What Was Homosexuality Like Back Then?
June 19, 2012 11:50 AM   Subscribe

What was the gay lifestyle like in past times (say, pre 1970s)? How was being gay perceived?

I am looking for resources or first-hand accounts of the day-to-day lives of those either closeted or openly gay before the 1970s. I was inspired after seeing Adorable Vintage Photos of Gay Couples; I realized how little I know about what being gay was like in older times.

Specific questions I have: where would gay people meet? Were there 'signs'? Were there similar stereotypes to identify gay people (exaggeratedly fashionable clothing, lisping, theatergoing) or were there stereotypes that did not make it to modern times?

Was homosexuality commonly explained away to children? What was a standard excuse (for example, Aunt Hilda lives with her best friend to save money, Uncle Frank and James are just kidding around when they hug).
Were most adults 'in' on it or did many genuinely not recognize the nature of gay relationships? Was it different between gay men and lesbian women?

These are just a few things I wonder about but any additional stories or memories are gladly welcome. Memoirs, autobiographies, biographies, books, these recommendations would also be great to have. I'm looking for anything that details the lifestyle and perception of homosexuality in the past.

posted by amicamentis to Society & Culture (45 answers total) 87 users marked this as a favorite
Have a look at "Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community" it's a pretty good read, "Chronicles working-class lesbians in Buffalo, New York from the 1930s through the 60s." I had to read it for an undergrad class and it's something that has stuck with me.
posted by Blake at 11:57 AM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Before Stonewall (1984)
posted by thack3r at 11:58 AM on June 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

"Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers" is a good book on the subject (for women) and there was a good documentary called "Before Stonewall"
posted by rmd1023 at 11:58 AM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers is a great history of lesbian life and culture in the U.S. in the 20th century. There are also a number of resources listed toward the end of the wikipedia entry for Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon that might be useful for you.
posted by scody at 11:58 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Love Stories: Sex between Men before Homosexuality might be interesting to you.
posted by runningwithscissors at 12:07 PM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I cannot recommend The Naked Civil Servant highly enough.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 12:08 PM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think sometimes those two elderly spinster sisters who lived together for years, they weren't actually sisters.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 12:09 PM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Although you probably know this, I will say it anyway: gay life in the past varied hugely over time, across classes and between races. Plus a lot of other subcultural stuff. And then there's the whole question of when "gayness" comes into being - are people "gay" because they have sexual relationships with people of their own gender or are they "gay" because they think of themselves as something different from "straight"? Was the Theban Band gay? Were samurai? Were women's "Boston marriages" lesbianism or something else? And so on. Obviously, there is a time (in the mid-late 19th century?) when the modern discourse of gay/straight starts - legal, activist and medical languages all come into being.

That said, I really like The Evening Crowd At Kirmser's, a memoir by a gay Minnesotan fellow about the 1940s.

Also Gay By The Bay.

This really makes me realize that I just don't have a lot of books about non-white queer/gay culture and that's a real gap in my knowledge.
posted by Frowner at 12:10 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These suggestions are awesome, please keep them coming!
posted by amicamentis at 12:13 PM on June 19, 2012

George Chauncey's Gay New York is a great resource on 19th and early 20th century gay men's culture in New York.

Frowner, there are some really interesting resources on Chicana lesbian culture in this syllabus.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:18 PM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'd recommend The Boys in the Band, not because it's a great movie, but because it's very much of it's time.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:19 PM on June 19, 2012

The Invention of Heterosexuality, by Jonathan Ned Katz, takes up some of those questions Frowner raised about same-sex sex and/or romance vs. self-definition as homosexual. To me, the upside of the book is that it's very accessible to lay readers; the downside is that it's not scholarly or (in my opinion) deeply researched. Chauncey and Faderman are exceptional in combining strong research with engaging writing.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:22 PM on June 19, 2012

oops missed it already above
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:25 PM on June 19, 2012

Was homosexuality commonly explained away to children?

It generally wasn't discussed at all (in the U.S.). We saw a documentary the other day at the queer film festival in which one of the interviewees - an older man who served in the Navy and moved to San Francisco in the early 60s - told a story about signing up for the Navy and asking his buddy (they were lovers) what the "are you now or have you ever been a homosexual" checkbox on the form meant - they were doing it, but really didn't know that's what they were called.

