Wednesday, January 17, 2007
“Gay L.A.” Author Researches SoCal Queer History
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
In late 2006, veteran Queer authors Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons published Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians. The book is a quite striking historical account of 110 years of Queer life and activism in California’s largest city, and one which made a case for Los Angeles as rivaling or even surpassing New York and San Francisco in the sheer number of community achievements that took place there, including the formation of the first ongoing Queer political organization in the U.S. (the Mattachine Society, founded in 1950) and the first openly Queer-run, Queer-welcoming church (Metropolitan Community Church, founded in 1968).
Among the book’s achievements is its documentation of how early Queer consciousness and Queer activism began — as early as the 1890’s there were Queer bars, social clubs and cruising grounds — and how, through most of that period, Queer activism consistently provoked Queer repression. Gay L.A. shows, for example, how California’s law making oral sex a felony — passed in 1915 and not repealed until 1975 — was a direct response to a notorious scandal in the L.A. area the year before. It specifically discusses the role of the Los Angeles Police Department, which used its virtual autonomy from the rest of the city government (until the early 1990’s, when the fallout from the 1992 riots led to a change in the city charter) to monitor political and social dissidents in general and Queers in particular.
Gay L.A. also embraces the touchy subject of Hollywood, generally (though not always) avoiding the ”were they or weren’t they” guessing games about the major stars and instead showing how actresses like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn deliberately projected ambiguous gender images in their films and thereby let the rest of America know there were alternatives to strict “masculine” and “feminine” sexual identities. It documents not only the ongoing police repression of L.A.’s Queer community but the community’s willingness to fight back, including an account of one riot at a doughnut shop in 1959 where the Queer customers resisted a police raid much the way the denizens of New York’s Stonewall Inn bar would 10 years later in the event still generally (inaccurately) considered the touchstone of U.S. Queer activism.
Though the later chapters of Gay L.A. tend to drag — Faderman and Timmons seem bent on chronicling not only every major Queer organization in L.A.’s history but also the internal politics and feuds that broke up the ones that didn’t survive — that’s partly inevitable. The “good news” about the history of Queer L.A. is the growing involvement of middle- and upper-class people in community organizations and the values they brought in terms of professionalism and funding — and as such people crowded out the raffish countercultural activists who had started the community’s major organizations, the story necessarily becomes less compelling as it shifts from the heroic resistance of a community under siege to the consolidation and expansion of the resisters’ hard-won gains.
One interesting aspect of Gay L.A. is the way the collaborators worked together. Faderman interviewed most of the women and Timmons most of the men, though there were some people they considered so important they interviewed them jointly. Faderman wrote the final text to ensure a unified author’s voice, but only after the two had agreed on what the book would contain and how it would present the material. Faderman came to San Diego November 8 to promote the book and show slides of some of the images of L.A. Queer history she and Timmons had discovered (see “Lillian Faderman Speaks at Center November 8,” Zenger’s, December 2006, online at http://zengersmag.blogspot.com/2006/11/lillian-faderman-speaks-at-center.html); two weeks later, we called Timmons in L.A. and interviewed him by phone.
Zenger’s: What was your background and how did you come to work on Gay L.A.?
Stuart Timmons: I began writing about Gay matters in the 1970’s in college at UCLA. There was a Gay student newspaper called 10 Percent, which may have been the first Gay student newspaper in the country. That path of journalism, in what was then a very new field, continued for me for many years. In the late 1980’s I wrote a biography of Harry Hay, who’s often considered the founder of the Gay movement through his role in starting the Mattachine Society in 1950. In Gay L.A. we have a group photo of the five Mattachine founders.
Having done that book, I was aware that there was an enormous amount of work that had been done in Los Angles that rarely got mentioned in Gay history, and this gap needed to be filled. I was approached three years ago by Lillian Faderman, a Lesbian historian who lived and came out in Los Angeles in the mid-1950’s. She’s about a half a generation older than I am. We teamed up and got a publisher, and went to work.
Zenger’s: How did you and Lillian actually collaborate on the book? Did you interview all the men and she interview all the women? Did you each write separate sections or did you work together on the writing?
