“In Washington, D.C., racial privilege combined with class and gender privilege, enabled white middle-class gay men to dominate the sexual geography of most of the city and to do so without having to question their right to control this landscape.”
A Queer Capital by Genny Beemyn is a meticulously researched history of queer culture in Washington, D.C. from the late 1800s to the mid 1990s. Beemyn examines the intersections of race, class, gender and sexual orientation and how they changed with historical events like World War II and the witch-hunts under Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Rooted firmly in the geography of the capital city, Beemyn maps the public parks, bars and theatres that were safe havens for people pursuing same-sex partners. The Showboat, Carroll Tavern, Mayflower Hotel, and the Horseshoe were places where men pursuing other men could meet without the watchful eye of the police.
Divided into six chronologically arranged chapters, Beemyn begins with excerpts from the diaries of Carter Bealer, a white middle-class man who, remarkably, kept detailed accounts of his sexual activity. Bealer started keeping a diary in 1912, and four years later recounted his first sexual encounter with another man. He describes “cruising” men in Lafayette Square and other public spaces which were under surveillance by the police. Each encounter risked being arrested for “indecent exposure” or “indecent assault” and the humiliation of being outed as a “deviant.”
Because no first-hand accounts of black men who were “in the life” from that time exists, Beemyn draws on other accounts to illustrate the difficulties of navigating racially segregated public spaces. While Bealer’s diaries are historically invaluable, he himself was racist and avoided any kind of interracial contact.
While white social spaces tended to be male only, with many venues openly denying admittance to women, especially those who were unaccompanied by a man, black social spaces tended to be more communal and inclusive. In winte,r when cruising in the park became impossible, it went indoors to vaudeville houses and burlesque theatres. It was also safer to be inside, away from the eyes of the police. In 1892, 18 men, the majority of whom were black, were arrested for same-sex activities in Washington’s public parks.
The history of police presence, social condemnation and political policy is recorded using both police records and personal accounts. Beemyn goes to great lengths to explore the different factors that affected the personal lives of anyone who pursued same-sex relationships. The interplay of events like Prohibition, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement and the way both black and white news outlets reacted to events are examined.
Beemyn also recounts the history of the YMCA as a gay community space. Established in London in 1844 The Young Men’s Christian Association was formed to provide “spiritual and moral refuge offering Bible classes, prayer meetings, reading rooms and respectable housing registries,” but it rapidly became a meeting place for men looking for same-sex sexual activities. It was also regularly raided by the vice squad, which was omnipresent and given to sweeping raids.
In the chapter titled “Sentiments Expressed Here Would Be Misconstrued By Others: The Same-sex Sexual Lives of Washington’s Black Elite in the Early Twentieth Century” Beemyn documents the advent of respectability politics and investigates the lives of four leading black figures in particular: philosopher cultural critic Alain Leroy Locke, educators Mary Powell Burrill and Lucy Diggs Slowe and writer and educator Angelina Weld Grimké. Each were attracted to the same sex but kept it hidden in the interests of pursuing prestigious social connections and opportunities for career advancements. Washington was a centre for a large black population because it offered high paying clerical work. Government jobs were especially coveted because they came with the possibility of earning a middle-class income.
Beemyn balances the importance of black drag performances in popular culture with the way such shows were written of in the media. Attention is paid to the hysteria during the gay witch-hunt of the Eisenhower years, when employees could be fired from federal jobs for ‘sexual perversion’ no matter how long their tenure was or how impeccable their work performance. Thousands of people suspected of homosexuality were fired from civil service jobs and prevented from obtaining government positions. In a city like Washington, having security clearance revoked greatly diminished employment opportunities.
While hard-won civil liberties for gay men and women have become more common, Beemyn ends the book with a gut-wrenching look at the way trans* people are treated today and what the gay community can do to be supportive. “In Tyra’s Memory” is both an epilogue and a movement.
Tyra Hunter was a twenty-four-year-old black trans* woman who was murdered. She died as a result of injuries sustained during a car accident because first responders would not help her and medical professionals refused to treat her. Her death was a shocking blow to her the people of the neighbourhood she grew up in. Beemyn writes that true to the present day racial segregation in Washington, almost every person at Hunter’s funeral was black. The absence of predominantly white gay activist groups was deeply felt and was a wake-up call to the deplorable neglect of the trans* community by the larger gay activist community.
Exhaustively footnoted, A Queer Capital reads like a history primer or an academic paper. It is dense with fact but takes a truly intersectional look at the evolution of queer culture. It doesn’t shy away from ugliness and includes all aspects of gay life, including police persecution and racism. It is a difficult but necessary read.