What the Harlem Renaissance Teaches About Gay Rights

Polite dissent on same-sex marriage today may seem bigoted decades from now.

Adam Clayton Powell Sr.

One more thought on the idea of homosexuality as wrong, in light of New York state's legalization of gay marriage last week. The historical perspective is useful in two ways. One is to show how things used to be. The other is to get a sense of how today is going to look when it has become history. We need both ways of looking at things in evaluating how we look at gay tolerance, gay marriage and anti-gay language today.

Let's start with the past: New York in 1929. Harlem, to be specific. It was actually a pretty gay place. Like the rest of the city, Harlem was home to countless gay bars. At the annual Hamilton Lodge drag ball, hundreds of drag queens competed for the top prize while thousands of straight Harlemites and other New Yorkers crowded in to get a look.

The "fairy," as he was termed at the time -- even by gays themselves -- was often sought as an emcee even at mainstream nightclub shows. Gay people were part of the scenery at the rent parties so famous now in Harlem folklore.

You catch hints from Fats Waller, who was not gay but sprinkled a camp sensibility into his routines. That "I want some seafood, mama" line of his? "Seafood" was gay slang for a sailor pickup. And what do you think he was really talking about in his song "All That Meat and No Potatoes"?

Of course homophobia was rampant as well, and it would become worse from the '30s on, when the police started clamping down on the old-time free and easy atmosphere. But even before that, it was expected that one went only so far in public.

And as far as the church was concerned, even the private sphere was not one's own business when it came to, well, those things. In November 1929, Adam Clayton Powell Sr. of the Abyssinian Baptist Church went on a press rampage on the subject.

Important: The Rev. Powell's son, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., has always been my favorite historical civil rights leader; I've always thought he was undersung. And the church his father founded did, and has continued to do, very important things. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. was a great man. But he was also a person of his times, as we all are.

And on what we would now call gay issues, he was quite proud in 1929 of his "scathing and bitter denunciation of perversion as practiced by many moral degenerates." The degenerates in question were not pedophiles or serial killers. He meant gay people. Scientific terms like "degenerate" were 1929's version of being polite about it.

Now, 80-plus years later, how informed, how progressive, does this rhetoric look? I assume that some today read Powell as telling a truth that still needs to be told. But to just as many of us and likely more, even with reservations about homosexuality, these statements by Powell look quaint, retrograde, overwrought and, frankly, mean. They look like sentiments from another time, one we are thankful to be past.

But here's where it's time to imagine today as history. Just as calling gay people degenerates and perverts was then the civil alternative to hurling the f-word with six letters, today's polite expression of anti-gay bigotry is to soberly "not condone" homosexuality or gay marriage. The difference from Powell's views is only a matter of degree.