The Daily Agenda for Saturday, March 15
March 15th, 2014
TODAY’S AGENDA is brought to you by:
THIS MONTH IN HISTORY:
Harper’s Examines New York’s “Middle Class” Homosexuals: 1963. By the early 1960s, reporting on gay people followed a predictable arc: homosexuals were sad and lonely people, desperate for love and acceptance, and incapable of living a fulfilling life. With fulfillment being defined as the achievement of the middle class American Dream: with a home in the suburbs, a car, two kids and a dog, and a lovely June Cleaver waiting at home with a fresh batch of cookies. The classic middle class American Dream was out of reach for gay people, but that didn’t keep Harper’s William J. Helmer from providing a very interesting and well-balanced look at New York’s gay middle class. In “New York’s ‘Middle-class’ Homosexuals” — were the quotation marks ironic or emphatic? — Helmer’s profile was anything but sensationalistic. For example, here’s his description of a typical gay club in West Greenwich with a bar in the front and a dance floor in the back:
Although we went on a Thursday night, the back room was so crowded that many were standing, and the atmosphere was that of a speakeasy: dim lights, loud noise, cigarette smoke, music, and, I was told, a signal to stop dancing in the event of a police raid. My reaction to the unusual sight of men embracing each other on the dance floor was one more of curiosity than aversion, probably because the dancers appeared so casual and others in the room so indifferent. I was far more surprised to see no one who “looked” homosexual. A few were a little too well-groomed or elegant in their behavior, and a few were dressed younger than their age (though all looked to be under thirty), but otherwise the only noticeable difference was that everyone resembled the dashing young men in college sportswear advertisements. At other bars I did see a few obviously effeminate persons, but they were not flamboyant. and I was told that the better class of gay bar usually discourages conspicuous homosexuals in order to avoid police crackdowns.
If it was all about appearances in 1963 America generally, it’s easy to imagine that appearances were similarly important in the gay community. There was, of course, what respectable Americans would consider the “dark underbelly,” but in Helmer’s description, the respectable gay counterpart was equally eager to keep its distance from those unseemly scenes. “The genuine orgy,” he wrote,” is less common and regarded by some as rather jading and degrading, but still ‘okay if you like that sort of thing’.” But as for the parties:
A colorful — but not necessarily sexual — event in the gay world is the “drag party” to which guests may come dressed as women. Unlike genuine transvestitism, however, such masquerading is often done as a titillating joke, the idea being to dress like a ridiculous parody of the female in order to humorously exaggerate one’s “perversion.” The term gay, which often strikes a heterosexual as inappropriate if not ironic becomes meaningful at parties and dancing bars. Any private gathering is an opportunity to relax and “drop the mask” one wears in public, and there is usually an air of conspiracy and intrigue which is not without its appeal. Such conditions tend to promote a spirit of good-fellowship, and everyone tries to outdo each other in being friendly, sociable, and “gay.” Part of this is artificial — the same sort of attempt at jolly behavior that may go on between males and females after a few drinks at a dull cocktail party. But no doubt homosexuals do feel a genuine exuberance in temporarily escaping the sense of rejection implicit in their frequent need to conceal their nature from employer, acquaintances, and family.
But like the rest of society, appearances and neighborhood were important marks to social standing:
Wealth and family background themselves usually are not sources of status within the homosexual community, though their manifestations — possessions, manners, etc. — may be. Since most homosexuals have no dependents and only personal expenses, a modest income will usually provide the obvious luxuries of “sophisticated” city life, reducing the importance of real wealth. Most homosexuals who participate exclusively in gay social life have a relatively low income, so there exists no real moneyed class within the community toward which to aspire. A prominent family background brings little status since few homosexuals can afford to mix their gay life with their straight life.
…In gay society an individual is often typed (not always accurately) according to his neighborhood. The “East Side Snob” is described as an elegant, high-class dandy, or a bland, pseudosophisticated “organization man with a flair,” and both tend to confine themselves to their own more private social circles. The West Sider is thought to be a lower-class, sometimes bizarre person, and the two extremes seem to meet in the Village where stereotypes mix. To some homosexuals, Forty-second Street between Sixth and Eighth Avenues is practically a taboo area because of the hustlers, hoodlums, and generally undesirable types who often congregate there. The West Seventies are said to be a “pansy patch” because of the number of obviously effeminate homosexuals, often Puerto Rican, who live there; and some areas of the Upper East Side are called “fairy flats” because they are supposedly inhabited by “conspicuously elegant types usually walking poodles,” as one informant put it. Brooklyn Heights, just across the East River from Lower Manhattan, is thought of as a kind of homosexual suburbia popular with “young marrieds.”
[Source: William J. Helmer. "New York's 'Middle Class' Homosexuals." Harper's Magazine (March 1963): 85-92. Thanks to BTB reader Rob for providing a copy of the Harper's article.]
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