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Queer Bronzeville: African American LGBTs on Chicago's South Side, 1900-1985
The emergence of African-American queer cultures on Chicago's South Side, 1920-1940
by Tristan Cabello
2012-02-29

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This is the first of a multi-part series.

In the early 1920s, African American LGBTs were integrated to Bronzeville's mainstream culture and accommodated by its inhabitants, religious figures and political leaders, much unlike their white counterparts who had already created their own "gay" enclave of "Towertown" on the North Side.

From State Street to Cottage Grove Avenue, along 43rd and 47th Street, Bronzeville's commercialized and jazz-influenced urban culture offered African American gays and lesbians several venues where homosexuals and heterosexuals interacted across the color line ( the Plantation Café, the Pleasure Inn, the Cabin Inn, Club DeLisa and Joe's Deluxe ) , yearly popular Halloween "Drag Balls" popularized by Black gay hustler Alfred Finnie, semi-safe locations ( the Wabash YMCA, Washington Park, Jackson Park ) , and a "vice district" which facilitated prostitution.

Bronzeville's most powerful inhabitants ( Reverend Clarence Cobbs ) and its most famous musicians ( Tony Jackson, Rudy Richardson, Sippie Wallace, Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon, and George Hannah ) were homosexuals. Joe Hughes, owner of a popular gay-friendly bar, was elected honorary mayor of Bronzeville in 1940. Journalist Theodore Jones regularly hired drag queen Valda Gray's troupe of female impersonators for parties given for Bronzeville's upper class. On the streets, working-class African American queers were also accepted. Lorenzo Banyard, a drag entertainer, remembers riding streetcars to the West Side, dressed in drag, without incident.

Bronzeville's queer population grew rapidly during the Great Migration. Like the millions of African Americans who left the poverty and racism in the South, Black queers traveled to urban centers to find better-paying jobs, but also to take advantage of the opportunities for same-sex encounters.

Blues pianist Antony ( Tony ) Jackson was one of the many queer migrants who decided to leave their native South to take advantage of Chicago's freedom. Born in New Orleans in 1876, Jackson spent his youth in the saloons, gambling halls, and brothels of the Black neighborhood of Storyville.

In search of a place more receptive to his music and sexual orientation, the musician migrated to Chicago in 1908. Blues singer Jelly Roll Morton, a friend of the pianist, claimed that Jackson had migrated to Chicago because "he happened to be one of those gentlemen that a lot of people call [ … ] lady or sissy." According to Morton, Jackson "liked his freedom in Chicago," a freedom that included the ability to work full time in Bronzeville's most renowned cabarets, theaters, and cafés, as well as the possibility of encounters with men of similar sexual orientation.

But Jackson participated in an already rich queer culture. Visible queer individuals—female impersonators, effeminate men, and masculine women—were also amongst the neighborhood's most popular artists and entertainers. Female impersonators, for example, enjoyed great popularity due to the drag balls organized every Halloween and New Year's Eve.

The nation's first drag balls took place during the last decades of the nineteenth century and from their inception their appeal transcended racial lines. The first Chicago balls were also racially integrated, a fact frequently remarked upon by those who attended or wrote about them. University of Chicago sociology student Myles Vollmer observed: "Physically, all types are there. Homosexuals thin and wasted, others slender and with womanish curves, others overfed and lustfully fat. Most of the younger homosexuals have pallid complexions with rather thin hair, due, perhaps, to overindulgence. There is a preponderance of Jews and the Latin nationalities, although homosexuality is no respecter of races. Many of the men are of Polish blood and Negroes mingle freely with whites. There seemingly is no race distinction between them."

Chicago's Black newspapers often commented on queers' presence on the Stroll, the main commercial artery of Bronzeville.

The Chicago Whip was a specialist on the topic. The column "Nosey Sees All Knows All," written under the pen name "Nosey," often discussed the lives of Bronzeville's queers. In November 1919, Nosey, who was "out on Halloween Eve," had seen "the mother of six children," who "had on a pair of men's trousers, face covered with powder, with hair cut just like a man."

In a November 1920 article, The Chicago Whip asked, "Have We Had a Sex Problem Here?" The article told the story of Sherman Robinson, resident of 3521 S. Wabash Avenue, the "plaintiff in one of Chicago's most unusual divorce cases." According to the reporter, the couple had "been living happily until September 1916, when Ida [ Robinson's wife ] had left [ him ] for a woman she had previously met in Paducah, Kentucky."

