In honor of the landmark LGBT History Project, the Long Beach Post is proud to present a series of articles that attempts to provide readers with an in-depth look at a range of historical events that intertwine Long Beach with its LGBTQ community. We are encouraging anyone who shares these articles or has the courage to tell their own to tag them #LGBThistory.
The formal project, developed by the Historical Society of Long Beach, opens its doors on February 23, in a special opening gala that will feature Melissa Etheridge and Long Beach's most valuable LGBT members. To purchase tickets, click here.
Brian Addison would like to thank Tom Jacobson, Sharon Ullman, and Lillian Faderman for their invaluable contributions towards this article.
It was 1914 and Long Beach was a resort town with some 20,000 people residing in it—and 31 of them were arrested over a single summer as "social vagrants."
At the time, gender definitions were coming into a clearer light through the vaudevillian performances of female impersonators—the proto-drag queens of the time, who according to historian Robert Toll, were some of the most successful and highest paid stars during the turn of the 20th century. In particular, performers like Julian Eltinge, Bert Savoy, and Bothwell Browne would captivate audiences with their uncanny abilities at mimicking women. Eltinge even had a magazine published between 1912 and 1913 that would share makeup and beauty secrets with women.
This in turn brought forth a discussion about how someone who could so brilliantly portray a woman can "still be a man," courting the public need to know and confirm that degeneracy was not a part of these people's act; that their interest was artistic and not hiding some unacceptable private sexual practice. These questions were fueled by the sexual pathologies created in theories by Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing (with a tad of Freud), whereby a homosexual became apparent because they exhibited the so-called wrong gender: effeminacy in men and masculinity in women. In short, sexual behavior was trying to be inscribed in stereotypical gender identity. As academic Sharon Ullman puts it: manliness was the term, but sexual deviancy was the issue.
Long Beach was not exempt from this desire to know the secrets of men—particularly including those who would often wear elaborate female attire at grand parties hosted by the most respected of the city in scattered home throughout the city, according to then-reporter Eugene Fisher's source, L.L. Rollins. One party thrown by Venice millionaires had thirty male attendees who were then given slippers, a silk kimono, and slippers at the door. Another had penis-shaped candies instead of placecards. Another got a Southern Californian sheriff's son caught undressed and "painted and powdered."
The arrests of these men were fascinating not just because the public had a TMZ-style obsession with "catching" them—the Los Angeles Times even went on to print all the names of the arrested, leading to the suicide of John Lamb—but because there was no legal code regarding what many of them participated in: oral sex. Sodomy laws were in place but were strictly defined as anal intercourse; however, as hygiene practices increased along with the advent of the pants zipper, oral sex increased in popularity. It was colloquially referred to as the "twentieth-century way."
It was discovered that the Long Beach Police had hired two Chicago actors—with no formal police training—by the names of B.C. Brown and W.H. Warren, who made it their personal mission to hunt down these degenerates who preferred the "twentieth-century way." Initially, Long Beach scoffed at the idea that such behavior existed: they were, after all, the driest city in the state and often considered the most prude, with a Venice Beach newspaper sarcastically calling Long Beach "the Holy City." Given this, Brown and Warren were only paid for actual arrests.
The two would then perform in public parks, restrooms, and the Long Beach Bathhouse to lure transgressors by directing them to glory holes, attempt to get the transgressor to slip his penis through the hole, and mark their member with a marker before arresting them. Fisher even recounted that someone was arrested while attempting to give Warren himself oral sex—adding more to the scandal itself.
Tom Jacobson, whose play The Twentieth-Century Way dramatically recounted the LBPD's hiring of these two actors, saw a deep-seated irony in it all and reflected the questions of identity being posed at the time through the lens of Warren and Brown.
"When one acts or pretends, how does that reveal or hide who you are?" he posed. "These two guys just came up with this idea on their own and that in and of itself highlights those kind of questions. They initially approached the LAPD and were rejected so they found much more acceptance in Long Beach. Even after the scandal that ruined 30 lives and ended one, they still tried to market their tactic."
That scandal should not be underestimated.
The Los Angeles Times, following their public list of "the guilty ones," subsequently published a fake, enormously unintelligent and exaggerated letter from an enraged mother in Pasadena:
"I read with a great deal of disgust the tale of the awful crimes committed by those lewd men whom your paper referred to as 'social vagrant clan.' Being a mother of a boy, I was more than thankful of his sex, as the temptation to go wrong through immoral practices were to my mind very much less than those of the opposite sex... Until the awful significance of that article was explained to me by my husband I never had any idea of such a crime. I would prefer my boy a murderer or drunkard to those awful vampires... Trusting I have in no manner insulted your intelligence by submitting this article, I beg to remain, Mrs. Charles P. McHugh, No. 1737 Mission Street, South Pasadena."
More intriguingly, one of the arrested, Herbert Lowe, demanded a trial—and succeeded in getting his charges dismissed, prompting a public outcry over the tactics used to arrest the men. Lowe's attorney played with the all-too-common "Keep Long Beach Long Beach" mantra, apparently touting that our city didn't need "stool pigeons" to "get" our citizens and "ferret out crime"—this wasn't to mention that attorneys also brought up the fact that Warren and Brown had the blood of Mr. Lamb on their hands.
As Ullman puts it, "It was precisely the failure to find a comprehensive set of identifying characteristics that underscored the crisis in Long Beach... The telltale 'signs' of degeneracy presented a fundamental obstacle. Everyone was suspect and each had a list of traits by which to identify those who would engage in unmanly sexual practices. As the theatrical audience struggled to identify the impersonator on stage, so to did members of the community search for some definition by which to mark the face of such perversity."
Long Beach was obsessed with identifying its own neighbors that held the correct amount of that all-powerful maleness required of any decent male while tracking down those who lacked. But this effort eventually fell to an almost prophetic-like realization that Ullman points out: everyone was suspect and sexuality cannot be inherently linked to pinpointed behaviors that can reside in everyone.