Timmons: She interviewed the women and I interviewed the men. We did a few interviews together. We each interviewed about 150 people. It’s a very sweeping story, from 1880 to 2005. We hammered out drafts and worked together on the parts of the story in which men and women had worked together — which wasn’t always the case. She lives in Fresno and I live in Los Angeles. I did a lot of the archival research, and with the help of a few meetings and a lot of e-mails, we finally put together the book.
Zenger’s: What was the most surprising single fact you learned when you were researching the book, the most unexpected piece of information you uncovered?
Timmons: Without a doubt, it had to be how far back a Gay underground went. The incidents described in the “Social Vagrants” chapter were cause for an actual investigation at the time in the Sacramento Bee and the investigation notes survive in the Sacramento city archives. They talked about bars and dance halls where Gay men gathered, only they didn’t say “Gay men.” They said “social vagrants” or “perverted sexualists,” or in one case even “professional perverted sexualists.” There was a sense of a professional society that had covered its tracks very well. A lot of men I interviewed who had been young in the 1930’s, 1940’s or 1950’s knew nothing of this, but there always seems to have been something of what we would call a “Gay community,” at least on a social level.
MGG: Personally, I found the earlier parts of the book, dealing with a community that was so strongly under siege, more interesting and inspiring than the later parts of establishment and triumph. Did you feel that way about the material?
Timmons: Certainly I found the early material the most fascinating. Part of it is the awe I felt in finding something so unexpected. This is radical territory. It’s only been in the last few years that people have been willing to be open and public about being Gay or Lesbian. Those who survive from the most recent period are still somewhat sensitive about the risks they’ve taken. There’s still a more measured sense about writing about someone who’s still alive, rather than someone who’s no longer around to be hurt.
The other thing is that the story has changed from absolute persecution to organizing, political activism and achievement, and that’s not so dramatic. Perhaps it means more to people who have lived in Los Angeles and watched, for example, the Los Angeles Police Department change from being totally oppositional to actually recruiting Gays and Lesbians to be police officers.
Zenger’s: One of the recurring themes in your book is that there’s been a high amount of separatism in the Queer community. You describe how frequently Lesbians have formed their own organizations because they felt uncomfortable trying to work with men, and how Lesbians of color have formed their own organizations because they felt uncomfortable trying to work with white women, and how often it’s taken some sort of exterior crisis, like the AIDS epidemic or an anti-Queer ballot initiative, to bring the community back together.
Timmons: I think that’s a very fair observation. You can’t escape that when you look at the historical pattern. There was a pattern of unity in the 1950’s to some degree, but the uniting external environment at that time was the homophobia of the entire world. It’s inevitable that when there is such a threat, there will be a coming together. One Lesbian activist said it was clear when the Briggs initiative [a 1978 ballot measure to ban people from being teachers if they were Queer or publicly “advocated” for Queer rights] was on the ballot that if we didn’t come together we would all be crucified.
The term “Gay/Lesbian community” has always had a bit of a good-natured propaganda idea to it that hasn’t always reflected the reality in which we’ve lived. That’s when we’ve had a lot of these splits, or at least a recognition that we don’t fit quite so neatly under the same umbrellas.
Zenger’s: So do you think there’s an ongoing basis for unity in the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer/Questioning/whatever, whatever, whatever community, or are we doomed basically to go our separate ways and only come together when we absolutely have to?
Timmons: Well, just to preface that answer, boy, were we happy that there wasn’t a firestorm over the choice of our title. We didn’t go with the “whatever, whatever, whatever.” We just called it Gay L.A., and so far no big attacks. We found that it was historically accurate, that that was the sort of preferred term going back in time.
There are certainly clear urgencies for continuing to pull together in unity. There’s not the kind of federal job protection that’s been a goal of the movement for many years, just as one example. And, whether you want to call it “marriage equality” or anything else, there’s still a terrible vulnerability and injustice around the whole issue of Gay couples.
But I also believe, because this is some sort of an opinion question, that the “Gay agenda,” so to speak, has been driven by crisis and reaction for decades now. The idea of stepping back and evaluating what are the legitimate difference between Gay men and Lesbians, what are differences between Transgender people and Gay people, and what are similarities: those questions have been often shied away from. Instead of feeling that we’re always forced to work together by crisis, we need to be following a natural process and building self-awareness of how different parts of all these communities work together in reality. Once that’s gone through, I think we’ll let go of some of the other differences.
