Gay Hollywood Gets in Touch with it's "Roots"
Laurie K. Schenden
For 10 years I worked in The Times building Downtown, a block away from the historic Los Angeles gay district. Harold’s Bar, the Waldorf and the Dover were all hot spots in the 1950s, around 5th and Main. “The Dover was the site of a murder of a gay man in 1969, a few months before Stonewall, and Troy Perry organized a major action to object to police brutality,” says Tom De Simone, a co-founder of Roots of Equality.I knew about the original entertainment capital that sprang up in the neighborhood; some of the ornate movie theaters from the 1920s still remain. But I had no idea that this was also the heart of Los Angeles’ rich gay history, until I attended the opening of the Lavender Los Angeles exhibit on Nov. 7.
Organized by Roots of Equality, a grassroots group of friends, lovers and relatives, Lavender Los Angeles is a collection of rare photographs, magazines and other archival material, compiled because the group “noticed a disconnect between the newly energized post-Prop. 8 generation and the movement that came before them,” says co-founder Teresa Wang. They originally banded together because of what Wang calls “Prop. 8’s lack of visibility,” organizing a rally before the election. Afterwards, the group was motivated by a book called “Gay LA” by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons.
Glenne with Roots of Equality members before screening of her film "On These Shoulders We Stand," to benefit the organization.
Less than a year in existence, Roots is energizing activists new and old. A few weeks ago I attended a screening of Glenne McElhinney’s award-winning On These Shoulders We Stand, that the group hosted along with a panel of prominent gay Angelenos featured in the film, including Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, and my former co-worker, LA Times film writer Kevin Thomas.
For Lavendar Los Angeles, they’ve brought out even more pioneers who’ve made a national impact, including Lisa Ben, a secretary at RKO Pictures who typed the first known lesbian magazine on her company typewriter during Hollywood’s golden age; activist and former standup performer Robin Tyler; child star and former California state senator Sheila Kuehl; Torie Osborne, activists and former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington DC (as well as Kuehl’s former partner), and author Lillian Faderman, whose book inspired it all.
Faderman says that Hollywood’s population grew from 36,000 to 165,000 in the 1920s because of bohemians drawn to work and/or play in the movie industry. The fight between residents trying to reign in the bad boys and girls that the “Gay LA” authors label the “unstraight,” lead to an industry full of people “cognizant of the need to be subtle” but who “continued to think of the sexually unconventional as interesting, provocative and exciting.”
In other words, they leapt into the closet.
Big Hollywood stars are named among the unstraight, including Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn, whose attitude and attire made them gay role models regardless of their sexuality (although the authors call Dietrich “sexually flexible”). Some of these are showcased in Lavendar Los Angeles. The most startling thing to me is that the code still exists where celebrities fashion a “proper” public image while living la vida loca in private.
A preview of Lavender Los Angeles in photos.
Both Kuehl and Faderman mentioned not knowing there were others like them. “I was in closet through all my acting career, from age 9 to 25,” says Kuehl, 68. “We didn’t know we were in the closet, we thought we were the only ones.”
“I was out for 14 years before I discovered that there was a real history of lesbians,” says the 69-year-old Faderman, who came out in 1956. Knowing that there were others, especially in the film industry, “would have made a difference in our lives.”
Lavendar Los Angeles is housed in a former coffee shop on 5th Street, around the corner from the Dover Hotel. A grainy black-and-white image of the Dover, printed on a 10-foot vinyl, looms eerily over discolored news clippings. One headline reads: “Beating Death of Handcuffed Man Ruled ‘Excusable Homicide,’ ” over a report of a police raid at the Dover. Police harassment back then, says Faderman, “was ubiquitous of Los Angeles and big cities everywhere.” Now, the LAPD is a participant in Lavender Los Angeles. “I would not have been able to conceive of this when I came out 50 years ago,” she says.
But the biggest thrill for Faderman is that the exhibit “came from young people, the next generation.” Kuehl concurs: “The twenty-somethings of this Obama generation are doers,” she says. “They see a need, they go out and plan how to fill it.”
Find out more about Roots of Equality at rootsofequality.org.