Ricardo L Ortiz. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.
While populations of native Californians, Spanish- and Mexican-descended Californios, immigrant laborers from the Far East, and migrants from the eastern United States all inhabited the region now identified as metropolitan Los Angeles long before the turn of the twentieth century, the city of Los Angeles emerged as a major U.S. population center only as the twentieth century dawned. While earlier the city had preserved the longer name, applied by eighteenth-century Spanish settlers, of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciúncula, by 1900 Anglo U.S. settlers favored the shortened version, Los Angeles (“the Angels” in Spanish). This was part of the ongoing process of colonizing the city’s cultural identity and history, and eventually Los Angeles was shortened to the Anglo-friendly initials L.A., by which the city came to be known in common parlance. From its unsettled beginnings, L.A. has always named and misnamed far more than a strictly geographically defined municipal entity; L.A. has historically if informally referred to a far-flung region incorporating not only the city of Los Angeles (which includes most of the San Fernando Valley) but also the Inland Empire to the east and Orange County to the south. L.A. has also itself been historically misidentified as and by “Hollywood,” the district within its borders most directly identified with the film and entertainment industry.
The Early Twentieth Century
Documentation of LGBT experience in early twentieth-century L.A. survives in part thanks to the colonies of artists and craftspeople that developed in and around Hollywood. As biographies of major film figures like directors George Cukor and James Whale, actors Ramon Novarro and Marlene Dietrich, and costume designer Orry-Kelly make clear, LGBT people were tolerated in Hollywood as long as they maintained strict public silence about their sexual identities. At least as early as 1929, members of the Hollywood film community began to patronize LGBT-identified establishments, like Jimmy’s Back Yard (a nightclub on Ivar Street in downtown Hollywood) and several so-called pansy clubs, which featured transvestite entertainment and enjoyed a brief period of popularity in the early 1930s. Depressionera L.A. also reflected the larger national tolerance for leftist politics, which allowed early gay activists like Harry Hay the opportunity to make contacts with others who, like the actor Will Geer, were starting to see connections between their sexual and political marginality. The relative sexual and political tolerance of L.A. in this period also attracted gay cultural figures like the English novelist Christopher Isherwood, who arrived in L.A. in 1939 and remained there for the rest of his life. Another migrant to L.A. in the 1930s was Dr. Evelyn Hooker, who, while not homosexual herself, went on to do groundbreaking research on gay psychology, in part thanks to her enduring friendship with Isherwood.
World War II and the Cold War
L.A. in the 1940s was dominated, as was the world, by World War II and its aftermath. On weekend passes and furloughs, LGB military personnel enjoyed gay bars such as Bradley’s in Hollywood and lesbian bars such as the If Club in L.A. Many military personnel discharged for LGB-related reasons and others uprooted by wartime mobilization settled in L.A. In the mid-1940s, Hooker embarked on the research, based at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) that would lead her to conclude that homosexuality was not a mental illness. In 1945, Bob Mizer founded the Athletic Model Guild, thus establishing one of the first but by no means the last of L.A.’s outlets for the production and distribution of beef-cake pictorials. Two years later Lisa Ben (née Edythe Eyde) began issuing Vice Versa, a series of typescripts whose very limited circulation did not prevent it from acquiring significance as one of the earliest instances of public writing for and by lesbians in the United States. Ben and others also reported on emerging lesbian social circles in the same period and on the existence of lesbian-friendly clubs like the If Club, Flamingo Club, Paradise Club, and the Star Room. Gay Angelenos from the same period report the significant evolution of a gay male sub-culture as well, especially in and around the cruising grounds of downtown L.A.’s Pershing Square, the gayand drag-friendly bars along downtown’s Main Street, and the gay beach in Santa Monica. In gay Hollywood proper, the social scene revolved in part around the very popular (and “mixed”) Café Gala, which was gay owned and whose bar area was renowned as a watering hole for gay (and straight) men in the industry.
Late 1940s L.A. was also enshrouded, like the rest of the nation, in the paranoia and anxieties of the early Cold War and atomic age. LGBT activists with leftist politics, like Hay, were targeted for harassment by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which held public meetings in southern California. These meetings primarily targeted entertainment figures based in McCarthy-era Hollywood, who were often accused of being both gay and communist.
The Homophile Movement
This climate did not, however, prevent a small group of gay Angelenos, led by Hay, from forming the Mattachine Society in 1950. Mattachine, named after troupes of masqueraded dancers who performed in medieval European courts, was one of the earliest LGBT activist groups in the United States and is often credited with inaugurating the modern U.S. LGBT political movement. While some L.A.-based social clubs (including the Knights of the Clocks, formed by a group of interracial, black-white gay couples) predated Mattachine, the latter was the first to embrace an explicitly political, and cautiously public, set of goals.
