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1920s Gay Culture

1920s Gay Culture

In the 1920s, being a member of the LGBTQIA community did not conform to the way of life that mainstream society prescribed. Proscriptions included moral clauses in movie contracts to laws criminalizing LGBTQIA relationships. For this reason, many movie actors, musicians, and other entertainers were forced to comply with the image the employer required, i.e., hide their identity. This resulted in male and female members of the LGBTQIA community entering into "lavender marriages." Concealing any quality that was different from heterosexual hegemony was necessary for most LGBTQIA people who were devoid of equal rights in the 1920s.


A lavender marriage is a union that conceals any "immoral" activity or homosexual relationships from the public.

Homosexuality in the 1920s

Same-sex relationships, while illegal, there was a significant number of the LGBTQIA community in the United States. In the 1920s, there were changes in music, literature, and visual art. The Harlem Renaissance was a significant leap forward for LGBTQIA nightlife. Events were held often. Drag Balls or Civil Balls became popular; for the LGBTQIA community and their allies, the gay nightlife scene thrived–in special places.

LGBTQIA and the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was a time when the LGBTQIA found a nightlife scene that was unique to Harlem. Jazz artists and the LGBTQIA community belonged to an alternative lifestyle that mainstream society rejected. This common trait would bring the two worlds together. Jazz was the preferred music for Harlem Drag Balls, and many who performed would go on to have public careers. The two communities grew together and supported each other.

1920s gay culture A drag ball during the 1920sStudySmarterFig. 1 - A drag ball during the 1920s-

LGBTQIA and the Arts in the 1920s

Many LGBTQIA artists and writers left the United States for France in the early 1920s and only returned when forced to by the outbreak of WWII. Paris, France, in particular, was a center of LGBTQIA artists, writers, and performers through the 1920s. As a result, many LGBTQIA plays and writings in the United States came from Paris.

Solita Solano

One of the most well-known LGBTQIA writers in the 1920s was Solita Solano. She was born in 1888 as Sarah Wilkinson. She married her only husband after her father's death and spent time in the Philippines. However, this marriage did not last and was annulled a few years later when they returned to the United States. She started writing for the New York Tribune as a drama editor and theater critic in 1908. This was when she changed her name to Solita Solano ( which roughly translates as "lonely alone," from the Spanish sola, "alone") as she felt this fit her persona more than Sarah Wilkinson. Eleven years later, she met writer Janet Flanner, and they began a romantic relationship.

1920s Gay Culture Solita Solano StudySmarterFig. 2 - Solita Solano

Édouard Bourdet's The Captive

The famous play The Captive revolves around a love triangle involving a man (Jaques) who believes he is engaged to a woman (Irene) who is in love with another woman (Madame d'Aiguines). Irene attempts to leave Madame d'Aiguines and marry Jaques but returns to Madame d'Aiguines. This play was on Broadway for 160 performances before it was shut down. This well-known quote from the play depicts the struggle of many of the LGBTQIA community within a culture that demands heterosexual marriage to appear appropriately for their biological sex:

a prison to which I must return captive, despite myself."

–Irene, The Captive.

LGBTQIA and The Jazz Age

The Jazz Age was a time of experimentation. The jazz scene and the LGBTQIA community were alternative lifestyles, bringing them together. Jazz singers were uniquely positioned to comment on LGBTQIA and express themselves due to the underground nature of their art.

1920s gay culture jazzing orchestra 1921 StudySmarterFig. 3 - Jazzing orchestra 1921

Gladys Bentley

Several notable LGBTQIA Jazz singers expressed themselves through lyrics and their performance attire. A well-known singer, Gladys Bentley, openly challenged the social norm with her lyrics and attire. She would perform in a black and white tuxedo, expressing her identity and sexuality far beyond what was allowed in mainstream entertainment. Her songs challenged listeners to think about the perks and dangers of complete self-expression critically. She famously performed at the Clam House, a well-known LGBTQIA speakeasy during the 1920s.

1920s gay culture Gladys Bentley StudySmarterFig. 4 - Gladys Bentley circa 1930

Anti-LGBTQ Laws

Most laws and articles criminalizing same-sex relationships were leftovers from the 17th century. These laws did not criminalize identifying oneself as something other than a heterosexual person–i.e., being a member of the LGBTQIA community–but physical relationships were considered a criminal activity, a severe discriminatory practice that criminalized many people.


