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It’s 1951. You’re visiting D.C. on business. You want to find a gay bar. But…how? You don’t know the city. It’s risky. Being outed could cost you your job.
Here’s where Washington Confidential could have come in handy for closeted tourists in decades past. The massive bestseller was an infamous guide to the D.C. demimonde. Authors Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer were a pair of right-wing hacks determined to peel back the city’s white-frosted veneer to expose a fetid underbelly of Communist sympathizers, Chinese bookies, call girls, Mafiosi, and homosexuals. But to service their agenda, they front-loaded their screed with addresses—even phone numbers—of houses of ill-repute, escort services, gay bars, gambling dens, and clip joints. “Fags like a restaurant known as Mickey’s behind the Mayflower,” the authors sniff. “One night two Congressmen, a couple of army officers and two young servicemen were mixing beer and gin there, and kissing each other. They also swish around the Sand Bar in Thomas Circle.”
Washington Confidential drips with disdain, but it’s an underhanded ethnography rich in fascinating period detail. A chapter dedicated to the city’s gay scene—titled “Garden of Pansies”—lists at least a dozen gay bars, including one for “mannish women,” the Show Boat Bar at 13th and H streets NW. And the authors thoughtfully and thoroughly included the city’s foremost spots for cruising. (1951 time-travelers, check the public bathrooms at Lafayette Square.)
The book was written right after the “Lavender Scare,” when 91 gay people were purged from the State Department, and language legitimizing the investigation of “perverts” was written into the Internal Security Act of 1950. The book gleefully names—and mocks—some of the men persecuted for being gay. “The government is honeycombed with people you wouldn’t let in your garbage-wagons,” it warns. “With more than 6,000 fairies in government office, you may be concerned about the security of the country.”
While the book reads now as a camp artifact, it also offers invaluable grist for sociologists and historians. Take the breathlessly recounted raid of a midnight yachting party on the Potomac, involving a hundred cops and “1,700 Negro men, all dressed as women, on the boat, and as many more trying to get on.” Or its scandalized summary of what we, today, might call queer world-building. “There is free crossing of racial lines among fairies and lesbians,” the authors tsk, upon attending a party described as “an inter-racial, inter-middle-sex mélange, with long-haired, made-up Negro and white boys simpering while females of both races mingled in unmistakable exaltation.”
Yummy. Sounds like an amazing Pride party to me. A toast at yours, if you please, to those courageous citizens of the District who preceded us. Long may we mélange.