Some excerpts from a talk about the history and afterlife of LA’s anti-queer and anti-trans laws from the pre-Stonewall era:
Last month, we went to Los Angeles for a project we’ve been calling “The Undesirables.” We went to LA wanting to learn how, in the shadow of a state that wanted them dead or gone, people seen as undesirable still lived their lives, all the while being told that there was no life to be lived.
In post-war Los Angeles, they called the people they wanted gone from the city “undesirables.”
Post-war LAPD Sheriff, William Parker—the queer/trans community called him Wild Bill Parker—kept a record of more than “10,000 sex perverts.” The LAPD’s head criminal psychiatrist, Paul de River, published a guide to “policing perversion” called The Sexual Criminal. Wild Bill and de River trained vice-squads of handsome young hollywood wannabes in “gay mannerisms,” sending them out into the night to meet entrapment quotas.
Wild Bill filled the Lincoln Heights Jail with so-called cross-dressers and masqueraders, coercively gendering them in wings for men and women, known as “The Fruit Tank” and “The Big Daddy Tank.”
The Sunday of our trip to LA for the undesirables project, we went to Jewel’s Catch One, the oldest black-owned gay club in LA. It’s a big place, with two ballrooms and gold molding. It’s about to close, after over 40 years. We went for the birthday party of someone named Avery, who named the club. Most people at the party had seen Catch One through its beginning and, now, its end.
Avery told us how gay people used to not be allowed to touch. At bars, clubs, wherever, you’d be arrested for touching. So people danced with two feet of space between them and scattered even farther when the cops came.
The Sunday we went to Jewel’s Catch One, I put on a dress. And I was hit with an incredible wave of embarrassment. I was overwhelmed by embarrassment. I wasn’t surprised—this feeling is why I hadn’t worn a dress in years. The history of laws and punishment and shame washed over me and through me.
Here we were, in LA, 40 years of anti-cross dressing laws, 40 years after no-touch laws, 40 years after wild bill parker, the vice squads, and the fruit tank, just trying to figure out how to be outside, together, without so much fear and embarrassment. These laws, even in their afterlife, don’t just affect how we see ourselves, but also put up those forcefields between us and the friends we want to love the best and hardest.
I could feel how much distance there was between Reina and me. I could feel how, in her embarrassment, she had gone into herself, into the isolation of being alone in those emotions.
When you’re told people hate you, you feel like the problem is within you instead of outside you. So you isolate yourself, in order to protect yourself. And Isolation happens in our relationships. You disconnect, like how I disconnected from Grace. It’s so terrifying to take the risk of being seen, of being touched. That’s also why it’s so important.
In our culture, we’re made to feel like our emotions are our fault and ours alone to bear the weight of. What if, instead, we see our most painful emotions as sites of recognition, as evidence of how oppression is all around us and moving through us. I think that embarrassment is a moment of painful understanding. We feel—sometimes unbearably—the force of histories telling us how to be. I think there is work in learning to see that pain not as evidence of who we are, but of what we’re fighting against.