Roaring Lesbian Subcultures in New York City

New York City has long been known for its liberalism and borough-specific socioeconomic demographics; however, one community during the 1920s often overlooked by historians is the lesbian subculture in Greenwich Village. In this article, “lesbian” will be used very loosely to describe women-loving-women. Due to the term’s limited use until the mid-twentieth century, retroactively labeling women of the early 1900s as lesbians would not be accurate. However, there were a handful of known Greenwich Village women who lived openly lesbians lives and others who married gay men in order to preserve a heterosexual identity in public life. 

Frequently noted for bohemianism and the free love movement during the 1920s, Greenwich Village was home to many middle-class, white liberals who were seeking careers as artists, writers, and activists. Beneath the white liberal populous, gay and lesbian cultures flourished. Lesbianism began to gain visibility, bolstered by the free love movement and feminist collectives. One such example was The Heterodoxy Club, which was active in Greenwich Village from 1912 through the 1940s. This collective is a unique example of a feminist organization, due to the fact that they were generally more accepting of other women regardless of sexuality. While members were almost entirely white and most came from a middle-upper class, educated background, the sense of comradery they held for one another meant openly lesbian women, such as Katharine Anthony, were able to be active members in the feminist community. Aside from Judith Schwarz’s 1986 publication, Feminists of the Heterodoxy: Greenwich Village 1912-1940, very little information is available about The Heterodoxy Club. Nevertheless, this group of approximately one hundred women provides a small but important window through which through which it is possible to examine the emergence of lesbianism in the 1920s.

It is important to acknowledge that Greenwich Village was not the only community in New York City with an underground gay and lesbian culture coming to life during the early twentieth century. While the lesbian subculture in Greenwich Village was rooted in privileges such as whiteness, middle-class status, and a college education, Harlem’s working-class residents – mostly people of color – fostered a different world of queer culture. Due to Harlem’s socioeconomic status, underground gay and lesbian communities were often exploited by affluent white folks from other boroughs. Still, night scenes in both Harlem and Greenwich Village funcitoned as social spaces for lesbians to meet and became part of the foundation of homosexual subcultures.  

Establishments in Greenwich Village, like Polly Halliday’s restaurant on MacDougal Street where The Heterodoxy Club gathered, often served as meeting places for activists, gays, and lesbians. While lesbian subculture became an integral part of Greenwich Village’s reputation and the free love movement, they still faced discrimination and dangerous circumstances such as incarceration in women’s prisons. Establishing economic independence and stability as a lesbian during the 1920s was no easy feat and many were eventually forced to marry men due to societal and financial pressures. Economic independence was a common topic of discussion among straight and queer women of The Heterodoxy Club. For example, Katharine Anthony and Elisabeth Irwin, lesbian partners and members of The Heterodoxy Club, struggled to support themselves and their adopted daughters. Financial strife should not come as a surprise due to the prominence of misogyny and homophobia during the 1920s, which imposed intense experiences of oppression among lesbians. Although many lesbians in Greenwich Village during the 1920s were middle-upper class and white, they still experienced difficulty affording housing as well as job security. Such obstacles to sustainable and accessible living sometimes resulted in sham weddings to gay men which were safer than open partnerships with women.

Ultimately, lesbian and gay subcultures which took root during the early twentieth century grew into social revolutions decades later. During the 1920s, lesbianism began to emerge as a tangible and visible aspect of women’s sexuality and gender expression in New York City boroughs like Greenwich Village and Harlem. Today, we may look to icons from the mid-to-late 1900s, such as Audre Lorde, who made history as queer women. However, we cannot forget those who were blazing the raging lesbian trail during the roaring twenties.

Sources

Audre Lorde biographical information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audre_Lorde

Elisabeth Irwin biographical information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisabeth_Irwin

Katharine Anthony biographical information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katharine_Anthony

Sidney is a first year Master’s Candidate studying Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. Their academic interests include lesbianism and lesbian history in American from the 1920s to the 1930s. They are currently pursuing many different avenues for research in U.S. history pertaining to women’s and queer studies and looking forward to working on a thesis related to the linguistic and social evolution of female sexuality.

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