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In the 20s, Gay Self-Expression Was Common In The Urban US. Then The Great Depression Happened.

The concept of “progress” in the gay rights movement is deceptively nonlinear. The 2004 legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts may seem like a concrete “beginning” for the gains in gay rights throughout the first two decades of the 21st century, but that perspective omits the fact that being gay was not always illegal. 

In the 1920s, gay self-expression was quite common in urban areas of the United States, though still stigmatized. The well-to-do economy and overall prosperity allowed for cultural exploration that pushed the boundaries of gender and sexuality. Gay clubs and drag balls were explosively popular locations until the Great Depression hit. 

Much like cursing the fun of the night before when waking up with a hangover, Americans viewed the wild parties and cultural exploration as the obvious causes of the sudden economic downturn. Anti-gay legislation became common throughout the 1930s, and the gay community went underground en masse - many disappearing into the closet forever. Those who still managed to remain “in the life” fostered close relationships, but for many it was not easy or possible. 

Understanding the historical perspectives on gay culture can give valuable context to the more recent movements and legislation surrounding gay rights.

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  • Photo: LA Times Archive / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A New Hollywood Production Code Prevented Homosexuality In Films

    Mirroring the sudden downturn of gay people in public life was their disappearance from the stage and screen.

    Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, pictures depicting men in dresses and openly gay characters were commonplace. After The Captivea 1926 lesbian drama, made a splash on Broadway, it started a conversation about gay issues that was further expanded by The Drag, a play written by film star Mae West about gay men. Backlash ensued, and a New York state law was passed that prohibited the representation or discussion of homosexuality on stage. 

    In the early 1930s, a similar code was introduced in Hollywood. Olga J. Martin, a secretary of the Production Code Administration, explained the details of the code:

    No hint of... perversion may be introduced into a screen story. The characterization of a man as effeminate, or a woman as grossly masculine would be absolutely forbidden for screen portrayal. This means, too, that no comedy character may be introduced into a screen play pantomiming a pervert.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Lesbianism Came To Be Seen As A Major Threat To Heterosexual Marriage

    During the economic hardships of the 1930s, heterosexual men were self-conscious about their inability to provide for their wives and families. When this was sublimated into their gendered self-conception, lesbians became an issue.

    Heterosexual marriage was built on the concept of a man providing and a woman nurturing, so the idea of women performing both roles was a threat to the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. It upended common expectations of gender roles, which many anti-gay advocates claimed was part of the social decay that brought on the Great Depression. 

    By contrast, bisexuality was more permissible, since it allowed for the possibility of a heterosexual dynamic. 

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Some Gay Women Roamed The Country Together As ‘Sisters Of The Road’ 

    During the economic downturn of the early 1930s, lesbian women were faced with limited options: They could continue to live honestly and openly as women who love women, they could marry men to maintain a low profile, or they could skip town entirely. 

    Those who chose the latter option were known as "sisters of the road." They were typically from lower-class backgrounds, and may have become homeless or jobless following the increased sexual repression. For safety, these vagrant lesbians would often travel in large groups. 

  • Some Began Living A Heterosexual Lifestyle As A Means Of Economic Survival

    For the first half of the 20th century, women were generally discouraged from having jobs. Men were expected to support their wives and families. Women who did work typically did not make much money, and they were often reviled for "taking money away from a man with a family to support."

    Working women were in particularly dire straits when the economy fell - doubly so if they were lesbians. Those who could not live openly or leave town often chose to live a heterosexual life for the sake of economic survival.

    This group was largely made up of middle-class women. Upper-class women could afford to do what they wanted, and lower-class women had virtually nothing to lose from living freely or leaving town. Middle-class women would take a husband in order to survive the Depression, and possibly participate in lesbian affairs on the side.