LGBT History: New York City

Kevin Murphy. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.

Although historians have uncovered evidence of same-sex sexual and cross-gender acts and desires dating back to the earliest days of European settlement, no evidence has yet suggested that New York City was home to the kinds of “sodomitical subcultures” scholars have identified in pre-modern European cities. It is clear, however, that, by the middle of the nineteenth century, men interested in same-sex erotic and romantic relationships in the bustling port city of New York found plenty of opportunity. The industrializing urban economy drew men away from their families and afforded them an unprecedented degree of anonymity. In a largely homosocial world of factories and boarding houses, wage-earning men pursued fleeting sexual encounters as well as more sustained same-sex relationships. Men of the burgeoning middle class, often employed as clerks in the city’s offices and ships, also sought out sex with other men. The journals of the poet Walt Whitman, who referred to Manhattan as the “city of orgies, walks and joys” offer ample evidence of the erotic possibilities of the expanding city (Whitman, “City of Orgies,” in Leaves of Grass). Whitman roamed through the city’s streets and docks, where he met countless working-class men, many of whom he would ask to spend the night.

The end of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of a gay male subculture centered on the Bowery, the wide avenue in lower Manhattan that offered commercial attractions—including saloons, dance halls, and penny museums—for the city’s growing working-class and immigrant populations. By the 1890s, some of these establishments began to cater to men interested in same-sex relations. As early as the 1870s, Bill McGlory, the proprietor of a Lower East Side dance hall, hired effeminate men—referred to as “female impersonators” or “fairies” —to entertain the clientele. Soon thereafter, other “fairy resorts” opened on or near the Bowery. These included Paresis Hall, named after the term for insanity related to venereal disease, and the Slide, which, according to the New York Herald (5 January 1892) featured “depravity of a depth unknown in the lowest slums of London or Paris…. ” These resorts also appealed to more prosperous New Yorkers and tourists interested in “slumming” in the city’s notorious tenement districts.

George Chauncey argues that working-class fairies—who were identified as such because of their inversion of gender roles rather than their engagement in same-sex relations—stood at the center of “a highly visible, remarkably complex, and continually changing gay male world [that] took shape in New York City” and flourished until the beginning of the Second World War (p. 1). Although fairies were, at the outset, its most recognizable denizens, this world encompassed many other New York City men of all social classes, who engaged in a variety of types of same-sex relationships and occupied a broad range of subjectivities (for example, “queers,” “trade,” “wolves,” and “punks”) that are not equivalent to the modern categories of “homosexual” and “heterosexual.”

Fairies were not the only figures to invert gendered order in New York City in the nineteenth century. Some biological females (often, but not always working-class) adopted male gendered identities and lived much of their lives as men; many forged sexual relationships with women and some even married. The most famous such individual was Murray Hall, an employment bureau proprietor who became a respected and influential politician associated with Tammany Hall, the city’s Democratic political organization. Hall was well known for his homosociability; he played poker and drank along with the other Tammany men. Hall married twice and adopted a daughter. Hall’s biological sex was not revealed until his death in 1901.

By the time of Hall’s death, many New Yorkers had encountered sensationalized accounts of “passing women” in the press, the most publicized of which concerned Alice Mitchell, who was tried and convicted for the 1892 Memphis murder of her “girl lover.” Informing and legitimating such accounts were newly popularized understandings of sexuality, pioneered by medical professionals, which associated gender “inversion” with same-sex desire and ultimately figured the “invert”—and later the “homosexual” and “lesbian”—as distinct and socially undesirable types. Influenced by this discourse, elite and middle-class social reformers and allied urban sociologists increasingly defined “moral perversion” as a problem worthy of their attention. In New York City, anti-vice organizations including the Society for the Suppression of Vice, founded by Anthony Comstock in 1872, the Committee of Fifteen (established 1900), and its successor the Committee of Fourteen (established 1905) considered the city’s homosexual culture a sign of social disorder. These organizations encouraged the city’s police department to prosecute same-sex sodomy cases; indeed the number of such prosecutions increased exponentially after 1880. Later, anti-vice reformers directed their energies toward rooting out same-sex content in artistic productions. Among the theatrical works targeted were two plays with lesbian themes, Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance, which premiered on Broadway in 1923 and was the first play ever to be declared obscene under New York criminal statutes, and Edouard Bourdet’s The Captive, first staged in New York City in 1926.

