Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

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.

Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

  • The '30s Put An End To The Drag Balls That Flourished In 1920s New York
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The '30s Put An End To The Drag Balls That Flourished In 1920s New York

    Drag balls were part of the heightened state of expression that defined the raucous 1920s. In New York City, these events drew crowds of thousands of dancers, performers, and curious heterosexual onlookers.

    Notably, while segregation was the norm throughout the United States, drag balls were an integrated event - though white performers were much more likely to win prizes from the white judges. 

    The poet Langston Hughes described his experience at a 1920s drag ball:

    [The] height of the New Negro era and the tourist invasion of Harlem, it was fashionable for the intelligentsia and social leaders of both Harlem and the downtown area to occupy boxes at this ball and look down from above at the queerly assorted throng on the dancing floor, males in flowing gowns and feathered headdresses and females in tuxedoes and box-back suits.

    The burgeoning ball circuit of New York City crashed to a halt when the Great Depression began. Many blamed the rowdiness and "cultural experimentation" of the 1920s for the economic collapse, and the gay community was a convenient scapegoat.

    Fearing aggression or financial retribution against their families and loved ones, many ball attendees left gay public life.

  • New York Police Began Actively Trying To Entrap Gay Men

    In 1923, New York State adopted a law that made it illegal for one man to invite another to have intimate relations. Due to the number of gay people living and working in New York during this time, offenders were only prosecuted selectively and at random. It didn't become a widespread occurrence until the beginning of the Great Depression. 

    Apart from full-on bar raids, the primary means of detaining cruising men was police entrapment. Attractive plainclothes officers would enter the bars and engage in flirtatious conversations with men, only to arrest them if the men offered to leave the establishment to hook up.

    According to "Social Factors in Case Histories of 100 Underprivileged Homosexuals," a 1938 mental health study, 97% of gay men prosecuted for sexual offenses in a single year were adult men soliciting consensual relations with other adults.

  • The ‘Pansy Craze’ Ended In Chicago 

    As the New York gay scene ascended and collapsed, a similar phenomenon occurred in Chicago during the transition between the 1920s and '30s.

    The birth of the “pansy craze” can be attributed to Prohibition, when entertainment in general was driven underground to avoid legal consequences. The recent influx of immigrants from Europe and South America helped bolster the movement, creating numerous ethnic enclaves within the gay community. This led to the sudden proliferation of gay clubs and cabarets in the Near North and South Side, known colloquially as “pansy parlors.”

    Historian Chad Heap remarks on the racial landscape of the pansy community: 

    African American drag entertainers performed for racially mixed audiences at some of the South Side’s most famous "black and tan" [cabarets]. Mexican "queers" carved out a space for themselves along Ashland Avenue, and ethnic working-class "queens" from the city’s North, South and West Sides met at private parties and public drags throughout the city.

    The pansy craze ended quickly due to a sudden rise in unlawful activity blamed on the gay community.

  • A 'Sexual Psychopath' Law Was Passed To Incarcerate 'Deviants'

    The dissolution of the Chicago pansy scene was the result of a targeted series of attacks on the credibility of the gay community. A number of reports about “sex criminals” were released throughout the 1930s, with sensationalized language like, “Danger! One thousand escaped feeble-minded and insane persons... most of them capable of bestial sex crimes... at large in Chicago!”

    Sex crimes received extensive press coverage in Chicago - regardless of where they took place - to discourage Chicagoans from participating in any lewd or perverse behaviors themselves. The city council introduced a law that necessitated the installation of "moron alarms" - sirens that would sound from fire escapes to warn passersby of possible deviants.

    In 1938, a “sexual psychopath” law was passed. The law allowed police and medical institutions to forcibly admit anyone suspected of deviant behavior into a psychiatric hospital or penitentiary for an indeterminate amount of time. Michigan was the first state to pass this law, soon followed by Illinois. 

  • A New Hollywood Production Code Prevented Homosexuality In Films
    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.

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