The suggested books and such above are all good. I'll also add Stone Butch Blues, an autobiographical novel about growing up lesbian/trans in the late 50s and 60s.
posted by rtha at 12:31 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think that in terms of mainstream society, the key was that it was HIDDEN. Did you ever see "Far From Heaven"? Roger Ebert points out that while the interracial relationship in the movie was at least seen in public (if not looked down upon), the gay relationship had to take place in a secret motel, because that was way more problematic.

Growing up in the early 70s, it was just so HIDDEN that it never occurred to me that it existed. My teacher one day wore a dress on Halloween; we thought that was hilarious--ha ha! A man wearing a dress! There was a discussion here somewhere about the actor Jim J Bullock; despite his very effeminate manner that would be vastly stereotyped today, there was a plot on "One Day at a Time" (early 80s) where he tried to attract women, but failed. This was a plausible plot because the real issue was--hidden. Robert Reed being gay? Completely hidden. My friend's mother who lived with another women? Never once occurred to me to even ask about it (didn't seem weird at all for two friends to live together), because it was so completely hidden from our experience.

I highly recommend "The Celluloid Closet", both the book and movie, about the history of gays in the movies. There's that classic clip from "Red River" (1948) where Montgomery Clift admires the gun of the other actor; it was so hidden from the mainstream audience that no one at the time made the connection (and the censors didn't remove it).

Again, I'm talking from the point of view of a mainstream society person; it was very, very hidden to me. To others, I don't know.
posted by Melismata at 12:31 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

woops it was "Too Close For Comfort" not "One Day at a Time"
posted by Melismata at 12:33 PM on June 19, 2012

Oh! Can't believe I forgot this: Vito Russo's book The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies is an absolutely groundbreaking work about the portrayal of homosexuals in Hollywood films, pre- and post-Code. There was also a documentary made, based on the book and the lecture series that Russo did.

AND! Set your DVRs: A new documentary about Russo will be shown on HBOon July 23rd. We saw it at the filmfest and it's wonderful. There's a lot of footage of him talking about growing up gay in a working class Italian neighborhood in New York in the 50s and 60s.
posted by rtha at 12:39 PM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Was homosexuality commonly explained away to children?

Similarly to rtha's anecdote, my grandfather has a story of being propositioned by a man soon after enlisting in the Navy (during Korea, so early 50's). According to him, he had never heard of homosexuality at all up until that moment. Granted, he was a country boy, but my takeaway was that queerness was something that was not talked about at all before the 60's and 70's.

I mean, it might have been nudged at if you had a Confirmed Bachelor uncle who always seemed to bring that one "friend" around for Thanksgiving and whatnot, but even then, the use of euphemisms like those was meant to prevent anyone actually saying what was going on.

And I'm fairly sure that a situation like that (gay couple openly attending family gatherings together) would have been rather liberal by standards of the time -- I remember hearing older relatives whispering about whether my lesbian cousin was going to try to bring her "friend" to So & So's Wedding, whether that would be allowed/appropriate, etc. In like 1994. Again, we're talking about country people, but even so, open homosexuality was something to be whispered about as recently as the 80's and 90's, for sure.
posted by Sara C. at 12:39 PM on June 19, 2012

The Other Side of Silence: Men's Lives & Gay Identities - A Twentieth-Century History. Few people ever seem to mention this book. It's a great read.
posted by Tin Man at 12:45 PM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Check out the 1977 documentary Word is Out.
posted by Wordwoman at 12:46 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had a slightly different experience from Melismata. My mother's favorite uncle was gay. So long ago that I have no actual memory of it, it was explained that some people like the same sex and others liked the opposite sex. And that was pretty much it. I was raised by Hippies so they didn't stress too much about things like that. It was just a fact. My Dad's favoriate expression was, "Different strokes for different folks"

My mom got a job as a counselor at a State Mental Hospital, where she met someone who was a lesbian. Apparently her family had her committed for being a lesbian, and my mom helped her get out. They became friends and remain so to this day.

I remember my Dad talking about reading a gay newspaper in the early sixties/late fifties and he was appalled at how queeny the writing was, thinking that there should have been a bit of gravitas there.

Billy Crystal played an openly gay character on Soap in the seventies and it was a big deal.

