This is a guest post by George Chauncey, the DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University and the 2022 recipient of the Library’s John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity. It also appears in the Library of Congress Magazine.
For a long time, most people thought LGBTQ+ people had no history before Stonewall and the rise of the gay liberation movement in the late 1960s. Or that if there were a longer history, it consisted only of the police repressing isolated people who hid themselves in fear and shame.
When I began the research for my book “Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940,” I knew there had to be more to the story than this. But I didn’t know what I’d find. Or where I’d find it.
So, I headed to my local library, one of the great research libraries of the world, the magnificent, marble-clad New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, and spent months in its reading room poring over old manuscripts, organizational records, newspapers and photographs.
It quickly became clear that the records of so-called “anti-vice societies” would be among my richest sources. From 1905 to 1932, one society dispatched secret investigators across the city to inspect saloons, speakeasies, dance halls and tenements they suspected of harboring vice. They were primarily looking for female prostitution, but along the way they periodically stumbled across what they called “perversion.” I read 10,000 of their typewritten reports to find about 200 reports concerning LGBTQ+ life. The world those reports revealed was astounding.
At a Brooklyn dance hall in 1912, an investigator observed two “fairies,” known as Elsie and Daisy, partying with a group of young immigrant women, borrowing their powder puffs, singing bawdy songs and dancing together, much to the women’s delight.
In 1928, an investigator visited a Harlem tenement where 15 Black lesbians and gay men were enjoying themselves at what the hostess called a “freakish party.” “The men were dancing with one another,” he reported, “and the women were dancing with one another.” When he asked one guest if she was “a normal, regular girl,” she defiantly replied, “Everybody here is either a bull dagger or a f–, and I am here.”
That same year, other investigators attended a “Fairy Masquerade Ball” in a prominent Harlem ballroom, where they found “approximately 5,000 people, … men attired in women’s clothes, and vice versa.” It was “an annual affair,” they learned, “where the white and colored fairies assemble together with their friends,” along with “a certain respectable element who go there to see the sights.” The ball was so acclaimed that Harlem’s newspapers published flattering stories about it, with drawings depicting the most glamorous gowns.
Rather than cowering in fear, in other words, many LGBTQ+ people boldly claimed their right to live freely. Rather than despising them, many “straight” people celebrated them.
The investigators were shocked. So was I. Here was evidence that LGBTQ+ life was far more visible and accepted in early 20th-century Black and immigrant neighborhoods than I had imagined, despite the policing of the anti-vice societies. This was the story I told in “Gay New York.” I could only tell it because a library had recognized the importance of preserving boxes of yellowing typewritten reports — and countless other records — that one day would make it possible for us to see our history anew.