In Love Stories, Jonathan Katz quotes this 1892 testimony from a reporter who exposed the goings-on of a West Village house of ill repute and was in part responsible for its proprietors promptly being called to trial on morals charges:
The reporter observed “these men go to different persons who entered and have drinks with them. I saw some of them leave with strangers and heard them use vile language.” For example, they would “refer to each other as ‘she’ and ‘her,'” and “would call each other ‘bitch.'” They also “spoke of each other as being ‘kept.””
Another witness, Officer Thomas Dolan, remembered: “They called each other ‘dear’ and ‘pet’ and told each other about what nice times they had the night previous.”
The effeminate who called himself Sarah Bernhardt “had his hair bleached in tissue red[,]” reporter Gramer recalled (Bernhardt, in later years, was known for her red hair). This fellow “carried the illusion as far as he could imitating her, wearing bangles and bangs and dance shoes. I was told he wore corsets and chemise.”
This hearsay raised an objection, and Judge Randolph B. Martine ordered Gramer to “leave out the corsets.”
Sometimes the continuity across decades of certain cultural identifiers is simply astonishing. I mean, “bitch” in 1892? It also makes me think of how class-dependent our broader understandings of history can be; we (or, well, I) think of 1892 as the year that Wilde’s relationship with Douglas began, but are not nearly as aware as we should be of the working-class bars of downtown New York in this period. We see them as suddenly relevant come 1969, of course, but it’s important to be aware that the groundwork for gay liberation was effectively being laid this early. Stonewall may have been a watershed in that it woke up the rest of America, but you don’t have a drag kickline singing to the police, “We are the Stonewall girls/We wear our hair in curls” without these West Village drag queens of an earlier generation who impersonated Sarah Bernhardt and various Gilbert and Sullivan heroines.