Masculine Women! Feminine Men!

I’m teaching a fun tutorial on pre Stonewall LGBTQ identities, and this old favorite showed up in an article about the queer identities in the ‘pansy craze’ of the 1920s. (There’s a great little track called “B.D. Woman’s Blues” by Louise Bogan – the “B.D.” stands for bull-dagger, if you’re wondering.)

3 Replies to “Masculine Women! Feminine Men!”

  1. That book, Gay New York, is a thick slog, but incredibly detailed about this time.It gets very into the etymology of the words “queer” and “fairy”; two very different types of gay men. A “queer” was a straight-acting guy who was more or less a regular Joe in the workplace, but lived a quietly down-low homosexual life on his own time. A “fairy” was a flamboyant, rouged, effeminate man who usually was in public places looking for sex, either for love or money. There were “fairies” who were probably trans, who dressed as women as often as they could, usually in bars and clubs. There also was relatively little social stigma about straight men, especially after a night at the bar, getting serviced by a fairy.

    The depression and the war seem to be what kicked off homophobia and drove gay people underground again.

  2. I think that the rise of public belief in the formulas of psychiatry (Freudian or otherwise) had a lot to do with the sudden growth of more repressive attitudes. Pre-psychiatry, gender-variant behavior was seen as just that: behavior. The idea in the minds of many (even some participants, and certainly many observers) was that those who cross-dressed or had homosexual relationships were indulging eccentric tastes, rather than that there was something fundamentally different about them. (This assumption was furthered in the case of women, and perhaps some men, when many of these were assumed to be romantic and platonic, not overtly sexual in nature.)

    The emergence of the notion of normalized, universal expectations regarding human nature, with any departure from that constituting an acquired illness, or worse, a fundamentally defective personality, made many so-called eccentricities signs of sickness (and fears of its communicability) rather than merely of variation. Freudian beliefs that mental deviance was the result of some abnormality in a child’s development reinforced this notion. The tyranny of the “well-adjusted” person had its roots in this model, and the assumption that anyone who departed from it needed to be “cured” or quarantined from the rest of the population.

  3. Already, in the 1930s, with the disappearance of a parallel, extra-legal set of social meeting places which had been furnished by the speakeasies during Prohibition, there were fewer places one could openly flaunt one’s difference. Private, gay clubs had to maintain secrecy in a way that most establishments serving illegal (but frequently tolerated) liquor did not. The homosocial propinquity imposed by compulsory military duty beginning in 1940, and continuing through the Cold War, increased this pressure on those who were different to try to appear as outwardly normal as possible.

    It was only when the assumptions underlying the normalizing obsession of psychiatrists and psychologists became the subject of critiques of the whole notion of what is “normal” in the 1960s, that some flexibility began to creep back into the mental health fields and society. Improving economic opportunities for those who did not conform, especially for women, allowed a gradual (very, very gradual!) breakdown in the tyranny of having to be “normal.” Underground movies, including documentaries such as “The Queen,” the emergence of androgynous modes of appearance, first among “hippies,” then generally in broader segments of young people, and finally, violent protests such as the Compton Cafeteria riots and Stonewall, were among the vehicles which shifted these attitudes. So it took all of this time—up to the very early ’70s—to come back to the level of public tolerance which we find in popular songs and films, like this one from the 1920s. Psychiatrists have a lot to answer for.

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