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social sciences

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New York City  
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White writers and intellectuals frequently made the trip uptown to experience the cultural excitement of black music and nightlife. One such writer was Carl Van Vechten, who as critic, photographer, and novelist, popularized Harlem's cultural explosion. Both Van Vechten and his wife were homosexual. He was the intellectual elite's guide to Harlem night life and cultural salons, and he devoted much of his energies to incorporating black writers, musicians, and artists into New York's cultural life. In that role, he served as a mentor of the poet Langston Hughes, who was probably gay or bisexual.

Many others sought to experience Harlem as an exotic adventure. One scene in The Big Money (1936), the final volume in his U. S. A. trilogy, John Dos Passos shows a young white heterosexual couple on a visit to Harlem dancing with same-sex partners, until they become frightened by the unconventional sexual atmosphere: "Pat [the young woman] was dancing with a pale pretty mulatto girl in a yellow dress. Dick was dancing with a softhanded brown boy in a tightfitting suit the color of his skin. The boy was whispering in Dick's ear that his name was Gloria Swanson . . . ."

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As long as the homosexual subculture was an underground phenomenon, gay men relied on cruising in parks, public restrooms, and the back rows of theaters. In the 1920s, Times Square was bustling with fairies and "go-getters" (female prostitutes) who attracted sailors and other service men.

After the repeal of Prohibition, however, gay bars proliferated all around Times Square, and by the 1950s male hustlers frequently cruised 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. Central Park has always offered numerous opportunities for casual sex, straight and gay. The Rambles, near West 77th Street and Central Park West, has been a cruising ground at least since the 1920s, when it was known as the "The Fruited Plain." It remains so today.

The Cultural Capital of the World: 1940-1968

World War II was a turning point in the emergence of glbtq life in the United States. Many gay men and lesbians discovered their sexual attraction to members of their own sex while living in same-sex environments such as barracks in the armed forces or by working in the wartime factories and living in sex-segregated dormitories and rooming houses.

Gay bars proliferated in the 1940s--including those for lesbians--partly as a response to the wartime mobilization and the hordes of young men and women seeking sexual release before they were shipped overseas or while they were on leave. In the postwar period, the bars helped establish the institutional matrix for a glbtq community life and set the stage for the spectacularly creative queer subculture of the 1950s.

Some time after World War II, New York City emerged as the cultural capital of the world. Lesbians, gay men, and transgendered people migrated to the city from all over the country to explore their aesthetic and sexual desires.

The "queer" moment of the cultural renaissance in the 1950s was centered in New York. Many of the new currents in American classical and popular music, in ballet and modern dance, in drama and musical theater, in painting and architecture, and in poetry and fiction were pioneered by talented gay men, bisexuals, and lesbians such as Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Leonard Bernstein, John Cage, Lincoln Kirstein, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Stephen Sondheim, Lorraine Hansberry, Paul Cadmus, Fairfield Porter, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Thornton Wilder, W.H. Auden, Paul and Jane Bowles, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Paul Goodman, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Philip Johnson, Audre Lorde, Samuel Delany, and William Burroughs.

Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and James Baldwin--all of whom spent time in New York City during the 1940s and the 1950s--wrote a series of widely read novels that explored homosexuality as a dilemma of modern identity. In The City and the Pillar (1948), Gore Vidal portrayed the quest of a young man struggling to come to terms with his sexual desire for other men; Capote in Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) recounted a gothic southern tale of alienation and effeminacy. During the 1950s and 1960s, James Baldwin explored the significance of homosexuality in three novels, all set partly or completely in New York. In Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), he explored the tortured consciousness of a young black preacher with his forbidden desires, while his later novel, set primarily in Paris, Giovanni's Room (1956), directly confronted what it meant to be a homosexual. In Another Country (1963), he explored interrelations between many forms of sexuality and race.

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