The Gay Metropolis: Introduction

Adversity has its advantages.

A journalist once remarked to James Baldwin, "When you were starting out as a writer you were black, impoverished, homosexual. You must have said to yourself, " 'Gee, how disadvantaged can I get?' "

"No," the novelist replied. "I felt I'd hit the jackpot."

This book tells the story of an amazing victory over adversity: how America's most despised minority overcame religious prejudice, medical malpractice, political persecution and one of the worst scourges of the Twentieth century to stake its rightful claim to the American dream--all in barely more than half a century.

No other group has ever transformed its status more rapidly or more dramatically than lesbians and gay men. When World War II began, gay people in America had no legal rights, no organizations, a handful of private thinkers and no public advocates. As recently as 1970, Joseph Epstein could write in Harper's,*"If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth"--and only gay activists thought that was outrageous.

A quarter century later, gay people have completed the first stages of an incredible voyage: a journey from invisibility to ubiquity, from shame to self-respect, and, finally, from the overwhelming tragedy of AIDS to the triumph of a rugged, resourceful and caring community.

As the great architectural historian Vincent Scully pointed out, ours is "a time which, with all its agonies, has...been marked most of all by liberation." In the Jefferson lecture of 1995 Scully declared I think especially of the three great movements of liberation which have marked the past generation: black liberation, women's liberation, gay liberation. Each one of those movements liberated all of us, all the rest of us, from stereotypical ways of thinking which had imprisoned us and confined us for hundreds of years. Those movements, though they have a deep past in American history, were almost inconceivable just before they occurred. Then, all of a sudden, in the 1960's they all burst out together, changing us all.

America's best instincts have always been toward equality and inclusiveness. Especially in this century, the idea of a steadily widening embrace has been the genius behind the success of the American experiment. The main effects of these multiple liberations have been more openness, more honesty and more opportunity--changes which have benefitted everyone.

Despite all this progress, coming out to a parent remains the single most difficult thing a teenager can do on the eve of the Twenty-First Century. If you doubt that, consider this recent reaction of a holocaust survivor to his son's announcement of his homosexuality.

"This," said the father, "is worse than the holocaust."

Such incidents prove the terrible persistence of prejudice. Far too often, openly gay teenagers still face fierce harassment from their parents and their peers. But a handful of parents have changed their attitudes altogether. In 1993, the psychiatjrist Richard Isay listened to these anguished words words from a mother in New Jersey: "We know our son is gay," she said, "But he insists on dating girls and he wants to get married. What are we going to do?"

BARELY THIRTY YEARS AGO, most of society's glittering prizes were reserved for white, heterosexual men. Today the job descriptions the previously disenfranchised can reasonably aspire to include senator, law partner, rabbi, psychiatrist and corporate president. The only glass ceiling that remains in place is the one that some white executives still maintain by grooming successors who resemble themselves as much as possible.

Because it was the example of the civil rights movement which made the gay liberation movement possible, it is especially appropriate that one of the most eloquent philosophers of liberation in the '90's is the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, a black gay Baptist minister with an "Anglican over-soul" who is the chief minister at Harvard University. He also happens to be a Republican who delivered the benediction at Ronald Reagan's second presidential inauguration.

Gomes outted himself to the Harvard community in 1991, after a conservative campus publication cited everyone from Freud to the bible to prove that gay life was "immoral" and "pitiable."

"Gay people are victims not of the Bible, not of religion, and not of the church, but of people who use religion as away to devalue and deform those whom they can neither ignore nor convert," Gomes declared. Then he identified himself as "a Christian who happens as well to be gay."

"These realities, which are unreconcilable to some, are reconciled in me by a loving God, a living Saviour, a moving, breathing, healthy Holy Spirit whom I know intimately and who knows me."

Gomes offers an elegant argument that there is no intrinsic conflict between a Judaeo-Christian God and a homosexual. In The Good Book, which Gomes published in 1996, he points out that when the Bible was written, its authors "never contemplated a form of homosexuality in which loving, monogamous, and faithful persons sought to live out the implications of the gospel with as much fidelity to it as any heterosexual believer. All they knew of homosexuality was prostitution, pederasty, lasciviousness, and exploitation. These vices, as we know, are not unknown among heterosexuals, and to define contemporary homosexuals only in these terms is cultural slander of the highest order."

Murray Kempton identified another irony inherent in this debate. Consider the "early history" of the Anglican Church, he suggested in 1994.

"Origin: a king's insistence on pursuing his freedom of choic in fleshly matters over the objections of the Bishop of Rome. The Book of Common Prayer, envy of the Romans: a masterpiece that would not exist if it had not been screened through QAueen Elizabeth and found suitable for her doctrinal taste through its last amen. The King James Version: overseen by the most openly homosexual monarch in British history. Thus the founder of ourt church was a libertine, its ritual could only be authorized by a decision of a woman, its most enduring Bible is owed to the patronage of a homosexual, and yet its House of Bishops still has a fair quota of eminences disinclined to ordain women and gays."

The reconciliation of homosexuality and religion made possible by philosophers like Gomes has led to the founding of thousands of gay synagogues and gay churches of every conceivable denomination. This is one of the most remarkable developments of all, because, as we will discover, it was the triumph of science over religion which made gay liberation possible in the first place.

