Given its prominence as one of America’s leading gay meccas, it is surprising that no comprehensive historical account of gay Los Angeles has appeared before this one. Other such studies of gay culture in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Memphis have been published, among the best known of which is George Chauncey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (1994). Chauncey’s book, although excellent, is not nearly as encompassing as Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, which focuses on gay activity among both males and females, includes people of color, and covers a five-hundred-year time frame.
Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons’s chapters alternate between lesbianism and male homosexuality. The authors also explore such topics as homosexuality among the Native American tribes that inhabited the coastal regions of what is now California before the arrival in the sixteenth century and later of Europeans with religious agendas that proscribed homosexuality and considered it an abomination.
Overt homosexual activity was condoned and marriage between two members of the same sex was sanctioned by the Native Americans whom the early European explorers encountered along the Pacific coast. Homosexuals, cross-dressers, and transgendered members held honored and respected positions in their tribes, many becoming shamans because they were thought to be imbued with greater spirituality than their heterosexual counterparts. Initially these Native Americans were completely comfortable in revealing their sexuality to the missionaries who sought to impose Christianity upon them.
They soon learned, however, that candor about their sexual preferences led to trouble and humiliation for them as the padres forcibly separated same-sex couples and cast in a shameful light something that the natives had long considered natural, even desirable. The authors cite one instance in which “the friars encountered a Santa Clara male Indian who wore women’s clothes” and ordered him “to sweep the plaza in the nude for three days, to his intense shame.” The humiliated cross-dresser, having done this imposed penance, fled in order to live as he wished in a way that was natural for him.
In Faderman and Timmons’s accounts of the early encounters of Native Americans with the proselytizing Christian missionaries is the underlying implication that duplicity was necessary when natives dealt with the white invaders. This duplicity carried over into the gay culture that grew up in most Western societiescertainly among Hollywood film people in the 1920’s and beyond.
The studios insisted that their leading men and women project unsullied public images and have an overt appeal to members of the opposite sex. When anything disturbed such images, promising film careers would often come to an abrupt and permanent end. The studios often arranged heterosexual marriages for gay film stars to studio-selected mates, so-called marriages of convenience.
Nevertheless, what went on behind the gates and thick hedges of Hollywood mansions was strictly off-limits to the public. Often a sedate cocktail party would turn into a gay orgy beside the swimming pool soon after the straight guests had gone home. George Cukor, one of Hollywood’s most powerful film directors, could easily make or break an actor’s career. He relished having handsome young actors attend his pool parties, but if they ever revealed what went on at these parties, they would make Cukor’s black list and probably would never find work in Hollywood again.
Actor William Haines and his lover, Jimmy Shields, spent their summers in the seaside resort of El Porto near Laguna Beach, where they entertained much of Hollywood’s gay community, including Cukor. When a rumor circulated that Shields had molested a minor, enraged townspeople attacked Haines and his guests, Cukor among them. Haines was tarred and feathered on the adjoining beach. To protect his own reputation, Cukor, who clandestinely fled the unhappy scene, cut off all subsequent contact with Haines, thereby effectively ending the actor’s career.
Faderman and Timmons write with insight about how Hollywood was forced to...
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