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Storm Clouds Gather Before the Rainbow

As more and more gay, bisexual, and transgender people made their way into big cities, they began to shape the spaces in which they lived. The neighborhoods where they had found tolerance, or where they were able to pass, were home to immigrants and other marginalized communities. The growth of the gay community signified not only the need for more places to socialize and live, but also the need to communicate to others that they were of the same culture, sharing experiences and understanding.

As LGBTQ+-friendly neighborhoods began to emerge in major cities, there were a few common factors that helped determine where they emerged. They were usually working-class neighborhoods where the cost of living was low. In many cases, they developed in areas that were home to already-marginalized communities, which tended to be outside of the main commercial districts and therefore under less scrutiny. These areas also tended to have spaces and buildings that could be easily adapted to making gay-friendly establishments. Many of the LGBTQ+ venues from the past are gone because they were never official businesses, or they were in buildings and outdoor spaces after hours or in secret.

In New York City, the two most prominent and influential neighborhoods were Greenwich Village and Harlem.

NEXT STOP: CHRISTOPHER STREET

By the time it was annexed to the city of New York, Greenwich Village was a town of the wealthy elite. In the early years of the twentieth century, however, the upper-class residents had moved on, and the neighborhood, then known as the Ninth Ward, was home to predominantly working-class Italian immigrants. Between 1910 and 1920, the low rents led to a large number of eccentric artistic types, called bohemians, moving into the area. At the time, it was fairly isolated from the rest of the city and had a European flair.

This street scene shows New York City’s Greenwich Village circa 1900. This neighborhood would become a major center for LGBTQ+ activism and culture.

This culture also led to a large number of gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals moving in as the Jazz Age of the twenties roared. The bohemians tended to dress extravagantly and were uninterested in conventional social norms like marriage. It was easy for gay men and lesbians to blend in there. If anyone questioned why the long-haired men or the short-haired women weren’t settling down to raise a family, it would be assumed it was because they were creative types.

Gay men and lesbians were happy to be mistaken for artists, but as time went on and the Village developed a reputation, the bohemians who preceded them felt differently about being mistaken for homosexual. In 1934, the author Malcolm Cowley wrote that, as he saw it, modern art suffered from “the theory that all modern writers, painters, and musicians were homosexual.”

TAKE THE A TRAIN

Named for a city in the Netherlands, Harlem was a prominent black neighborhood by the early twentieth century. In the 1920s, the place was characterized by an arts explosion, ranging from dance to poetry, called the Harlem Renaissance. And as noted scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. would write decades later, “The Harlem Renaissance was surely as gay as it was black.”

YOU ONLY TELL ME YOU LOVE ME WHEN YOU’RE DRUNK

When the sale and manufacture of alcoholic beverages was made illegal in 1920, secret bars opened up in major cities. Such a bar was called a speakeasy. This had a transformative effect, both positive and negative, for the gay and lesbian community.

Because all bars were now illegal—bars almost always relied on organized crime—starting one as a place for same-sex socializing and cruising was easier than it had ever been. After the end of Prohibition, many gay bars would remain associated with organized crime for decades to come and still had to make payoffs to police to avoid getting shut down. While the drinking establishments would come to function as community centers in their respective cities, the pressure to drink in order to be around other gay men and lesbians contributed to struggles with alcoholism within the community.

BAYARD RUSTIN: THE INVISIBLE MAN

One of the victims of Adam Clayton Powell’s crusade against homosexuality was one of his own colleagues in the struggle for civil rights, Bayard Rustin. Rustin had worked for organizations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Council of Racial Equality (CORE) since moving from Pennsylvania to New York in the 1930s.

But he would leave almost every group he worked for, not because of ideological disagreements or conflicts with other members, but because he was gay. Other members, sometimes even leaders, would be nervous about the possible backlash against the movement to end segregation and overturn Jim Crow laws. Every time it came up, Rustin would voluntarily leave.

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Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) poses at the Citywide Committee for Integration’s headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. As a black man who was also gay, he held two oppressed identities.

Despite this, Rustin was praised as one of the best organizers in the movement, and he helped develop the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SNCC) with Martin Luther King Jr. When Powell threatened blackmail against him and King for Rustin’s arrest in 1953 on a “morals charge,” Rustin once again stepped down. But longtime friend and advocate A. Phillip Randolph defended him as the only man who could organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. When the group insisted Randolph oversee the event instead, he appointed Rustin as his deputy to enable him to coordinate the three hundred thousand people in attendance.

Writers such as Angelina Weld Grimké, Alain Locke, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and Langston Hughes may have been gay or bisexual. Singer Josephine Baker divided her time between Harlem and Paris, and her heart between men and women. At the Clam House on 133rd Street, Gladys Bentley sang the blues while crossdressing in a tuxedo, changing the lyrics of popular songs to be about loving ladies rather than gentlemen.

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was staunchly intolerant of homosexuality. However, he was also an important figure in the struggle for African American rights.

The neighborhood wasn’t just for artistic celebrities; there was a culture of tolerance and acceptance that many took advantage of. “You did what you wanted to,” said artist and writer Richard Bruce Nugent. “Nobody was in the closet. There wasn’t any closet.” In many of the famous venues of the time, such as the Cotton Club, same-sex and straight couples shared the space, and the annual drag ball at the Hamilton Lodge was one of the biggest events in Harlem. Soon enough, many were involved. Thousands came to see performances by male and female impersonators—and some of the audience cross-dressed, too. Gay and bisexual women may have been more public about their relationships with other women, but they could still be criticized and verbally attacked for turning down the attentions of male suitors.

But not everyone was as accepting of such lifestyles. Adam Clayton Powell, then a Baptist pastor in Harlem, spoke out and campaigned against what he saw as a perversion of morality. Although he would go on to be a major figure within the civil rights movement, he would remain unaccepting of homosexuals.

Many claims and accusations have been made against historians who have intentionally or otherwise obscured the queer legacy of the Harlem Renaissance. Other ways the past has been rewritten have come in the form of legal action by the families and estates of public figures who have wanted to avoid their reputations being “tarnished.”

NO ONE IS EVER ALLOWED TO HAVE ANY FUN EVER AGAIN

One of the strongest opponents of the emerging gay culture was the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV). Founded in 1873 by Anthony Comstock, NYSSV was dedicated to enforcing city laws on moral conduct and opposing “obscene” content. Comstock was also responsible for lobbying for laws prohibiting “obscene, lewd, lascivious, or filthy” printed material from being delivered by the US Postal Service. Gay rights advocates from Henry Gerber onward would struggle against these restrictions.

During the 1920s and 1930s, as more gay, bisexual, and transgender people found outlets for their voices in art, the NYSSV used public pressure to censor and fine writers and artists. Its complaints against Edouard Boulet’s play The Captive, one of the first Broadway shows with lesbian themes, led the state legislature to pass a “padlock bill.” Under this bill, the police were allowed to padlock the doors of a theater where “obscene” plays were being staged.

Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1873. It was enabled and at least partially funded by the New York State legislature.

The British writer Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness was the first popular novel to address female homosexuality. When it came out in 1928, England promptly banned it. A year later, when it arrived in America, eight hundred copies were seized by the NYSSV, and the society’s secretary, John S. Sumner, began a push to have it banned in the United States, as it had been in Britain. However, after two months, the case was appealed, and the book was found not to have been written in an obscene manner. Hall herself was anything but scandalous and was actually quite conservative politically. She kept her distance from the early feminist movements of the time.

As time went on, the NYSSV found itself being challenged and losing more and more often. It also found that trying to ban works of art that discussed homosexuality often brought negative attention and publicity to them.

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