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social sciences

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New York City  
 
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Among the well-known "fairy" resorts of the day were Columbia Hall, characterized by a contemporaneous police officer as a "well-known resort for male prostitutes," Manilla Hall, and Little Bucks in the Bowery. On Bleecker Street there was the Black Rabbit, a lesbian hangout, and the Slide, a notoriously sleazy dive (where a bar still operates in the same space). Walhalla Hall, a social club on the Lower East Side, was a popular working class club; it frequently held dances that were attended by same-sex couples. Webster Hall on East 11th Street (where dances, rock concerts, raves, and special events like the Gay Erotic Expo still take place) was a popular site of dances and costume balls.

The housing in immigrant communities, such as those on the Lower East Side, often lacked hot water and bathing facilities. Since many tenements did not have running water, public bathhouses were widely used by working class and poor people in New York City. Turkish and Russian baths, modeled on institutions that existed in those countries, often tolerated homosexual men--and, in some instances, eventually catered exclusively to homosexual men. Mount Morris Baths in Harlem, which is still in existence, is the longest continuously operating bathhouse in New York City, as well as being the only one to admit blacks until the 1960s.

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Throughout most of the nineteenth century, living outside the family was not a viable option for most women. But by the 1890s, "mannish" women had begun to gather in the public places in the Bowery that fairies also frequented--the Slide, Walhalla Hall, and Paresis Hall.

Later during the same decade, a controversial play opened that showed a masculine woman who cursed, smoked on stage, and tried to seduce the other female characters. The play, A. C. Gunter's A Florida Enchantment (1896), did not explicitly identify the main character as a lesbian-- her masculinity was the result of "magic"--nevertheless it seemed to suggest that lesbianism and feminism were connected.

In Gay American History, Jonathan Ned Katz published the stories of many American women who lived and passed as men. One of the most famous passing women in New York history was Murray Hall, who lived as man for more than a quarter of a century. Hall, a prominent politician, had been twice married to women, neither of whom revealed her secret. After she died--from breast cancer--the New York Times, on January 19, 1901, wrote that "she even had a reputation as a man about town, a bon vivant, and all around good fellow."

Also by the 1890s, it became increasingly easier for women, especially middle-class educated women, to live outside the patriarchal family. It also became possible for women to live together as lifetime partners. For example, Alice Austen lived on Staten Island with Gertrude Tate, her companion of forty years. Austen is now known for her photographs of the women in her close-knit, exclusively female social circle. Many of these women were educated professionals who engaged in teaching, social services, and social reform.

Greenwich Village and Harlem, 1914-1939

By the 1920s new centers of gay life had developed in Greenwich Village, the bohemian neighborhood just below 14th Street on the west side of Manhattan, where sexual unconventionality mixed with artistic and bohemian styles, and in Harlem, where blues singers, jazz musicians, and black writers and intellectuals accepted lesbianism, homosexuality, and other kinds of unconventional sexual behavior.

Homosexual writers and poets found some comfort in the bohemian circles of the Village. The Little Review, one of the pioneering literary journals in the years between World War I and the early 1920s, was published by Margaret Anderson and her lover Jane Heap, from a brownstone in Greenwich Village. James Joyce's Ulysses was first published in The Little Review, which then became the target of censorship by the Society for the Suppression of Vice and the United States Postal Service. It was while living in the Village during the early 1920s that Hart Crane began to write his great book-length poem The Bridge.

Greenwich Village was also the home of a feminist organization called Heterodoxy that met for biweekly lunches up until 1940. The club was for "unorthodox" women and included feminists, writers, social reformers, socialists, and advocates of "free love." At least 24 of its 110 members were lesbians.

By the 1920s, Harlem had become a flourishing enclave of jazz and gay life. The Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of modern black literature and the arts, included a number of homosexual or bisexual figures, including the writers Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Langston Hughes.

Some of Harlem's most prominent musical performers, such as Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, George Hanna, Moms Mabley, Mabel Hampton, Ma Rainey, and Ethel Waters were also bisexual or homosexual. Gladys Bentley, a cross-dressing butch lesbian, like other homosexual performers frequently incorporated homosexual slang, such as "sissy" and "bulldagger" into her songs, as in the lyric "If you can't bring me a woman, bring me a sissy man."

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