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  • Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics
  • Don Romesburg
Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics. By Daniel Hurewitz. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. Pp. 377. $45.00 (cloth); $18.95 (paper).

In this wonderfully written work, Hurewitz traces the development of sexual identity as political identity throughout the twentieth century by focusing on a single Los Angeles neighborhood. He tells the story of sleepy Edendale's transformation first into a hotbed of artistic and radical political activity and later into the gay-infused Silver Lake/Echo Park area. Joining together the intellectual history of modern political homosexual male identity politics with a cultural history of place makes for compelling scholarship. Hurewitz has a powerful command over the narrative. He controls the conceptual frame tightly (and perhaps too tightly) to align his thesis and evidence.

Hurewitz starts by juxtaposing two figures he views as emblematic of the relationship between an evolving modern sexual identity and the birth of identity-based politics. The early twentieth-century female impersonation superstar Julian Eltinge stands in for a modernizing, if contested, Victorian self. He coupled an exterior masculine character and public behavior with a technical and accomplished feminine performance. The midcentury homophile activist Harry Hay represents the modern self, full of self-expressive personality, a deeply sexual essence, and an identity demanding esteem and rights. How, Hurewitz asks, did we get from A to B? His answer lies in Edendale.

Other historians have sought to answer this question in more or less direct ways. Some, such as John D'Emilio and Peter Boag, have suggested that the uneven transition from a constellation of sexual and gendered activities to a consolidated and then politicized gay identity had to do with shifting forms of US capitalism, labor, intimacy, and organizing. Others, notably George Chauncey, mark the historical remapping from a landscape [End Page 408] dominated by gendered same-sex sexual relations to ones increasingly based in sexual-object-choice identification and policing as establishing the terrain for the emergence of a gay and lesbian movement. Lesbian scholars, including Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, Madeline Davis, and Nan Alamilla Boyd, have asserted that bar cultures and the consumer forces surrounding them generated the capital, cultures, and communities that forged modern lesbian and gay peoples and politics.

Hurewitz, obviously familiar with these historians, seeks an alternative path. Bohemian Los Angeles makes the most sense as an intellectual biography of the founders of the Mattachine Society—particularly Harry Hay—with some substantial gestures to social and cultural history. Every chapter is streamlined to explain how something or another was or was not like the sexual identities and communities envisioned by Hay and the Mattachine Society in the 1940s and 1950s. Because of this structure, the last chapter of the book, most squarely about Mattachine, should really be read first. It draws together the strands from the previous chapters that Hurewitz finds most relevant to his rendering of modern identity politics as borne through the homophile movement. Once one sees the author's big picture, the previous pieces take on a greater relevancy and urgency. He brings together four crucial elements to explain why Mattachine became what it did when and where it did.

First, he describes how early twentieth-century queer multiplicity developed into mid-twentieth-century singular gay identity. Hurewitz sees the isolation that Hay and other Mattachine founders felt on "the Run," a downtown LA circuit of parks, baths, and bars. He explains how this alienation compelled them toward a "homophile consciousness" based on camaraderie about sexual desires but not constituted by them. In the first half of the century, men met without, as he writes, "fully identifying with one another," finding sexual partners in a network of overlapping and intersecting subcultures (58). Legal and medical discourses policing queerness distilled over the same period from disparate discourses of gender inversion, potential "regeneration" into normalcy, and situational or constitutional degeneration into what Hurewitz calls the "degenerate desire paradigm" that viewed all same-sex desire and activity as mental pathology and criminality. In the homophile movement, though, men (and the women Hurewitz scarcely mentions) met to find community related to a common struggle of...


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pp. 408-412
Launched on MUSE
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