Tensions among early Mattachine members led quickly to a split, however, which resulted in the creation of ONE, Inc. in 1952 and, in 1953, of its magazine, ONE (and later the ONE Institute). The founders included W. Dorr Legg, Don Slater, and Tony Reyes. Both ONE, Inc. and the Mattachine Society contributed to the greater visibility and efficacy of an organized LGBT movement in mid-century L.A. and the nation. Among their accomplishments was a successful challenge to the 1952 arrest of Mattachine member Dale Jennings on “lewd and dissolute” behavior charges for soliciting sex in public from a police officer engaging in entrapment. Another was the landmark 1958 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in ONE, Inc. v. Olesen, which allowed the circulation of gay-themed materials via the U.S. mail. The latter case came about because of attempts by ONE Inc. to distribute its successful magazine to an ever-growing readership. While the early Mattachine’s membership was predominantly male (Marilyn Rieger was an influential, significant exception), ONE benefited from the contributions of its cogendered staff, which included several dedicated lesbian writers and editors. Beginning with the historic publication in February 1954 of its first special issue, called “The Feminine Viewpoint,” ONE featured material relevant to the lives and interests of lesbians and drew on the talents of a staff that included Ann “Corky” Carll Reid, Joan Corbin (pseudonym Eve Elloree), Stella Rush (Sten Russell), and Helen “Sandy” Sandoz. Sandoz was also the first president of L.A.’s chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the lesbian organization, founded in San Francisco in 1955 and extended to L.A. in 1958. Because of the risks that all homophile activists and writers faced in the intensely homophobic climate of the 1950s and 1960s, many used aliases and pseudonyms. Meanwhile, and with good reason, 1950s Hollywood remained a deeply closeted and paranoid place, but it also remained relatively hospitable, within strict limits, to its LGBT denizens, from directors like Vicente Minnelli and Charles Walters to writers like Arthur Laurents and Gore Vidal, as well as to countless actors, musicians, choreographers, set and costume designers, and others employed at the major studios.
By the mid-1960s, ONE, Inc. had suffered its own schism, as differences in vision alienated members of the leadership from one another. Don Slater left ONE magazine to start his own short-lived publication, Tangents; Stella Rush and other female staffers transferred their energies to the DOB’s publication, the Ladder; and ONE Inc.’s remaining organizer, Dorr Legg, grew increasingly isolated and conservative. After this period, ONE Inc. survived primarily thanks to the financial support of millionaire southerner Reed Erickson (née Rita), a transgender person with whom Legg maintained a volatile connection. In 1994, what remained of ONE Inc. combined its rich collection of documentary materials with those organized by archivist James Kepner’s International Gay and Lesbian Archives. Together they formed the ONE/IGLA Institute, a vital resource center located near and affiliated with the University of Southern California.
Cultural Figures in the 1960s
In the early 1960s, L.A. witnessed the arrival of another set of significant LGBT cultural figures. These included the novelist John Rechy, whose experiences hustling other men in Pershing Square and nearby hustler bars (and his more general sexual cruising in L.A.’s enormous Griffith Park) became the subject matter of much of his early fiction, notably in his groundbreaking first novel, City of Night (1963). Rechy’s published work, along with Isherwood’s novel A Single Man (1964) and his Diaries (covering the mid-century but published much later), constitute a rich, detailed cultural history of twentieth-century gay L.A from the perspectives of two of its most accomplished inhabitants. Rechy remains one of gay L.A.’s most important social and sexual historians; one of his lasting legacies can be found at the Numbers bar and restaurant, whose name is the title of a 1967 novel by Rechy. Numbers, established in Hollywood in 1979, has traditionally and notoriously catered to a high-priced sex trade, even after its move to a more sanitary West Hollywood address in 1998.
The sexual researcher and historian Vern Bullough arrived in L.A. in 1959. A straight ally whose work complemented Hooker’s in treating homosexuality and gender variation as noncontroversial manifestations of human psychology and behavior, Bullough dedicated himself to both intellectual and political activism, dividing his energies between his academic work at California State University at Northridge, his collaborations with ONE, Inc. and Mattachine, and his work with the emerging transvestite-transgender movement led by activists such as Erickson and Virginia Prince.
