- Los Angeles and the Closing of the Gay Historical Frontier
The field of gay and lesbian history has grown dramatically since the publication of George Chauncey’s Gay New York in 1994.1 This landmark work, which describes the rich, complex, and surprisingly visible gay male subcultures in early-twentieth-century New York City, brought homosexuals into the mainstream of American social history and spurred a cavalcade of dissertations and monographs on gay and lesbian topics. Chauncey was not the first gay historian to adopt the “urban case study” methodology to recover the lost history of gay men and lesbians, but Gay New York’s success influenced scholars in LGBT history to widely adopt the same approach. Since the early 1990s, scholars have produced studies describing the gay pasts of Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo, Fire Island, Washington D.C., Chicago, Memphis, Lexington, Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle, and San Francisco, as well as regional histories of the South and the Pacific Northwest.2
Los Angeles represents the last frontier in this historiography. The significance of Los Angeles in LGBT history has been suggested in many books, especially those describing the birth of the American gay rights movement.3 Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, and Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics, by Daniel Hurewitz, are the first historical urban case studies to focus squarely on the development and growth of gay and lesbian identities, communities, and politics in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is not often associated with serious civil rights activism, but these books powerfully demonstrate the myriad ways that gay men and lesbians in Los Angeles have led the nation in cultivating a politicized gay consciousness and building gay [End Page 101] institutions. The city’s prominent role in creating the modern gay political movement, however, has been overshadowed by the symbolic power of New York City’s 1969 Stonewall riots as well as San Francisco’s reputation as the country’s preeminent gay city. These books establish Los Angeles as ground zero of gay politics and also offer fascinating glimpses of everyday life for ordinary gay men and women in Los Angeles.
Reflecting the bewildering complexity and diversity of Los Angeles, there is surprisingly little overlap between these books, as though the authors are describing two different cities. Gay L.A. is a sweeping, sprawling book that attempts to cover everything from the Spanish conquest of Native Americans to the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain. Faderman and Timmons jump around the city’s neighborhoods breathlessly discussing downtown, then Long Beach, then Hollywood in rapid succession. Bohemian Los Angeles, in contrast, is a more carefully crafted case study of a single neighborhood, an obscure area to non-residents: Silverlake, also known as Edendale. Hurewitz shows how the bohemian energy of artists, intellectuals, and left-wing activists in Silverlake cohered to create the modern idea of gay political identity. Hurewitz makes no attempt to explain the whole history of gay Los Angeles, but his effort to explain the rise of modern gay identity is nonetheless ambitious. Both books provide compelling windows into gay America’s last historiographic frontier, yet neither book will be the last word on gay and lesbian history in Los Angeles.
Gay L.A.’s authors, Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, are experienced scholars and writers of gay history. Their book is written for a broad audience, preferring descriptive historical reportage to lengthy entanglements with academic debates. The first third of Gay L.A. moves quickly from European contact through the 1960s. The authors’ description of nineteenth-century Los Angeles as a lawless frontier town will be familiar to scholars of the city; such an environment allowed “an underground gay male subculture” to take hold by the end of the century...