- Containing "Perversion":African Americans and Same-Sex Desire in Cold War Los Angeles
Ruth Foster, a twenty-year-old African American, repeatedly stabbed her lover, Louise Ford, a forty-three-year-old African American, on 19 May 1948 in the home they shared on South Avalon Boulevard in Los Angeles. Foster killed the woman to whom she had been a "wife" because Ford intended to end their five-year relationship. Ford had found another woman who had more money than Foster did. After Ford taunted her, Foster said: "A strange frenzy came over me, and I grabbed a steak knife and began stabbing her." Two weekly African American newspapers in Los Angeles reported on Foster's crime. The California Eagle referred to the relationship between Foster and Ford as "strange" and "unnatural." 1 In a front-page article, the Los Angeles Tribune suggested that Foster should have been ashamed of her relationship with Ford. The newspaper reported that Foster's "truthfulness and lack of guile or shame" in discussing her relationship with Ford "startled a squad of sophisticated policemen." The Tribune also noted that Foster's attorney, Walter L. Gordon, Jr., would argue that she was "not guilty by reason of insanity." Gordon told reporters that Foster's "alleged insanity grew out of 'illicit love'" and that she was "obviously mentally deficient." 2
Two months later, Foster was sentenced to one to ten years in prison for manslaughter. The sentence prompted a third African American newspaper, the Los Angeles Sentinel, to observe that "life is extremely cheap when Negroes murder Negroes." In a front-page editorial, Sentinel editor and publisher Leon H. Washington, Jr., criticized the sentence (which the editorial described as lenient), Gordon's defense of Foster, and the African American community's tolerance of same-sex relationships. The newspaper declared that the light sentence "creates the impression among others who [End Page 545] might indulge and those who do indulge in this activity that they may commit whatever crime they see fit, even to the extent of taking a life, hire a smart lawyer, plead insanity, spend a few short years in the 'pen' and then come back into the community and practice their immorality." The editorial implied that Gordon's insanity defense was disingenuous, since Foster and Ford "both knew that they were committing a crime against society." Washington stated that "it is common knowledge this type of illicit so-called 'love' has flourished in this community. There have been many cases of homes being broken up. Many are brazen. Their activities are well known and are flaunted about in cocktail lounges, bars and our most 'decent society.'" The newspaperman insisted that "it is the duty of the district attorney of this county to uphold the law and to protect society from these indecencies." 3
The articles in the Eagle and the Tribune and the editorial in the Sentinel reveal that some African Americans in Los Angeles engaged in same-sex relationships in the years following World War II. They also show that some community leaders, including the editors and publishers of the newspapers, viewed these relationships with disgust, contempt, and alarm. The existence of these relationships and the discourse surrounding same-sex desire within the African American community, however, have largely escaped the attention of historians of sexuality.
In the past thirty years, a number of scholars have explained the emergence of lesbian and gay communities, the formation of government policies dealing with those communities, and the rise of a gay civil rights movement. In his groundbreaking 1983 study, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, John D'Emilio argues that social changes brought about by US participation in World War II created the spaces in which a gay subculture could emerge. Exclusively gay bars and organizations such as the Veterans Benevolent Association in New York emerged during or immediately following the war. 4 Allan Bérubé provides additional information about the ways in which military service allowed some men and women to come to terms with their same-sex desires. 5 In his sweeping reinterpretation of the emergence of gay identity, community, and politics, Bohemian Los Angeles, [End Page 546] Daniel Hurewitz notes that...