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The Postwar Scene

Asbury Park Press bar headline

Asbury Park Press bar headline

Only glimpses have been unearthed to date of Newark’s queer history before the Second World War. Hidden among the more extensive paper trail of the police department’s efforts to curtail nightlife and illicit encounters, for example, is the report of a 21-year-old woman arrested in 1885, and sent to the penitentiary, who, police officers noted, “passed at her boarding house as a boy,” but was really what they called a “make believe masculine.” Police records similarly disclose a charge of buggery filed in 1915 by one man against another, who was chased by detectives and arrested in the downtown Lyric Theater (later demolished in 1965) [1].

Newark’s reputation has long been shaped by its status as the smaller neighbor of the nation’s best-known city. During a police crackdown on “vice” in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century, Newark’s police commissioner expressed a concern that “some members of the undesirable classes of society in New York might take refuge in this city,” and urged that Newark police be “instructed to keep a strict watch hereafter on the saloons of the city" [2]. By the prosperous 1920s, “Newark was a veritable maze of thriving theaters, clubs, and after-hours joints where sporting folks rambled through the night,” one historian has written [3].

Sandow Title Page

Sandow Title Page

The Great Migration of African Americans from rural south to the urban north reshaped the city’s demography, and black queer identity became a visible part of the social landscape by the 1940s. While documentation of this subculture is elusive, we can see traces in the autobiography of Amiri Baraka, born in Newark in 1934 (as Everett LeRoi Jones).  Recalling his youth in the late 1930s and early ’40s, Baraka described “Danny whose brother was gay in those days when we called them ‘sissies’ …  the dude did pitch and switch when he walked and his hair was done up rococo and curled up.” What is more, Danny had a “funny” cousin, who “fanned up and down the street like he was on his way to mind the seraglio" [4]. Similarly gender-bending performances were delivered onstage at the Kinney Club, where “exotic dancer” Reese LaRue performed such shows as Gay Paree [5].

Sandow Photo

Sandow photo

By the 1960s, the black Third Ward claimed at least one gay bar, depicted in fictionalized form by Newark novelist Nathan Heard in his 1968 novel Howard Street. Heard called the bar M&M, and while his unglamorous and often homophobic descriptions of dangerous “stud-broads” and “fags” hardly offered an affirmative portrayal, his sharp eye for concrete detail effectively reconstructed the tangible qualities of the bar, which he depicted as loud, smelly, and overlit, but also a place of sanctuary for such groups as “five male couples … queens with their ‘husbands'" [6]. When journalist Ronald Poramabo visited the area a few years later, he described Jackson’s Lounge (probably the source for Heard’s M&M Bar) as “the largest gathering place for lesbians and homosexuals in any city of Newark’s size.” To the straight journalist, that made the street “even worse than Heard remembered it" [7].

Gay in Newark poem

"Gay in Newark" poem

White gay culture, meanwhile, often centered on bars in the downtown area. Dan Russo, in his 2010 memoir Downtown, casts a nostalgic eye on the early 1960s, remembering Newark as a “thriving, cosmopolitan city,” where places like the Waldorf Cafeteria offered a place for primarily white gay men to socialize [8]. Police harassment and persecution was unrelenting—Russo’s descriptions of the police force range from “tyrant” to “a band of SS officers”—but also futile. Like other states, New Jersey used its Alcoholic Beverage Control to target gay bars, but by 1967 the owners of Murphy’s Tavern at 135 Mulberry Street (a few blocks from transit hub Penn Station) had joined with bars in New Brunswick and Atlantic City to challenge this discriminatory policy. That year, the State Supreme Court delivered a sweeping victory for the gay bars, unanimously ruling that “well-behaved homosexuals cannot be forbidden to patronize taverns" [9].    

As these battles over public space transpired, Newark also played an unheralded role in the development of physique culture, with self-declared “Physical Strength Historian” Gerard Nisivoccia’s self-published Sandow: The Mighty Monarch of Muscle offering an entire book’s worth of often naked, openly erotic photographs of the famous strongman in 1947 [10].  Nisivoccia corresponded with groundbreaking sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, helping him obtain obscure physical-culture print media, as did fellow Newark physique dealer Angelo Iuspa, who bought and sold physical culture publications and movies from his home base on 7th Street [11]. The photographer Al Urban, who suffered repeated persecution for his striking physique photos during the Cold War, had attended St. Benedict’s School in Newark in the 1930s, and operated his photography business from nearby Hillside before departing for Chicago and Los Angeles [12].