Not all of New York City’s social reformers joined in these anti-vice crusades, however. Indeed, many of the leading figures in the city’s reform movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries formed primary erotic and romantic attachments with members of the same sex. Among them were Lillian Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, Staten Island photographer Alice Austen, and activist Crystal Eastman. The prevalence of same-sex partnership among these influential reformers was accompanied by a rejection of the gendered limitations that so often excluded women of their class from participating in public life. A number of male reform colleagues shared in this critique of the traditional gender order and also organized their lives around same-sex relationships. These included settlement leaders John Lovejoy Elliott of the Hudson Guild in Hell’s Kitchen and Charles B. Stover of the University Settlement on the Lower East Side. Both of these men, who counted Socrates and Whitman as their greatest influences, eschewed marriage and family and instead formed primary relationships with working-class men.

In the early twentieth century, many of the more progressive members of this reform-minded group found themselves drawn to the burgeoning bohemian culture centered in Greenwich Village. The Village was home to a vibrant intellectual and artistic community whose members tended to embrace leftist political ideologies, including socialism and anarchism. Many Village radicals espoused a liberationist sexual and gender politics that encompassed such causes as the critique of state-sanctioned marriage and the promotion of legalized birth control. Same-sex love received little condemnation in this anti-bourgeois milieu; indeed some prominent Village figures, most notably Emma Goldman, developed vigorous arguments in support of homosexual rights. The Village served as home to Heterodoxy, a social club for self-professed “unconventional” women opposed to orthodoxy of all kinds. Founded by suffrage activist Marie Jenney Howe in 1912, Heterodoxy counted among its members an array of intellectual, artistic, and political visionaries, including feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, labor organizer Rose Pastor Stokes, anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons, and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) activist Grace Nail Johnson, the club’s only African American member. Judith Schwarz reveals that at least ten of the “Heterodites” were lesbians, who received “strong emotional support” from other club members (p. 36).

By the 1920s, according to Chauncey, “Greenwich Village hosted the best-known gay enclave in both the city and the nation—and the first to take shape in a predominantly middle-class (albeit bohemian) milieu” (p. 227). At first drawn to the unconventional atmosphere established by bohemian denizens, LGBT people became a distinct presence in the 1920s. The neighborhood was home to a number of popular commercial establishments— including speakeasies and tea rooms—frequented by “long-haired men” and “short-haired women” (p. 229). Among the best known were The Flower Pot, on the corner of Christopher and Gay, and the Jungle, on Cornelia Street. Often the success of these establishments stemmed from the popularity of the proprietor; one of the most famous was a lesbian from Poland named Eva Kotchover, who took the name Eve Addams and opened the Black Rabbit on MacDougal Street. Like many other Village gathering places catering to a queer clientele, the Black Rabbit found itself subject to frequent police raids. Addams was convicted on an obscenity charge in 1926 for publishing a collection of short stories entitled Lesbian Love, served prison time, and was eventually deported.

Another feature of Village gay life were popular drag balls held at Webster Hall on East 11th Street. At these gala events, tuxedo-clad women and men wearing makeup and gowns danced until dawn. An advertisement for the fifteenth annual ball, held in 1926, suggested the open and festive atmosphere of the event, beckoning ball-goers to “come when you like, with whom you like—wear what you like.” Drag balls were even more prominent in Harlem, the uptown African American neighborhood that was also a hub of LGBT life by the 1920s. The largest of these events were held at the Hamilton Lodge, which could accommodate six thousand people. Smaller affairs were hosted at the elegant Savoy Ballroom, at which, according to Eric Garber, “the highlight of the event was the beauty contest, in which the fashionably dressed drags would vie for the title of Queen of the Ball” (p. 325). Although organized by Harlem residents, other New Yorkers, among them Village LGBT people and high-society “slummers,” often attended. According to Kevin Mumford, such movement worked in reciprocal directions; Harlem LGBT people, including artist Richard Nugent, traveled downtown to partake of Village spectacles as well.

Drag balls were only one hallmark of a rich and varied queer world of early twentieth-century Harlem. This LGBT world—in many ways even more dynamic and expansive than that of the Village—emerged as part of the explosive growth of the larger African American population in Harlem—part of the “great migration” of southern blacks to northern cities. As was the case in the Village, Harlem’s queer enclave developed against the backdrop of bohemian intellectual and artistic ferment, in this case the Harlem Renaissance. Among the luminaries who participated in this world were the writers Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay. These figures drew inspiration from the popular artistic culture in Harlem, a central feature of which was the blues. A number of popular and influential blues artists—who performed in nightclubs like the Drool Inn and the Clam House—established transgressive gendered personas and performed lyrics that reflected a range of same-sex desires and experiences. The singer Gladys Bentley, who married her girlfriend in a civil ceremony, performed in tuxedo and top hat. A popular song in her repertoire bore the title “Sissie Man’s Blues.” Other performers, including Ma Rainey and Bessie Jackson (formerly Lucille Bogan) sang of same-sex relationships. Rainey’s “B.D. [bulldagger] Blues” offered the lyrical pronouncement: “Comin’ a time, BD women, they ain’t gonna need no men.”

