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Gay History as Guest Speaker
T his year was the fourth time I’ve taught “Introduction to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies” at Dartmouth College. The course covers history, sociology, theory, and current events and usually draws students from a wide variety of backgrounds. While these are all eager students, the part of this that they have the most trouble with is the history. I don’t mean reading German pseudo-medical tracts about homosexuality from 1869. I’m talking about the 1950s. First year students were born in 1988 so gay life in the 1950s seems an awfully long time ago.
Over the years, Mansour and I have joked about the article. I’ve brought a photocopy of it to dinner parties when the talk has turned to gay history in the 1950s.
In 2002 I decided it would be a good academic exercise for my students to learn how to plan and execute an oral history, and for them to meet Mansour. I made copies of the Mid-town Journal article and chose—seemingly at random— Mansour’s name from the article and told them to focus their questions on his experience. I didn’t tell them that he was alive and well, living in Boston, and that he was a friend of mine. On the day the questions were due, George came to class. The students were amazed.
They conducted their oral history and Mansour dazzled them with stories of Boston’s gay night life in the 1950s, growing up queer 50 years ago, and what it was like to be arrested for being gay.
The astonishing thing about those classes was how well the students responded to the material. The sensationalistic language of the Mid-town Journal reminded them of the Enquirer , but also of the tone of Fox News .
The Journal ’s story was simple: on March 9, 1953, four men—John Morello, George Mansour, Louis DeBourbon, and Elvin Lewis (between the ages of 19 and 30)—attended a private party in an apartment at 17 Melrose Street in Bay Village, Boston, during which they were arrested by Boston police. Lewis and Mansour were caught engaging in a sexual act in a second-floor bedroom behind a closed door; DeBourbon and Morello were partying in another room. The police came to the house on an alleged complaint about a loud party. When they arrived at the house shortly after midnight, two men were just leaving and the police used the opportunity to enter. A fifth man, John Perkins, 56, who held the lease on the apartment, was also arrested, even though he was at work while the party was taking place.
Lewis, Mansour, DeBourbon, and Morello were convicted of morals charges and sentenced to six-month suspended sentences with two years of probation. Perkins was charged with allowing his home to be used for “lewd purposes” and was sentenced to nine months in jail.
For the students the Mid-town Journal article, with its “shocking” details and intensely homophobic prejudices, sounded to them campy in its extravagance. Take the article’s lengthy opening line: “Raising their plucked eyebrows and pursing their lips that retained faint traces of hurriedly removed Chinese red as the faint odor of Chanel number 7 and Bewitching Hour wafted gently across the room in Central Criminal Court, five defendants, arrested the night before during a wild birthday sex party, who sat perched on the edge of their chairs like special bound copies of the Kinsey Report, entered not guilty pleas to charges of morals violations, then cast haughty glances of disdain at spectators who they were certain had already judged them.”
But, after the campiness wore off, it was clear that the students understood the implications for these men—as well as for their own lives in the Bush America of 2006. Being a gay or lesbian 19-year-old may be different now than in 1953, but much about this story was contemporary. It was only in 2003 that the Supreme Court decided Lawrence v. Texas , which declared U.S. sodomy laws unconstitutional.
While the oral history project is designed as a “history lesson,” the best aspect of Mansour’s visit was for the students to hear someone speak frankly about sex. They laughed at his stories, but you could see their amazement when they realized that not only is gay history about sex, but that average, everyday sexuality can exist for older people and be spoken about in terms that are not sensationalistic, prurient, or commercialized.
The following is an excerpt from Mansour’s oral history:
Q: How accurate was the reporting in the Mid-town Journal ?
MANSOUR: It was almost totally inaccurate. No one was doing drag, no one was wearing makeup. It was completely sensationalized in that respect. They also got my age wrong—although they did get my address correct—I was 19 at the time, not 24. Morello—whom I hardly knew—and I didn’t go shopping the day before to buy cookies and fudge; that was totally made up.
Was the party like they described?
