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Humanities LibreTexts

1: The Beginnings

  • Page ID
    68319
  • 1900 - 1968

    Personal Story

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): WHILE DARREN AND I were visiting West Chester [Pennsylvania], a group of hustlers stopped us and wouldn’t let us pass. After taunting us, one of the kids punched me in the stomach and kicked me in the face, while Darren yelled for the police. Finally they left, and Darren and I ran to the train station, when we were picked up by the police and taken to headquarters. It seems the hustlers realized the seriousness of what they had done, and in an attempt to protect themselves they told the police that it was Darren and I who solicited them! And I, who was beaten and kicked, was accused of assault, for it was said that I placed my hand on the rear of one of them. I won’t even mention “police brutality” because I know it would be censored. Darren and I are waiting in this prison; waiting, but we don’t know what for. We have been in this prison nearly a month now, with at least 4 more to go until we have a trial—all this simply because we cannot afford bail or an attorney.

    Naturally, we’ve lost our jobs, and while we’re waiting, we’re probably losing our house and furnishing—all because a bunch of college hustlers won’t tell the truth!...As we may only write two letters a month, this is my second. My first plea for help went unheeded, as will, I am sure, any further letters I may write. My family never wants to see me again—there is no one Darren and I can turn to for help. [I am writing you] if only to tell someone where we are, and why we are here; even if only to have someone on the outside worry about us. But what we are really hoping for is help to fight this case—a most profound injustice... Now that you know that we are in prison for a crime that we did not commit, I can only beg that you will do anything possible to help us. Please sir, - Richard

    Note. This letter was written to ONE Magazine in 1964. The magazine editors located a lawyer for Darren and Richard, and the two were released from jail. Source: Letters to ONE

    by Craig Loftin.

    DEFINITION OF TERMS
    Although the terms gay, lesbian, transgender, and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) are used in this chapter, these are not terms people used in the early to mid-20th century. Homosexual was the term most often used for lesbian and gay in this era. Queer was considered a derogatory term, unlike the positive all-inclusive meaning it has today. No term existed in the English language for transgender prior to the 1950s. In the 1950s and 1960s, transsexual became the most widely used term.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): 1920s Harlem offered black lesbians and bisexuals a relatively safe place to engage in same-sex partnerships. Artists were usually quiet about their gender preference, but others like Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (top) and Gladys Bentley (below) were more open to claiming a lesbian or bisexual identity.

    LGBTQ represeNTATiON dates back to the earliest human civilizations. How- ever, gay and lesbian communities only started to gain visibility in America with the development of industrialized urban centers in the late 1800s, most notably in New York. In 1903, New York police, under pressure from religious morality groups, conducted the first known raid targeting gay men. The Armed Services launched its first known investigation of homosexual behavior in 1919, with a probe into the activities of its cadets in Newport, Rhode Island. Although the military had a long history of persecuting homosexual activity dating back to the Revolutionary War, the Armed Services only officially made consensual sodomy a criminal offense in 1920.

    Alcohol prohibition from 1920 to 1933 saw a period of greater freedom for LGBTQ people. Illegal speakeasies allowed LGBTQ people relatively safe places to congregate away from police intervention. Performers such as Gene Malin, Ma Rainy, and Bessie Smith openly espoused gay and lesbian identities, while female impersonators such as Julian Eltinge became popular international performers. Books with gay, lesbian, and transgender themes such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness garnered wide popularity. Annual drag-queen balls drew thousands of participants in New York, while smaller balls gained popularity across the nation.

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