Additions to the 1916 Articles of War

Adding to article 93 in 1920 of the Articles of War from 1916 designated physical relations between men as a separate crime from assault with intent to have physical relations. This criminalized LGBTQIA relationships by rendering physical relationships or acts between men a crime. This was not reversed until decades later. While this did not criminalize sexuality, Article 93 did ban physical relationships between people of the same sex.

Legislation has long centered on gay men, mainly avoiding mentioning female LGBTQIA relationships.

In 1919 Franklin D Roosevelt, as Assistant Secretary, had begun an operation to determine if men suspected of being homosexual through coercion to commit physical acts by way of investigators planted within the navy. His investigation of "vice and depravity" showed how the mainstream culture saw same-sex relationships as immoral or inherently wrong. As time passed, legislation was specified, and the addition of "effeminate" or "degenerate" traits as grounds to be deemed unfit for service.

1920s gay culture Franklin D Roosevelt StudySmarterFig. 5 - Franklin D. Roosevelt

Laws Regarding Same-Sex Marriage


Work and LGBTQIA Rights

In the United States, anti-discrimination legislation exists. Nonetheless, employers can find workarounds in "right to work" states. If an employer so desires to depend on the size of the company, being faith-based or other designations can enable the unjustified firing of LGBTQ employees.

Obscenity Laws and the LGBTQIA Community

Obscenity laws were a convenient way to limit the LGBTQIA community from having public events, and some LGBTQIA performers had their shows shut down. The U.S. Government established obscenity laws to regulate mailed material; however, it came to include performances, songs, movies, and books. Obscenity laws can be applied with the intent to silence or curb a disfavored segment of society. Traditionally, they were used to censure activities like kissing in films but became the norm for shutting down the freedom of the LGBTQIA community.

1920s Gay Culture - Key Takeaways

  • The 1920s were a time of self-expression through music, art, and writing.
  • In the public eye, the LGBTQIA community was still immoral.
  • The Harlem Jazz scene combined with the LGBTQIA movement as they both were alternative cultures to mainstream America.
  • The U.S. Government commonly used obscenity laws to censor LGBTQIA topics in cinema, music, and theater.

Frequently Asked Questions about 1920s Gay Culture

LGBTQIA people want to have the same rights as everyone: marry, adopt, and have the same allowances made for heterosexual couples in terms of taxes, etc.

LGBTQ rights are the pursuit of basic civil rights for the members of the LGBTQ community.

Anti-same-sex physical relations laws were not repealed in any US states until the 1960s. 

In the United States, they have the right to marry. However, they are subject to persecution in education and self-identifying at work, among other ways of exclusion. While these are not explicit terms in most states workarounds of anti-discrimination legislation are possible. 

Final 1920s Gay Culture Quiz

Question

What rights do LGBTQ want?

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Answer

To have the rights and liberties as other Americans

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Question

What are LGBTQ rights?

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Answer

The campaign for basic human rights and employment protection for the LGBTQIA+ community.

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Question

What does LGBTQIA+ stand for?


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Answer

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, questioning, intersex, asexual and the + is any other way someone may identify

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Question

How did the Articles of War target gay men?

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Answer

The intention of having physical relationships with men became it's own crime.

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Question

How did the Harlem Renaissance relate to the LGBTQIA+ community?

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Answer

Jazz and the LGBTQIA+ community were both outsiders from societal norms. This shared status enabled both groups to associate with eachother.

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Question

Why was male homosexuality demonized more than female homosexuality?

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Answer

Women at the time were seen as easily influenced and the foundation of proper society was men adhering to societal norms for men.

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Question

What was a lavender marriage?

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Answer

A heterosexual marriage arranged to protect public images and adhere to morality clauses.

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What was a Drag Ball or Civil Ball?

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Answer

A large social gathering of LGBTQIA+ individuals as well as Jazz musicians that was a safe space for their sexual orientation.

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Question

What was one solution for same-sex couples who could not marry?

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Answer

Living as roommates was socially acceptable, and being a bachelor was a recognized and respected way of life.

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