Zenger’s: One thing I noticed about your book is there seems to be a tremendous optimism about it. For example, even though you called your chapter on AIDS “Devastation,” the focus seemed to be much less on the devastation and much more on the community’s ability to react to it, to come together, to form organizations, to lobby the government for more funding, faster drug approvals, etc . Was it a deliberate decision on yours and Lillian’s part to, shall we say, accentuate the positive?
Timmons: I’d say yes. After some real concerned and considered discussion, we did include a major segment on disagreements and difficulties and all those splits you mentioned earlier. That was often repeated, even in later sections of the book. People who worked in the movement, by the time it was a movement, often had very legitimate historic disagreements. But airing all of those out would be impossible, and the point might often be for just one or two individuals to feel sort of vindicated. So I think the tactic of accentuating the positive is a reasonable one.
Zenger’s: In fact, regarding the sections you just talked about, at times I felt it might just be a little insider-baseball, of having just who got mad at whom in which organization and what they did after they left.
Timmons: Well, believe me, there was plenty of that that we didn’t chronicle, partly because there wasn’t room for it and partly because it would have been insider-baseball. But the total story has been a story of real success and triumph. It’s often been agonizing along the way. Really good people who stepped way out on a limb, and were absolutely heroic, were sometimes at each other’s throats because they disagreed about what was the best way to go and who should be in charge. So it’s not always tidy or easy, creating these kinds of movements and successes.
It’s also a very personality-based community. There’s passion and sexuality and politics, all wrapped up in one thing, to a large degree. And it packs possibly a bigger wallop than a lot of other kinds of struggles.
Zenger’s: That’s an interesting point. You are dealing with a group of people that are defined as a community by who they have sex with and who they’re attracted to and how. How do you think the fact that our commonality is based on our sexuality affects the kinds of issues that come up in our community, and how does that make us differ from a community based on gender, race, religion or some of the other things people have organized around in our era?
Timmons: Again, there are two answers to that. One is that it really does take a kind of boldness to break through these kinds of taboos, that are probably a little more American than, at least, European about sexuality. Talking about your “lifestyle” and who you “sleep with,” to use two different euphemisms for what your sexual drive and orientation and preference is, takes some guts. I think that’s one of the reasons we often have these gutsy, strong personalities who wind up having some of these divisive battles in the leadership.
The other answer is that there may not be complete agreement about sexuality being the one defining thing. Back in the 1930’s, the older men that I have talked to really did discuss sensibility. I can’t speak for Lesbians, but I think to some degree Lillian’s work reflects this as well. Sexuality often wasn’t overtly discussed, but groups of Gay people, whether they were men or women, would often make friends, and make friends for life. Sometimes Gay men and Lesbians, we go on at length about, would make friends for life.
Men in the 1930’s would not talk in terms like, “Is someone Gay?,” because they were so on guard about not getting arrested and not phrasing things as a liability. They lived a very artful way and talked a very artful game. They would use terms like “temperamental” and “sensitive.” When I asked one man in his 80’s if a certain actor in Hollywood was Gay, he said, “Oh, do you mean was he giddy?” And then he said, “If you couldn’t tell that boy was giddy, you didn’t have an ear for music.”
So he was using a double euphemism to talk about a sensibility instead of saying, “Yeah, he sleeps with guys.” “In the life” was the other term, from the African-American Gay world. And “the life” is a lot bigger than just sex acts. This seemed to come into better focus during and after the AIDS epidemic. It became a necessity to define oneself around a little bit more than simply sex.
Zenger’s: Exactly how do you mean that? Are you saying the AIDS epidemic required people to define themselves in more than just sexual terms?
Timmons: Sex became a thing that had to be limited by necessity. People had to pull back from how free everyone had been earlier, and how much that was part of the program, part of the movement. The culture began to shift from “Dig it, do it,” as we quote from a Gay Liberation poster from around 1970, to, “Don’t do it indiscriminately. Do it safely. Limit your partners. Know your partners.” The ideas of “sex addiction” and “sexual compulsiveness” would have been joking terms before HIV. They were suddenly more widespread after the epidemic started.
