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25 November 2012

Washington yachting party, 1950

In the late 1940s and for a long time afterwards there were no reliable guides for gays and trans.  In the US the closest were a series of books by Hearst newspaper reporters Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer: New York Confidential, 1948 (which sort of became a film in 1955), Chicago Confidential, 1950, and Washington Confidential, 1951 and U.S.A Confidential, 1952.  These book were somewhere between exposé and travel guide, and provide no footnotes or sources for their claims.

The Washington edition makes the following claim:
“Black Washington has its share of deviates, too.
During the summer, groups of colored fairies make up "yachting" parties and cruise the Potomac on the steamer Robert E. Lee. One Saturday night, last summer, over 100 cops were dispatched to the docks when the "Society of Female Impersonators" was to have a midnight sail. They found one thousand seven hundred Negro men, all dressed as women, on the boat, and as many more trying to get on. A riot was in the making, but the cops busted it up and kept it quiet when they hauled away two wagon loads. The ship finally got off at 2 A.M. . . .”
1,700 on the boat, and as many more trying to get on!!!

I can find no confirmation of this anecdote in GLBT histories of Washington.   I am inclined to reject the tale as a fabulation based on the improbable large numbers alone.

It would seem to be a sarcastic touch by the authors to put a negro (that being the term then used) outing on a ship named for the prominent Confederate General.   There was a steamship with that name.  But it sailed on the Mississippi, not on the Potomac.

The practice of cops seizing a random sample at a a gay event, and then leaving, was actually a common practice.

  • Passage cited on page 277 in Neil Miller. Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

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