When AIDS came on the scene it was like all the gay people on TV had AIDS and were suicide prone. (Take that TV Tropes) It's only very recently that gay people on TV have been presented as characters, with issues and concerns, who also happen to be gay.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:47 PM on June 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

The Mayor of Castro Street, at the beginning, features a great history of San Francisco gays, immediately after WW2. It is very enlightening.

In a nutshell, these guys were separated from the Army and Navy, which took place in that area, and they did not have families to rejoin, so they tended to stick around.

But read this book, at least the first few chapters. I think that they will address your question well.
posted by Danf at 12:59 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

You ask "were there signs"? And the answer is yes, of course. Like any other romance, most were nonverbal. I heard one charming description of this collection of flirtacious gay behavior in the 1950s described as "dropping hairpins". The other one that I've always thought was so cool that I sometimes still use it myself occurred after 1939 during that nebulous period when Judy Garland first began to be identified as a gay icon. Anyway, in order to circumspectly ask if a man was gay (don't know the provenance for female usage) a person might say, "Is he a friend of Dorothy?"
posted by seasparrow at 1:11 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Novels sometimes reveal more about a particular time than non-fiction, so books by Edmund White, Andrew Holleran or Felice Picano may be useful to you. Edmund White and Felice Picano write memoirs as well as novels.

Surpassing the Love of Men by Lilian Faderman and Not a Passing Phase by the Lesbian History Group are also excellent, as is Lillian Faderman's memoir, Naked in the Promised Land.

My gay uncle recalls bars in the 1950s in Toronto that catered to gay men and lesbians. They always had someone guarding the door so that if the police came in, the lights would be flashed and all the men dancing with men and women dancing with women would know to switch partners. It was the norm for gay men (and maybe women, I'm not sure) at that time to go by pseudonyms: your career couldn't be ruined by being seen in a gay bar if you were only known as "Judy." Men who dressed in drag at such places had to be performing and had to be wearing at least one article of men's clothing so that if they were searched by police, they could claim that the women's clothing was merely a costume and not an attempt to impersonate a woman.

The Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives is a treasure of queer cultural history. Even the little bit of material that they have online is fascinating.
posted by GreenEyed at 1:20 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Gore Vidal's third novel, The City and the Pillar, is a coming-of-age story set in the 1930s and 40s. I found the similarities and differences between "gay life" in his age and mine to be fascinating. It was also a scandal at the time, as he had been already hailed as a shining young star after his first novel.

But remember that people in past societies comprehended behavior, identity, and sexuality entirely differently than we do. If you're interested in that broader view, I suggest The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies.
posted by General Tonic at 1:41 PM on June 19, 2012

In addition to his novel Maurice, which depicts gay relationships in c1912, E.M. Forster has a collection of short stories called The Life to Come and other Stories, some of which also depict gay life in the early 20th century.
posted by jb at 2:16 PM on June 19, 2012

Sons of Tennessee Williams (review) is a documentary on the first state-chartered Mardi Gras drag balls in the early 1960s, pre-Stonewall. It cuts between memories and the history of gay krewes, mostly the Krewe of Armeinius, and Armeinius' 40th anniversary ball in 2008. The documentary covers the events that lead to the formation of gay krewes, some of the second generation krewe members who grew up watching the drag krewes, and some young men in modern times talking about what came before them. It is (or at least was) streaming on Netflix, so you could probably find it on other services, too.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:27 PM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think that in terms of mainstream society, the key was that it was HIDDEN.

But even when it was hidden, it was very often hidden in plain sight. Francis King, in his autobiography Yesterday Came Suddenly, tells a wonderful story about the cabaret entertainer Douglas Byng:

He was delighted when I recounted to him how a woman friend of mine, a neighbour of his during the war, had spoken admiringly of him: "Oh, he's a wonderful man! Really wonderful! So kind! Not a night seems to pass when he doesn't give some homeless serviceman on leave a bed! Yes, I see him come in night after night with some soldier, sailor or airman. He must go out and pick the poor things up."

As King comments: 'Even worldly people could really be as innocent as that then.'

