A brief history of the Pansy Craze – the beginning of LGBTQ nightlife

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Like absolutely everything else, LGBTQ nightlife had to start somewhere.

It owes its beginnings to a period in the late 1920s and early 1930s called the Pansy Craze, which prompted a surge in the popularity of gay clubs and performers.

During the Pansy Craze, people in the LGBTQ community performed on stages in cities around the world, but New York’s Greenwich Village, Times Square and Harlem were at its centre, hosting some of the most renowned drag acts of the 1920s.

It was the early 1930s, however, when gay subculture became mainstream and rose to prominence on the stages of Manhattan.

The LGBT community becomes more visible

A brief history of the Pansy Craze – the beginning of LGBTQ nightlife

Why? Well, prohibition in the US had a large part to play in things. How come? Because everyone was in search of a delicious drink, of course.

Rather than doing what it was supposed to do, prohibition actually played a part in getting the party started. Because, unsurprisingly, alcohol brought people from all walks of life together in speakeasies and underground culture.

“It’s not just that they were visible, but that popular culture and newspapers at the time remarked on their visibility – everyone knew that they were visible,” says Chad Heap, a professor at George Washington University.

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And, while many Americans were disapproving of LGBTQ people, many of them were totally cool with their parties, performances, balls and beauty contests.

Some things never change.

“It’s pretty amazing just how widespread these balls were,” Heap explains.

“Almost every newspaper article about them has a list of 20 to 30 well-known people of the day who were in attendance as spectators.

“It was just a widely integrated part of life in the 1920s and 30s.”

Things go (fake) tits up

A brief history of the Pansy Craze – the beginning of LGBTQ nightlife

In 1931, female impersonator Karyl Norman was caught up in a police raid at Manhattan’s Pansy Club, and on the same night police shut down a speakeasy called Club Calais.

Police were then stationed at the door of every pansy nightlife hotspot, and female impersonators were banned from local clubs.

Unable to work in New York, famous drag acts Gene Malin and Gladys Bentley (who we’ll get to later) upped and left for Boston and San Francisco, respectively.

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Then, in 1933, prohibition was repealed, and alcohol was only allowed to be served in “orderly” places, which – you guessed it – didn’t include the LGBTQ scene.

And, with the end of prohibition came the end of sympathetic portrayals of gay characters in Hollywood films and theatre.

In the mid ‘30s, the Hays Code was put into effect, which restricted and effectively banned the performances of openly gay characters.

The death of Gene Malin didn’t help either

A brief history of the Pansy Craze – the beginning of LGBTQ nightlife

According to Variety, Gene Malin was “the best entertainer in the Village joints along the pansy lines” – that is until he died in 1933, beginning the end of the Pansy Craze.

Malin began his career in drag as Imogene Wilson, before ditching it and reinventing himself as a camp and openly gay man.

“What was novel is that he did not bring a drag act to the club, but instead performed in elegant men’s clothing, and brought with him the camp wit of the gay subculture,” explains LGBT historian JD Doyle.

“If he was heckled by men at the club he knew how to cut them to shreds, to the delight of the crowd.”

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On the night of his death (August 10, 1933), Malin had been playing Last Night of Jean Malin at the Ship Cafe.

He left with his boyfriend Jimmy Forlenza and actor Patsy Kelly to head to a party at the Hollywood Barn.

Sadly, Malin put his car into reverse and drove it off Venice Pier. Forlenza and Kelly escaped, but Malin tragically died at the age of 25.

Other notable drag acts from the Pansy Craze

Gladys Bentley

Other LGBTQ performers from around this time included Ray Bourbon, Karyl Norman, Bruz Fletcher, Dwight Fiske and Madame Spivy, a “lesbian Noel Coward” who performed at her famous rooftop cabaret in Manhattan.

And let’s not forget Gladys Bentley, an American blues singer, pianist and entertainer during the Harlem Renaissance – a similar cultural, social, and artistic explosion that took place in Harlem between the end of World War I and the middle of the 1930s.

She dressed in men’s clothes when she performed, backed up by a chorus line of drag queens, played piano and sang in a deep, growling voice while flirting with women in the audience.

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If you enjoyed this brief history of the Pansy Craze, take a look at some of our favourite lesbian and bisexual women throughout history, or head here to find out some mind-blowing LGBT facts about Victorian England.

All images credited Creative Commons.