Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965/gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging/The Courage to Connect: Sexuality, Citizenship, and Community in Provincetown

By Weems, Mick | Western Folklore, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965/gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging/The Courage to Connect: Sexuality, Citizenship, and Community in Provincetown


Weems, Mick, Western Folklore


Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. By Nan Alamilla Boyd. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Pp. xii + 321, acknowledgments, introduction, photographs, maps, appendices, notes, index. $27.50 cloth, $16.95 paper); Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging. By Gary L. Atkins. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003. Pp. ix + 451, acknowledgments, prologue, photographs, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $28.95 cloth); The Courage to Connect: Sexuality, Citizenship, and Community in Provincetown. By Sandra L. Faiman-Silva. (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2004. Pp. x + 279, preface, introduction, photographs, illustrations, maps, tables, appendices, bibliography, index. $35.00 cloth)

These three histories, in chronicling three different GLBT (gay lesbian bisexual transgender) communities rather than one overarching national storyline, allow us to see the development of GLBT identities according to local, not national, conditions. Because we cannot know the nation if we don't know our communities, and we cannot know our communities if we don't listen to individuals within them, I recommend all three of these.

Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 chronicles the manner in which unofficial city-sanctioned sex tourism, countered by official efforts to clean up vice, affected queer identity formation before Stonewall (1969). Author Nan Alamilla Boyd shows that San Francisco's lucrative reputation as a wide-open town in the years following the second World War contributed to its development as a safe haven for GLBT communities situated within a municipal geography of same-sex spaces in bars and districts (a map is provided). Boyd illuminates the interplay among sex tourism, drag shows, and civil rights activism that fostered GLBT community development in the city.

Each chapter opens with material from interviews with key figures, for example the iconic Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. Though this strategy disrupts the narrative flow slightly, it does allow Boyd to strike a balance between her own voice as critical historian and the voices of her collaborators. Following the rules of etiquette, she lets them speak first, removing her own questions and comments from the interview portions-Boyd is a historian, not a folklorist-and creating eloquent and accessible monologues from those whose lived experience informs her scholarship in the upcoming chapter. Of particular interest are accounts of early civil resistance, as against a police raid on the 1965 New Year's Day Ball sponsored by The Council on Religion and the Homosexual. In the aftermath of this raid, police harassment of arrested attendees led to a press conference of seven Protestant ministers the next day, all berating the police for "intimidation, broken promises, and hostility." When San Francisco citizens at large voiced their displeasure, the arrests were thrown out of court. There are more than a few such pre-Stonewall moments in Boyd's work.

Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging, by Gary L. Atkins, looks at another city's analogous relationships among bars, police, and queers. (A quibble: Because Atkins stresses the geographic relevance of different areas in Seattle, such as the Mudflat and the Hill, readers would be better served with a map to situate the narratives that the author so colorfully weaves.) This history of GLBT Seattle is more dramatic and less detached than the San Francisco history above. One focal point for Atkins's research is conflict between the early GLBT community and the legal, medical, and religious standards of city reformers, encompassing matters from the earliest recorded arrest for sodomy to the practice of lobotomy as a cure for lesbianism. Another point addresses the avoidance of conflict: the decades-long payment of bribes by GLBT bar owners to police as a means of shielding Seattle's GLBT community against police harassment. …

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