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On the Cusp of Liberation

In Uncategorized on May 17, 2015 at 12:41 pm
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Sporters bar, 1960s. Bob McHenry (sunglasses) and friends enjoy an evening out in Boston. Image: History Project.

LGBT Voices From the 1960s

In memory, each decade has its own gallery of pictures. Think 1960s: long-haired protesters on Boston Common, young women dancing with flowers in their hair, and across the river, the sound of drums and the sweet scent of reefer on Sunday afternoons on Cambridge Common. These images flash like news footage that gets a little grainier with each passing year.

The fragile blend of euphoria, idealism, drugs and death, which defined the hippy period, was not very long. By the time the flower children arrived in San Francisco’s Haight–Ashbury neighborhood in the Summer of Love, the decade was more than half over. Much of what we associate with the 1960s occurred in the following decade.
For the first three years – until November 22, 1963 – the prevailing ethos was still button-down and conformist. The disillusion that had boiled beneath mainstream notice for years was unleashed on that afternoon when President Kennedy was assassinated. The nation mourned its president but if the majority white, heterosexual culture had known what was coming, it might have mourned its unquestioned dominance, too. Imagine: an entire era ended in one day and nobody knew it.
For some, this new moment meant unwanted turmoil; for others, including queer people, it was a chance for liberation. Like other members of their generation, Bill Conrad and Helaine Zimmerman took tentative steps out of the closet early on, but by the end of the decade, they had found a community. In 1969, the Stonewall Uprising was the seed that fell on a ground made fertile by people like them.
Freshly discharged from the Navy in 1961, Bill Conrad, returned to a welcome-home party in Somerville thrown by his family. At 22, lean, with dark Irish looks, Conrad should have been excited about entering gay life in Boston. But he knew no gay people in his hometown and felt lost. In Berlin, Conrad had come out, dating “a beautiful German boy.” He had also made a life-long friend of another gay soldier, Carl Banks, who had more experience in the gay world. When Conrad was about to be discharged, he asked Banks how he could break into gay life when he got back home to Boston. “There were no (gay) newspapers back then. No list of gay bars. I knew nothing of gay life in Boston. Carl told me to just go downtown where the department stores were and find a gay man. I was to follow him because sooner or later, he would go to a gay bar and I would be there to see where it was.”

The morning came, and Conrad headed downtown. Sure enough, he found his man. “This queen must have hit every department store in town. I was following him in and out of stores. He was walking with all these shopping bags down Cambridge Street and entered what looked like another store, but when I got up close, it had no name.” It took Conrad a few minutes to get up the nerve to walk through the nameless door. Once inside, he knew it was a gay bar. “It was Sporters and the bartender was Bill White,” who went on to run and own several bars in town. Conrad was home. A few years later, White hired Conrad and he worked at Sporters for many years. Over the next 30 years, Conrad was a fixture in the Boston bar scene working and managing at Sporters, 1270, Buddies, and Bobby’s.

In the early 1960s, Sporters was subject to police raids every couple of months. “They’d come in and line everyone up against the wall. The youngest cop would question us, ask for ID and call us “faggot” and other names. It was scary. If you didn’t have ID, they’d arrest you and put your name in the paper.” For many men, this meant being fired from their jobs and even evicted from their homes.

Helaine Zimmerman, a social worker in the Boston area for 50 years, spoke to the History Project in 1995 about living in Boston as a lesbian in the early1960s. (Zimmerman was the aunt of Boston Spirit Magazine publisher, David Zimmerman. She passed away in 2013.) In 1959, Zimmerman spent a year in Greenwich Village, where she danced, made out with girls, and partied all night. But intimacy with women never went further. There was a line that she was reluctant to cross. “I figured that if I could keep it contained, I was safe. Everybody that I knew who was out, was saying ‘if you’re straight, try to be straight.’ In those days, even some out lesbians, according to Zimmerman, saw being gay as “a terrible lifestyle. They just didn’t see any future in it at all.”

In 1960, Zimmerman moved back to Boston to get serious about her career and life. “I decided I would get back on the right track. I was on the wrong track in the Village, hanging out with women, going to the bars until five o’clock in the morning. I got a job at Newton-Wellesley Hospital.” Since she didn’t know any gay people in Boston, Zimmerman figured the “lesbian stage” of her life was over. For a few months, things went as planned; Zimmerman settled in at her job and began dating some men she knew in high school.

