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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
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; firstname.lastname@example.org; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; email@example.com; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.