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Queer Bronzeville: African American LGBTs on South Side, 1900-1985
Third of a multi-part series
by Tristan Cabello
2012-03-28

This article shared 11814 times since Wed Mar 28, 2012
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Part III: Constructing Black Homosexuality on Chicago's South Side: The Black Press, Queer Identities, and the Civil Rights Movement, 1950-1965

During the 1950s, Chicago's most important Black publications redefined African American sexuality and acceptable sexual behavior in Black communities. An original discourse aimed at explaining the limits of certain sexual behaviors was created. Beginning in 1952, Ebony, Jet and the Defender engaged in a discursive shift describing homosexual behavior as a contradiction to the values of Black society.

In the 1950s, important figures in African American music and literature did not hide their homosexual identity. James Baldwin publicly acknowledged his homosexuality. In 1953, Bayard Rustin spent 60 days in prison for "consensual sodomy," which was at the time a crime in the State of California.

Queer African American culture was popular in working-class Black neighborhoods. In Detroit, the Paradise Valley, a local gay club, held drag shows which brought in the country's most popular drag queens, such as Janis L Cava, Baby Jean Ray, Zorina La Crosse and Caledonia Anderson. In New Orleans, the most popular drag queen was "Princess Lavonne," and would come to be known as Little Richard in the late 1950s.

Around the country, Black Americans were organizing and rising up against racial discrimination. In this struggle for civil rights, access to full citizenship was at the very heart of activists' concerns and would lead to many shifts in African American identity. Access to full citizenship regulated the ideal image of the Black American community. It set out acceptable norms for social behavior, including sexual behavior. Homosexuals were criticized by leaders in the struggle for civil rights, who saw them as hurdles to full citizenship for African Americans.

During the early 1950s, queer festivities in Chicago's Black neighborhoods reached their hour of glory.

Eddie Phlique continued to host fashion shows at the Show Lounge Easter on Sunday; the mayor of Bronzeville continued to crown the Queen of the Night at drag balls; the Roberts Show Lounge housed the largest U.S. drag queen troupe, the Jewel Box Revue; and the Defender begged Joe Hughes to return to the nightlife. Drag balls organized by Jerry "Talent Scout" Jones at the Casino Moderne officially opened their doors to male cross-dressers. Reverend Clarence Cobbs was publicly a friend of queer DJ Eddie Phlique.

The Defender always dedicated a large part of its publication to queer events taking place. In the early 1950s, it published a two-page article about drag balls, the longest coverage of the events since the newspaper's creation. In "Boy Meets 'Girls' at Hallowe'en Ball," published Nov. 10, 1951, the Defender described a drag ball, complete with five large photographs of drag couples, drag queens on stage, and men dancing with female impersonators. That year, the event had brought 5,000 people to the Pershing Ballroom. The 1952 edition was also described in detail in a Defender article, along with four large photographs. The reporter still noted the "interracial" nature of the event.

Tasked with relaying important events in the Black community, Jet and Ebony naturally relied on the news from queer sources, particularly in Chicago. In Ebony Magazine, articles on homosexual behavior mainly focused on entertainment, drag balls, and female impersonator shows. Jet's editorial board gave a special place to news briefs, allowing the magazine to add, for example, reports of domestic violence in homosexual couples, in the section entitled "Mr. and Mrs." These articles did not mention homosexuality openly. They did, however, create a discourse on Black sexuality, reflecting the middle class's morality and desire to counteract the visibility of homosexuality in large cities.

When describing homosexuals, Ebony and Jet implicitly confirmed dominant discourses; homosexuals were not living in line with their gender identity. Queer men presented feminine characteristics, and homosexual women presented masculine traits.

Reporters from both publications were not at a loss for examples. Thus, Beatrice Calloway, a Detroit lesbian who killed her lover because the lover had fallen in love with another woman, stated that her rival wore "pants, a rumpled shirt, and men's shoes."

Ebony emphasized female impersonators' feminine traits, which were described in articles on drag balls. The editors reminded readers that "the female impersonators were often more feminine than real women, but many more were merely grotesque caricatures of femininity." The process of feminization was often highlighted, with reporters noting that participants had to shave and wear makeup, stating that a female impersonator had a tough job because "walking in high heels" was a hard task, as was "making sure that fake breasts did not fall out." At no time, however, did reporters from Ebony or Jet explicitly reference the "abnormality" of this behavior.

Ebony Magazine never mentioned queer subjects' sexual preferences when reporting artistic performances and activities. Ebony refused to categorize those who were present at drag balls. Photographs suggested that at the dances, hugging and kissing were innocent.

Jet was more explicit regarding its queer subjects. In articles about drag balls, reporters used direct terms to describe the participants' sexuality. The words "gay" and "queen" were preferred terminology. Competitors were part of a "gay affair" which presented "gay entertainment." Men pranced "gaily down the runway," or the MC would elect the "queen of queens," making "queenly bows."

In order to access full citizenship, Blacks had to accept the societal norms created by white communities, in order to acquire the "traits highly regarded by white Americans." This campaign to regulate sexual behaviors began during the 1950s, and was led by political and religious leaders. Adam Clayton Powell published an article entitled "Sex in the Church" in Ebony Magazine, in which he described unacceptable sexual behavior in the Black clergy. Powell particularly criticized the relationship that Prophet Jones of Detroit maintained with his assistant.