David Hockney, one of the major figures of late-twentieth-century painting and visual art, came to L.A. in the early 1960s. He famously fell in love with both its cultural and natural topographies and has in the course of a long career documented across diverse media (including, for example, Polaroid montages of Isherwood with his lover Don Bachardy) many aspects of L.A. life, gay and otherwise.
Late 1960s to Late 1970s
While the narrative of U.S. LGBT history has been dominated since the late 1960s by developments (like the Stonewall Riots of 1969) that took place in New York City and San Francisco, LGBT Angelenos continued to make their own vital contributions to both local and national LGBT life. These contributions include the founding of the Los Angeles Advocate newsletter in 1967 by PRIDE members Dick Michaels and Bill Rand; two years later, Michaels and Rand bought the newsletter (by then a magazine) from PRIDE, renamed it the Advocate, and watched its circulation and popularity continue to grow. By the time the magazine was sold to San Francisco millionaire David Goodstein in the mid-1970s, its circulation had risen from five hundred to forty thousand; by the time Goodstein died in 1985, the Advocate was a national publication, and it continued into the twenty-first century as a premiere national LGBT newsmagazine.
Just a year after the founding of the Advocate, activist Troy Perry established the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Los Angeles and in doing so planted the seed for what would also become a national movement, this one spiritual, as LGBT communities across the country started their own chapters of MCC. By the time the elderly Reverend Perry dedicated MCC’s national center (its “mother” church) in L.A. in 1999, both he and the organization he founded had become legendary in, and vital to, the larger national and even international LGBT scene.
As the 1960s veered into the 1970s, and as LGBT America veered into its modern, post-Stonewall period of cultural emergence and political consolidation, the L.A. community kept stride. In 1969, activist Morris Kight established the L.A. Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in 1969, which organized protests against homophobic establishments like West Hollywood’s Barney’s Beanery (which notoriously sported signs reading “No Fagots [sic] Allowed”) and also initiated L.A.’s first gay pride parade down Hollywood Boulevard in 1970. In 1971, Kight created L.A.’s Gay Community Services Center (GCSC). (The Center added “Lesbian” to its name in 1984.) While L.A.’s GLF chapter did not last long, its parade became an enduring southern California institution, known best for its annual Christopher Street West celebration. By the time L.A.’s renamed Gay and Lesbian Center celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in 2001, it was one of the largest such centers in the United States, with an operating budget in the many millions of dollars and an impressive headquarters offering an equally impressive array of services.
While both the GLF and Kight’s nascent GCSC drew fire for being too male centered, L.A.’s growing lesbian community (which was taking hold in enclaves centered in West Hollywood and Long Beach) found strength and support in the feminist movement. Lesbians were instrumental in the establishment and maintenance of L.A.’s Woman’s Building (located for much of its life near L.A.’s Chinatown), which enjoyed prominence as a feminist institution from its founding in 1973 to its closing in 1991. The Sisterhood Bookstore was established in 1972. The following year, UCLA hosted the highly successful and turbulent West Coast Lesbian Conference. Over the course of the 1970s, lesbian nightlife revolved around bars like the Seventh Circle, Bacchanal, Joanie Presents, and the Cork Room.
In the 1970s, as national attention continued to be directed toward more visibly evolving LGBT communities, especially that of San Francisco, L.A.’s continued to make its own important if less flashy strides. The year 1973, for example, witnessed the establishment (in what is now L.A.’s Koreatown) of Jewel’s Catch One, which by its thirtieth anniversary enjoyed the status of being the oldest black-owned LGBT nightclub-community center in the country. The long-runningLesbian News was first published in 1975, and in 1979 a bookstore called A Different Light opened in the city’s Silverlake District. In 1983 it opened a branch in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood and additional outlets opened in San Francisco’s Castro District in 1987 and West Hollywood in 1990. In these years, both Rechy and Hockney continued to produce work dedicated to the exploration, in words and images, of L.A.’s complex gay life. Among their more significant works were Rechy’s “documentary” fiction Sexual Outlaw (1977), which radically expanded the scope and variety of the author’s explorations of L.A.’s sexual undergrounds and sexual politics, and Hockney’s legendary (and homo-coded) pool paintings, many of which are featured in the documentary film A Bigger Splash (1974).
