Gay pride (and prejudice)
ANGELENOS accept with bemused irritation the various wacky notions of the city and its residents penned by short-term visitors or long-term rivals such as those living in the Bay Area or on the East Coast. It’s boring to be forever reminded that we don’t have real seasons or that we’ve adopted beachwear as our fashion standard. But it’s not inconsequential that a major urban center could be continually dismissed by its critics, especially when it comes to the significant role played by L.A.’s diverse populations, cultural power brokers and civic institutions in important social and political movements.
Lillian Faderman, noted literary and cultural historian, and Stuart Timmons, biographer and gay activist, have sought to redress some of L.A.’s dismissal with their book “Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians.” The subtitle teases the reader, but Faderman and Timmons deliver a meticulously researched history of the city to support their claim that Los Angeles is the city with the most influence on the gay movement over the last 200 years.
Throughout, the real star power belongs to institution-building pioneers such as Harry Hay who with the Mattachine Society, founded in 1950, set out to challenge the stereotypes of perversion and mental illness attached to homosexuality, even adopting the stigma-free term “homophile.” Publications such as ONE Magazine, which sold more than 5,000 copies a month on newsstands across the country during the McCarthy era, broke new editorial and political ground. In 1958, the Supreme Court ruled that just because the magazine’s content was decidedly homosexual, it was not automatically obscene and could be sent through the U.S. mail. Surprising but true, even the first gay uprising occurred in L.A. at Cooper’s Donuts in 1959, preceding New York’s Stonewall riots by a decade.
Faderman and Timmons conducted interviews with more than 300 people of all ages, races, and ethnicities to get a broad sampling of lived experience. They dug into public and private histories, combed through archives, old newspapers, personal letters and diaries, charters of organizations and police ledgers. They also made use of anthropological research and records of the California missions.
It’s unlikely, for example, that there’s much common knowledge about the gender relations and same-sex habits of California’s native peoples such as the Chumash, Gabrieleno, Kamia or Luiseno. The missionaries had a lot of work to do to separate unconventional couples and “straighten out” cross-dressers, or “two-spirit people” as the natives called them. These berdaches were severely punished and humiliated by Spanish soldiers under the direction of the friars because of their inappropriate gender behavior. Many tribes in the region, such as the Mojave, had special ceremonies to help a young man or woman transition to his or her new gender.
Of the major areas of focus in “Gay L.A.,” foremost is the relationship of the entertainment industry to its gay population. The Hollywood image factory has always had a difficult time with “the closet.” Famous movie and television stars have needed their privacy protected even as they sought (or flaunted) sexual freedom in the more open climate of Los Angeles, so a “don’t ask-don’t tell policy” has usually prevailed, even today. Several chapters are devoted to chronicling the lives of iconic leading men who were closeted, such as Rock Hudson, and gender-bending beauties like Marlene Dietrich who tantalized the moviegoing public for decades with her feminine and masculine wiles. Gossip columnists cooperated by reporting on the aspirations of famous female stars for domestic bliss, though many never did marry and settle down.
Faderman and Timmons also document the persistent and organized harassment of gays and lesbians by the police that eventually led to civil disobedience, riots and the founding of organizations to press for civil rights for homosexuals. With new institutions addressing the needs of the burgeoning gay community came a drive for political clout; turning gay pride into political power is one of the city’s most revolutionary “firsts.” Activists found ways to build coalitions while under fire from politicians and religious leaders. The activist Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles, for example, met its biggest challenge in 1978, bringing gay men and lesbians together to defeat Proposition 6, a ballot initiative that would have removed job protection for homosexuals.
The effect of AIDS is another significant historical dimension examined by Faderman and Timmons. Not only did a generation of gay men find itself devastated, the newly hatched gay political apparatus was left without a cadre to replace the dead. That the lesbian community rose to political prominence, filling in the blanks with women of exceptional skill and savvy, is amply documented here. Lesbians held positions of leadership at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, served openly on local city councils and as mayors, and assumed judgeships and rabbinical posts. Sheila Kuehl of “Dobie Gillis” fame was the first openly lesbian candidate to be elected to the California State Assembly.
Throughout the book, the authors are careful to explicate the differences between the experiences of gay men and lesbians. Faderman and Timmons take great pains in the book’s introduction to explain their choice of title -- “Gay L.A.” -- because naming and claiming identity have been the source of animosity among gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.
As with heterosexual males, gay men have often claimed center stage and the lesbian opposition to this has largely gone unexamined and unrecorded. This book, though, traces the ebb and flow of alliances between men and women and the internecine battles that accompanied the decades of these interactions in Los Angeles. Differences in strategy and tactics in groups such as Southern California Women for Understanding, ACT UP and Queer Nation marked cultural and political divides that have seesawed over decades.
Likewise, ethnic and racial diversity -- such a prominent feature of life in Southern California -- is given its due in this book. Of particular interest is the coverage given to organizations for gay and lesbian people of color, especially as their numbers multiply along with the waves of immigration from Latin America and Asia. The authors also chart the development of churches and synagogues that welcome or specifically serve the various communities.
Technical jargon or theoretical baggage often weighs down studies of this kind, but “Gay L.A.” reads like a novel. Faderman and Timmons have set out a dramatic struggle with Los Angeles as its epicenter, a struggle that reverberates through red and blue states and that questions institutions as basic as marriage and definitions as ancient as selfhood. It would be wonderful if a companion volume could recognize the contributions of writers, artists, dramatists and performance artists who likewise gave shape and energy to gay L.A. *
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.