926, which simultaneously garnered acclaim and controversy. Some of the details are certainly not politically correct for the modern audience. Today, we would not think of the relationship between the women as “twisted,” “revolting” or “loathsome.”

The Captive” played to packed houses for 17 weeks before police shut it down. It was closed after its cast (including Basil Rathbone) were arrested by New York City police for being immoral. Years later, Rathbone was still angered by the play’s closing, referring to it in his autobiography as a “cold-blooded unscrupulous sabotage of an important contemporary work of art”.

The play was also banned in London, but enjoyed successful runs in Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Vienna, Holland and Switzerland.

Review in The New York Times, 30 September 1926

“Expertly written and admirably played, M. Bourdet’s tragedy, “The Captive,” put on at the Empire last evening, may be set down as a genuine achievement in dramatic producing – a long, engrossing, haunting play. Most of the theatrical news from Europe for several months has hung about this drama, known in Paris as “La Prisonniere.” Vastly popular, sensational in its theme, and recriminations. But whatever emotions the Parisian performance may be conveying, Mr Hornblow’s adaptation, staged perfectly by Mr Miller, emerges as a hard, brittle chronicle, horrible in its implications, terrible to contemplate at times, but sincere and cleanly finished. Seldom has a play been so intelligently cast; nor do we often see a performance so thoroughly disciplined in every detail. For the American version of “La Prisonniere,” does not truckle no smirk. It tells its unpleasant story in a straightforward manner, without evasion or sordid emphasis. And the splendid spirit of the production may protect it from being misunderstood.

Like a practiced dramatist, schooled in the familiar models of playwriting, M. Bourdet casts his play in the “well made” mold familiar to theatre-goers everywhere. Given a theme and the characters to unfold it, he writes a compact drama with a beginning, a climax and a firm conclusion. And writing for the stage, he occasionally tells his story most pungently by use of the symbol of the stage – a bunch of flowers, a closing door offstage, or a trivial command to a servant which conveys prodigious information. As most theatre enthusiasts know by this time, “The Captive” writes the tragedy of a young woman, well-bred and of good family, who falls into a twisted relationship with another woman. For nearly half the play this loathsome possibility, never mentioned, scarcely hinted at, hangs over the drama like a black pall, a prescience of impending doom. A member of the Foreign Office, ordered to Rome, cannot understand why his eldest daughter refuses to accompany him. Thoroughly distraught, she puts him off with an evasion. Her old friend, Jacques Vierieu, she pleads, is in love with her, and may propose to her if properly manoeuvred. When her father departs Irene summons Jacques and tries to persuade him to play the part of fiancé, a part agreeable to him, but not on these false terms. For Irene refuses to confide in him, nor in anyone else, the full truth of her frightful misery.

During the remaining two acts M. Bourdet directs his story expertly at high speed, facing the issue boldly and sounding the note of doom with increasing frequency. Fully conscious of his responsibilities, Jacques marries Irene immediately to save her from herself and to release her from the tyranny of her warped infatuation. For a year spent in travel they get on amicably and return to Paris where they set up their home. But Irene does not escape for long; nor does Jacques. In self-defence he resumes a liaison with his former sweetheart. And just before the final curtain Irene succumbs. The sound of a closing door offstage completes this sombre story.

Relentless in his presentation of this theme, M. Bourdet occasionally sets it off against the simple innocence of a little sister or the refreshing normality of Jacques and the charming Francoise Meillant. Without this illuminating relief “The Captive” might degenerate into commercial exploitation of a revolting theme. But again, the brilliant acting in every role redeems it from mere excitation. In the minor roles Miss Trevor and Miss Andrews pour tenderness and softness into the performance. Mr Trevor, as the father, expertly sets the serious tone of the play in the early scenes. But the brunt of the performance falls upon Miss Menken as the wretched girl, Mr Rathbone as Jacques and Mr Wontner as a friend of both. Mr Wontner’s appearance is a brief one, but his function in the drama is highly responsible. His crisp performance last evening was appreciatively applauded. And Mr Rathbone acts with rare dignity and understanding; without a single histrionic flourish, his Jacques Virieu indicates profound emotion and the torture of conflicting emotions.

Well liked though Miss Menken may be, little in her past stage experience had prepared the audience for her stirring performance as the miserable young lady. She communicates the full tragic quality of her part, not only in its relation to the play but also in its relation to life itself. And for the few moments in which this girl believes herself released from an inane captivity, Miss Menken makes the contrast an indescribably tranquil interlude. She was enthusiastically applauded after very act. And once Mr Miller acknowledged the applause with his principle actors. For whatever the theme may be, “The Captive” is to be enjoyed as an expert dramatic production.”

WorkPride: Global 5-Day Virtual Pride Conference14 to 18 June 2021

This 5-day series of events is free for professionals, graduates, inclusive employers and anyone who believes in workplace equality.

Each year, WorkPride welcomes thousands of virtual attendees from around the globe to network, share best practices, and learn strategies to help create workspaces that are inclusive of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions.

Last year Workpride attracted 18,000 delegates over 5 days and they are looking to replicate its success this year. See the programme here.

There are 50 sessions over five days including “Ageing with Grace and Dignity – a closer look at the older LGBTQ+ Population and their needs” on Wednesday, 16 June from 6.30pm – 7.30pm.

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