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Queer (Living the Twenties #AtoZChallenge 2020)

The Twenties were strange times for queer people. In most countries, the relations and intercourse between people of the same sex (which mostly meant between men, queer women were seldom acknowledged) were against the law. Still, there were instances where this community started to gain recognition and in some cases, even acceptance. 

Secrecy was the norm

In most countries of the Western World, homosexuality (or as it was defined, sodomy) was a prosecutable crime. 

The queer community mostly lived in secrecy. Relationships happened in private houses. Though there were places where people could meet, these were generally underground and secret, and mostly functioned as ballrooms, where drag balls took place. Although secret to the outside, these balls could be very large. Tens of people may attend, and nobody would know, unless the police broke in, as sometimes would happen. 

In most countries in the 1920s, the intercourse between people of the same sex was against the law. Still, slowly,this community started to gain recognition #history #LGBTQ Share on X

Meeting was difficult, both because of the secrecy and the danger of being discovered, so queer people developed a secret language that actually happened quite in the open. It sometimes appeared in newspaper adverts, were especially men would ask to meet other men, for example, to share a holiday. Or they could say that ‘I have an unusual temperament’. References to Edward Carpenter, Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman were also quite common. 

Drag shows in Harlem

Gladys Bentley photographed by Carl Van Vechten in Harlem, 1932. (Yale University Library) She was probably one of the most popular drag artists in Harlem
Gladys Bentley photographed by Carl Van Vechten
in Harlem, 1932. (Yale University Library)
She was probably one of the most popular drag
artists in Harlem

The artistic environment had always been more open to queer people. Entertainment was an especially favourable space because, on a stage, people would dress as they wanted and seldom be judged. Therefore, in some such places drag shows started to leave secrecy and come more in the open. 

In the 1920s, Harlem, the black city inside the city of New York, was the beating heart of the jazz revolution and the place of a thriving artistic community. Harlem housed famous theatres, as well as unnumbered speakeasies both known and secret. Here, people could enjoy and dance to the hottest jazz. 

All of this made it seedy by default, a place where legal and illegal activities were expected to happen. Yet, the rebellious jazz music seemed to make all these liminal activities attractive. 

Even wealthy whites who during the day would condemn everything happening in Harlem, at night would slum down to the entertainment district in search of any excess.

In this environment, drag shows occasionally came in the open and both queer and straight patrons would attend. It was still a very stylised form of meeting, as everything was when different communities met in Harlem, but it was the first step toward a more open frequentation. 

Berlin

In all this secrecy and shady relationships, Berlin was the one exception. In the 1920s, this was probably the most queer-friendly city on the globe.

A still image from the 1919 German film Anders als die Andern ( Different from the Others)
Conrad Veidt in a still image from the 1919
German film Anders als die Andern
(Different from the Others)

It didn’t depend on the law. ‘Sodomy’ was a crime in Berlin as everywhere else. But over almost a century, the city had developed a form of control based on tolerance that proved to be both effective and ultimately open-minded. 

After WWI, this unusual ‘freedom’ merged with the thriving entertainment industry of the Weimar Republic. Queer drag artists performed side by side with straight drag artists. Queer artists performed in mainstream establishments and shows. The mix became so common that the public stopped worrying who they were watching and simply enjoyed the show. Queer and straight people started to mix both on and off the stage and even in the audience. This created an environment of surprising tolerance. 

The 1920s sexual freedom that allowed women to enjoy their sensuality more fully involved the queer community too. Berlin, the sin city of Germany, became a place where living one’s sexuality freely was a common occurrence.



RESOURCES

The Guardian – Pride and prejudice in the gay 1920s
American History – Queens and queers: The rise of drag ball culture in the 1920s
History – How Gay Culture Blossomed During the Roaring Twenties
Metro – Historical Sex: The Roaring Twenties – flappers, sex manuals and gay liberation

Peter Jelavich, Berlin Cabaret. Harvard University Press, Harvard, 1993

Munford, Kevin J., Interzones. Black/White Sex Districts in Chicago and New York in the Early Twentieth Century. Columbia University Press, New York, 1997


10 Comments

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 20, 2020 at 13:44

    I would have really loved to see a 1920s drag show…

    The Multicolored Diary

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 26, 2020 at 09:42

      They must have been particularly fantastic and thought-provoking in Berlin.

  • Kristin
    Posted April 20, 2020 at 20:45

    Strange how things seem to open up just to smash back down again.

    Finding Eliza

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 26, 2020 at 09:44

      Right? From how things were going in Berlin, one would have never really imagine the Nazi government. In fact, very few did back then.
      But it was the same in the US. There seemed to be so many openings. Things might have gone very differently without the Great Depression. Who knows?

  • msjadeli
    Posted April 21, 2020 at 01:00

    I wish this kind of living with tolerance would blanket the globe. I learned a lot from your post today, Sara.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 26, 2020 at 09:45

      Me too. But I believe we are in a historical moment of great change. Let’s hope it will be an overall positive change.

  • Birgit
    Posted April 21, 2020 at 05:04

    Although we still need to improve, thank goodness it has only improved and people realize that we are all human beings who need to accept one another for ourselves regardless of our sexual orientations.

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 21, 2020 at 16:25

    Interesting how Berlin (Germany) was more tolerant than the US — seems things haven’t really changed.

    An A-Z of Faerie: Banshee

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 26, 2020 at 09:47

      Berlin was alwasy a very queer-friendly place before the Nazi came. And it has always been after. It’s quite interesting that for the most part, it seemed to come from practicality.

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