 
GAANJ Speaks cover

GAANJ Speaks cover

Newarkers participated in gay liberation politics of the 1970s. Rutgers-Newark students founded R.A.G.E. (Rutgers Activists for Gay Education) in the early 1970s. A poem published in the September 1973 monthly newsletter of the Gay Activists Alliance of New Jersey combined the dominant media narratives of the city, which emphasized the 1967 rebellion and subsequent urban decline, with a more celebratory local flavor. Credited simply to Anthony, “Gay in Newark” begins by “bopping down tenement steps,” and contrasts a “tropical womb of dark neon pains” and “trash with flash” against more upbeat images of “listening to Sister Aretha wail” and the “many moods of Latin tongues.” Ultimately, Anthony (or his protagonist) arrives at the corner of Broad and Market Streets—where Sakia Gunn would be murdered three decades later—to find “warm chocolate and ivory loins,” a reference to the city’s growing African American majority as white flight continued. Anthony concludes by wondering, “Who will share the real experience of being gay in Newark?”

Other World ad

Other World ad

Like the larger city in which it was embedded, queer Newark was racially segregated. Gay Italian American Catholic men could seek solace and solidarity through a shared affective investment in the iconography of the gentle St. Gerard Maiella, to whom a shrine is dedicated at St. Lucy’s Roman Catholic Church [13]. Meanwhile, Black queer Newarkers of the 1970s contended with often homophobic Black Nationalist rhetoric. While the Catholic Church justified its antigay positions with scriptural citations, nationalist spokesmen like Amiri Baraka equated whiteness and “faggotry,” calling into question the legitimacy of black queer identity [14]. Black gay men and lesbians found refuge in the club scene, especially after dancehall entrepreneur Al Murphy opened Le Joc on Halsey Street in 1974. Other black-run, black-oriented clubs, like the Docks and Zanzibar, followed. Not only did these provide important social networks, but the black gay Newark clubs also played a formative role in the emergence of a particular Newark brand of club music, as testified to by several members of the scene [15]. One disco, the Other World, even claimed to be the “gayest gay bar” in New Jersey, in a 1975 ad [16].



 

Notes

[1] History of the Police Department of Newark (Newark: Relief Publication Co., 1893), 392; Log Book of Detective Frank C. Brex, New Jersey Collection, Newark Public Library, 70, both cited in Peter Savastano, “Newark, New Jersey, 1870-1930 as Sodom and Gomorra” (unpublished paper, 1997).

[2] “Vice Crusade in Newark,” New York Times, November 24, 1900.

[3] Barbara J. Kukla, Swing City: Newark Nightlife, 1925-50 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 27.

[4] Amiri Baraka, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1997, orig. 1984), 25

[5] Barbara Kukla, Swing City, 114, 204

[6] Nathan Heard, Howard Street (New York: Dial Press, 1968), 36, 22, 50

[7] Ronald Porambo, No Cause for Indictment: An Autopsy of Newark (Hoboken: Melville House, 2007 {orig. 1971}), 10

[8] Dan Russo, Downtown (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse:, 2010), 3

[9] “Three Taverns Challenge ABC Homosexual Rulings,” Asbury Park Sunday Press, 27 August 1967. On the ABC case (One Eleven Wines & Liquors, Inc. v. Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control), see Bryant Simon, “New York Avenue: The Life and Death of Gay Spaces in Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1920-1990,” Journal of Urban History 28.3 (2002): 310-11

[10] Gerard Nisivoccia, Sandow: The Mighty Monarch of Muscle (Newark, 1947), available at http://www.sandowplus.co.uk/S/mighty/mighty.pdf

[11] Nisivoccia’s and Iuspa’s correspondence with Kinsey is contained in Iuspa’s file, Kinsey Correspondence Files, Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN

[12] Reed Massengill, “Urban Legend: The Legacy of Photographer Al Urban,” 22 May 2008, http://reedmassengill.blogspot.com/2008/05/urban-legend-legacy-of-physique.html

[13] Peter Savastano,"'St. Gerard Teaches Him That Love Cancels That Out': Devotion to St. Gerard Maiella among Italian American Gay Men in Newark, New Jersey," Gay Religion, Scott Thumma and Edward Gray, eds. (AltaMira, 2005), 181-202

[14] Marlon Ross, “Camping the Dirty Dozens: The Queer Resources of Black Nationalist Invective,” Callaloo 23.1 (2000): 290-312

[15] See Gary Jardim, "Al Murphy and the Club Music Aesthetic in Newark," in Jardim, ed., Blue: Life, Art and Style in Newark (Orange: De Sousa Press, 1993), 143-155; also Ace Mungin, "The Roots of Club in Newark," ibid., 113-124, and Shelton Hayes, "The Club," 127-134 

[16] Other World ad, Hold Hands (Gay Activist Alliance of New Jersey newsletter), March 1975, 2