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.

Being Gay for Halloween

By Sidney Wegener

Sidney is a first year MA candidate studying Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. Their academic interests include lesbianism and lesbian history in American from the 1920’s to the 1930’s. 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.

Halloween, 2014, I was a senior in high school. At this point in time, I was already out of the closet; not necessarily by choice, but rather because some kid named Alex stole my phone in AP Environmental Science at the end of my sophomore year and read my text messages with my girlfriend at the time. He spread the news to just about everyone and by the end of the day the entireschool knew: I was a lesbian. My first high school did not find this amusing; my teachers found it intolerable, my coaches found it unathletic, and my “friends” found it shameful. Thankfully, I was able to transfer to a different high school a few towns over, and at this one, it seemed okay to be gay. I brought my girlfriend to homecoming, prom, and one of my basketball teammates, Sarah, was also a lesbian. I was no longer trapped in a nightmare of an institution, populated by a tiny town known for generation after generation settling back down in the same community. Everybody’s grandparents knew everybody’s grandparents, and everybody’s business was everybody’s entertainment. So by the time I was a senior at my second high school, I remember thinking to myself, “wow, this is what it’s like to be free, to be myself”. Looking back now, I laugh at how I felt so freely lesbian that I made myself into a costume. 

In 2014, Halloween was the Friday of Homecoming week. So, naturally, the students, teachers, and administration all wore their costumes for the last spirit day. Sarah and I coordinated our costumes. We both wore lab coats with large name tags reading: “Scientist for Straight Girls Wanting to Experiment”. Walking around campus, I remember thinking to myself how many of my female identified classmates were sporting costumes which seemed, to me at least, pretty sexy for walking from class to class. My second high school was a lot more lenient on the rules, and it showed during spirit week. However, that did not stop an administrative member from intervening in my stroll to chemistry. Despite my lab coat attire being quite fitting for a science class in which we wore protective eye gear, my name tag was inappropriate. When I met up with Sarah before basketball practice, she had also changed her costume and by the end of the day we were both just regular scientists. 

Now, I contemplate what it means to wear a “costume” and where the boundaries lie in terms of what is “appropriate.” I mean, how is it that Kaylee got to walk around in a see through Tinkerbell costume, and my pun on my own sexuality was “distracting”? If it was not a school spirit day designated for wearing a costume I wouldn’t have even been breaking the dress code. In a holiday themed effort to express myself, part of me realized that being gay was not something I could wear, unless it went without being said. Apparently, I was “promoting” homosexuality. Kaylee’s costume didn’t have a label on it reading “sexy, hyper-feminized Disney character”, whereas my costume’s meaning rested solely on a nametag, categorizing what kind of “scientist” I intended to be perceived as. Furthermore, Kaylee was not a Tinkerbell-identified human, while I was (and still am) a raging lesbian. So what is the difference for a high school, that allows everyone to wear costumes, between my “Scientist for Straight Girls Wanting to Experiment” lab coat and Kaylee’s “sexy seventeen year old girl take on Tinkerbell” costume? From where I stand today, it seems that dressing in a sexy costume as a seventeen year old girl in high school is okay, so long as it silently complies to a straight, male gaze. A lab coat, jeans, and a t-shirt are also fine-  until you label the outfit as a costume. Well, a lesbian costume.