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Inventing Homosexuality: Chicago Vice Crusaders Confront Sexual “Perversion” in the Theater

From the Civil War through the 1920s, there were numerous clubs, saloons, and dance halls, in New York and other American cities, known for transvestism (men or women dressing as the opposite sex), for male prostitution, or as places that catered to a “gay crowd”—meaning men and women interested in a less conventional evening’s entertainment. In the 1920s, due in part to Prohibition and the emergence of speakeasies, homosexuality became even more open. At the same time, psychologists, physicians, and social reformers had been at work for several decades attempting to study, classify, categorize, and label human sexual behavior. Working to establish “norms” for human behavior, they increasingly treated such gathering places as a danger. A 1911 report from a Chicago vice commission on “The Social Evil in Chicago” managed to mix disapproval, fascination, and paranoia, suggesting that “sex perverts” were a small minority but that their “secret language” pervaded ordinary entertainment.

The Commission’s investigator was, of course, unable to gain entrance into those circles of the very well-to-do, which are engaged in these practices, nor did he concern himself with the lowest stratum of society, which is the class most observable in our courts. Nor did he gain any information about the much more occasional cases among women, of which the Commission heard something from other sources. He most readily, however, became acquainted with whole groups and colonies of these men who are sex perverts, but who do not fall in the hands of the police on account of their practices, and who are not known in their true character to any extent by physicians because of the fact that their habits do not, as a rule, produce bodily disease. It is noteworthy that the details of information gained from a police officer, who was once detailed on this work, and from a young professional student, who himself, for a time, has been partially engaged in this practice, were completely substantiated by the Commission’s investigator.

It appears that in this community there is a large number of men . . . who mostly affect the carriage, mannerisms, and speech of women; who are fond of many articles ordinarily dear to the feminine heart; who are often people of a good deal of talent; who lean to the fantastic in dress and other modes of expression, and who have a definite cult with regard to sexual life. They preach the value of non-association with women from various standpoints and yet with one another have practices which are nauseous and repulsive. Many of them speak of themselves or each other with the adoption of feminine terms, and go by girls' names or fantastic application of women’s titles. They have a vocabulary and signs of recognition of their own, which serve as an introduction into their own society. The cult has produced some literature, much of which is uncomprehensible to one who cannot read between the lines, and there is considerable distribution among them of pernicious photographs.

In one of the large music halls recently, a much applauded act was that of a man who by facial expression and bodily contortion represented sex perversion, a most disgusting performance. It was evidently not at all understood by many of the audience, but others wildly applauded. Then, one of the songs recently ruled off the stage by the police department was inoffensive to innocent ears, but was really written by a member of the cult, and replete with suggestiveness to those who understood the language of this group.

Some of these men impersonate women on the cheap vaudeville stage, in connection with disorderly saloons. Their disguise is so perfect, they are enabled to sit at tables with men between the acts, and solicit for drinks the same as prostitutes.

Two of these “female impersonators” . . . afterwards invited the men to rooms over the saloon for pervert practices.

Source: Vice Commission of Chicago, The Social Evil in Chicago: A Study of Existing Conditions with Recommendations (Chicago, Gunthorp-Warren 1911), 296–297. Reprinted in Jonathan Ned Katz. Gay/Lesbian Almanac. A New Documentary (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1983), 335–336.

See Also:"No Snuggling!" Sex Talks to Young Girls
"The Great Prevalence of Sexual Inversion": Havelock Ellis on Gay Life in the American City