Lesbian Notions – Gay L.A. All the Way

One of the perks of being a “nationally syndicated columnist,” which is my newest personal brand, is getting books in the mail to review.
  As the latest volume slipped out of its padded envelope, I saw “sexual outlaws, power politics, and lipstick lesbians” set in small caps across the middle of the cover. Mmmmm, this book is for me. Gay L.A.: A History of… (insert those three descriptors that caught my attention here), written by award-winning historians Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, turns on its ear the notion that the lesbian and gay movement started in any one particular city.
  L.A.’s gay roots go way beyond the emergence of Hollywood in the 1920s. We need to go all the way back before California was a state, before we were even a nation, and we find the male native Americans who inhabited these lands to be quite fluid in their sexuality.
  California’s name came from Hernan Cortes, the explorer who discovered the tract of land now known as the Golden State. It seems that Cortes was taken with the 15th-century “protolesbian tale,” as the authors put it, about a mythical isle called California, where Queen Califia lived among strong, butch women. Just like in the Amazonia legend, Califia’s women “waged bloody war on other lands, killing most of the males but carrying a few so that they might copulate with them for the sake of procreation.”
  For some reason, Cortes put that myth together with this new land and wrote “California” across the map of what was to become North America. The name stuck, but the legend – like those of most who come and go in this town known for making legends – faded into obscurity until Faderman and Timmons connected their gay dots.
  It wasn’t until Hollywood happened, with its star-making quality, that L.A. and gay really started to become synonymous. We flocked to this city of creativity and make-believe because we could do just that – create and make believe we could be whatever we wanted, wherever and with whomever.
  If only that was totally true. When it comes to the relationship between the community and the notorious LAPD…well, let’s just say it wasn’t a Hollywood love story.
   “The LAPD in the years after WWII and into the 1960s was really particularly vicious in regard to lesbians and gay men,” Faderman told me in a recent interview. “The police hired Hollywood rejects – handsome young men looking to break into the movie industry – who would then go to the places gay men cruised, hang out, strike up conversations, and then the handcuffs would come out, and the gays would be arrested.”
  It wasn’t only gay men who were victimized by the cops. “Butch women had a hard time, too,” said Faderman. “They were very often arrested for ‘masquerading.’” What is this “masquerading”? Being butch and dressing that way. It seems that there was a law on the books, in response to how outrageous the puritanical city fathers thought things were getting, that men couldn’t be seen in public in women’s clothes, and women couldn’t don men’s clothes either.
  Reading this, I was disgusted by how those we pay taxes to for protection – in a city, the police, for the nation, the armed forces – victimize our community. While “don’t ask, don’t tell” is still in place, the LAPD has changed its tune to some degree. Now they’re recruiting us to their ranks – us meaning lesbians and gays; transgender people need not apply.
  “The West Hollywood sheriff’s department really wants lesbian and gay folks,” explained Faderman. “But on the other hand, I read about a trans person who supported herself by prostitution. The police would take her in the back alley practically every night and rape her.”
  As someone who grew up in L.A., Faderman seems to be particularly proud of the lesbian and gay firsts of her native city. Honestly, these were things I never knew. I always considered Stonewall to be the “start” – that is, after all, what we celebrate every June.
  In 1947, for example, the first lesbian magazine, Vice Versa, was started in L.A. A few years later, the Mattachine Society was born – the child of Harry Hay. Ten years before the Stonewall Riots, drag queens and hustlers in downtown L.A. took to the streets to protest the LAPD’s consistent harassment of them at their hangout, Cooper Donuts. In 1968, Troy Perry founded the first gay church, the Metropolitan Community Church, and in ‘71 lesbian and gay Jews had a welcoming place to worship at the nation’s first gay synagogue, Beth Chaim Chadashim.
  “With L.A., there were all these incredible firsts,” said Faderman. “It’s sort of incredible that no one has observed that before, and no one has tried to make a history out of it.” Until now, that is.
  This book is a great read that is both entertaining and educational. The nonfiction addict that I am, Gay L.A. gave me my fix of facts and fun that kept me turning the pages. I really wanted to know what happened next. I can’t wait until we all write the next chapters as we continue to tear down the barriers to our freedom.
Libby Post is the founding chair of the Empire State Pride Agenda and a political commentator on public radio, on the Web, and in print media. She can be reached at LesbianNotions@qsyndicate.com.

Libby Post

Libby Post is the founding chair of the Empire State Pride Agenda and a political commentator on public radio, on the Web, and in print media.

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