Jan Gay: The Lesbian Sex Researcher That History Forgot, by Michael Waters

Jan Gay and Zhenya P82_640_442 2.jpg

Jan Gay (left) and Zhenya. Photo courtesy Michael Waters via the Collection of Rachel Bloomberg.


George Henry, Sex Variants: A Study in Homosexual Patterns (New York: Hoeber, 1948).


Sex Variants title page.


Jan Gay, On Going Naked, illustrations by Zhenya (Garden City: Garden City Publishing, 1932).


Poster for the film This Nude  World, dir. Michael Mindlin, 1932.

On May 18, 1939, Barnard College received a printed questionnaire from a researcher named Jan Gay, asking about homosexuality in its student body.[1]

For the past fourteen years, Gay had been compiling research for a book about queer women, and she wanted to bring her data on homosexuality “up to date,” she wrote.

Included in Gay’s letter was a series of questions that must have sounded peculiar to a school administrator in the 1930s: what was, Gay asked, the faculty’s attitude toward crushes or “passionate friendships” among same-gender students? Were psychiatrists available for those students? Were “the instances of sexual contact between girls numerous?” she asked.

Barnard College’s physician, Gulielma Alsop, wrote back the next day. “Homosexuality among students of Barnard College is not a problem of any magnitude,” Alsop said.[2]

When Gay sent the same questionnaire to other schools, only some expressed more openness to the idea that they might have queer students in their ranks.

Vermont’s Bennington College admitted to Gay that it had discovered “two or three” relationships between female students [3], and a doctor at Mount Holyoke said that three girls had “brought up the question of homosexuality” with her.[4]

Yet by asking about homosexuality at all, Gay was doing something novel. Queerness at the time remained a taboo topic, even among researchers. There was no organized group that represented queer people or their interests; the most that the average American knew of homosexuality came from movies like Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” (1931), in which same-gender intimacy was a regular punchline.

But Gay wanted to push public understanding of queer people forward. By conducting a scientific study of queer identity, maybe she could show the world that the queer community was as varied and vibrant as any other. What made her research all the more radical is that Gay herself was openly a lesbian.[5]

Today, Gay’s work is largely lost to history. Her manuscript was never published under her name, and her experiences are recounted only in a few queer history books, including, most recently, in Hugh Ryan’s When Brooklyn Was Queer.[6]

In honor of the 100th anniversary of her birth, I have reconstructed parts of Gay’s life through material held at the Library of Congress and the Johns Hopkins Medical Archives, as well as from letters sent to me from a family member of Gay’s. These glimpses of Gay’s legacy highlight how early queer people envisioned research as a way to advocate for their community—and how they were nonetheless erased from that work.


Jan Gay was born with the name Helen Reitman on February 14, 1902 in Leipzig, Germany.[7] Gay’s father, Ben Reitman, was a prominent doctor and anarchist activist, who also had a habit of womanizing. On July 4, 1901, he married May Schwartz, a music student from a wealthy family in Illinois.[8]

Soon after, the two of them traveled to Prague, the first stop in a larger European tour that the two had planned. Though accounts differ, at some point Schwartz checked into a mental health asylum in Leipzig, Germany, and Reitman returned to the U.S., according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.[9] Gay was born while her mother recovered from mental health issues.

When Gay moved back to the U.S., she studied at Northwestern University. Afterward, she cycled through odd jobs: she wrote for the Chicago Examiner and worked as a translator at the publicity department for Mexico’s national train service.[10]

In 1927, to distance herself from her father, she changed her name to Jan Gay[11] —either as a nod to the word’s dual use as queer code, or, more likely, as a reference to her mother’s family. (“Gay” was her maternal grandfather’s middle name.[12])

Around the same time, she met Eleanor Byrnes, an illustrator who eventually took on the pseudonym Zhenya Gay.

The two teamed up to publish a series of children’s books, including the 1931 picture book The Shire Colt.[13]

Gay also became an early figure in the nudism movement: she served as the director of the Out-of-Door Club, a nudist colony of 50 people in Highland, New York, where she encouraged researchers to study the psychological differences between nudists and people who wore clothes.[14] In 1932, she published On Going Naked, a book that blended Gay’s own experience of nudism with a larger history of the nudism movement.[15] When the book was adapted into a documentary called “This Nude World,” Gay wrote the script.[16] Newspapers dubbed her “the leader of nudism in New York.”[17]

 But her core focus was always her study of queer women. In 1931, according to the book When Brooklyn Was Queer, she traveled to Berlin to meet the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld.[18]

At Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science, a prominent research clinic, Gay read Hirschfeld’s “books and notes and records concerning homosexuals, seeing something of the treatment accorded them,” she wrote later. She loved Berlin, which she called “a center of letters and Lesbians” in one letter.[19] She conducted in-depth interviews with many of her new acquaintances. By 1935, she had visited Oxford, Paris, New York, and Berlin and interviewed roughly 300 queer women about their lives.[20]

