Pinkos, painters, and pansies

Pub date February 28, 2007
WriterMarke B.


REVIEW Los Angeles has lately become quite a hot spot for queer studies scholars, their investigations slipping out of the Hollywood Babylon mode of starstruck speculation and into the lives of everyday Angelenos. In the wake of Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons’s well-received 2006 volume, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians (Basic Books), comes Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics, an ambitious, fascinating attempt to show how Communists, postsurrealist artists, civil rights activists, and pre-gay "fairies" converged in the crucible of early 20th-century Silver Lake — then called Edendale — to create the modern notion of identity, in particular queer identity.

Bohemian Los Angeles is bookended by two extraordinary characters who made their home in Edendale: lauded vaudeville female impersonator Julian Eltinge and gay-rights giant Harry Hay. Both of these men had sex with other men, but they couldn’t have been more distant in their conception of their own identity. The idea of gayness, or the notion of a true inner self that relied on sexuality to achieve its public expression, was as alien to Eltinge and his time (the 1910s) as Grand Theft Auto. Despite the expensive stage gowns and fellatio, the otherwise macho Eltinge was enraged by the showy "cissies," dandies, and fairies who claimed to have "woman’s blood in them" and made up much of his fan base. For him and other prominent male-on-males, homosexuality was a private act that needed no community or publicity to ensure its satisfaction. Hay, who came to prominence 40 years later as the first official gay activist, was a different fish entirely. His Mattachine Society insisted that homosexuality was an underlying impulse knitting everyone who was "that way" into a kinship with a shared cause: civil rights.

Hurewitz’s project is to trace how Eltinge’s view gave way to Hay’s, how activity was transformed into identity and gay pride was born. To do this, he recounts the history of Edendale as one of transformative communities, paying close attention to the artists who gathered around guru Jack Zeitlin in the late 1920s and began exploring the idea of an inner essence that could be communicated through the arts. He looks at members of the Communist Party of Los Angeles who experimented in communal living in Edendale in the 1930s and, in the wake of World War II’s Zoot Suit Riots and Japanese internments, agitated for a notion of civil rights based on ethnic identity. And he tracks the growth of homosexual networks in LA, the prototypes of a community based on sexual desire.

All of these bohemian groups, Hurewitz argues, laid the groundwork for Hay’s and others’ ultimate politicization, their embrace of a sexual inner essence worthy of public declaration. A further inspiration was the steep uptick in homosexual arrests in the 1920s, as the city’s politicos seized on the notion of "degeneracy" as a moral-panic strategy. (One of Hurewitz’s fabulous insights is that the idea of degeneracy was once embraced by some homosexual men as a way to divorce their actions from their character.)

Many gays today feel exhausted by identity politics yet trapped in a ghetto of conformist sexual expression. Refreshingly, this sharply written, well-researched history brings to light some of the magically diverse, willfully perverse, and politically immersed foundations of who we are now. *


By Daniel Hurewitz

University of California Press

377 pages