Black queers took advantage of the freedom of expression they found in South Side's cabarets, epicenters of non-normative sexual practices such as interracial relations, prostitution and queer relations. The music played in these cabarets reveals the open-mindedness that characterized the South Side during this era. Blues audiences heard the terms "sissy" or "bulldagger," in the Blues singers' lyrics, which spoke of the mutability of sexual desire. Gladys Bentley sang, "If you can't bring a woman, bring me a sissy man." Gertrude "Ma" Rainey explained in a song she wrote entitled "Prove it on me Blues" that she could "wear a shirt and tie," and that she could "talk to the ladies like a man." The "sissies" and lesbians mentioned in Blues songs were never ridiculed for their behavior.

Gay dances and masquerades were regular events of Chicago's Black queer culture. Drag balls, popular on the South Side, were held in the neighborhood every Halloween and New Year's Eve, which enabled them to pass for conventional costume parties.

The most famous of these drag balls were the Finnie's ball, the first of which occurred in 1935 and was organized by an African American queer street hustler and gambler named Alfred Finnie, in the basement of a tavern on the corner of 38th Street and Michigan Avenue. Guests of the ball paid 25 cents to attend. The balls later became staples of the South Side Black queer culture and attracted hundreds of Chicagoans who came to applaud drag entertainers. Professional drag queens were respected because of their well-paying jobs, which often enabled them to provide for their families' needs.

At the end of the 1930s, the South Side's most popular queer cabarets were the Club De Lisa and the Cabin Inn. Club DeLisa, the high point of Bronzeville's nightlife, was a favorite haunt of the 1930s most famous jazz musicians. The club could welcome up to 500 people, who came to see jazz and blues musicians such as Chippie Hill, Tommy Powell and the De-Ho Boy, and Albert Ammons and his Rhythm Kings. Rudy Richardson, a queer pianist and singer, brought a sizeable queer audience.

Nat "Big" Ivy had opened the Cabin Inn to attract working-class Blacks. Female impersonator Valda Gray, the show's producer, familiarized Bronzeville's clubs with drag performances, leading a troupe of drag queens; "Joanne Crawford," "Jean LeRue," "Nina McKinney," "Nancy Kelly," and "Dixie Lee" presented a show every night.

At the time, the practice of having sex with an effeminate man and the identity of being homosexual were not linked. As a result, some men shifted rather freely between sexual relations with women and with men. Others viewed sexual relations between people of the same gender as an acceptable alternative to heterosexual relations. If they had the active role in the sexual relation and acted masculine in other contexts, these men reinforced their status as men with these relations.

Black newspapers and blues recordings appear to have emphasized these concepts, suggesting that sex with female impersonators and effeminate men did not pose a threat to masculinity. For example, when a man stated in the Inner State Tattle Newspaper that women had disappointed him, the reporter commented that this man could "be popular at the next Faggot's Ball."

Another example is the lyrics of Thomas Dorsey's "Sissy Blues" in which the singer claims, "Now all the people ask me why I'm all alone/A sissy shook that thing and took my man from home," which suggested that leaving one's wife for a female impersonator was as acceptable as leaving for another woman.

Bronzeville's sexual discourses were rooted in the neighborhood's cultural, social, and economic realities, which were often isolated from the rest of the city. Because of the expanding bar culture, Bronzeville's queers became an essential part of the neighborhood's development, which explained their integration and acceptance.

These queers were however not regulated by a specific "gay" identity. Cabarets, newspapers, drag queens, and prostitutes participated in the creation of diverse and plural identity discourses. South Side queer identities were divided, divisive and multiple. Rather than queer or sexual identities, racial, cultural, gender, and class identities played a much greater role in guiding Bronzeville's sexual discourse.

Tristan Cabello is the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in African-American Studies at Bowdoin College and is currently completing his first book "Queer Bronzeville: Race, Sexuality and Urban Boundaries in Black Chicago, 1900-1985." His exhibit "Queer Bronzeville" is available on the website www.outhistory.org .

CaptionThe Chicago Whip often commented on homosexuals' presence in the Stroll, the main street of Bronzeville. The column "Nosey Sees All Knows All," written under the pen name "Nosey," often discussed the lives of Bronzeville's homosexuals. Images provided by Tristan Cabello


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