The Geography of Same-Sex Desire: Cruising Men in Washington, DC in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Brett Beemyn
2004 Left history  
For years and years I have been this wayhave loved and worshipped silently other boys and youths, some older, some younger than myselfsexual inversion, Havelock Ellis calls it . . . . I never thought I should write anything like this down but here it is done. 142 Beemyn urnented his sexual experiences in the capital, including the different sites and techniques utilized for "cruising" -a term he used as early as 1923 to refer to his attempts to find sexual partnersand the harassment practices
more » ... the police and larger ~ociety.~ More than any other single source, his regular diary entries establish the parameters of white male same-sex sexuality in Washington, DC in the early 1900s. Drawing from Alexander's diaries, this essay will explore how men who pursued same-sex relationships navigated Washington's sexual landscape, which was often defined by the color line. Although Washington did not enact segregation laws like many southern states, racial discrimination in public facilities was a firmly entrenched practice in the capital by the turn of the twentieth ~entury.~ Thus some of the principal locations where men met each other for sexual relationships in downtown Washingtonmovie theaters, clubs, restaurants, apartment and rooming houses, and the YMCArestricted the access of African Americans or denied them admittance altogether. As a result, Black men hoping to meet other men for sexual encounters, like African Americans in general, lived and socialized primarily within the city's Black neighborhoods of Shaw, U Street, and Georgia Avenue. A number of community histories have examined male same-sex sexuality prior to World War 11, including George Chauncey's Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 and essays on Chicago by David K. Johnson and Allen Drexel in my anthology Creating a Place for Ourselves: Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community Histories. But few works have considered the social and sexual lives of Black and white men in a thoroughly segregated ~ociety.~ The one major study of men who desired men in a segregated community, John Howard's Men Like That: A Southern Queer Histoiy, examines post-World War I1 Mississippi, a society much less urban and more racially polarized than Washington. According to Howard, in Mississippi, "black men and white men participated in markedly similar worlds of desire that rarely overlapped before the 1 9 6 0 ~. " ~ In the nation's capital, though, the creation of these separate worlds did not preclude some racial mixing in the early twentieth century, particularly in the extensive park land in downtown Washington, which was not segregated, and in parts of the city's tenderloin district, which enforced racial separation but not always rigidly. Washington thus represents something of a middle ground between communities in the Northeast and Midwest, where men, particularly white men, who desired same-sex partners could often readily cross racial lines, and communities further South, where interracial socializing, much less sexual relationships, was heavily proscribed. While racism excluded African Americans from many downtown Washington institutions and kept most whites from patronizing establishments in the city's Black neighborhoods in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, white and Black men attracted to others of
doi:10.25071/1913-9632.5610 fatcat:5nkvjk2n25fk7irflaom3oaiey