How Gay Culture Grew in the Roaring Twenties

On a Friday night in February 1926, 1,500 people jammed New York City’s Harlem neighborhood’s Renaissance Casino for Hamilton Lodge’s 58th masquerade and civic ball.

According to the New York Age, over half of those there looked to be “guys of the type often known as ‘fairies,’ and numerous Bohemians from the Greenwich Village district who…in their exquisite evening dresses, wigs, and powdered faces were difficult to identify from many of the women.”

The custom of masquerade and civil balls, sometimes known as drag balls, started in 1869 inside Hamilton Lodge, a black fraternal organization centered in Harlem. By the mid-1920s, at the height of the Prohibition era, they were attracting as many as 7,000 individuals of diverse races and socioeconomic classes—gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and straight alike.

Stonewall (1969) is usually recognized as the start of the homosexual rights movement’s upward trajectory. However, more than 50 years earlier, Harlem’s legendary drag balls were part of a vibrant, highly visible LGBTQ nightlife and culture that would eventually be absorbed into mainstream American society in inconceivable ways.

A portrait of a couple, circa 1920s. – Paul Hartnett/PYMCA/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The Beginning of a New Gay World

“In the late nineteenth century, there was an increasingly visible presence of gender-nonconforming men engaged in sexual relationships with other men in major American cities,” says Chad Heap, professor of American Studies at George Washington University and author of Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940.

In addition to these “male sex perverts,” as social reformers referred to them in the early 1900s, a number of nightclubs and theaters featured stage performances by female impersonators; these establishments were primarily located in Chicago’s South Side’s Levee District, New York City’s Bowery, and other predominantly working-class neighborhoods in American cities.

By the 1920s, homosexual men had established a presence in Harlem and Greenwich Village (along with the seedier surrounds of Times Square), while Harlem and the Village had become the city’s first lesbian communities. According to George Chauncey’s book Homosexual New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, each gay enclave had a particular class and ethnic character, cultural style, and public reputation.

A 1927 illustration of three transgender women and a man dancing at a nightclub. – Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

A Gay Man’s Life in the Jazz Age

Following World War I, the United States entered an age of unparalleled economic development and prosperity, cultural mores were liberalized, and a new spirit of sexual freedom flourished. The flapper would become the most iconic emblem of the Roaring Twenties, her reputation spreading through the new mass media developed during that decade, with her short hair, figure-skimming clothes, and ever-present cigarette and drink. However, the establishment of a robust LGBTQ nightlife and culture in the 1920s moved beyond cities, throughout the country, and into average American families.

Though New York City was the focus of the “Pansy Craze,” gay, lesbian, and transgender artists adorned the stages of nightclubs around the country. Their audiences included both heterosexual men and women wishing to immerse themselves in the culture (and have a good time) and regular LGBTQ Americans hoping to broaden their social networks or meet love or sexual partners.

“It opened up many more possibilities for them to meet other individuals like themselves,” Heap says of the 1920s Pansy Mania and concomitant lesbian or Sapphic craze. “At its peak, when many ordinary heterosexual men and women went to places with gay entertainment, it undoubtedly also offered good cover for queer men and women to travel to the same locations.”

Simultaneously, lesbian and homosexual characters appeared in a deluge of popular “pulp” novels, musicals, and on Broadway stages (notably the problematic 1926 play The Captive) and in Hollywood—at least until 1934, when the motion picture industry began imposing the Hays Code censorship restrictions. Clara Bow’s 1932 film Call Her Savage, in which a short sequence includes a couple of “campy male comedians” at a Greenwich Village-style nightspot, is cited by Heap. On the radio, songs like “Masculine Women, Feminine Men” and “Let’s All Be Fairies” were popular.

The popularity of LGBTQ nightlife and culture was not restricted to metropolitan populations during this time period. Occasionally, stories about drag balls or other acts were picked up by wire services or carried on local radio. “They can be found in surprising places,” Heap adds of certain media articles.

A cross-dresser being taken away in a police van for dressing like a woman, circa 1939. – Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

The “Pansy Craze” Has Passed

With the repeal of Prohibition, the advent of the Great Depression, and the outbreak of World War II, LGBTQ culture and community began to go out of favor. The backlash, according to Chauncey, began in the 1930s as “part of a larger Depression-era criticism of the cultural experimentation of the 1920s, which many blamed for the economic collapse.”

Although the selling of alcoholic drinks was legalized again, newly passed rules and regulations prohibited restaurants and bars from employing or serving LGBT clientele. According to Heap, a surge of sensationalized sex crimes “provoked panic over sex offenders, who were often—in the minds of the public and authorities—equated with homosexual men” in the mid- to late-1930s.

This “made homosexuality appear more harmful to the typical American” and discouraged gay men from participating in public life.

A greater societal change toward early marriage and suburban living, the arrival of television, and Joseph McCarthy’s anti-homosexuality crusades would all help put the Pansy Craze’s blooming of gay culture firmly into the nation’s rearview mirror by the post-World War II era.

Drag balls, and the spirit of freedom and exuberance they symbolized, were never fully gone, but it would be decades before LGBTQ life blossomed in such public.


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