In the 1920s, gay men became visible – not just in gay clubs. but in the best nightspots of the time. Then in the 1930s, they disappeared.
Think about Historic Chicago. Images of the Great Fire, the World’s Fair (and its lunatic serial killer), Al Capone, and the setting of a fabulous Fosse musical come to mind. These stories are part of the mainstream cultural narrative of Chicago, but there are more stories to be uncovered and subcultures to understand. Author Jim Elledge explores the lives of the queer men who lived in Chicago during the 1930s and 40s in his latest book, The Boys of Fairy Town: Sodomites, Female Impersonators, Third-Sexers, Pansies, Queers, and Sex Morons in Chicago’s First Century.
While researching his award-winning biography, Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist, Elledge started to discover accounts of queer men in Chicago. “I kept notes of everything and made copies of it,” says Elledge. He used those accounts as a starting point for this book.
“Initially, I was just collecting information on anyone I happened to land on,” says Elledge. “I was doing a lot of research at the University of Chicago. There are several collections of gay material that very few people know about in their collection. A sociology professor sent his students out into Chicago to interview people that were not mainstream – immigrants, prostitutes, and gay men. When I ran into that, I discovered a lot of information about everyday people.”
The Boys of Fairy Town has a blend of everyday people, famous (and infamous) people, African-Americans, immigrants, and more. The variety of lives illustrates how different the experiences could be for queer men during this period. Despite the content of some of the stories, Elledge does his best to maintain a level of objectivity in his writing. “The historical distance helps to a large extent. There is still a connection there that I think you cannot disregard, but you need to make sure it does not overwhelm you,” says Elledge. “[Being objective] is something you have to be conscious of during the process – especially during the writing.”
Elledge hopes that readers of this book will learn that being a queer man during this time was not a life sentence to isolation. “One of the things I found intriguing and didn’t realize in a real way – not an intellectual way – was that gay people in the earliest days were pretty invisible,” says Elledge. “No one knew anything about homosexuality. In the 1920s, they became visible – especially gay men. They weren’t just in gay clubs. They were in the best nightspots of the time. Then in the 1930s into the 40s and 50s, they disappeared. It all has to do with laws and politics that surround gay life. I found it amazing, and I’m hoping people will understand that we haven’t always been underground. Many people thought that gay people were isolated, hidden, and prone to suicide. That may have been true in the 40s and 50s, but before that, the community was vibrant and accepting of them in certain neighborhoods.”
- "Brynn Devereaux is a freelance writer for Baltimore OUTloud. As an arts writer, she enjoys exploring the local arts scene and bringing attention to new books and authors. Brynn is a Scranton expat and a Towson University graduate."