Today, most Americans imagine sexuality in binary terms- gay or straight. It is hard for us to imagine a world that did not include these two ways of imagining sexual aspirations, but in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries it was much more complicated than that. In these times, gender played a much bigger role in defining a person’s sexual aspirations and a ‘third gender’ played a major role in the creations of the modern ideas of sexuality, homosexuality, and heterosexuality.
In the late-nineteenth century a same-sex subculture developed in urban areas and became increasingly visible. Following industrialization and commercialization, many Americans lived in urban areas. These urban areas included a very visible working class that had their own neighborhoods, cultures, traditions, and norms. Most members of the urban working class lived in tenements or small apartments that allotted them little privacy. In addition, they needed somewhere to go after the working day with space to move about and socialize. The perfect place for this was the saloons. A good case study for this is the Bowery neighborhood of New York City. By the end of the 1800s, the Bowery was slum area that had rampant prostitution. In addition, many bars catering to gays and lesbians popped up in the city. In these such places (for example, The Slide) a very present gay subculture appeared. A major characteristic of these such places was the presence of ‘inverts’/’fairies’- what we could consider today as drag queens. Many gay men entered the scene by dressing as women and asserted that they were truly women born with male anatomical parts. These men wore women’s clothes, powdered their faces, and engaged in sexual activity with men.
The fairies represented a ‘third gender’ of sorts that was fully acknowledged in the working class neighborhoods. The fairies were neither male or female, but rather a combination of both. While they were born males, they asserted that they were women in every other sense; They used higher-pitched voices, dressed like women, acted like women, and were attracted to men. Essentially, through the emergence of the fairy, the gay scene started to carve out a social life. The fairies were ever present in the many resort saloons in the working class neighborhoods of urban areas. They provided for entertainment by dancing and socializing, and received a commission on the drinks purchased on a given night. One aspect of this social life were the largely-attended Drag Balls. Hundreds of people attended these balls and the guest couples included couples of women and couple of men. In MP, Dr. La Forest Potter described a such drag ball and mentions that there is, “the greatest possible tolerance shown for almost anything- short of murder…” (MP, 346). At the drag balls, men dressed as women, women dressed as men, and there was a general sense of anything goes. The high level of tolerance allowed for a real flourishing of culture in these urban areas.
While tolerance was a key feature in the drag balls, it was not necessarily the case for the fairies within most of mainstream society. A fairy could rarely dress in their feminine outfits in public. If they did, they ran the risk of being arrested or beaten up. The fairies were easy targets for gangs who controlled the streets in the working class neighborhoods. In addition, many men would have sexual encounters with the fairies and then beat them up or rob them afterward as a sign of distance and dominance. The very fact that straight men engaged in sexual relations with fairies is a point of interest in the subculture. At this time in history, your gender superseded your sexual desires. This meant that straight men could have sexual encounters with fairies, whom they regarded as feminine, as long as they played the male role and were the ones who penetrated. This all added to the idea of fairies as a “third sex”, and the men did not see themselves as having sex with another man. In addition, many fairies were likened to female prostitutes, both in the way that they approached men for sex (sometimes they were paid) and in their actions (ex. oral sex). Chauncey regards the relations between men and fairies as a, “mixture of tolerance, desire, and contempt…” (60) all of which mixed in with the mainstream culture and subcultures of the working class.
If all of this was occurring in the working class, what was the mindset of the middle class? In the class structure, often when one culture is carved out, another culture must define itself by contradicting it. In this way, middle class men defined themselves as manly and family oriented. That is not to say that working class men did not- the sailors, construction workers, etc. tended to protrude very manly characteristics- but middle class men tended to distance themselves from the traditions of the working class in many ways. They did however go downtown for rendezvous with fairies, but it occurred in the context of a ‘double life’. As for middle class women, ‘slumming’ was essentially a right of passage as described in Chauncey. Women would often go downtown to resorts in the Bowery or Tenderloin for a night to enjoy what MP calls “encounters with the sexual other” (337).
The emergence of an active gay (sub)culture in the working urban districts in the late nineteenth century changes the typical assumption about the emergence of homosexuality. Prior to this cultures rise, men and women were in separate spheres and the determinant factor in defining a person was gender. Eventually, the sexual identity, whether it be homo or hetero would supersede gender in the definition of a person’s sexuality. It reminds us that if the idea of homosexuality was ‘invented’ as a historical phenomenon, so too was heterosexuality. In the context of a world ever changing, it is important to remember that that historical phenomenon is still in progress.
MP, Chapter 10 and Chauncey’s Gay New York (Part 1)