During the 1920s, the Times Square neighborhood emerged as another prominent queer enclave; gay men, in particular, found affordable housing and accessible spots for cruising and socializing in and around the city’s premiere entertainment district. This period also saw the emergence of a “pansy craze” in Times Square clubs and speakeasies. According to Chauncey, Prohibition had the unintended consequence of labeling all those who consumed alcohol as criminal, thereby blurring the boundaries of respectability. Thus, middle-class visitors to Times Square proved more likely to seek out entertainment previously considered illicit. Responding to this new market, nightclub impresarios began to feature performances by effeminate and cross-dressing men for middle-class audiences. Although such performances illustrated the extent to which the gay world had become visible to the larger city, such visibility was quickly followed by a backlash. With the end of prohibition in the early 1930s, the State Liquor Authority achieved far greater control over the city’s bars and clubs. Pressured by reformers and public officials, authorities used this power to shut down clubs catering to LGBT clientele. As a result, LGBT people found themselves forced to the margins of New York City’s public culture in the 1930s.

From World War II to the Stonewall Riots

Mobilization for World War II was accompanied by an expansion of New York’s LGBT population. Soldiers passing through the city experienced LGBT life in Harlem and the Village. Others came to New York to pursue warrelated job opportunities. Many decided to remain in or move to New York after the war rather than return to their hometowns. Veteran Maxwell Gordon, who hitch-hiked to New York in 1946, searched for the gay camaraderie he had discovered in the military. When he arrived in New York, he “found out that literally there were hundreds and thousands of people just like me, who’d been in either Europe or the Pacific” (Bérubé,p. 246). After the war, new LGB communities emerged in Brooklyn Heights, in Jackson Heights, and on Manhattan’s East Side. New bars and nightclubs opened, too, including the string of men’s bars on Third Avenue known as the “Bird Circuit.” Femme/butch lesbian bars also proliferated, especially in the Village. These included the Pony Stable, Kooky’s, and the Sea Colony. Often controlled by organized crime and frequently raided by the police, these bars could be risky places. Same-sex dancing, wearing clothing belonging to the “opposite sex,” and serving alcohol to homosexuals were all illegal. Many patrons caught in police raids were beaten, sexually assaulted, and imprisoned.

In the face of such harassment and in opposition to the broader persecution of homosexuality in the postwar era, some LGBT New Yorkers began to organize. In 1955, Tony Segura and Sam Morford established a branch of the Mattachine Society, the homophile organization founded in California. A prominent early member of the group was Donald Webster Cory (Edward Sagarin), whose influential 1951 book, The Homosexual in America, characterized gays and lesbians as a minority group deserving of civil rights protections. In its first years, the New York Mattachine focused on education and advocacy. After breaking with the national organization in 1960, members boldly protested police raids of gay bars as well as the entrapment of men cruising for sex. The largest homophile organization in the United States, New York Mattachine remained active through the 1960s. In 1958, Barbara Gittings formed a chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), New York’s first incorporated lesbian organization. As editor of the DOB publication the Ladder, Gittings criticized the homophile movement as passive and unduly reliant on the approval of medical experts and advocated the adoption of a more activist stance.

Postwar New York was also home to a vibrant countercultural scene. The Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs produced work that railed against conventional sexual morality and celebrated homoerotic desire in bold and unapologetic fashion. Literary figures James Baldwin and Audre Lorde produced work that linked calls to sexual freedom to a politics of anti-racism. In the 1960s, artist Andy Warhol and his collaborators produced radical films that aggressively flaunted bourgeois conventions and featured LGBT actors and characters.

The famous Stonewall Riots of June 1969 galvanized these impulses toward radical protest and launched a militant liberation movement. Incited by a police raid on a Christopher Street bar, the Stonewall riots lasted for several days and brought together a diverse group of protesters who demanded “Gay Power!” Shortly thereafter, a group of energized LGBT New Yorkers founded the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). Influenced by the New Left, anti-war, and civil rights movements, GLF linked the gay liberation cause to other fights against oppression and sought to build alliances with other movement groups. Disaffected GLF members who believed that such alliances distracted from the primary cause of gay liberation broke off and formed the Gay Activists Alliance in December 1969.