Beginning in 1953, Jet and Ebony Magazine' editorials began to reflect these shifts in discourse. The editorial coverage of drag balls disappeared from the magazine's columns in 1953. In 1954, Jet redefined these popular events in an article entitled "The Truth about Female Impersonators," describing them as the "obscure causes of homosexuality."

The first step of this campaign was seen in an article about the life of a famous lesbian, Blues singer Gladys Bentley, who claimed to have been "cured" of her homosexuality.

If Ebony Magazine's message was confusing during this stage of the campaign, the shift in discourse toward criminalization and the perception of homosexuality as a medical issue was already evident. In an August 1952 article entitled "I am a Woman Again," Bentley told Ebony Magazine readers about "how she found happiness again after a medical treatment to correct her strange condition." Indeed, Bentley stated, "For many years, she had lived a personal hell," a sort of "no man's land, a dark place that existed between the limits of the two sexes."

For the first time in the magazine's history, the article analyzed the psychology of the homosexual individual, described as "mentally ill, suffering deeply."

In October 1953, Ebony Magazine published the story of Georgia Black, a female impersonator who had recently passed away in Florida. According to Ebony, Georgia Black was an African American woman who should have died "humiliated and in disgrace" as a "pervert, a sissy, a monster." Black had lived as a woman for nearly 30 years, fooling everyone around her, as she was actually a man.

Georgia Black's adopted son, Willie Saab, published his version of his mother's biography in an article entitled "My Mother was a Man" in the November 1953 Ebony. Saab described his mother as "a generous soul, who always came to the aid of others," who "worked tirelessly in her church," and who "always followed the law," but emphasized his feminine attributes.

In August 1953, Ebony published "The Woman Who Lived as a Man for Fifteen Years," which described the life of an African American woman in Ohio who had lived as a man for 15 years, and was less sympathetic than the article about Georgia Black. Throughout the article, Jim, in contrast to Georgia, was described as a criminal. Jim had carried out many affairs with women, was engaged to a woman he had met in high school, and became the "deacon" of the Kosciusko church. He had moved from town to town, hiding his identity, smoking cigarettes, speaking like a man, and holding "male" jobs such as a taxi driver, cook, fireman, and preacher. The residents of Kosciusko were profoundly shocked by the entire affair, and particularly angry with the preacher who appeared to be aware of Jim's identity.

On the first page of its Feb. 16, 1957 edition, the Defender announced a series of articles about the "third sex," in which the newspaper cast aside its longstanding relationship with Bronzeville's queer community and female impersonators, and redefined homosexuality, describing it as a medical phenomenon that was both obscure and foreign.

In the first article of the series, the Defender ignored the newspaper's long historic relationship with the South Side queer and female impersonator community, as well as the multitude of articles on African American drag queens from New York, Chicago, and Detroit that had appeared in the publication since its creation. The first article emphasized the "novelty" of this topic for the newspaper. The first article laid out the history of homosexuality. Following a brief discussion of the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the article focused on Greek and Roman history.

Encouraged by very positive letters from its readership, the Defender published the second article in the series, in which it defined homosexuality as a psychological condition exclusive to whites. The article concentrated mainly on homosexual personalities and reiterated the idea of homosexuality as an obscure affliction. The main example, Oscar Wilde, was used to support Alfred Duckett's theory of a psychological disease. [ Duckett was a Chicago Defender journalist who wrote the series on the "Third Sex". ] According to Duckett, Wilde had become a homosexual only after the age of 35, following an unhappy marriage and attempting to escape the domination of his overbearing mother throughout his life. Homosexuality was therefore seen as the result of a traumatic situation with one's mother, or a romantic disappointment with a person of the opposite sex. No African American gay man was included in this description.

The third article also focused on prisons reinforcing the idea that homosexuality was a result of a specific environment. Prison was a place of transformation, where heterosexuals became homosexuals. Duckett's main source was Haywood Patterson's book, Scottsboro Boy ( 1950 ) , which detailed his stay in prison. Patterson's book proved that one could find "gal boys" and "wolves" ( masculine men ) who "engaged in amorous relations, and that some even married." Prisons encouraged homosexuality by pairing off possible partners. "Wolves" protected the young boys; young queers prostituted themselves. According to Patterson, 50% of all incarcerated African Americans and 75% of all incarcerated whites were "gal-boys."

The fourth article was entirely dedicated to the history of lesbians, and placed them in another category, which was "twice the size of the male homosexual population." The article informed its readers that lesbians, often "frigid in heterosexual relationships," married men who were homosexuals, and that "some were African Americans." Gladys Bentley's story was recounted in detail; highlighting the problems she faced, particularly regarding the failure of her transition therapy.

While African American gays continued to organize queer events and be visible in Bronzeville's bars, a change in discourse on homosexuality was beginning to take root in Chicago's Black press.

Homosexuality came to be seen as a medical and psychological problem, alien to African American communities. Homosexuals were thus marginalized. Not only were homosexuals viewed as mentally ill, but also they could be cured with psychotherapy.

With this new definition, Black homosexuals would have to struggle to be respected during the 1960s, after a period of wide acceptance.

Tristan Cabello is the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in African American Studies at Bowdoin College. He is currently completing his first book Queer Bronzeville: Race, Sexuality and Urban Boundaries in Black Chicago, 1900-1985. His exhibit "Queer Bronzeville' is available on the Website www.outhistory.org . Tristan can be reached at tcabello@bowdoin.edu .


This article shared 11814 times since Wed Mar 28, 2012
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