“One night, I went to the Charles Playhouse with a friend and we were upstairs in a lounge and I saw people walking downstairs and they were gay. And I (thought) this is interesting, so I excused myself and said I was going to the ladies room. I went downstairs and opened the door and there were all these ‘Mafia’ guys standing there. I said I just wanted to take a peek. Well, that was the Midtown. There were hundreds of gay people in there and I thought, now I am really sunk. I knew I’d go back. I went back the next night.”

The Midtown welcomed men and women. Zimmerman described the lesbian scene as “very defined, either you were a butch or a fem.” She did not really identify with either but when she was confronted by a “butch” who asked what she was, Zimmerman said, “Well, since I have shorter hair then my friend, I guess I am butch.” According to Zimmerman, working class and poor women were more likely to classify as butch or fem then middle or upper class women. Since Helaine and her friends did not fit into either category, “the butches called us ‘the Beacon Hill crowd’ because they didn’t understand us.”

Like Sporters, police sometimes paid a visit to the Midtown. “They used to flash the lights in the bar when the police came in. You had to switch partners (on the dance floor) in one second, woman to man. It was always touch and go about the cops coming in and raiding the place.”

By the late 1960s, the sheer number of Baby Boom queer people made them more visible on Boston’s streets and clubs. At Sporters, the police raids stopped and it became the place to be. Recalls Conrad, “Sporters was perfectly positioned to attract the gay college crowd. MIT and Harvard were a few stops away on the Red Line. It was packed seven nights a week. It was really my home during those years… For me 1965-75, were the best years at Sporters.”

By 1964, Helaine Zimmerman had moved away from her family in Newton to an apartment on Beacon Street. It was at this time that she had her first romantic relationship with a woman. It lasted five years. “I still didn’t tell most people. I never told my parents (that I was gay).” Zimmerman did not come out at work until 1987. “People don’t realize it was a very different time.”

In the mid to late 1960s, Zimmerman and her friends went to Vicki’s and Cavana’s, two lesbian bars on Tremont Street with tough reputations. “Vicki would sit on a high stool and survey the crowd for troublemakers. The customers could get out of hand in a hurry. At the drop of a hat, they’d throw a beer bottle.”

In looking back, Zimmerman wondered what ever happened to the “butches” she met in the bars. “When Somewhere opened, I thought I’d see them. But I never saw them in there and never saw them in the Saint.”

House parties were an important place for socializing in the 1960s, especially for lesbians. They offered fun without the scrutiny and potential danger of the bars. Zimmerman attended parties hosted by women in Dorchester, Jamaica Plain and Cambridge. My friend Alice would say, ‘I’m having a party with all the fags and the dykes…’ and we’d just dance and it was hilarious. There was a real camaraderie …there wasn’t a separation between the men and the women. I loved it.” Zimmerman missed the old days when people danced instead of dined, “the world got more serious, don’t you think?”

Penny Arcade

In Uncategorized on December 31, 2014 at 1:06 pm
Penny Arcade

Penny Arcade (photo: pennyarcade.tv)

Tonight, Auld Lang Syne (roughly, for the sake of old times) will be sung in pubs, parties and in, God help you, Times Square. It’s all a bit maudlin but this message is about the future and how one person totally remade herself in order to be herself. On this New Year’s Eve, I give you Penny Arcade.
“I am just coming into my own now,” she says. “What I’ve realized is that at 60, if you had a rigorous inquiry into your life, then you get to start all over again, as if you were 20, but this time raised by you — your values, your ideals, you!”
Nonetheless, she was an original from the get-go. She and a few of her friends left their home in New Britain, CT and visited Provincetown.  This was the mid-60s.  She was 14.  At the end of an eye-popping and fun weekend, her friends jumped back into their car and called to her to join them to return home.  She yelled back, “I’m staying.”  No money, no place to stay.  For the next 5-6 weeks, she slept on porches and in doorways.
And even though she was 14, homeless, broke and living in P-Town (where she had hung out with John Waters and others) she wanted more.  Still broke, she moved to the East Village. How was she so brave, careless, self-sufficient and risk-taking, I wonder?
 
