THE BLOG
12/09/2014 02:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Dark Ages of Queerdom

During World War II a butch woman named "Bernie" worked at Mare Island Naval Base, about 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. Returning home from work one night, she was arrested and charged with vagrancy despite the employee identification she was wearing on her cap and jacket. The next morning a judge sentenced her to six months in prison, suspended "on condition you leave Vallejo within twenty-four hours. We don't want your kind in California." Back home in Wyoming, "Bernie" tried to commit suicide by driving 24 miles on the wrong side of the road, in the dead of night, drunk. It was such a rural area that she didn't meet a single car, though, and therefore survived to tell me her story.

For my graduate research I interviewed "Bernie" and other lesbians about their lives in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. Their stories have haunted me since. These stories, and the experiences of gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people told to me by friends and friends of friends, are woven throughout my first novel, Blackmail, My Love, an illustrated noir mystery just published by Cleis Press. Also in the novel are stories I made up -- because I knew they happened, and I needed to hear them. Many of these tales are tragic, but they also include dazzlingly creative acts of resistance. That's what I most wanted to explore in this novel: What was it like for our queer ancestors who believed everything people said about us in the 1950s, and how was it possible that some of them managed to believe none of it?

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Sen. Joseph McCarthy's "pervert inquiry" flourished amid the national glare of flashbulbs; Sen. Kenneth Wherry declared, "You can't hardly separate homosexuals from subversives"; and Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield's crusade against "pornographic filth in the family mailbox" made some recipients of mail with homoerotic content subjects of FBI surveillance. The term that dominated the era -- besides, of course, the slur "queer" -- was the noun "degenerate." That word also functions as a verb that means, literally, to decline or deteriorate, to lose physical, mental, and moral properties. Every time the word "degenerates" was used, we were reminded that we were, perhaps inevitably, coming undone. The writing of the time certainly enforced this belief: From respectable literature to pulp fiction, by the last page queers generally ended up dead or insane. The film industry's production code more or less required that we end up dead or insane.

And yet mid-century America was also a time of bold and brave acts of resistance. San Francisco had more queer bars then than it has today. Even though a few drinks with friends could land us in jail and our names in the newspaper, we flocked to bars, where we formed cultures and identities that laid the groundwork for the rights we are claiming today. Much of our queer slang, such as "friends of Dorothy," comes from the era. "Are you a friend of Dorothy?" would sound perfectly innocuous to those not in the know. A reply of "Dorothy who?" would alert you to tread carefully, while a reply of "We're bosom buddies!" would assure you that you may have found one of your own. The phrase is such a gentle weapon of self-defense, it seems to me, crafted in the context of extreme, legally and medically sanctioned homophobia.

The era also saw resistance in the form of gender crossing of many kinds. A fictional character based on legendary drag performer José Sarria appears in Blackmail, My Love, performing an incendiary monologue about Alfred Kinsey at the Black Cat Cafe.

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The real José ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961, making him the first openly gay candidate for public office in the U.S., and throughout his life José displayed extraordinary elegance and wit in his acts of resistance. My favorite story: In San Francisco and cities throughout the U.S., Halloween was the one night of the year when men wearing dresses were generally immune from arrest, but police cracked down at the stroke of midnight, routinely arresting "wagonloads" of men. José learned that the statute justifying these arrests prohibited "wearing clothing of the opposite sex with intent to deceive." So he got some felt, glue, and safety pins. He cut out felt patches in the shape of a black cat, wrote the words, "I am a boy" on them, glued pins to the back, and passed them out among patrons of the Black Cat. The police backed off: protection from arrest by means of felt, glue, scissors, and safety pins.

The narrative of Blackmail, My Love follows Josie O'Conner as she stumbles off a bus in downtown San Francisco to find her brother Jimmy, who's gone missing. Jimmy was working as a cop until he was thrown off the force under murky circumstances and became a private detective. When he disappeared, he was investigating a blackmail ring targeting queers -- a common thing in mid-century America, because we couldn't turn to the police for help. Josie adopts not only his investigation but his wingtips and his trousers: Josie becomes Joe. This gender flexibility enables the character to move between the demimonde of the queer underground and the upper crust of society, in a sense using society's gender rigidity as shield and sword. While the term "transgender" wasn't available at the time, gender-variant and gender-nonconforming individuals such as "Bernie" and José were consistently at the forefront of claiming the public space in which queer communities coalesced.

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There were many more humble, everyday acts of resistance that buoyed hearts, built camaraderie, and nourished courage. This excerpt from Blackmail, My Love was inspired by a true story told to me by a 70-year-old man who had spent time in queer bars in the 1950s. Joe is at the Black Cat when the cops stroll in:

Lights flickered, the room froze. I poised to sprint toward what I hoped would be a back door, but nobody moved. Two policemen swaggered in, sneering. One was tall, the other taller, and both walked like they owned the place. Their belts, oversized charm bracelets, dangled nightsticks, handcuffs, and holsters. As they strolled to the bar, those on the first few stools decamped hastily. The bartender pulled an envelope from under the cash register. The tall cop slid it into his breast pocket, then ordered two beers. The taller cop pointed to a spot high on the wall and said loudly, "Our glasses." The bartender reached for two tumblers set apart on the top shelf and poured their drinks. The room was subdued and tense while they drank. Then they swaggered out like they'd swaggered in. The entire place exhaled as the bartender bellowed, "Time to wash 'our glasses,'" and a stampede ensued. By the time I reached the alley a crowd circled the two tumblers. I peered between shoulders. Six men, flies unzipped, peed into the glasses as urine spilled over like frothy champagne.

You'll find more about Blackmail, My Love at katiegilmartin.com.