Elevate Difference

Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, And Lipstick Lesbians

California: Land of the free, the brave, and the gay. This heart-lifting literary biopsy of gay rights’ progression in Southern California (Los Angeles, specifically) is a delight to read. For those of you who have ever stood in the face of adversity, protest poster in hand, Gay L.A. will remind you exactly why you did so. For the rest, it will open your eyes to the continuing need for civil rights activism on all planes.

The non-fiction novel is a chronological retelling of the way gay community has evolved in the past hundred years. Though both stories and people vary, the one element that does not change is each generation’s responsibility to push the envelope a little more than its predecessor. After all, where would Lindsey Lohan be today if Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo hadn’t been gender-bending wearers of pants? In the closet, of course!

From scintillating behind-the-scenes tales of Hollywood’s 1920s heyday, to the rigid role-playing of the 1950s, to the moving protests against the government’s indifference in the face of the AIDS epidemic, this historical work reads like a novel. All the work big Hollywood names of the '20s and '30s had to go to remain closeted is fascinating. Gay L.A. states that celebrities could be open and “out” in private circles, but they kept their flamboyancy far from public eye. Thanks to Twitter, paparazzi, and camera cell phones, celebs no longer have this luxury—which makes reading about the elaborate lengths famous gay people went to in those days all the more interesting. (Did you ever wonder where the term “beard” marriage came from? Even “lipstick lesbian” is an invention of a bygone era.)

As far as an accurate representation of the GLBT community, I’d have to say that these authors did a fairly evenhanded job. They are able to approximate the delicate balancing point between the telling of gay men’s and lesbian’s stories—although less attention is paid to transgender narratives. This gap in information might just be due to the lack of research and archived information on transgender identities, which is accurate for the time periods covered but still somewhat disappointing.

The amount of GLBT history that I gleaned from this book is astounding. For instance, I’d never heard the gay agenda addressed in a respectful and literal way. I’ve always wondered why conservatives fling the phrase around to depict gays as child-molesting monsters seeking world domination. The “gay agenda” always sounded so ludicrous to me, an offensive mischaracterization of a disenfranchised group’s fight for equality. Apparently such a thing actually existed at one point! Take, for example, the difference between L.A.’s early gay rights political activists fighting for domestic partnership benefits and a satiric website like The Homosexual Agenda. We have the ability to be flippant about the “gay agenda” in the 21st century because of the hard-won battles fought by those who went before us.

Gay L.A. is a two-fold motivational work: it is both a call to action and to remembrance. It ends on a hopeful note, reminding us that the battle has not been won but that much progress has been made. It also reminds modern-day civil rights proponents of just how much blood, sweat, and tears it took to get us where we are today.

Written by: Sam Williams, November 26th 2009