Queer Bronzeville : An Overview
Text by Tristan Cabello. Copyright (©) by Tristan Cabello, 2008. All rights reserved.
THE HISTORY OF AFRICAN AMERICAN GAYS AND LESBIANS ON CHICAGO'S SOUTH SIDE
PART 1: The Emergence of Queer Networks in Bronzeville (1900-1940)
In 1920s Bronzeville, Chicago’s African American neighborhood, a visible and well-accepted queer subculture emerged. 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, The First Church of Deliverance, Washington Park, Jackson Park), and a “vice district” which facilitated prostitution.
Homosexuality was quietly accommodated. Bronzeville’s most powerful inhabitants (Reverend Clarence Cobb, Reverend Mary G. Evans, and possibly Louise Smith Collier) 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 homo-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 tolerated. For example, Lorenzo Banyard, a Cabin Inn drag entertainer, remembers riding streetcars to the West Side, dressed in drag, without incident. Professional drag entertainers were indeed respected because of their relatively well-paying jobs, which often enabled them to provide for their families’ needs.
PART 2: The Making of Bronzeville's Queer Culture (1940-1955)
The Second World War’s led to the emergence of a segregated African American queer subculture in Bronzeville. The migration of homosexuals to Chicago gave rise to an increase of North Side gay bars from which Blacks were often excluded. Therefore, by the mid-forties, most of Bronzeville’s former homo-friendly nightclubs had become exclusively African American gay clubs (example: The Kitty Kat Club).
However, Bronzeville’s upper class, seeking to improve the collective fate of African Americans by inculcating middle-class values among them led many gays and lesbians to be careful about acting on their sexuality, or to limit their sexual relationships to other cities. For example, Reverend Cobb started giving homophobic sermons in the mid-forties but was known to have gay sexual partners in many other cities.
Working-class African American gays were ridiculed in the press and harassed in bars for their transgression of gender roles, rambunctious house parties and participation in public sex.
PART 3: Civil Rights and Gay Identities in Bronzeville (1955-1970)
During the Civil Rights movement, African American gay men participated in several organizations that tolerated their sexuality if they were closeted, while African American lesbians who participated in several women’s organization were accepted on the basis of their sexuality. Some Black gay males had responsabilities in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Community and the Congress of Racial Equality. Many lesbians participated in the Chicago Women’s Liberation Movement.
Several male artists such as musician Billy Strayhorn or writer Williard Motley lived closeted lives. However, Lorraine Hansberry and Gwendolyn Brookes were more open about their sexuality. This discrimination led many African American gay men to migrate to the North Side while many African American lesbians remained on the South Side, explaining the development of African American lesbian bars, such as Maxine’s, in the 1960s.
PART 4: Gay Liberation in Bronzeville (1970-1980)
During the 1970s, in spite of their increasing visibility and political organization, African American gays and lesbians were less accepted on both the South Side and in white-dominated gay circles. In March 1978, Ouida Lindsey, a popular WFLD prime time talk show host, interviewed several African American gay men about the challenges of being African American and gay.
At the same time, the Chicago Gay Liberation had gained media and cultural exposure in spite of on-going tensions between lesbians and gay men, and between Black homosexuals and their white counterparts. A Women’s Caucus and a Black Caucus, which later became The Chicago Lesbian Liberation and The Third World Gay Revolution, formed within the Chicago Gay Liberation to address the specific concerns of lesbians and Black gay men.
By the early 1980s, three African American gay groups had developed: National Coalition of Black Gays – Chicago Chapter (NCBG), Gentle Waves (Chicago’s Black Lesbian group) and the Committee of Black Gay Men.
PART 5: AIDS, Black Politics and The Making of a Black Gay Community (1980-1985)
In spite of their quick response to the AIDS crisis, African American gay activists were widely ignored by African American media in their efforts to prevent HIV infections.
Upon the Chicago Black Gay Christian Conference, on December 10th 1982, David Wright, president of the NCBG – Chicago Chapter, began offering HIV education and prevention to Chicago’s African American gay community. In 1983, Foster’s, a popular gay bar, agreed to have four workshops on HIV. Later that year, activist Richard Gray and Henry Martin, owner of Martin’s Den, another gay bar, announced a series of workshops entitled “HIV and Health in the Gay Community.” Although the African American gay community of Chicago had decided to deal with the AIDS crisis, African American media turned a blind eye to their action.
As a result, on September 20th 1983, NCBG announced that the Chicago Department of Health presented a case of discrimination against lesbians and gays by the local media and Operation Push. The Chicago Defender and Chicago Metro News, both African American newspapers, had indeed refused to publish news releases submitted over the past four months concerning local African American lesbian and gay community response to the AIDS crisis.
About the Author
Tristan Cabello is a historian of Twentieth Century America and Western Europe. He studies the workings of gender, race, sexuality and citizenship in urban environments.
Born and raised in Paris (France), Tristan lived in Belgium, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States before receiving his B.A. and M.A. in American Studies at the Université Marc Bloch of Strasbourg, France. He is a Chercheur Associé in the Centre Interdisciplinaire de Rercherches Nord-Américaines at the Université Denis Diderot - Paris VII. He taught at Kalamazoo College, The University of Chicago and Northwestern University.
Tristan contributed to the International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, The Encyclopedia of Blacks in Europe, The Encyclopedia of American Reformism and The Encycopledia of Movies and American Culture. He presented his research at conferences organized by the Collegium for African American Research, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association, the Organization of American Historians and gave talks at Purdue University, Loyola University, Southern Illinois University and the Gerber/Hart Library in Chicago. His latest article is available in the anthology Dissidence and Plural Identities.
He is currently completing his Ph.D in History at Northwestern University in Chicago, IL. His dissertation, entitled "Bronzeville in the Life: Urban Boundaries, Race and Homosexuality in Black Chicago, 1935-1985) explores the history of African American gays and lesbians on the South Side of Chicago from 1935 to 1985.
He can be contacted here.