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‘A Queer Capital: A History of Gay Life in Washington, D.C.’ by Genny Beemyn

‘A Queer Capital: A History of Gay Life in Washington, D.C.’ by Genny Beemyn

Author: Philip Clark

December 1, 2014

(Full disclosure: Philip Clark is on the board of directors for Washington, D.C.’s Rainbow History Project and helped the author access some research materials.)

New York City. San Francisco. Los Angeles. Philadelphia. Chicago. Boston. Seattle. Cherry Grove. Palm Springs. But until now, not Washington, D.C.

When all these other cities and towns (and even the state of Minnesota or the region of the South) have had their own book-length LGBT histories, it’s difficult to say exactly why it has taken so long for Washington to receive similar treatment. It’s possible that D.C.’s public reputation as a dry, buttoned-down town works against it. When it has received attention, that has generally been for the connection between sexuality and politics: Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney’s Out for Good, about the development of the gay rights movement, gave significant space to D.C. because of its national political importance, and David K. Johnson’s impressive The Lavender Scare uncovered the deep and disturbing Cold War history of gays and lesbians in the federal government whose lives were destroyed under McCarthyism.

Broader social histories of LGBT D.C., on the other hand, have been nonexistent outside the pages of heretofore unpublished Ph.D. theses. Genny Beemyn’s new book, A Queer Capital: A History of Gay Life in Washington, D.C. began its life as one of those, covering the years 1890-1955. This ended prior to the development of an organized political movement in D.C., which most date to Frank Kameny and Jack Nichols’ founding of the Mattachine Society of Washington in 1961; the current version of A Queer Capital brings the story of LGBT life in D.C. up to the 1990s. Beemyn previously edited the groundbreaking anthology Creating a Place for Ourselves: Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community Histories, whose table of contents reads like a murderers’ row of important LGBT historians (Boyd, Chauncey, Davis and Kennedy, D’Emilio, and the list goes on) and where this thesis was excerpted.

While A Queer Capital is obviously an extension of Beemyn’s thesis, it thankfully avoids the queer studies jargon and thornily obtuse style often burdening books that find their origin in academia. (One instance of a “heteronormative paradigm” is as bad as it gets.) That’s not to say that this isn’t an academic book; it’s extensively researched, heavily footnoted, and its chapters can occasionally read like separate, discrete essays that have been loosely combined into a narrative. (Beemyn acknowledges this, calling A Queer Capital “an episodic, rather than a comprehensive, history.”) As a result, there are occasionally odd emphases or gaps, as when The Furies, admittedly a culturally influential radical lesbian separatist collective, receive virtually all attention given to white lesbian life in D.C., or when post-1950s drag culture and communities go unremarked, or when the impact of AIDS is only tangentially addressed.

With a century’s worth of time and material to cover, however, this sort of thing is inevitable, even in books that do aspire to be comprehensive. Beemyn has the additional challenge of Washington being a socially stratified and racially segregated city throughout its history (even after the formal legal end to segregation in public accommodations in 1953), necessitating multiple narratives that rarely intersect. Beemyn is to be commended for not allowing white LGBT experience to serve as a stand-in for everyone’s lives, instead delineating the ways in which African American men and women in D.C. have often conducted lives in parallel to white LGBT people. Their different public spaces, different ways of organizing their lives and communities, and different ways of relating to the overall social structure of the city are given careful attention.

Some of A Queer Capital’s most engaging storytelling involves its discussion of black LGBT people in D.C. This is particularly reflected in its chapter about “the black elite” in early twentieth century Washington. Beemyn grounds the narrative in this chapter in the experiences of several significant cultural figures, the best known of whom is Alain Locke, but also including Angelina Weld Grimké and the couple of Lucy Diggs Slowe and Mary Powell Burrill. Beemyn unpacks how all four struggled to different degrees with the competing needs to pursue various types of same-sex relationships while still appearing publicly respectable within a tight-knit African American social world. While much of the book addresses high-stakes tensions—police entrapment, the constant threat of unemployment or imprisonment, the 1995 murder of Tyra Hunter, a transgender woman—it is here that Beemyn crystallizes the emotional struggles of living in a society that requires a double life.

Elsewhere, Beemyn shows an impressive ability to synthesize multi-faceted stories into readable narratives. They are a model of concision in moving discussion of the formal fight to overturn the civil service ban against employment of gays and lesbians from Frank Kameny’s struggles to retain his job in the late 1950s through the outcome of multiple important court cases (Scott v. Macy, Norton v. Macy, and Otto Ulrich’s fight to retain his security clearance) in the 1970s. The discussion of The Furies addresses both the knotty emotional and ideological struggles within the group and clarifies its lasting overall influence. Beemyn usefully proceeds (following on the heels of James T. Sears’ book Edwin and John) to correct and expand the historical record regarding the life of Carter Bealer, whose early twentieth century diary of gay life in Washington was published in highly (and sometimes deceptively) edited form as Jeb and Dash. And further, Beemyn complicates received gay and lesbian historical conclusions about the effect of World War II. They show how the war not only drew a critical mass of people interested in same-sex relations into urban environments, but could also upset existing social relations by introducing an influx of unknown or transient (and potentially hostile) people into gay bars and other public spaces. In various ways, this is LGBT history at its finest.

For the most part, with the exception of brief mentions of events from the Clinton administration and the discussion of the Tyra Hunter debacle, the book ends in the 1980s. There is, as always, more to be written. As Beemyn says, this is a history of our queer capital, not the only one. If those to come are as loaded with detail and as suggestive in argument as A Queer Capital, we all stand to benefit.

[Reviewer’s note:  It’s outside the context of reviewing the book’s content, but I would be remiss not to recommend that all libraries with even a passable collection of LGBT history purchase A Queer Capital.  With its $45 cover price for a paperback, many non-specialist readers of LGBT history may be prevented from acquiring their own copy, and it is crucially important that all readers, not just academics, have access to these kinds of stories.]


A Queer Capital: A History of Gay Life in Washington, D.C.
By Genny Beemyn
Paperback, 9780415735292, 280 pp.
July 2014

Philip Clark photo

About: Philip Clark

Philip Clark is co-editor of Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS (Alyson, 2010) and A Kind of Endlessness: The Selected Poems of Donald Britton (Nightboat, forthcoming).  He is at work on a book about the 1960s gay publisher H. Lynn Womack.

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