Thursday, December 28, 2006

Gay Los Angeles III

The Los Angeles books by Faderman & Timmons, and by Robert Hofler, noticed in recent postings, have now been joined by Daniel Hurewitz, Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics (University of California Press, 2007).

The author originally presented his findings as a UCLA dissertation. In the several years intervening he has enlarged his data and refined his ideas. What we have then is a carefully crafted presentation of his case. Hurewitz focuses on the early and middle years of 20th century. Supplementing previous accounts, there is a good deal of information about ordinary gay men that is new.

In my review of Gay L.A. by Faderman and Timmons, a generally excellent book, I faulted the writers for not offering a sufficient explanation for the seemingly improbable fact that America’s only enduring gay emancipation movement arose in Los Angeles. Commendably, Hurewitz attempts to resolve this conundrum. Unfortunately his explanation doesn’t work.

He portrays three interdependent spheres of innovation in the Southern California city--the arts community; the political radicals (especially the Communists); and gay men and lesbians.

Ostensibly linked by their sharing the neighborhood of Edendale between Hollywood and downtown LA, Hurewitz’ three worlds are not in fact closely connected. While many artists and leftists lived in Edendale in the first half of the twentieth century it did not enjoy the status of a “gay village” until recent decades, when it became known as Silver Lake and Echo Park.

A number of the founders of the Mattachine Society had also been Communists, but this fact, while true, is not enough to justify the triple project. The reason Mattachine survived and prospered was because after its reorganization in 1953 (a change much lamented by today’s nostalgic leftists) it was led by individuals who were centrists.

Over this book there is a haze of the Romance of American Communism, to cite the title of a gushing book by the New York writer Vivian Gornick. These people were working to establish a Soviet system in America. Had they succeeded in doing so, “degenerates” would have been sent to Gulags.

Those who sugarcoat this leftist history instruct us to forget about international politics. Instead, just look at the rewarding personal lives these Communists lived! Regrettably this picture wasn’t rosy either. When one joined the Party one was urged to devote all one’s free time as much as possible to working for the Revolution. There were no “free weekends.” Just as with a religious sect, members were encouraged to marry within the Party. All this meant severing one’s previous ties. After the pattern was set, members were discouraged from leaving because they knew that if they did no they would be ostracized. They would end up with no friends at all.

As noted, the linkage of the three phenomena is elusive. If there was an L.A. Bohemia, this wasn’t it.

Hurewitz makes much of the matter of identity. Yet this was not an issue during the period he mainly covers. Gay identity (and other purported identities) became important only in the seventies. The legacy of this concept has been scarcely benign. The perception of Balkanization, appealing to separate interest groups rather than the national interest, continues to haunt the Democratic Party. Hurewitz further believes that Los Angeles was the crucible in which the identity principle advanced to be part of the national agenda. This claim, which ignores the crucial effect of the civil rights movement in the South, is specious.

In short this book is good in parts. Yet in my view its overall claim fails.


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