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social sciences

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Los Angeles  
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Ride 'em, Cowboy: 1850-1910

Horsemen of the Mexican period were termed vaqueros, and cowboys in the early American period, 1850 to 1910, continued their traditions of . Along with holdover Californios, Anglo settlers, and itinerant business persons, Los Angeles life in this period included a mix of cowboys and prostitutes. The homosociality that characterized frontier life was also true of much Los Angeles life as well. Walt Whitman knowingly declared himself a "comrade of the Californians."

Los Angeles's downtown park, established in 1866 as La Plaza Abaja, was renamed Central Park in the early 1890s. Undoubtedly the park vagrants and speakers, known as windjammers, included more than a few men who came there looking for same-sex sexual activity at the turn of the twentieth century. At the end of World War I in 1918, the park was renamed Pershing Square and was for decades a notorious cruising area.

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Modern Los Angeles Gay Life Begins: 1910-1939

The crucial period for the development of gay life in Los Angeles is that from 1910 to 1939. Pockets of glbtq life can be documented during this period in many neighborhoods, but mostly in downtown Los Angeles (particularly the bars and Pershing Square), Echo Park and neighboring Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Hollywood, West Hollywood, Venice Beach, and certain parts of the San Fernando Valley. Most of these areas still contain prominent glbtq communities.

Gay and lesbian life was constructed differently from today's social and sexual networks. The pursuit of working-class "trade" (or men who identified as heterosexual but participated in same-sex sexual encounters on a limited basis), "military trade," or even "rough trade" was a preoccupation of many gay men. These patterns of desire often determined locations of meeting places and, eventually, bars where sexual rendezvous could be made.

Women who might today be termed lesbian were frequently referred to simply as "spinsters." These women, who often lived with their families, formed fewer visible communities than their male counterparts, relying mostly on informal social networks, though a number of them entered into "" and other romantic relationships.

Men and women who cross dressed professionally, such as the female impersonator Julian Eltinge at the beginning of the twentieth century, attained a degree of mainstream acceptance. He and other men and women appeared photographed in drag on dozens of sheet music covers, which would have appeared on pianos in parlors across the U.S.

With the burgeoning of the city at the beginning of the twentieth century, the contributions to its culture by single men and women can be discerned. While most of these individuals never publicly (or perhaps even privately) identified as gay or lesbian, it is likely that many participated in same-sex sexual activities.

The spinster Olive Percival, for example, was a cultural force in the Arts and Crafts period. She hosted at the home she shared with her mother in South Pasadena such persons as the British writer Vita Sackville-West, whose sexual identity is now well known.

One founder of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra was the philanthropist William Andrews Clark, Jr., unmarried heir to a Montana copper mining fortune. He commissioned for his elegant private library (its building, grounds, and collections later bequeathed to UCLA) murals that included nude young males. His collections consisted of sixteenth-century English Literature, Montaniana (in deference to his roots and his father and his livelihood), and, more of interest here, the works of and about Oscar Wilde. The Clark Library Wilde collection as continued today is the largest and most complete in the world.

Beginning in the late teens and 1920s, some of the earliest impressions or glimpses of Los Angeles gay bar life come from the letters of gay poet Hart Crane and from the daybooks of heterosexual Los Angeles photographer Edward Weston, whose notations of sailors and effeminate gay men mingling together are surprisingly nonjudgmental. Crane wrote that he was "here where the evenings are made lustful and odorous with the scent of lemon flowers and acacias on the sea-salt air." He revealed his habits of cruising for military trade in Los Angeles's port city some miles from the center of town.

A significant part of Los Angeles glbtq history is intertwined with the best known of Los Angeles's cultural and commercial enterprises, the motion picture studios. They were first located close to downtown before they moved to Hollywood and, later, to Culver City and the San Fernando Valley. The studios not only hired many creative gay men and lesbians, including directors and stars, but as the national dream factory they also created for Los Angeles an air of glamour and possibility that attracted many glbtq people from around the country.

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