By the 1980s, she was a well-known performance artist and writer. She had acted at the legendary Theater of the Ridiculous and at Warhol’s Factory.  
Since she has just begun anew at 60, I look forward to seeing what else she has in store for a society in need of nonconformist creation.
So, a toast to Penny Arcade on this New Year’s Eve.

1950s Gay Boston

In American History, Boston Individualists, Cities, Gay History, Hidden History, LGBT History on November 21, 2014 at 10:50 pm

The ’50s are a strange period– so bland and conservative on the surface, but with a lot bubbling up as well that would emerge in the turbulence of the 1960s.

–Neil Miller, author, Sex-Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950s

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Lower Washington Street, 1950s. Photo: Nishan Bichajian, Courtesy MIT Libraries Visual Collections.

Article published in Boston Spirit Magazine September/October 2014

It was a warm day for a cold war.   The temperature reached 48 degrees in Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 20, 1950. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) strode onto the stage with the down home confidence that endeared him to regular folks. To his audience, the barrel-chested former Marine was a welcome contrast to the effete Washington politicians with their East Coast superiority and secretive ways. The members of the Women’s Republican Club of Wheeling were rapt as McCarthy dramatically claimed to possess a list of Communists working in the State Department. Over the next few weeks, his list of names fluctuated between 10 and 57 Communists.

In the end, McCarthy never produced a single one, but the fearful, repressive atmosphere his accusations created, hung over the country for years. Reputations, careers, and lives were ruined.

Labeled, “The McCarthy Era,” this period is a staple of high school textbooks as an object lesson in governmental persecution. Much less known was the mass interrogation and subsequent firings of thousands of gays and lesbians during this same period often called “The Lavender Scare.”

Within the federal government during the Cold War and extending into the 1970s, the assumption was that gays could be easily blackmailed by foreign agents who threatened to expose them as “sexual deviants” unless they provided secret information. Lesbians and gay men soon joined suspected Communists as the hunted. Unlike some of the accused movie stars and writers with leftist pasts, gays were easy targets because they could not retaliate. To complain to a newspaper reporter about forced interrogations and firings, meant admitting to being homosexual, something few people were prepared to do. By the end of the 1950s, over 5,000 federal workers were fired or forced to resign for being gay. Afterwards, some committed suicide, many others took lower-paying jobs in more accepting occupations like hairdressing and food service.

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In the 1950s, the Waldorf Restaurant across from Park Street Station buzzed with gay people after the bars closed. Photo: Nishan Bichajian, Courtesy MIT Libnraries, Visual Collections.

The roundups soon spread to state and local governments and even to private companies. David K. Johnson writes in his book, The Lavender Scare, that a 1958 study estimated “one in every five employed adults in America had been given some form of loyalty or security screening.” But it was lesbians and gays who were singled out and fired. (The military continued to interrogate and fire LGBT people until the practice was outlawed on September 21, 2011.)

In the 1950s, suburban neighborhoods sprouted throughout the country, teeming with new families, who had fled the cities. The young medium of television portrayed heterosexual life as noble and natural, driving gays more underground then they were a decade before.

Given all of this, you would think 1950s gay life in Boston was a depressing combination of secrecy, loneliness, and self-loathing.

Except that it wasn’t.

Sure, it was risky and certainly underground. But for those who went to bars, nightclubs and restaurants that attracted a gay clientele, Boston gay nightlife was rich, varied and even glamorous.

With the exception of the late 1970s, the variety of gay nightlife during the McCarthy Era in Boston, has never been equaled.

Scollay Square still existed then, though its years were numbered. Located where Government Center is today, the area attracted gays to its bars, burlesque houses and theaters. John H. grew up just outside Boston in the 1950s, and recalls the burlesque houses as an introduction to Boston nightlife. “There was a group of gay guys in my high school who dropped out to move into town. We never said anything but we all knew they were gay. They took us to the old Howard and the Casino. It was dirty comedians followed by strippers. It wasn’t sexy for us but it was exciting. There was one stripper named “Countess Bareassity.” After the shows, we’d go to the bars.”

