Saturday, November 18, 2006
Lillian Faderman Speaks at Center November 8
Promotes Book She Co-Wrote on “Gay L.A.”
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Lillian Faderman didn’t just write the history of Gay Los Angeles in her latest book, Gay L.A., co-written with Stuart Timmons. She lived a good deal of it. “I grew up in L.A. and came out as a Lesbian in 1956 at 16,” she told an audience at the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center November 8. Armed with a fake I.D., she crashed what she called the “working-class Lesbian bar culture” and, as she came of age, “I learned other aspects of the Lesbian community.” Timmons, best known for his biography of pioneering Gay activist Harry Hay, was part of the next generation of Queer folk and, unlike Faderman, didn’t grow up in L.A. “He came to Los Angeles in 1976 to study at UCLA and never left,” she explained.
“We both really loved the city, but we didn’t want to hide the warts,” Faderman explained. “We wanted to look at the Lesbian/Gay/Transgender population in Los Angeles in all its diversity. We talked to people not yet 16, over 90 and everything in between. We interviewed people in all social classes” — a largely unexplored avenue of Queer history because, aside from a handful of Lesbian authors like Faderman and Leslie Feinberg, most Queer writers have focused on middle- and upper-class Queer folk and written as if working-class Queers did not exist — “and we made a point to include people of all racial and ethnic diversities.”
One of the first issues Faderman and Timmons came to grips with was the knotty one of nomenclature. She explained that they called the book Gay L.A. and used the word “Gay” to include both men and women “because historically that was the term of choice for both Gay men and Lesbians from the turn of the century until the 1970’s.” When they wrote about the individuals she and/or Timmons had interviewed, she added, they referred to them by the terms they preferred: “Gay,” “Lesbian,” “Queer.”
Gay L.A.’s story starts in the 1890’s and continues to the present. “We found great archival material,” Faderman said, “including a city ordinance from 1898 that made cross-dressing illegal for the first time. We found in newspaper archives stories about the tolerance and fear of men who didn’t act like stereotypical men and women who didn’t act like stereotypical women.” As an indication both of how a history of homosexuality anywhere in the U.S. (or most of the world, for that matter) is also a history of homophobia, one of the stories they uncovered was a series of arrests in 1914 of 31 men who had belonged to one of two private clubs, the 606 Club in Long Beach and the 96 Club in Los Angeles. “The men on trial were called ‘social vagrants,’ and that became the usual term for male homosexuals,” Faderman said. “The Los Angeles Times called 606 Club member Harry Wharton a ‘social vagrant,’ ‘degenerate,’ and ‘queer.’”
According to Faderman, the 606 and 96 Clubs were private parties for oral sex, and the club members “were arrested specifically for practicing fellatio. In 1914 sodomy was a felony but fellatio was not.” Predictably, the California state legislature responded to the fact that the 606 and 96 Club members could only be convicted of misdemeanors by passing a law in 1915 making oral sex a felony — which remained on the books until California finally got rid of all laws banning sex in private between consenting adults in 1975. Faderman also discussed Dr. Paul DeRiver, a psychologist who consulted for the Los Angeles Police Department on Queer issues in the 1940’s and recommended that Queers be “cured” with shock treatments.
The repression against Queer people in the Los Angeles area reached its height in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, the period Faderman and Timmons call “the noir years” in their book. There had been a Queer underground in the city in the 1920’s and 1930’s, much of it centered around the movie industry and androgynous stars like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn as well as Queers behind the camera, including directors George Cukor, James Whale, Mitchell Leisen and Dorothy Arzner. America’s entry into World War II led to a congregation of Queer people in Los Angeles; many of the servicemen stationed there were Gay and many of the women who took “Rosie the Riveter” jobs in defense plants to fill in for the men in the war were Lesbian. But the end of the war and the renewed enforcement of gender norms — particularly for women, who were heavily propagandized to give up their careers, get married (to men) and be housewives and mothers — spelled an end to the wartime years of “don’t ask, don’t tell” quasi-acceptance.
One of the most serious challenges faced by both Gay men and Lesbians in postwar L.A. was the aggressiveness of the Los Angeles Police Department. Organized under the “reform” city charter of 1938 as a virtually independent authority with little or no oversight from the rest of the city government, the LAPD set its own priorities. Not only did they frequently stage raids on both Gay and Lesbian bars, often releasing the names of those they arrested to the media — which published them and ruined many people’s lives by “outing” them in this fashion — the LAPD hired young men to work undercover, posing as Gays and hanging out in bars, restrooms, public park and other cruisy areas to entrap Gay men and arrest them. Queers derisively called these undercover cops “Hollywood rejects” because many of them had come to L.A. hoping to succeed as movie actors and signed up with the police when their attempts at film careers didn’t pan out.
The police would also arrest both Gays and Lesbians for wearing clothing associated with the opposite gender — and even when a few victims actually took their cases to court and won rulings that there was no legal basis for these arrests, the police kept making them anyway. Many of the most poignant stories in Gay L.A. are about people who lost their livelihoods — particularly in sensitive positions like teaching, government service or defense work — when they were apprehended in police raids and exposed as Queer, even if the legal cases against them were ultimately dropped.