No. There weren’t that many people there. I have no recollection of an exotic dancer named Roxanne, please. How could they make that up? And there were no jacketless sailors meandering around in their T-shirts. It makes it sound like Querelle by Fassbinder. It wasn’t that much fun.
Did you know the other men ?
I knew John Perkins who was in his 50s and seemed very old to me. I was friends with Louis DeBourbon. Actually, I’m still friends with him; he lives in San Francisco and visits once a year. But I didn’t know the others.
Did you invite the sailors from a local bar named Jock’s?
I didn’t. Morello might have. Of course it is not Jock’s but Jacques and it’s still there in Bay Village. Sure, I’m not going to pretend that it wasn’t a party that was set up to encourage some sex. But it wasn’t an all-out orgy.
But did you have sex with a sailor named Elvin Lewis?
The Journal claims I was “having an affair” with him—I think I was blowing him. He was the cutest one there. I remember when the police came to the bedroom door I looked up, thinking it was some of the other party people, and said, “Oh, are they selling tickets now?”
Did you go to a lot of parties like this back then?
No, unfortunately. I mean not unfortunately because I got arrested, but because I would have had more sex with people.
What happened the night you were arrested?
I really don’t have a clear memory. It was all very traumatic—getting arrested on a sex and morals charge is not something that was taken lightly then. And I was living at home.
Did your parents get involved?
I remember the next morning my father was there with me at court. My parents were wonderful. These were not sophisticated, educated people, and my father said to me, “If you want to meet people I want you to bring them back to the house, that will be safer for you.” It’s incredible when you think about it. Other people would have disowned their children, but they wanted me to be safe.
What happened to Elvin Lewis, who was stationed in Boston?
I never saw or heard of him again. I imagine he might have been dishonorably discharged. There was no “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Getting arrested certainly looked bad. I like to imagine that he is a happily married grandfather in Iowa who dreams about the best sex he never got to finish with me, 50 years ago.
Aside from the trauma of being arrested and convicted, did the arrest have any other effect on your life?
My God, yes. I had graduated high school and was valedictorian. I had applied and was accepted at Boston University. When they discovered I had been convicted on a morals change, they rescinded the acceptance. So I never went to college or had any education after high school. One hopes things are better now, but given BU’s recent decision to ban gay and lesbian clubs, one has to wonder.
Were you completely crushed by this?
I guess the good part of this was that I changed my whole attitude. I just said, “Fuck it, if this is what it means to be gay, I’m going to do whatever I want and need to get ahead. If they aren’t going to treat me with any respect, why should I play by their rules?” The arrest really gave me the courage to face down people in charge and see through their completely bankrupt rules.
What did you do?
Well, I had a series of jobs—lying about the arrest record to get them—and finally got a job working as a film dispatcher. I remember that the ad said that it was an “equal opportunity” employer, which, of course, at that time meant that they did not racially discriminate. Most of the dispatcher jobs were seen as “women’s jobs,” but I wanted a job in the film industry—I loved movies, even then— and said they had to hire me, a man, because they were an equal-opportunity employer. They did. And—this is terrible, but typical—they paid me more for doing the job than they paid the women.
Did the arrest follow you through your life?
Not really. It did give me this enormous sense of anger and of knowing that if I were to go anywhere in life I had to make my own rules, that it was stupid to follow society’s rules. I’ve done quite well. I’ve had a very successful career as a film booker. I had a very successful 44-year-long relationship and am quite happy.
Did the arrest teach you anything?
Yes. I learned that I had to take chances to get what I wanted and that what I wanted was fine.
Michael Bronski teaches gender studies and Jewish studies at Dartmouth College. His last book was Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps (St. Martin’s Press, 2003).
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; email@example.com; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; firstname.lastname@example.org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
Contact: email@example.com; http://east.usworker.coop/.
WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
Contact: 121 West 27th Street, #301, New York, NY 10001; 212-627-0444; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.madre.org.
SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; email@example.com.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; email@example.com; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: email@example.com; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.