It’s almost funny to read how Otis Bigelow (famous to be the most handsome man of the ’40s in New York City, and coveted by millionaires and artists) reported as being gay “was an upscale thing to be”, but at the same time the author reports as just “across town from Park Avenue swells who entertained him so lavishly in their duplex apartments, a completely different kind of gay life was thriving in Times Square”. This was and is New York City, and as in the ’40s, also now there is a melting pot of cultures, and each culture wants to reclaim their identity. Otis Bigelow was not wrong as they were not wrong the obvious fairies of Times Square, they were simply navigating in different circles.
The “hidden in plain sight” approach was apparently pretty common in the ’40s, and so we learn from the memory of a fund boy from New England who wants to remain anonymous as he went to school with John Fitzgerald Kenney, and between the two, the outcast was Kennedy; but there is also the inside news of how JFK’s roommate, Lemoyne Billings, was gay and how he remained family friend even after the president election.
And from the words of many gay men who was there and lived that ’40s atmosphere the general opinion is that, you could be gay since you simply didn’t flaunt it. One of them cite a certain Mrs. Patrick Campbell who said “My dear, I don’t care what people do as long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses”. That is basically what Otis Bigelow and those other anonymous voices implied, you were free to be gay as far as you were gay inside “private” locations.
And maybe that is the reason why, in a period when civil rights were starting to be a common agenda of many politicians, it was not the same when those rights regarded LGBT people. You were free inside your private home, btw if you were wealthy enough to have that safe home, but you were also captive of your own golden cage.
There is a long session devoted to the gays in the military during the WWII. A nice introduction probably explains how the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was introduced, but mostly it’s about those men who remained (or went back) into the closet, not for the fear of being discovered, but to avoid to be refused the chance to protect their country as soldiers.
In the post-war stories, the one I liked the most is the friendship between Paul Cadmus and E.M. Forster, and how Cadmus was aware of Forster’s novel Maurice, a novel the author refused to publish until after his death to not damage his policeman “friend” (who was married).
The ’50s is a period of euphoria but apparently it also started the period when being gay was dangerous, and so it should be hidden; if in the ’40 you could be gay inside private walls, in the ’50s even that freedom was a danger, and the walls of a room became the more confined space of a closet. As for many others, gays became the target of a witch hunt. Maybe for this reason, late in the ’50s the main tendency was to “blend” and you see gays people getting married, with or without the knowledge of the wife.
The ’60s see a surge of consciences, in all the level of society, and so also among gays and lesbians. New York saw not only the first religious congregation for gays, but also Columbia University became one of the first colleges to give formal recognition to a gay students organization. Homosexuality exited from the closet and arrived in television, with a ground-breaking documentary, The Homosexuals.
The bridge between the ’60 and the ’70 is Stonewall, and so from that moment on there will be always a pre and post-Stonewall gay and lesbian movement and culture: “although millions would remain in the closet, within a year after Stonewall, thousands of men and women would find the courage to declare themselves for the first time”. Not only, being gay, or at least bisexual, was almost “fashionable”, and in many media, television, cinema, publishing, the gay characters not only started to make their appearance, they were also, sometime, positively accepted by the mainstream public. And also Forster’s Maurice came out of the closet. The ’70 see the sexual revolution, a sexual revolution that happened also within the LGBT community.
The ’80 and the beginning of the ’90 is the Dark Ages of the LGBT community, the AIDS plague killed so many, that almost completely deprived the world of an entire generation. There is visibly a jump, if you browse the net for notably LGBT characters, those born in the ’50 and ’60 are almost all among the victims. As reported “New York had far more AIDS cases than any other city in America”. One man stated “I know 450 people that died of AIDS that I can count. Thirty to 40 of my close friends that I had made from 1967 to today died from this disease”. It’s painful to read this part of the books, even more painful if you compare it to the energy that you had just felt in the stories of those men of the ’50 and ’60 and ’70, men who were eager to claim their homosexuality.
Maybe due to the imperative of being more mainstream to protect their rights among the massacre that was the AIDS catastrophe, the ’90 see the LGBT community enters politics and starting to put their weight on who has to represent them.
It was a long ride to arrive to the end of this book, but it was a very enlightening ride. Charles Kaiser managed to always bring alive the men he is talking about, with their dreams, fears, love and betrayals. It’s a wonderful essay that you read like a novel, with the easiness of a collection of short stories, only that the characters in those short stories are real life men and women.
Amazon: The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America
Amazon Kindle: The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Grove Press (June 10, 2007)
Reading List: http://www.librarything.com/catalog_bottom.php?tag=reading list&view=elisa.rolle