Other memoirs of gay life in early twentieth-century Britain include Harry Daley's This Small Cloud (Daley was a remarkable man; more about him here), J.R. Ackerley's My Father and Myself (read W.H. Auden's review here), and Paul Bailey's Three Queer Lives. One common theme to emerge from these memoirs is that despite the very harsh attitude of the law towards homosexuality, ordinary people were often more tolerant, or at any rate less shocked by it, than we tend to suppose.

For a more academic study, see Matt Houlbrook's brilliant book Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis 1918-1957. (Excerpt from the book here: 'To have sex with or to love another man did not necessarily make a man different. The most remarkable thing about queer urban culture is that it was, to a large extent, composed of and created by men who never thought themselves queer.')
posted by verstegan at 2:28 PM on June 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

verstegan: One common theme to emerge from these memoirs is that despite the very harsh attitude of the law towards homosexuality

That was also made apparent in Sons of Tennessee Williams. Men picked up by the police for homosexual acts would have their names published in the local paper, which everyone read. Guys would lose their jobs and have their lives ruined because of this alone, never mind the college dudes who would cruise around to pick up a gay guy to severely beat, just because he was gay.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:37 PM on June 19, 2012

I loved Audre Lorde's memoir, Zami. Quite a bit of it takes place in the lesbian scene in 1950s-60s NYC. There's a lot of great stuff about the freewheeling, bohemian scene of the times, but also a lot of stuff about the effects that homophobia and marginalization had on these women.

One of the most poignant passages is when she and her partner get a plate for their mailbox that has both their names, and she muses that this is the closest they can get to a public announcement of their relationship outside of their little scene. This is their wedding ceremony.
posted by the essence of class and fanciness at 5:17 PM on June 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

I've not read it but have been told Passions of the Cut Sleeve on male gay tradition in China is a classic.
posted by Abiezer at 6:53 PM on June 19, 2012

If you want to go back a bit further, I just saw Wilde, which was based on a Pulitzer-winning biography of Oscar Wilde.

The tragedy of Wilde's life is that he fell in love with a young man who had an abusive father; the father developed a hatred of Wilde and accused him of homosexual behavior - which resulted in Wilde suing him for libel. During the trial, evidence was presented that Wilde had had sex with other men (which he certainly had); I don't know how compelling the evidence actually was, but it was enough to make Wilde drop the libel suit ... and then the government prosecuted him for "gross indecency". He was convicted and served two years hard labor, which utterly destroyed his health.

The commentary on the DVD is interesting, particularly some of the bits with Stephen Fry, who played Wilde (and who is gay himself). He talks a bit about how utterly shocking it was for Londoners to learn about Wilde's conviction - that people actually vomited in the streets, they were so disgusted by the notion of gay sex.

I haven't read the biography (yet), but I bet it would have lots of good background for you.
posted by kristi at 9:16 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I really like An Evening at the Garden of Allah, A Gay Cabaret, a wonderfully vivid and detailed look at drag/female impersonation culture in the 1940s, focusing on a famous Seattle club that opened in 1946. It has tons of great pictures and fascinating information about what queer life was like "back then." Lots of fascinating stuff there.

Martin Duberman's Stonewall is also excellent - not only a fantastic history of that particular weekend, but a great look at the culture just before the riots changed it forever.

It's been a while since I read Edmund White's The Beautiful Room Is Empty, the 2nd in his semi-autobiographical trilogy about growing up and into adulthood as a gay guy, but I remember it as being a really powerful look at the psychological and social settings homosexual people dealt with during the 1950s and 60s. At times it's pretty grim (the therapy scenes were so well done they made me want to toss the book out a window) but it's a classic look at the mental life of a gay man during that secretive, difficult era, and culminates in a great payoff. I imagine the first in the trilogy, A Boy's Own Story, offers similar insight into being a young gay kid in the 50s.

I also liked The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America; it's got tons of details about the gay artists and writers who made their home in NYC and influenced huge swaths of American pop culture.

Finally, this one's been on my to-read list for a while: Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade. It was a National Book Award finalist a couple of years ago, and after you read all the reviews at that Amazon page it might jump to the top of yours, too:

"Justin Spring documents the extraordinary life of one of Kinsey’s crucial gay witnesses, and reading Secret Historian is like reading Kinsey dramatized. A cultivated, rather shy professor of English literature, Sam Steward dropped out in midlife to become an eminent tattooist and writer of S&M porn. As the story of a sex-obsessed recovering alcoholic later addicted to barbiturates and to masochistic thrills, this could easily have become a portrait of a failure. Instead, through Steward’s copious records, we have a brave, fly-on-the-wall account of American homosexual subculture and persecution."