Other GLF members objected to white male domination of the organization; they too formed their own groups. These included Radicalesbians, authors of the influential lesbian feminist document “The Woman-Identified Woman,” and Third World Gay Revolution, which objected to “the inherent racism found in any white group with white leadership and white thinking” (in Becoming Visible, p. 166). Transgender activists also felt alienated from the GLF. In 1970, a group led by Sylvia Rivera, who was at the Stonewall Inn the night it was raided, and Marsha P. Johnson formed STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). Among other causes, the group devoted itself to assisting young street queens. Also in this period, Lee Brewster, famous for the drag balls he hosted at the Diplomat Hotel, formed an organization known as the Queens Liberation Front, which worked to overturn New York City laws that criminalized cross-dressing.

Post-Stonewall Developments

The post-Stonewall liberation movements counted some significant achievements in New York City, including the revocation of unfavorable municipal ordinances and a reduction in the level of police harassment. LGBT organizations and businesses flourished in this less restrictive climate. The 1970s saw the opening of a host of new lesbian bars—including Bonnie and Clyde’s and the Dutchess—as well as women’s bookstores and coffee-houses. New lesbian political organizations also proliferated in the 1970s and early 1980s. These include Salsa Soul Sisters (later African Ancestral Lesbians United for Societal Change), founded by Dolores Jackson, and Las Buenas Amigas, a Latina lesbian group. In 1973, Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel founded the Lesbian Herstory Archives, a volunteer-run organization now headquartered in the lesbian enclave of Park Slope, Brooklyn.

In the 1970s, businesses and institutions catering to gay men opened throughout the city. New York City grew famous for its gay nightlife; men could choose from a whole host of establishments catering to niche markets. The disco crowd could choose among dance clubs, including the Loft, the Sanctuary, and the Paradise Garage. Popular destinations for the leather and Levi set included the Eagle, the Spike, and the legendary Mineshaft, all on the West Side. Many of these establishments provided opportunities for sexual contact; even small bars featured “backrooms.” Social organizations— including gay bowling leagues, choruses, and political organizations—also abounded.

LGBT publishing also expanded in the 1970s and 1980s. Among the important publications produced in New York City were Come Out! (1969), Christopher Street (1976), New York Native (1980), and Outweek (1989). In December 1983, the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center (now Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center) opened its doors at 208 W. 13th Street. The Center proved to be an invaluable resource for LGBT New Yorkers; among the groups to be born there were the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), Lesbian Avengers, and The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).

In the 1980s, LGBT New Yorkers confronted the disease that came to be known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which was first identified in New York City in 1981. AIDS, which initially predominantly struck gay men, created a crisis almost immediately. The first organization to respond to the epidemic, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), was founded in 1981 under the leadership of playwright Larry Kramer. GMHC, which became the largest organization of its kind, worked to educate gay men about AIDS prevention and provided legal, medical, and other forms of support services to those living with the disease. In response to a skyrocketing death toll and government inaction, angry AIDS activists adopted more militant and confrontational tactics. In the mid-1980s, for example, the Lavender Hill Mob staged a number of direct actions protesting government AIDS policy. ACT UP was founded in March 1987. This group, comprised mostly of white men, staged dramatic demonstrations and direct actions, including the disruption of the New York Stock Exchange. ACT UP chapters soon became established throughout the country and internationally. The organization exercised significant influence on the ways in which the government and the medical profession responded to the disease.

Organizations influenced by ACT UP emerged in the early 1990s. Queer Nation, founded in 1990, employed direct action to challenge the politics of gay and lesbian assimilation and to respond to a rising tide of anti-LGBT violence. The Lesbian Avengers, founded in 1992, embraced similar tactics to promote “lesbian survival and visibility.” The group also introduced the “Dyke March,” now an annual event.

By the end of the twentieth century, the activist culture of the 1980s and early 1990s had lost some of its vibrancy. Still, LGBT New Yorkers could count some successes. 1993 saw the passage of a domestic partnership law. Several openly gay and lesbian candidates were elected to public office in the 1990s. In April 2002, the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA), under the leadership of Pauline Park, led a successful campaign to amend the city’s human rights ordinance to protect the rights of all transsexual, transgendered, and gender-variant people. The group continues to fight for coverage under state law. In 2003, the New York City Department of Education and the Harvey Milk School, a collaborative endeavor between the Hetrick-Martin Institute and the New York City Board of Education, became the country’s first accredited public school designed to meet the needs of LGBT youth.