Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A little LGBT history ...

Today I've got a Gay and Gray column at Time Goes By on the topic "How it was then ..." Every time I encounter service providers who deal with LGBT elders, they talk about people who go back into the closet or isolate themselves as they age. I thought it might be make sense to tell some stories and share some videos that give the flavor of what it was like for LGBT people growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s. Lots of us have reason to fear "helping" professionals.

Sadly, if I'd been writing about some earlier decades, the stories might not have been so painful. There aren't many left who grew up in the 1920s and early 1930s, but my straight, but observant and not narrow, mother was from that era. From her, I always got a sense that those were far better times to be gay than the immediate post-WWII decades. Even in the 1950s, my mother was aware of the church organist and "his friend" and the two women teachers at the school where she was the librarian and thought them just part of the human mix. She had learned in her youth a live and let live version of "don't ask, don't tell, don't disturb."

While looking for the 1950s videos, I found this, which suggests that in some places and classes, the 1920s and 1930s were better for gays. It's fun. [2:46]

The accompanying text claims:

The 1920's and early 1930's were quite liberal when it came to homosexuality. "Pansy Clubs" were all the rage in New York and other big cities and newspapers speak of a "Pansy Craze" in 1930. Mae West came out with a play "The Drag" that was about homosexuality in 1927 and it was a huge box office success.

Williams Haines, who was one of the most popular actors of the 1920's, openly lived with his boyfriend/lover in the 1920's and their relationship was widely known and accepted. But after the religious revival that followed the beginning of the Great Depression, late in 1930, the religious nuts began to mount a campaign against gays. "Pansy Clubs" were shut down and popular actors like William Haines and Ramon Navarro (another famous actor from the 1920's) were forced to retire because they refused to make sham marriages with women.

In 1934, the religious right succeeded in forcing the movie studios to censor their films (e.g. Betty Boop has to wear a long skirt, no sexual jokes, no portrayals of gays, etc.) Swing music, which became popular in 1935, replaced the "gay music" of the 1920's and the tenor voice was declared obsolete because men were supposed to be brutes and women second-class citizens.

It was all over by 1935, the film code was in full force to protect society's "morals", women were once again relegated to second-class, minorities were again maltreated (and many were deported) and the USA would be basically homophobic and religious and conservative until the re-awakening in the late 1960's.

I'm sure I could write that history in a more nuanced way -- but you got to like the tune, "Masculine Women, Feminine Men."

And now we find ourselves on the verge of winning gay marriage in all the Northeast and quite soon in Californian. Pretty amazing times.

1 comment:

Darlene said...

Let's hope those selfsame religious nuts don't win this time. They are sure trying and succeeded in winning Prop 8 in California. They are at it again in Iowa. Understanding, tolerance or reality is not in their vocabulary.

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