Before Boystown

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“THE METHOD of negro perverts who solicit men in certain Chicago cafés is usually fellatio, although pederasty by the customer is permitted,” dryly noted Dr. James G. Kiernan, Medical Superintendent of Chicago’s Cook County Hospital for the Insane, in his regular “Sexology” column for the Urologic and Cutaneous Review (1916). “Lately, as shown by recent arrests, certain cafés patronized by both negroes and whites, are the seat of male solicitation. Chicago has not developed a euphemism yet for these male perverts. In New York they are known as ‘fairies’ and wear a red necktie (inverts are generally said to prefer green). In Philadelphia they are known as ‘Brownies.’” Perhaps Kiernan feigned ignorance about Chicagoans’ terms for “homosexual” just to protect the burly reputation of his city. Maybe he wanted to insinuate that perversion was an East Coast contagion.

         In 1892, Kiernan had been the first to translate the recently coined German terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual” (the latter referred to what we now call “bisexual”). Like his fellow 19th-century sexologists, he had presented “sexual perversions” as novel, rare disorders, spread from abroad, largely unknown to professionals, and hidden from the public. Yet his 1916 article exposes a homosexual underworld that was thriving in American cities by the early 20th century. Jim Elledge’s The Boys of Fairy Town brings to life this world in all its multiracial diversity from Chicago’s 1837 incorporation until the 1940s: sometimes hidden in the shadows, but often all the rage and thriving openly.

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Vernon Rosario is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author ofHomosexuality and Science: A Guide to the Debates.

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