It was no longer the constant affirmation of a healthy Gay personality to run around like crazy, having as much sex as possible. And to a degree there were people who did define a healthy Gay personality before 1980 as running around like crazy having as much sex as possible. So a definition of Gay culture, and the idea of Gay classes held in places like the Center, the idea of Gay churches and a Gay spirituality which doesn’t necessarily exclude sex but it’s based on a little something else, a little something more, all of those things have really grown steadily.
You can never be absolutely sure, because you can’t go back and separate things in time, but it seems to me fairly clear that the AIDS epidemic required growth that might at least have happened slower in those areas.
Zenger’s: Of course, it was also part of a trend that people writing about other civil rights movements have also discussed, and that is that it’s the radicals, the people at the lowest end of the socioeconomic spectrum, the people that have the least to lose, who pioneer a movement for civil rights and social change; and then it’s the more affluent people in the community who, once the trail has been blazed and they feel safer, come out and move the movement away from its radical origins and put it on a more professional basis. This is certainly one of the major stories in your book. Is that, too, a process you think AIDS accelerated, or would that have happened anyway?
Timmons: It’s like that Twilight Zone episode where you go back and step on the moth, and everything is upside down. You can’t know, and you can’t know. But I think you can say without too much going out on a limb that the AIDS epidemic did revitalize a sense of activism, a sense of purpose, a sense of community that transcended the very ephemeral sort of sex culture of bars and baths that had represented so much of Gay life.
A lot of parts of Gay life that we take for granted today were not so much thought of before HIV. One example is the acceleration of nonprofit institutions, which certainly do have those sorts of institutional qualities of being more conservative and in some ways less visionary. But at the same time they have that sense of permanence that has been historically absolutely lacking. There’s nothing like seeing your life flash before your eyes, individually or on a group level, which to a degree HIV/AIDS has done, to give you more drive to do something a little more meaningful and lasting.
Zenger’s: Going back a ways historically, one thing that struck me in your book, as a big fan of classic Hollywood and the movies it made, your discussion of the film industry in the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s and its effect on how it put some quite unmistakable, albeit coded, Gay images out in the popular culture. One thing I noted is that, despite your stated intentions, you did kind of wade into a few of the arguments about, “Was he?,” “Wasn’t she?,” were some of the major stars in Hollywood actively homosexual or Bisexual; including Katharine Hepburn, where the source you cited was A. Scott Berg’s memoir, where he was saying very definitely she wasn’t; and you were saying, “No, read between the lines, he certainly wrote as if she was, or had been.”
Timmons: That’s something you’d have to ask Lillian about in terms of her having made a more firm conclusion. However, we had multiple sources for everything that we delved into, and information that we read from original sources. Lillian and I spent several days at the Motion Picture Academy library and read hundreds of original “Rambling Reporter” columns in the Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety, those daily gossip columns. There was a good amount of “she said” that Hepburn went on record about in the newspapers at the time, that later she tried to mask, especially about an early relationship with a woman, Laura Harding, who had come out with her as some sort of a companion, whom she referred to as her “secretary.” The new biography by William Mann seems to be holding up very well, and that’s an entire book just on that one performer.
We used a really exhaustive amount of sources; and we were fairly conservative, as you mentioned, about not getting into an outing game, but really trying to discuss the life back then. We also talked about the changing wasy of describing sexuality and sexual orientation. You really did have people in those days — and still today — who, as actors, kind of perform a life role. Their deepest desires may not mean quite so much as their big opportunities for major stardom. So we talked about people who were so-called “unstraight,” who you can find Gay traces of and a certain amount of circumstantial evidence but couldn’t necessarily call one way or the other.
Zenger’s: One other point I noticed was that the Hollywood section seemed to be the only place in the book where you seriously discussed Bisexuals. Through the rest of it, as much as you tried to give voice to and tell the story of virtually every other subgroup in the Queer community, there didn’t seem to be much about bisexuality. Why is that?
Timmons: We were always worried that we would be giving short shrift to anybody. I’m glad we had in as much about Transgender people as we did, although I was also worried that we were giving short shrift to that really fascinating and underreported community. Bisexuality is often something that is not well marked in the tracks that people leave, so, especially when you’re looking in an historical kind of a way, you don’t always see evidence of a Bisexual life. You see pretty clearly good evidence of a Gay male life, or a Lesbian life, or a Drag or Transgender life, but bisexuality can often be more easily hidden by people who have many reasons to hide it.
