- Homosex Changes: Race, Cultural Geography, and the Emergence of the Gay
In the 1931 homosexual novel, Strange Brother, white author Blair Niles explores the world of Greenwich Village bohemians and urban speakeasies. In many ways, Niles is critical of these sophisticated bohemians who, in search of pleasure and excitement, go “slumming” to the teeming underworld of Harlem. Indeed, the novel’s central character, June Westbrook, represents the stereotypical slummer: one who admires but also objectifies the black entertainers and patrons of the Harlem speakeasy scene. Another white character in Strange Brother, Mark Thornton, receives a more sympathetic portrayal because he is a homosexual. Raised in a small Midwestern town, Mark reads an article in Survey Graphic, a leading social reform journal that featured the burgeoning culture of Harlem. Of course, that issue of the journal eventually was reprinted as The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke; it would deeply influence a generation of African American writers and artists. Significantly, the volume also influences Mark, who, allured by the prospects of urban excitement, leaves rural America and sets out for New York. After arriving, Mark discovers the homosexual scene and the slumming areas on the periphery of Harlem. Like June, Mark travels to Harlem to patronize the speakeasy scene. Eventually, through sexual contacts in the Harlem library, Mark is introduced to the underground world of black/white homosexual speakeasies. In search [End Page 395] of freedom, like many African Americans of the era, Mark too has made a journey to Harlem. 1
The cultural history of the novel Strange Brother tells us another important story about the place of homosexuality in the urban north, providing a precedent for Mark’s claim that he felt a kind of affinity with African American culture and institutions. In the early 1930s, the sociologist Ernest Burgess and his students at the University of Chicago conducted a survey of the city’s rental libraries and drug stores in order to document the circulation of novels with homosexual themes. Their reports indicated that, in general, retailers “can’t keep up with public demand for risque and sex books.” Homosexual men, the reports indicated, read these texts as a way to escape isolation, resist prejudice, and reconstruct their sexual subjectivities. In a sociological interview, for example, one homosexual subject recalled that he had read “‘Weel of Lonlieness’ [sic] as well as ‘Strange Brother.’” The young man valued these books because he “would like to live their lives.” 2 Many retailers reported that Strange Brother was among the most widely read books that they carried. Significantly, in several rental libraries, proprietors placed Strange Brother and other homosexual novels in the “colored section.” Thus, while Mark, a white homosexual, found affirmation and tolerance by traveling to black Harlem, urban retailers displayed novels with homosexual themes in black sections, suggesting the extent to which the borders between black and homosexual geographical spaces were blurred by clandestine crossings. 3 At the same time, these proprietors distinguished Strange Brother from mainstream novels not by stigmatizing it as homosexual (many did not even have a “homosexual section”), but rather by locating it within another, readily available system of social and spatial hierarchy—race. In other words, searching for a way to classify Strange Brother, the proprietors “racialized” the homosexual text.
The definitional power of texts versus that of subculture, the significance of urban borders, the racialization of sexuality: these issues are addressed in the following attempt to enter the long-standing historical debate on the emergence of homosexuality in the early twentieth century. Through the creative use of medical texts, official investigation documents, and personal interviews, historians have identified the decades between 1890 and 1930 as a kind of turning point in the formation of homosexuality. 4 In his influential 1983 article, “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” John D’Emilio argued that in the [End Page 396] twentieth century, the emergence of capitalism opened up new spaces for same-sex desire by accelerating the process of urbanization. 5 Freed from the constraints of small-town family life, homosexuals could socialize, make sexual contacts, and form social communities. The endurance of “Capitalism and Gay Identity” as a seminal piece speaks for itself...