 Up until that point, in the U.S., research into queer people was highly clinical, and often dismissive. Beginning at the end of the 19th century, American physicians churned out case studies of patients suffering from a disease they sometimes dubbed “sexual perversion,” usually with an explicit tone of contempt.[21]

The doctor William A. Hammond warned at the start of one paper that the case studies he was about to present might be “distressing and disgusting” to readers, but “so long as human nature exists such instances will occur and physicians must be prepared to treat them.”[22]

When Gay had finished her interviews, she compiled them into a 70,000-word book, which she tentatively titled “Sociological Aspects of Female Homosexuality.”[23] She said in one letter in 1935 that an unnamed London press had accepted it for publication.[24] But there was a hitch—her publisher wanted a more established scholar to “validate” her work, according to the book Departing from Deviance.[25]

Gay contacted the gynecologist and birth control advocate Robert Latou Dickinson, who proposed that the two of them collaborate on a larger study of homosexuality. He recruited dozens of academics, many of whom were professional psychologists or sexologists with little other connection to the queer community, to form the Committee for the Study of Sex Variants—the earliest research group in the U.S. to focus on queer people.

Gay was assigned a chaperone, a psychologist at New York Hospital named George W. Henry. Yet it was her research—and, more specifically, her connections in the queer community—that made the study possible in the first place.

In its initial outline, the Committee for the Study of Sex Variants noted that the subjects of its study “were to be obtained through the services of Miss Jan Gay,” adding —euphemistically—that Gay had “close contact with this field for a number of years.”[26] (The Committee knew that Gay was queer. According to Departing from Deviance, one member called her an “avowed intermediate,” a reference to her sexuality.[27])

Gay introduced each queer person to the Committee using only their first name and last initial. The research team asked hundreds of questions about each person’s employment history, family background, and sexual experience—covering everything from their diet in early childhood to whether they liked animals. Then, the researchers classified each person as either “bisexual,” “homosexual,” or “narcissistic.”[28]

Gay soon found herself sidelined out of her own study.[29] From the start, Gay and Henry had very different aims.

While Gay saw the research as a way to showcase the variety in the queer community[30], Henry viewed queerness as a threat to the heterosexual order. He wrote in an early proposal that “homosexuality is a form of arrested psychosexual development which seriously interferes with reproduction.”[31]

The Committee was also interested in finding a biological basis for queerness. They paid Gay to “supplement” her research with stricter medical histories of each queer person, including by conducting x-rays, pelvic measurements, physical examinations, and hormone tests.[32]

When friends and acquaintances of Gay sat for extended interviews with the researchers, they told her that the techniques felt invasive. In a September 1935 letter, Gay wrote to a researcher on the Committee that three of her friends “went away from their interviews feeling that they had rather been made fools of,” and complained that the researchers’ callous approach to interviewing queer women was jeopardizing the study.[33]

“When one of the foremost women painters in America gives up an afternoon and evening to such a study as this and the whole emphasis in conversation with her is placed upon the pattern of her sex procedure — with not even the vaguest mention of her creative and aesthetic and spiritual interests and development — something is, it seems to me, a little bit wrong,” Gay wrote.  

The Committee did not seem to take her words to heart. In May 1939, when Gay read the manuscript for what would eventually become a book called Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns, “my chief reaction is one of disappointment,” she wrote in a letter to the entire Committee.[34]

Henry, she said, was letting his own sense of social morality “intrude upon what should be the true scientist’s impersonal, objective viewpoint.” While few of the queer people interviewed had criminal histories, Henry repeatedly compared them to “psychotics” and “criminals,” Gay wrote. Gay asked the Committee to reconsider key aspects of the book, but they didn’t seem to take her advice.

Sex Variants, which was eventually published in two volumes, was not a commercial splash, but it did become a foundational queer medical text. Advice columns cited Henry’s research when they doled out tips on how to approach same-gender attraction.[35]

Almost entirely absent from the book, however, was the presence of Jan Gay. Though Sex Variants was almost entirely based on her research, the paper only credited her as an editorial assistant.[36]

After Sex Variants was published, Gay left the scientific community to work in public relations.[37]

In the 1940s, she began dating the dancer Franziska Boas, and lived with her in a shabby apartment in Chelsea.[38]

In 1949, an up-and-coming artist named Andy Warhol moved in with the two of them. Gay and Boas helped introduce him to the queer scene in New York.

But Gay also brought chaos to their lives: according to the biography Warhol by Blake Gopnik, Gay paraded around the apartment in an untied kimono. She saw a therapist every day, whom she paid not with money but with daily dance lessons. At least once, after a violent outbreak, Gay was carted off to the hospital in a straitjacket.[39]\

When she died in 1960, Gay received a short obituary in the New York Times that described her only as a “publicist and author” whose book on nudism had “created a stir in the early Nineteen Thirties.”[40]

Her pathbreaking research on queer women was—and still is—forgotten. But understanding her efforts to showcase the nuances of queer identity as far back as the 1930s underscores the ways in which queer people were promoting a deeper understanding even before the days of formalized queer activism.

