Perspectives on LGBTQ History: Race, Gender, and Urbanity

AHA Session 253
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History 14
Sunday, January 6, 2019: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Adams Room (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Kevin J. Mumford, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Session Abstract

In 1984, prolific writer Joseph Beam called upon black gay men to tell their stories and reject the indifference of their lives displayed by white America. "Visibility," Beam wrote, "is survival." This panel examines the ways gay Black men organized and contributed to Black communities and the larger society throughout the twentieth century. Despite pressures placed on them by sometimes divergent political and cultural movements, Black gay men created unique gathering places, produced works of art, and led and participated in businesses and political organizations that advocated for their unique needs. Even facing police repression and societal scrutiny (even among Black and gay circles), African American gay men found ways to contribute to society and create insulated spaces where they could live more freely.

The papers in this session are case studies of the contributions made and challenges faced by gay Black men in Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Baltimore during the twentieth century. Stephen Lane will explore the 1930s drag scene in Indianapolis, Indiana. Performing along alongside many of the era’s greatest jazz musicians, prewar drag queens helped popularize Indiana Avenue, one of the city’s most prominent black-owned business districts. Lane looks at the role drag played in relation to the black dominated Indiana Avenue until its decline and destruction in the 1970s.

Eric Gonzaba will examine the politics of Black gay male nightlife in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia beginning in the 1970s. He explores the promise of these bars as safe havens against an often discriminatory white club scene as well as the limitations of Black bars in fully encompassing the diversity of African American sexual identities.

Finally, Jonathan Bailey will discuss the politics of Black gay men in 1990s Baltimore. Bailey will show how, inside their racially segregated city, gay Black Baltimoreans created their own spaces to advocate for their community and its needs. They pushed the narrative that their sexualities could not be separated from their race. The two, were in fact, not mutually exclusive.

Detailing the gay Black experience in the historical record has led historians to review newspapers and oral histories with community members. With an aging gay Black population with memories of the second half of the twentieth century, it remains critical to capture their stories and memories to continue to understand their complex history and how it fits in the historical fabric of the United States. These studies examine how being Black and gay in America was possible through community building, entertainment and resilience over the course of the twentieth century.

In response to the AHA's call to examine the concept of “Loyalties,” this panel investigates the complex and shifting loyalties across racial and sexual lines in the urban city among men “in the life.”

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