"Drawn from the secret, never-before-seen diaries, journals, and sexual records of the novelist, poet, and university professor Samuel M. Steward, Secret Historian is a sensational reconstruction of one of the more extraordinary hidden lives of the twentieth century. An intimate friend of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Thornton Wilder, Steward maintained a secret sex life from childhood on, and documented these experiences in brilliantly vivid (and often very funny) detail.

After leaving the world of academe to become Phil Sparrow, a tattoo artist on Chicago’s notorious South State Street, Steward worked closely with Alfred Kinsey on his landmark sex research. During the early 1960s, Steward changed his name and identity once again, this time to write exceptionally literate, upbeat pro-homosexual pornography under the name of Phil Andros.

Until today he has been known only as Phil Sparrow—but an extraordinary archive of his papers, lost since his death in 1993, has provided Justin Spring with the material for an exceptionally compassionate and brilliantly illuminating life-and-times biography. More than merely the story of one remarkable man, Secret Historian is a moving portrait of homosexual life long before Stonewall and gay liberation."

It looks like a treasure trove of exactly the sort of information you're asking about.
posted by mediareport at 9:59 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Came to recommend Wide Open Town, referenced above.

The San Francisco Public Library has an online exhibit on Harry Hay, plus a San Francisco LGBT book list.

Also, there's a photo of me in Gay by the Bay.
posted by gingerbeer at 10:34 PM on June 19, 2012

Make sure you check out Foucault's The History of Sexuality
posted by clvrmnky at 8:06 AM on June 20, 2012

I got this DVD from the library not too long ago and it was really interesting: Gay Sex in the '70s. Focuses on New York City
posted by Clustercuss at 9:33 AM on June 20, 2012

I have a gay cousin, right at 70 years old now, his life was very difficult, unable always to be himself -- he still today won't tell his truth to people like my jesus-jumper mother, and if you can't/won't tell your truth you're going to have trouble living it. A good guy, always ready to pitch in, always ready to help out.

How I wish he'd gone to a gay-friendly place -- and I'd bet he wishes the same -- his life could easy have been very different had he shut his ears to our family, cut the cord, moved to SF.
posted by dancestoblue at 11:20 AM on June 20, 2012

Sexual Historian, recommended above, was fascinating. I make it a point to read a lot of gay history, and that one's tops.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 5:25 PM on June 20, 2012

City of Night by John Rechy; Amazon reviews
posted by kmennie at 5:00 AM on June 21, 2012

Here is a Metafilter thread from not too long ago, about police surveillance of a men's restroom in 1962 in Mansfield, OH. Be forewarned that the links are very NSFW and the video is fairly graphic.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:39 AM on June 21, 2012

You might dig The Best Little Boy in The World, which is a memoir from a kid who was in the Ivy League around the Mad Men era and struggling to stay in the closet.
posted by Diablevert at 6:12 PM on June 21, 2012

In the 1950's, homosexuals were perceived as also being capable of pedophilia - against either gender of child. (Which is kind of ridiculous for multiple reasons.)

You mayalso want to read about the history of The Mattachine Society, an early gay-rights organization from the 1950's.

There's also a semi-autobiographical graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, which deals with the author's coming of age in the Southern US in the 1960s, and has him struggling to come to terms with both his own sexuality and with overcoming racism.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:34 PM on June 25, 2012

Yesterday's NYT Sunday Book Review gave Victory (a history of the gay rights movement from the 1950s on) a good review. It
[draws] from an arsenal of archival records, firsthand interviews, court documents and previous histories, is a sprawling account of juicy trysts, hushed political meetings, internecine movement skirmishes, sudden mutinies and activists turning personal humiliation into rocket fuel. The emerging facts are not new to scholars, but as popular history, “Victory” excels.
posted by rtha at 12:48 PM on June 25, 2012

Coming back to the thread to mention Alex Ross's "Love on the March" in the current issue of the New Yorker, which mentions Chauncey's book and a number of other resources in his discussion of what gay life was like before the 1970s.
posted by scody at 4:53 AM on November 12, 2012

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