“Despite the repression, there was an active Gay culture in Los Angeles,” Faderman said. Accompanying her talk with a series of slides, she showed a surprisingly contemporary-looking portrait of a Gay male in a T-shirt and tight jeans, posed alluringly, and explained that the image was from 1954 and the man was a member of the Satyrs, the world’s first Queer motorcycle club, founded in Los Angeles in 1954. According to Faderman, that was just one of many “firsts” for Los Angeles in America’s Queer history:
• The first Lesbian magazine, Vice Versa, started in 1947 and published samizdat-style on hand-typed sheets and carbons by its editor and principal writer, Edythe Eyde, who wrote under the pseudonym “Lisa Ben” (an anagram of “Lesbian”) and did not reveal her real identity until shortly before she died.
• The Mattachine Society, founded in 1951, the first Queer organization to form around a structure of multi-city chapters and to call for Queer equality and pride.
• The first open campaign to defend the rights of Gay people, when Mattachine co-founder Dale Jennings was arrested on public sex charges in 1952 and the group chose to fight back, contesting the arrest and the Los Angeles Police Department’s entrapment campaigns.
• The first magazine for the overall Queer community, One, founded in 1952, which won an historic court battle against the United States Post Office six years later that took away the Post Office’s power to refuse to mail books or magazines as “obscene” simply because they were about homosexuality. One was mostly a Gay men’s magazine but did attempt to attract Lesbian writers and cover women’s issues, though some of the articles about women were actually by male writers using female pseudonyms.
• The first act of public resistance by Queers to a police raid when, in 1959 — in an incident strikingly similar to the legendary raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York 10 years later — patrons of a Cooper’s Donuts store frequented by Queers fought back and started throwing food and utensils at the police when they raided and tried to round up the customers.
• The Los Angeles Free Press, founded in 1964, which wasn’t a Queer publication but did run personal ads for men seeking men and women seeking women as well as men seeking women and women seeking men.
• The first use of the term “Pride” in connection with Queer rights, as an anagram for the organization Personal Rights In Defense and Education, founded in 1966. The group’s newsletter later became a stand-alone publication called The Advocate.
• The first religious organization that specifically reached out to Queers: Rev. Troy Perry’s Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), founded in 1968.
• The Gay Community Services Center, the first center and social-service organization specifically formed for Queers, in 1972.
• The first openly Queer synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadasim (BCC), founded in 1972 under MCC’s auspices and soon spun off into an independent congregation.
The later parts of Gay L.A. deal with the short-lived radical heyday of groups like the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), the fiercely contested splits between Lesbians and Gay men in the 1970’s, and the gradual takeover of the Queer movement by more affluent, “professional” Gay men and Lesbians. “The radicals in L.A. made possible the growth of a radical Gay movement, but the power centers soon stepped in and L.A.’s money and the Hollywood connection made it possible to accomplish things that were impossible in other cities,” Faderman explained.
Faderman also talked about the bitterness between Lesbians and Gay men, which reached its peak in the 1970’s and receded only when the community had to fight outside threats like the Briggs Initiative of 1978 — a ballot proposition which would have called for the firing of teachers who were Queer or said anything in the classroom that could be considered “advocacy” of Queer rights — and the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s. One particulary nasty conflict began in 1975, when the Gay Community Services Center won a $1 million grant from the federal government specifically to reach out to Lesbian alcoholics and offer them treatment.
“The [male] board of the Center said, ‘We’re all brothers and sisters,’ and the money should be used to support the Gay men’s health clinic,” Faderman recalled. “The women reported this to the feds, who permitted them to leave the Center and set up their own program, the Alcoholism Center for Women, with the grant money.” Coupled with a bitter battle over the executive directorship of the Center, in which a Latina Lesbian was passed over in favor of a white Gay man on the ground that he would have an easier time tapping other white males for large donations to the Center than she would, this led to a bitter three-year strike by women against the Center that was settled only when the threat of the Briggs Initiative made cooperation between Lesbians and Gay men essential.
According to Faderman, L.A.’s response to AIDS mirrored the same establishment vs. radicals divisions that had wracked the overall Queer movement a decade before. “In Los Angeles, two main groups fought against AIDS,” she said. “Affluent people formed AIDS Project Los Angeles and had personal contact with the stars, including Barbra Striesand, who donated and raised money for the group. On the other hand, there was a very large and active ACT UP chapter in L.A. that wasn’t interested in star power but was interested in getting the message out in a much more forceful way.”
Gay L.A. ends with an epilogue in which, as Faderman explained, “we talk about what’s happened in the new century, including the Transgender movement and the huge and growing ethnic and racial diversity” of the Queer community. As an example of how intricate the organizational splits have become, she noted that “in the 1970’s there was an organization of Asian-Pacific Gay men and Lesbians. Today there are organizations specifically for Viet Namese Lesbians — and they’re being broken down even further between immigrant and U.S.-born Viet Namese. But whenever there’s an enemy, we fight together.”