Boston was a more active port of call for sailors then and they where regular visitors to Scollay Square bars, especially the Lighthouse, Half Dollar, and Silver Dollar. Gay men and sailors could meet at one of these bars and take a room at one of the cheap, nearby hotels. And if you were down on your luck or too drink to go home, you could spend the night at the Rialto, a 24-hour movie theater where men met for sex.

The Punch Bowl in Park Square

The Punch Bowl in Park Square

And then there was Park Square. The Punch Bowl, Jacques, the Napoleon Club, and Mario’s were all within a few blocks of each other. Unlike the Scollay Square bars that were ostensibly straight but frequented by gay people, these bars were expressly for gay people. The Punch Bowl was not hidden or at all secret. You could not miss the bold, cursive letters on it’s front: “The Punch Bowl.” In an interview with the Lesbian Herstory Archives, activist, Barbara Hoffman spoke about going to the Punch Bowl in the 1950s, “I still remember walking into this packed bar. It was an hour before closing, and they were six deep at the bar. I asked (my friend) Rodney if everyone here was gay, and he said yes. I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

Three blocks away, the Napoleon Club attracted a successful, older crowd. Liberace sometimes dropped by after a concert downtown. “The first gay bar I went to was probably was the Napoleon Club,” recalled the late Conrad Shumway in a 1995 interview with the History Project. “I think it was just one room downstairs (then) and a little entryway where you hung your coat. And of course, you had to wear a jacket and a necktie. The hatcheck girl, Ivory Rubin, would give you a beat-up old tie to put on. It would look like hell.“

Shumway had moved to Boston from Vermont in the early 1950s. One day, he walked into the Lincolnshire Hotel bar on Charles Street for a drink. “It was really a men’s bar for the hotel but the hotel’s business was fading away and it turned into a gay men’s bar. I met my partner there on June 27, 1952. He was in the real estate business.” Shumway and his partner ran boarding houses on Beacon Hill for the next 20 years.

Playland and the Chess Room were located in what later became the Combat Zone, Boston’s adult entertainment area in the 1960s- 1970s. The Chess Room served a dressy clientele of older men looking for younger men. It was in the basement of the Hotel Touraine. “The bartenders were hot as hell, but they didn’t like the gay clientele. To hold the job, they were told by the manager, ‘you’ve got to be nice to these people, they bring money in here. Behave.’ They wore white jackets with black bow ties, very proper. You had to wear a neck tie in there, too,” said Shumway.

Playland and 12 Carver Street attracted a more relaxed clientele. Blue-collar truck drivers mingled with Harvard students. Playland even had a few regular black patrons, unusual in Boston gay bars at this time. Phil Baionne, owner of 12 Carver Street (now replaced by the Transportation Building), was a large man who liked to mount a swing and glide over the crowd. Recalled Shumway, “He’d get all juiced up and get in his swing and say, “Now it’s time for Papa to swing. And she would sing “Summertime” and she’d wear a big straw picture hat with ribbons and bows and the ribbons hanging down and they would fly out and here she is, 300 pounds with this great big straw picture hat on… If she fell, she’d kill 300 people.”

After the bars closed, gay people went to the Waldorf Cafeteria and Childs — all-night eateries on Tremont and Boylston streets. Sometimes the noise level got so high the manger threw them out.

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Hotel Fensgate, 534 Beacon Street.

The highlight of the gay social season in the 1950s was the Beaux Arte Ball. The ball began in 1952 at the Fensgate Hotel at 534 Beacon Street, according to Shumway. The hotel manager was not happy when men waltzed into the lobby dressed in chiffon and ladies arrived in tuxedos. The ball moved to the Punch Bowl for several years where it attracted giant crowds, including many spectators who waited outside to see the men in drag enter in their lavish outfits.

One year, according to Shumway, a cab driver brought his wife to view the ball attendees. After the oohs and ahhs died down, he was heard to say to his wife, “Some of them look better than you. With that, she slapped him.”

The bleakest hours of the Lavender Scare of the 1950s have something in common with the height of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Under siege, queer people still danced and partied even as they were scapegoated, punished and neglected by their own government and society. For LGBT people, perhaps “the band plays on” because celebration is our gospel music. It defiantly proclaims: we’re still here.

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