Talk to the gals just like any old man
July 12, 2013 3:28 PM   Subscribe

Singing the Lesbian Blues in 1920s Harlem.
In Jazz Age speakeasies, dive bars, and private parties, blue singers had the freedom to explore alternative sexuality, and on a rare occasion, they even expressed it in song.
posted by immlass (11 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
That's really interesting, but there was one line in it which gave me pause:
They even lived together, a very disreputable act at the time, which Waters managed to keep out of all 20th century biographies about herself.
That is so utterly and completely wrong that it makes me a little suspicious about the rest of the piece. Single women could, and did, live together without the faintest whiff of scandal in the C19th and C20th. It was extremely common, in fact, for unmarried women to pool their resources and share the expenses of an apartment or a house. If you watch Hollywood movies of the 20s and 30s, the young secretaries/chorus girls/shopgirls etc. nearly always share their apartments with one or more other unmarried young girls. The assumption, of course, was that you were only doing this while you "waited" for a man to offer marriage; but it was also common and completely unscandalous for women who received no such offers to continue sharing a home with another woman or women. No doubt some of these "spinsters" sharing houses were also occasionally sharing beds, but there's no particular reason to assume it in any given case.
posted by yoink at 4:05 PM on July 12, 2013 [12 favorites]

At any rate that map is pretty damn interesting. Anyone want to take a crack at current map of Williamsburg? Not to sell to tourists or anything..
posted by Ad hominem at 4:22 PM on July 12, 2013

Yeah, the map is truly amazing--on all kinds of levels.
posted by yoink at 4:31 PM on July 12, 2013

yoink, the only way I could read that that made any sense was by "lived together", the author meant living together openly as lovers, for exactly the reason you describe. But it's not a clear or well-written sentence if that's what the author meant.
posted by immlass at 4:33 PM on July 12, 2013

the only way I could read that that made any sense was by "lived together", the author meant living together openly as lovers

I thought about that, but if they "lived together openly as lovers" it wouldn't really be plausible that she could keep the fact "out of all 20th century biographies about herself."
posted by yoink at 4:54 PM on July 12, 2013

I am curious about the legal prosecution of lesbians. I went to a lecture recently on gay culture in the 20s and 30s in Toronto, and the historian talked about the legal prosecution of men for sodomy or gross indecency. But for much of history women have not been prosecuted (not because they were more approved of, but because law makers couldn't imagine sex without a penis). They were prosecuted for cross-dressing (had to have three articles of women's clothing in Canada).
posted by jb at 4:58 PM on July 12, 2013

because law makers couldn't imagine sex without a penis

Really? I mean, I've heard the old urban legend about Queen Victoria to this effect, but I've never seen a scrap of evidence to suggest that any part of it was more than an urban legend. C18th and C19th porn is full of lesbian sex; no one seemed to have the slightest difficulty in understanding how it might work. I just think that, by and large, they didn't regard it as threatening--certainly not nearly so much so as gay male sex.
posted by yoink at 5:04 PM on July 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

My reading has been largely on 16-18th century cross dressing women, some of whom also had romantic relationships with women - and they weren't being prosecuted legally the same way a man would for sodomy, unless they committed another crime (eg marrying under false pretences).

But I think the laws changed in the 19th and 20th centuries, and I'm curious as to what they were later. (Yes, I could look this up, but I was hoping someone might just know).
posted by jb at 8:21 PM on July 12, 2013

Also, no prohibition against lesbian sex in the bible.
posted by jb at 8:21 PM on July 12, 2013

I really really wanted that film, "T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s," to be good, because it's such an interesting topic. But it's just awful filmmaking, the worst blend of boring talking heads sitting in front of bookshelves, bad narration, and not enough of what it's trying to talk about--music.
posted by goatdog at 9:24 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, speaking from personal experience in the 1970s and early 80s in Massachusetts, a woman not wearing at least 2 pieces of female attire could be (and I was) arrested for "gross public indecency" or impersonation.

More frequent was the threat of arrest accompanied by a severe beating (broken ribs, in my case) and being rolled for all the money in my wallet when they demanded my ID. And, oh yes, reporting me to the administration of my women's college. Fortunately, as an an elected coordinator of the Lesbian Alliance, that didn't get much traction at the school.

Given this was all happening to a young white elite college student after Stonewall, I can only imagine what women of color in the teens through the 30s were afraid of.
posted by Dreidl at 6:08 PM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

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