Zenger’s: Yes, because it’s often amused me that many of the people on those lists of so-called “Famous Gay and Lesbian People” through history were actually Bisexual, and probably, especially if they lived before the 20th century, would not have thought of themselves as having a Gay or Lesbian or Bi identity the way we think of such things.
Timmons: I agree with you more on your second point. It’s impossible to know whether people were more Bisexual, or whether even married couples might have both been pretty much either exclusively Gay. I think there’s also probably many people who were much more repressed and never expressed themselves or developed that kind of sexual and emotional identity that we take more for granted. But that’s just one more of those historical questions. You weren’t there, and people really didn’t leave much evidence.
A really sad aspect of the 19th century and turn-of-the-century research I did on men was that so much of it was in the criminal justice records. These really tragic cases: I would jokingly say to myself during that period that I was “searching for sodomites,” but you would find these people and only be sure of this activity when there was a so-called “crime” and a scandal. There are many people who were sort of likely prospects. We looked at letters and diaries and correspondence, and couldn’t find it. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. It means they didn’t help.
Zenger’s: I remember once talking to a friend about the movie Brokeback Mountain and thinking of how differently it would have read if it had been set in 1863 instead of 1963. One could readily imagine that story happening 100 years earlier, but the movie would have played very differently.
Timmons: In some ways yes, but in other ways not so much. That one memory of the character remembering seeing a guy who’d been murdered and castrated because he’d been in a Gay couple, probably in the 1930’s when he was a child, that’s something that think is age-old. I certainly found evidence of that kind of almost public, almost like a lynching of a Gay person, a Gay man, in order to make a big social statement of “we don’t tolerate queers.” That kind of thing, I think, you could have found in 1863 or 1763.
Zenger’s: As we talked about earlier, the book is largely a narrative of steady progress. Even a setback as disastrous as the AIDS epidemic you seem to treat as, “Well, let’s look for the silver linings. It was really tragic that a lot of people died, but it helped the community get together. We grew as a people, we got beyond it.” Do you think the Queer community is going to continue to grow in power and influence, or do you think that the rise of the radical Right, and the fact that 30 percent of the U.S. population now identifies as evangelical Christians, is that going to set up a major backlash where we’re going to lose a lot of the gains that we’ve won in the last 30 years?
Timmons: Well, anything is possible, sadly. There have been horrific backlashes before. At the same time, there is enormous reason for hope. The fact that the AIDS epidemic did not destroy the Gay Center or other Gay institutions; the fact that more of them grew and flourished: it’s not that we stressed the silver lining. That’s what happened, and that is kind of astonishing. The historic struggle in the recent era is for people to put their daily lives out there in terms of being out and affecting the world with the ripple effect of the thousands of people who’ve come out, which has an enormous impact; and putting their resources behind these community institutions. That has a huge influence.
So, as much as you’re seeing the political football of Gay-baiting continue, and often being successful, you’re also seeing it fail to a degree. Thank God the war in Iraq and the lies and the bloodshed that surrounded it were a bigger political issue for a majority of the public [in the November 2006 election] than whether or not two guys can do something, or two women can do something, as tame as get married. You know, that’s a big political commentary.
Zenger’s: Last question, and one I hope specifically speaks to you as Harry Hay’s biographer. When he was writing the founding documents for Mattachine, Harry Hay coined the phrase that one of the purposes of his organization had been, if I remember it correctly, to “create an ethical homosexual culture.” Have we done it?
Timmons: I think all humanity is always struggling with creating an ethical culture. The Gay world, I think, has a long way to go, quite frankly, in terms of creating a truly ethical culture. But those words, I think, still serve a wonderful purpose in terms of calling people to evaluate what’s right and wrong in their daily life, and how they do or don’t create to a culture at all, let alone an ethical one.
You know, the point in time from which Harry Hay was writing those words was a time in which Gay men, especially, often became terribly embittered over the horrible persecution that they suffered, and had a certain, not just tragedy but hardness, and even selfishness. So the call in the middle of all of that to go from thinking of oneself as one embattled person who would just take whatever he could, to having a sense of knowing there was a better way to live, with a community instead of every man for himself, is a lovely vision that was actually foreseeing something I think is coming to pass, But I don’t think you can ever quite have enough of an ethical culture.