For decades, queer people have been attempting to change how they were portrayed in scientific and popular literature; if Gay’s story is any indication, they were just stripped of the opportunity to get it recognized.


[1] Jan Gay letter to Chief Medical Officer of Barnard College, May 18, 1939, Box 42, Folder 1, Franziska Boas Collection, Library of Congress.

[2] Gulielma F. Alsop letter to Jan Gay, May 19, 1939, Folder 1, Box 42, Franziska Boas Collection, LOC.

[3] Joseph Chassell to Jan Gay, May 30, 1939, Folder 1, Box 42, Franziska Boas Collection, LOC.

[4] Ruth E. Fairbank to Jan Gay, May 24, 1939, Folder 1, Box 42, Franziska Boas Collection, LOC.

[5] Henry L. Minton, Departing from Deviance: A History of Homosexual Rights and Emancipatory Science in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 34.

[6] Hugh Ryan, When Brooklyn Was Queer (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019), 166.

[7] John R. Butman, “Reitman’s Romance of the Past Bared,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 28, 1908.

[8] Butman, “Reitman’s Romance,” Minneapolis Star Tribune.

[9] Butman, “Reitman’s Romance,” Minneapolis Star Tribune.

[10] Jan Gay resume (undated), Folder 1, Box 42, Franziska Boas Collection, LOC.

[11] Minton, Departing from Deviance, 35.

[12] Biography of John Gay Schwartz, Archives.com, 1841-1897. 

[13] “With the Publishers,” The Daily Nonpareil (Council Bluffs, IA), August 16, 1930.

[14] “Why There Are Nudists,” The Sheboygan Press (Wisconsin), July 13, 1933.

[15] “On the Merits and Joys of Nakedness,” Kansas City Star, August 13, 1932.

[16] “‘Nude World’ Opens Monday at The Wysor,” The Star Press (Muncie, IN), November 19, 1933.

[17] Hugh Ryan, When Brooklyn Was Queer, 162.

[18] Hugh Ryan, When Brooklyn Was Queer, 162.

[19] Jan Gay letter to Ben Reitman, July 30, 1931, sent to author courtesy of Rachel Bloomberg.

[20] “Committee for the Study of Sex Variants,” Mission Statement, March 29, 1935, Committee for Study of Sex Variants File, Box 24, Earnest A. Hooton Papers, Peabody Museum Archives.

[21] Bert Hansen, “American Physicians’ Earliest Writings about Homosexuals, 1880-1900,” The Milbank Quarterly, vol 67, pp. 92-108.

[22] Hansen, “American Physicians’ Earliest Writings,” 100.

[23] Jan Gay letter to Chief Medical Officer of Barnard College, May 18, 1939.

[24] Jennifer Terry, An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 184.

[25] Minton, Departing From Deviance, 35.

[26] “Resume of the Committee’s Activities Since the Last Meeting Held on March 29, 1935,” Committee for the Study of Sex Variants File II/179/2, Adolf Meyer Archive, Johns Hopkins University. 

[27] Minton, Departing From Deviance, 34.

[28] “Autobiography of Blanche Thomas,” Committee for the Study of Sex Variants, March 6, 1935, Committee for the Study of Sex Variants File II/179/4, Adolf Meyer Archive, Johns Hopkins University. 

[29] Jan Gay letter to Josephine Kenyon, September 23, 1935, Folder 1, Box 42, Franziska Boas Collection, LOC.

[30] Jan Gay letter to the Committee for the Study of Sex Variants, May 11, 1939, Folder 1, Box 42, Franziska Boas Collection, LOC.

[31] Ryan, When Brooklyn Was Queer, 165.

[32] “Committee for the Study of Sex Variants,” Mission Statement, March 29, 1935.

[33] Jan Gay letter to Josephine Kenyon, September 23, 1935.

[34] Jan Gay letter to the Committee for the Study of Sex Variants, May 11, 1939.

[35] “Dr. Paul Popenoe,” Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, January 8, 1949.

[36] George William Henry, Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns (New York: P.B. Hoeber, 1941), vii. 

[37] Jan Gay resume (undated). 

[38] Blake Gopnik, Warhol (New York: Ecco Press, 2020), 263-264.

[39] Gopnik, Warhol, 269.

[40] “Jan Gay Is Dead at 58,” New York Times, September 13, 1960. https://www.nytimes.com/1960/09/13/archives/jan-gay-is-dead-at-58-author-and-publicist-wrote-six-books-for.html

For the original version published in Harpar's Bazaar, see https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/features/a39296814/the-lesbian-sex-researcher-that-history-forgot/.