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28 June 2013

East New Jersey in the 1960s

Vito Russo, who would later write the ground-breaking The Celluloid Closet, was raised in East Harlem, Manhattan.  In 1961 when he was 15, to his chagrin, his parents bought a house in Lodi, New Jersey.  Therefore the teenager perforce explored the gay scene in Lodi and nearby towns such as Hackensack, Bloomfield, Garfield etc.  Given that this was the sticks and not Manhattan, there was a lot more drag/trans activity than you might expect for that period.

“Vito’s first drag-queen contemporary was a a fellow student …. Standing six feet two inches [1.89 m] under a bleached-blond man, Billy knew how to make a striking entrance – particularly when bombing around Lodi in his pink Cadillac convertible.  Contact with Billy meant automatic social ostracism.  … Billy invited Vito to a New Year’s Eve party held at the home of ‘the most outrageous drag queen in Bergen County’.  …
Billy’s friends were working-class drag queens from Lodi and the nearby towns…. Like Billy, these men were wildly out of the closet, almost unwittingly so: they were ‘identifiable on the street whether they liked it or not.  They couldn’t hide it even it they tried.‘  From them, Vito got his first lessons in gay survival.  He listened attentively to their tutorials on ‘how to take care of himself on the street and be funny and get out of a raid and go through a window in a bathroom and all that stuff you had to know in the ‘60s.  …
Another favorite haunt was Danny’s in Fort Lee, where the group went to see ‘Bella from the Bronx’, a drag queen whose act consisted of traditional Italian families’ reactions to the revelations of their gay children.  …  He was also enamored of the headliner at Fran Bell’s in Nyack, New York.  Fran herself … donned a tuxedo and top hat  and crooned ‘Just a Gigolo’ à la Dietrich.  Then there were the drag balls at Newark’s Robert Treat Hotel.”

See also New York City in the 1960s.
  • Michael Schiavi. Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo.  The University of Wisconsin Press, 2011:  43-4.

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