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Early resistance to state repression

Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series part 29

Published Mar 23, 2005 1:39 PM

In the inhospitable social climate of the Cold War, struggles were taking root in the U.S. that would later flower in the gay and trans liberation movement of the late 1960s.

How was it possible, some may wonder today, for gays to have resisted and organized in the 1940s and 1950s when state repression and a reactionary ideological offensive were at their height?

In the war between exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed, the relationship of forces may change many times, but those under siege never cease to find ways to struggle for their freedom.

Much of the history of the struggle for homosexual and gender and women’s rights in the decades of greatest political repression has been buried under the reactionary weight of the Cold War propaganda machine. Under standing how the early stirrings of the homophile movement of the 1940s and 1950s began serves to arm today’s movement, which has much greater opportunities for resistance against political reaction.

Also, the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion and the mass political wave of struggle it unleashed can seem almost accidental or episodic without a general overview of the acts of resistance and attempts to organize that preceded the four-night-long uprising.

The choice of language to describe these earlier decades is difficult. Similar words may be used to describe sex, love and affection with regard to different historical periods, economic classes, nationalities, ethnicities and regions. However, the ways people saw themselves and each other and the ways medical authorities, police, courts and military brass categorized and criminalized people and their behaviors have undergone many changes.

The world of same-sex love among many blue-collar and oppressed people in the first half of the century in the U.S. was intertwined with gender and sex variance—or what today might be referred to as transgender and transsexual. It’s also hard to separate bisexuality from the exclusive expression of same-sex love in early periods.

Here “LGBT” will be used, not to stamp the past with a modern acronym that has come to symbolize a united front coalition of sexuality, gender and sex minorities, but to show the inability to parse the population into distinct categories.

Centralizing force of capitalism

The rise of the 1940s and 1950s homophile movement itself is hard to fathom without taking into account the awakening of LGBT people in the 1920s and 1930s. Material developments in life under capitalism made this not only possible in those early decades of the 20th century, but necessary.

By the end of the 19th century, Northern industrial capital and banking had consolidated its victory over the Southern slave-owning landed aristocracy. The overturning of Black Reconstruction through lynch “law” and Jim Crow fascist conditions had brought a violent end to an unfinished revolution. This created huge shifts in the population from agriculture to urban areas in search of jobs. In these vast, anonymous cities and port towns, with same-sex boarding houses and parks and piers, nascent LGBT subcultures took shape.

U.S. capitalism, unable to satiate its hunger for profits through domestic expansion alone, emerged as an imperialist power, exporting war for empire and profits to Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines in 1898. A decade and a half later the world’s imperialist powers dragged the workers into a gory struggle over redividing the world’s colonies in the first World War.

The military deployment and wartime industry also pulled massive numbers of women and men from rural areas, small towns and cities into same-sex living conditions and new social conditions that broke down the old order.

It was workers’ revolution that scared the imperialists into finally ending the war. The Cold War really began in the U.S. after the workers and peasants of Russia rose up in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and established the first lasting workers’ state. The revolution reverberated around the globe, lifting the heads of laboring and oppressed peoples in every part of the world.

The communist government in Russia immediately struck down the anti-homosexual laws. In the U.S., however, the capitalist government made LGBT people one of the early targets of repression, along with communists, anarchists, trade unionists and immigrants.

Military witch hunt

In the spring of 1919, the brass at the Newport Naval Training Center covertly sent a group of young enlisted men into the base and the nearby community to lure “sexual perverts” and bring back evidence about “immoral conditions.”

After entrapment had provided the necessary “evidence,” naval and municipal officials rounded up more than 20 sailors and 16 civilians. They faced naval and civilian trials.

It was one thing when the dragnet ensnared enlisted sailors, mostly from the working class. But when a prominent minister from the Episcopal Church of Newport got caught in the nets, and civilian and later military officials forced him to stand trial, all hell broke loose.

“Protests by the Newport Ministerial Union and the Episcopal Bishop of Rhode Island and a vigorous editorial campaign by the Providence Journal forced the Navy to conduct a second inquiry in 1920 into the methods used in the first investigation,” historian George Chauncey Jr. wrote.

“When the inquiry criticized the methods but essentially exonerated the senior naval officers who had instituted them, the ministers asked the Republican-controlled Senate Naval Affairs Committee to conduct its own investigation.”

The Republicans agreed, eager to attack the Democratic administration.

The Senate committee issued its report in 1921. It exonerated the minister. Although the report, Chauncey noted, “expressed deep anti-homosexual loathing, it condemned the conduct of the highest naval officials involved, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, President Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy and the 1920 Democratic vice-presidential candidate.” (“Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era”)

Smoke, lilies and jade

The mass migrations to large cities, port towns and military bases in the 1920s and 1930s had created the basis for larger and more concentrated subcultures.

Chauncey provides evidence that LGBT life flourished more in the first third of the 20th century, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, than it did after World War II.

He described same-sex love and gender variance in New York, one of the capitals of LGBT life, as “a working-class world, center ed in African American and Irish and Italian immigrant neighborhoods and along the city’s busy waterfront, and drawing on the social forms of working-class culture.”

The most visible, organized and eloquent LGBT expression in the pre-World War II era came from the Black movement in the United States.

As the Great Migration from the South to the North burgeoned into Black urban capitals, LGBT expression became a part of their histories.

Thousands attended LGBT balls in Harlem, Chicago, Baltimore and Wash ing ton, D.C., which were widely reported on in Black community newspapers.

In New York the balls were held at the Rockland Palace, the Astor Hotel and Mad ison Square Garden. The most famous was the annual Hamilton Lodge Ball in Har lem, which dated back to 1879. The majority of those who attended were working class. About 800 took part in 1925; 1,500 in 1937. Attendance peaked at 8,000 in 1937 before police raids shut it down.

Harlem was the heart of one of the great cultural and political high-water marks of U.S. history—the Harlem Renaissance—which ran from the end of World War I in 1918 until the capitalist depression.

This flowering of literature, art, music and political organizing—all of which was influenced by aspirations for national liberation and hope for an end to dreams deferred, sparked by the socialist revolution in Russia—also gave voice to LGBT concerns.

Richard Bruce Nugent, a self-identified gay man, published the classic “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” in 1926. It was the first known work by a Black author clearly about same-sex love. He said about LGBT life in Harlem during that period, “Nobody was in the closet. There wasn’t any closets.”

Next: German Homosexual Emancipation Movement inspired 1920s U.S. organizing.