In Paradise: the latest arrival causes scandal among the other already set down in the previous centuries. Illustration by Gerda Wegener (1889-1940) for the amusing newspaper ‘The Sourire’. France, Paris 1925.(Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images).
The 1920s are among the most iconic decades in U.S. history. After World War I, the country’s newfound wealth led to the flourishing of American culture that earned the decade the name the “Roaring Twenties.”
Women gained the right to vote in 1920 and began exercising this increased freedom and sexual expression as “flappers,” with short skirts and hair. As a result of prohibition, jazz music exploded in speakeasies that served alcohol illicitly. The sexual freedom of the decade invites the question of whether the LGBTQ+ community gained footing during this era. The answer, as usual, is more complex than you might expect.
In fact, the question itself is a bit misguided because there wasn’t an LGBTQ+ community in the 1920s, according to LGBTQ+ history scholar Lillian Faderman, author of Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America.
There certainly were people who engaged in sex and relationships with the same sex and those whose assigned gender didn’t resonate with them, but most of these people didn’t have labels to classify their gender and sexuality, let alone a group of people to identify with. The only letter of LGBTQ+ that people had back then was the “G;” even those we’d currently describe as “transgender, lesbian, or bisexual’ would have likely described themselves as “gay.” Even that term wasn’t known outside the community, until the Stonewall riots in the ’60s. The rest of the country knew these people as “homosexuals.”
Nevertheless, attempts to form a community were made. Most notably, gay activist Henry Gerber started the Society for Human Rights in Chicago in 1924.
In order to avoid backlash, he described it simply as a group for oppressed minorities, without mentioning sexual minorities. But the membership consisted solely of gay men, and the group published the first documented gay periodical, Friendship and Freedom.
This project was short-lived, however. A few months in, one of the members’ wives outed the group to the police, who deemed the content of the magazine obscene, even though it contained nothing pornographic. At the time, every state in the country had a law against sodomy, which referred to various kinds of non-traditional sexual activity, and that was enough to get them in trouble. The group dissolved, and the publication shut down after its second issue.
Despite the lack of a formal community, the ’20s did experience an ethos of increased sexual experimentation.
The ideas of Sigmund Freud were spreading, including the theory that it was typical to experience same-sex attraction growing up. While there weren’t gay bars like there are today, some speakeasies were known to accept gay people.
“If you went to a speakeasy, you were an outlaw anyway, so homosexuals were permitted to be another kind of outlaw,” Faderman explained.
Cross-dressing was crucial
Although it was not as explicitly tied to LGBTQ+ culture as it is today, drag culture was also gaining steam. Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge became a site for cross-dressing balls featuring men in dresses and women in ties in the 20s. Drag performances also took place in other parts of New York City like Greenwich Village and Times Square.
But these drag parties didn’t really kick off until the early 1930s, which became known as the “Pansy Craze,” referencing a term for men who dressed in women’s clothing.
Most of these activities were confined to major U.S. cities, and those in less urban areas had to travel to experience gay culture. San Francisco was a popular destination for people seeking the freedom to express their sexuality, says Faderman. Some areas in big cities, such as LA’s Pershing Square and New York’s Central Park, became popular “cruising” areas for gay men to pick one another up.
And as is often still the case today, gay men had more visibility than lesbians.
“If you were a woman and you didn’t go cruising in the streets as guys often did, it was very hard to meet other women,” said Faderman.
Some of the few lesbian communities in the 1920s were in New York’s Harlem neighborhood and Eve Adams’ Tearoom in Greenwich Village, which had a sign that read, “men are admitted but not welcome.”
The Village was also home to a feminist club called heterodoxy, which wasn’t explicitly for lesbians but included a number of them.
“The straight women probably understood that and were tolerant,” concluded Faderman.
In the margins of the arts
Lesbianism was so invisible, in fact, that people didn’t recognize it when they heard about it. The poet Gertrude Stein, for instance, was publishing work with lesbian themes in the ’20s, but they seemed to fly over most readers’ heads.
Her short story “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene,” for example, published in Vanity Fair in 1923, seems to be unambiguously about two women in a relationship, with lines like “Helen Furr was gay there, she was gayer and gayer there.” But since the word “gay” wasn’t widely known then, most reviews thought it was just about women who were happy and then became unhappy, says Faderman.
Even the LGBTQ+ significance of drag culture seemed to escape most people’s awareness, which is part of the reason drag balls were able to exist in the ’20s.
One drag ball in Madison Square Garden had an audience of 6,000, including many who would not have considered themselves a part of the gay community.
“There were all these spectators who came to see what would have been called underground gay men dressed as women and gay women dressed as men,” said Faderman. “So there was that sort of drag, but I don’t think it was identified in the way we would have identified it today.”
Nevertheless, there was some acknowledgment in the popular culture of the gender-bending happening in the ’20s. Merrit Brunies & His Friar’s Inn Orchestra recorded the song “Masculine Women, Feminine Men” in 1926, singing, “Sister is busy learning to shave / Brother just loves his permanent wave / It’s hard to tell ’em apart today.”
And by 1931, lesbians had gained enough visibility for blues singer Bessie Smith to sing, “When you see two women walking hand in hand, just look ’em over and try to understand: They’ll go to those parties — have the lights down low — only those parties where women can go.” Blues singer Ma Rainey also had a number of references to her attraction to women in her 1920s music.
As Prohibition ended and the Great Depression set foot, the progressiveness of the ’20s culture fell out of favor, which also meant a greater crackdown on gay people, including laws preventing them from working at restaurants and bars.
The McArthur era then forced gay culture further underground. But the steps forward taken in the ’20s would set the stage for the activism that reemerged in the 60s and evolved into today’s LGBTQ+ rights movement.