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, it had become clear that LGBT L.A. had two significant population centers, one in West Hollywood and the other in Silverlake. The former, an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County and therefore a safe haven from the aggressively homophobic Los Angeles Police Department, was geographically situated between Hollywood and Beverly Hills and attracted primarily white, middle-class residents who could afford the rents. The latter, located between Hollywood and downtown L.A., was historically more ethnically and economically diverse, welcoming not only working-class LGBT people and people of color but also more specialized sexual communities and clubs. Since the early 1970s, West Hollywood and Silverlake together have come to symbolize the increasing complexity of LGBT L.A.’s culture. If West Hollywood was wealthier, more mainstream, and the center of L.A.’s burgeoning pleasure industry (bars, nightclubs, bathhouses, porn studios), Silverlake was the center of much that was more genuinely alternative, more aptly queer, about L.A.’s homosexual culture and sexual cultures in general. While the balance between these two districts tipped, in part because of the 1984 political incorporation of West Hollywood into its own independent municipality, Silverlake continued to provide a healthy counterweight to its higher-profile sister community.
In any case, the political and cultural importance of the incorporation of West Hollywood at the same time that AIDS was starting to devastate L.A.’s gay community cannot be underestimated. Since 1984, the city of West Hollywood has proved an important anomaly on the local and national gay scene; it began its life with the first-ever LGBT-majority city council in the nation and has since that moment been a model of what LGBT-sensitive city politics can do when LGBT people are no longer a small minority in a given voting population. As important AIDS research began to be conducted at UCLA, and as AIDS started to affect some very high profile (and often closeted) gay celebrities like Rock Hudson, the consolidation of the local LGBT political movement in West Hollywood helped LGBT Angelenos address the many demands that the AIDS emergency made on them. LGBT activists formed organizations such as AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) and Project Angel Food, both of which were instrumental in delivering much-needed services to all L.A. communities affected by AIDS. While it took mainstream Hollywood (with very few exceptions) a good decade after AIDS’s initial appearance to devote significant funds to its representation in feature films (Philadelphia, 1993) and television (And the Band Played On, 1993), L.A.-based writers like Paul Monette (in his memoir Borrowed Time, 1988) and independent filmmakers like Tom Joslin (in his indispensable documentary Silver-lake Life, 1993) managed to record in more detailed, realistic, and compelling terms their own experiences battling AIDS, both by nursing their dying lovers and by confronting their own HIV status as well.
While AIDS in its first decade arguably dominated gay experience in L.A., it did not entirely monopolize it. On the positive side were Dr. Virginia Uribe’s establishment of Project 10 (in support of gay, lesbian, questioning, and allied youth) at Fairfax High School, where she taught and where she witnessed too often the disturbing harassment of LGBT teens by their homophobic and transphobic peers; the establishment in 1984 of Connexxus, an organization designed to support the needs of L.A.’s lesbian community (first opened in West Holly wood, Connexxus also briefly operated a Centro in East Los Angeles for Latina lesbians before both offices closed in 1990); and the historic emergence in 1991 of a renewed grassroots LGBT political movement provoked by anger over Governor Pete Wilson’s veto of a bill to protect LGBT people from employment discrimination that he had promised to sign as he courted LGBT voters during his 1990 gubernatorial campaign. The mostly spontaneous protests against Wilson’s veto continued nightly for two weeks, swelling to thousands of marchers by the end and shutting down traffic along some of L.A.’s and West Hollywood’s busiest streets.
In the 1990s and the first decade of the new century, the LGBT community experienced a sea change as members and allies of its earliest generations started to pass away. These included Legg in 1994, Hooker in 1996, Kepner in 1997, Hay in 2002, and Kight in 2003. Nevertheless, the L.A. community, now reflecting its own greater sexual and gender diversity in the initials “LGBTQ,” continues to evolve and diversify further. More cultural figures (including L.A.–based performance artists like Vaginal Cream Davis, Luis Alfaro, and Monica Palacios) are producing work that explores in particular the LGBT and queer experience in L.A.’s communities of color. And even mainstream entertainment has begun more fully to embrace defiantly “out” LGBT artists like comic Ellen DeGeneres, musician Melissa Etheridge, and writer-director Alan Ball (all L.A. residents).
Challenges like AIDS, hate crimes, and homophobic and transphobic discrimination still face the L.A. as well as the national LGBT community in the first years of the twenty-first century, but LGBT L.A. continues to contribute to that larger community in its own uniquely Angeleno manner. And if LGBT L.A. once had trouble distinguishing itself from its alter egos of Hollywood and West Hollywood, it has come in its long evolution to embrace those two identities, among others. As a truly metropolitan and cosmopolitan community, LGBT L.A. continues to extend its reach beyond West Hollywood to include other LGBT communities, old and new, from Silverlake to Long Beach to Orange County’s Laguna Beach, as well as many points in between.