* * *

THE EVENTS WHICH OPENED THE PATH for the Twentieth Century revolution depicted in these pages began about one hundred and fifty years ago. More than anything else, it was the rise of science in the middle of the Nineteenth Century which would eventually enable a handful of iconoclasts to challenge some of Western Civilization's oldest assumptions about liberty and life.

It was a two-step process which began a fundamental reordering of Western thought. First, science had to be completely divorced from religion, to make it more truly scientific; then, a significant number of opinion makers had to begin to invest secular knowledge with as much importance as their ancestors had given the sacraments. After that, very gradually, science would become powerful enough to undermine some of the ancient dogmas of the Old Testament.

In the minds of many of his colleagues, Charles Darwin opened a crucial division between science and religion when he described his theory of evolution in the Origin of Species in 1859.* Sigmund Freud accelerated that separation with the invention of psychoanalysis, which gradually developed for some into an alternative to religion.

(As gay psychoanalyst Richard Isay has pointed out, Freud said "almost everything about homosexuality, including that it was biological, and that you couldn't change homosexuals into heterosexuals. But he also said it was caused by jealousy of siblings, and a number of interpersonal, early dynamic issues. He was not consistent." In 1937, Freud wrote "Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an ilness." However, during the first two thirds of this century, most of Freud's disciples promoted the idea that homosexuality was a curable illness.)

At the dawn of this new age at the end of the last century, at the same time as Freud was researching The Interpretation of Dreams, his contemporary Magnus Hirschfeld was launching the first gay liberation movement of the modern era in Germany.

In 1897 Hirschfeld distributed more than 6,000 questionnaires to Berlin factory workers and university students. He concluded that 2.2 percent of all German men were homosexuals, and published his findings in one of the twenty-three volumes of Jahrbuch, the first avowedly-gay publication of the 20th Century. A few years later, Hirschfeld founded the Institute for Sexual Research, which collected 20,000 books and 35,000 photographs. He also organized the World League For Sexual Reform, which held annual conferences in Copenhagen, London and Vienna between 1928 and 1932. He campaigned continuously for the repeal of paragraph 175, the law banning sodomy in Germany. A petition asking the Reichstag to annul that law attracted the signatures of Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein.

Hirschfeld conducted his research at a time when Weimar Germany nurtured a rich gay culture, including costume balls and luxurious bars and nightclubs for gay men and lesbians. But after barely three decades, the Nazis would put an end to all of Hirschfeld's activities. Nazi toughs attacked him during public appearances, and four months after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, while Hirschfeld was out of the country, his institute for Sexual Research was ransacked and its contents were burned in a public ceremony.

THE FACT THAT THE NAZIS seized power from a regime which had tolerated homosexuality would color American attitudes toward sexual permissiveness for thirty years afterwards. American writers would regularly compare the Weimar period to the debauchery of ancient Rome--and then conclude that any culture that permitted gay life to flourish was obviously doomed to catastrophe.

The subject was further complicated by the fact that the Nazis themselves had tolerated openly-gay men among their own leaders, even though the official party apparatus had assailed "all immorality, especially love between men" as early as 1928. This uneven tolerance ended in 1934, when Ernst Roehm, a gay official of the Nazi S.A., and dozens of his allies were massacred during the Night of the Long Knives. Hitler said afterwards that these men deserved to die for their corrupt morals alone, but historian William L. Shirer wrote that the Fuhrer "had known all along...that a large number of his closest...followers were sexual perverts and convicted murderers."

What American journalists and historians neglected altogether was the vicious persecution homosexuals suffered at the hands of the Nazis once Roehm and his friends had been eliminated. Historians of the holocaust estimate that during the Third Reich at least 90,000 lesbians and gay men were arrested, more than 50,000 were sent to prison and between 10,000 and 15,000 ended up in concentration camps, where they were identified by pink triangles.

Hitler's obliteration of the German Jewish population was considered so horrifying by most Americans, it would do more to discredit anti-semetism than any other previous event. But the Nazis' oppression of homosexuals failed to increase sympathy for them in the United States or anywhere else.

* * *

ALTHOUGH WORLD WAR II DID NOTHING to improve the way most Americans viewed homosexuals, it would have a dramatic effect on the way lesbians and gay men viewed themselves. The United States Army acted as a great, secret unwitting agent of gay liberation by creating the largest concentration of gay people inside a single institution in American history. That is why this volume begins with World War II.

People from all over the country who had assumed that they were unique learned for the first time that they were not alone. Soldiers and sailors also got a chance to sample gay culture all over the world--and discovered that large gay communities already existed in American ports of entry like San Francisco and New York City.

It was also during this war that the word "gay" became "a magic by-word in practically every corner of the United States where homosexuals might gather." (Some historians have traced the use of the word "gaie" as a synonym for homosexual as far back as 16th Century France.)

In the postwar period, New York City became the literal gay metropolis for hundreds of thousands of immigrants from within and without the United States: the place they chose to learn how to live openly, honestly and without shame.

But the figurative gay metropolis is much vaster than that: it encompasses every place on every continent where gay people have found the courage and the dignity to be free.

Some of the ordinary and extraordinary men and women who nurtured the spectacular growth of that larger metropolis are the main subjects of this book. While the women I have included are among the most extraodinary characters in this saga, men gradually became my main focus--because their story is also mine.

The Gay Metropolis and 1968 in America are available online from Barnes & Noble or
Charles Kaiser /