"The Great Prevalence of Sexual Inversion": Havelock Ellis on Gay Life in the American City
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“The Great Prevalence of Sexual Inversion”: Havelock Ellis on Gay Life in the American City

From the Civil War through the 1920s, in New York and other American cities, there were numerous clubs, saloons, and dance halls 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, in part because of prohibition and the emergence of speakeasies, homosexuality became even more open. At the same time, psychologists, physicians, and social reformers had been at work attempting to study, classify, categorize, and label human sexual behavior. In an excerpt from his 1915 book, British physician and psychologist Havelock Ellis, a pioneer in the emerging field of human sexuality, mapped out for his readers the culture of “sexual inversion” in American cities, reflecting how practices that had long been common, or at least tolerated, were suddenly viewed as problematic.

As regards the prevalence of homosexuality in the United States, I may quote from a well-informed American correspondent:—

"The great prevalence of sexual inversion in American cities is shown by the wide knowledge of its existence. Ninety-nine normal men out of a hundred have been accosted on the streets by inverts, or have among their acquaintances men whom they know to be sexually inverted. Everyone has seen inverts and knows what they are. The public attitude toward them is generally a negative one—indifference, amusement, contempt.

"The world of sexual inverts is, indeed, a large one in any American city, and it is a community distinctly organized—words, customs, traditions of its own; and every city has its numerous meeting-places: certain churches whereinverts congregate; certain cafes well known for the inverted character of their patrons; certain streets where, at night, every fifth man is an invert. The inverts have their own ‘clubs,’ with nightly meetings. These ‘clubs’ are, really, dance halls, attached to saloons, and presided over by the proprietor of the saloon, himself almost invariably an invert, as are all the waiters and musicians. The frequenters of these places are male sexual inverts (usually ranging from 17 to 30 years of age); sightseers find no difficulty in gaining entrance; truly, they are welcomed for the drinks they buy for the company—and other reasons. Singing and dancing turns by certain favorite performers are the features of these gatherings, With much gossip and drinking at the small tables ranged along the four walls of the room. The habitues of these places are, generally, inverts of the most pronounced type, i.e., the completely feminine in voice and manners, with the characteristic hip motion in their walk; though I have never seen any approach to feminine dress there, doubtless the desire for it is not wanting and only police regulations relegate it to other occasions and places. You will rightly infer that the police know of these places and endure their existence for a consideration; it is not unusual for the inquiring stranger to be directed there by a policeman." . . .

It is notable that of recent years there has been a fashion for a red tie to be adopted by inverts as their badge. This is especially marked among the “fairies” (as a fellator isthere termed ) in New York. “It is red,” writes an American correspondent, himself inverted, "that has become almost a synonym for sexual inversion, not only in the minds of inverts themselves, but in the popular mind. To wear a red necktie on the street is to invite remarks from newsboys and others—remarks that have the practices of inverts for their theme. A friend told me once that when a group of street-boys caught sight of the red necktie he was wearing they sucked their fingers in imitation of fellatio. Male prostitutes who walk the streets of Philadelphia and New York almost invariably wear red neckties. It is the badge of all their tribe. The rooms of many of my inverted friends have red as the prevailing color in decorations. Among my classmates, at the medical school, few ever had the courage to wear a red tie; those who did never repeated the experiment."

Source: Havelock Ellis, Sexual Inversion, 3d ed. (Philadelphia: F. A. Davis 1915), 350–351.

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