Labor of Love

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Authors: Moira Weigel
Werther met dozens of gay men in bars and cafés. Late at night, the most ordinary-looking cafeteria could turn into “a gathering spot for that nocturnal clan, the third sexers,” as the tabloid Broadway Brevities called them. Crowds gathered every night at Childs, a large twenty-four-hour cafeteria near Columbus Circle. In establishments like Childs, Werther saw powdered and rouged men who called themselves “fairies,” construction workers whose biceps bulged out of rolled-up shirtsleeves, and men in suits playfully debating the merits of new literary magazines. There was always at least one group of female prostitutes clustered around a table. The rest of the space teemed with boisterous cliques of Bohemians, male and female. Some were there with queer friends; others came simply to take in the scene. After the cafeteria, they could move on to one of the saloons called “black and tans,” where interracial couples cavorted openly.
    It was not always easy to tell who was who, or what they wanted. Was the man quietly sipping his coffee at the counter just passing time? Or was he looking to get picked up? The uncertainty was exciting, but it could be dangerous. Just weeks before the first time he went to Childs, Werther noted in his diary that the police had raided the Hotel Koenig, a bar in the East Village. They had found a room packed with men who danced together and kissed. Twenty-three were charged with “degenerate, disorderly conduct,” and sentenced to ten days in the workhouse.
    To stay safe, you had to learn to hide in plain sight. As shopgirls did their hair and chose their clothes in order to broadcast their personalities and attract the attentions of eligible customers or colleagues, men who wanted to attract other men developed a secret language. Like shopgirls, they often used their taste to speak it.
    Werther recalled wearing white kid gloves and a red bow tie to identify himself as a “fairy” to the working-class youths on Fourteenth Street. Other “inverts” were known to favor green. These articles of clothing served as badges of identification. To don them was a way of announcing your sexuality to those in the know, without giving yourself away to straight colleagues or acquaintances. If a man like Werther wore his red tie to a lecture or a laboratory, the men he worked with might raise an eyebrow at his eccentric fashion sense, but they would not think to call the cops about it. And if Werther liked the look of a man in a red tie he saw sitting on a park bench smoking a cigarette, he could safely approach him, asking, Do you have a match?
    *   *   *
    The signals that men like Werther used to flirt turned ordinary streets and parks into a kind of secret theater. The subculture supplied the costumes and the scripts. This color. That hand gesture. In 1951, the psychologist Edward Sagarin described how it worked. Published under the pseudonym Donald Webster Cory, The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach became the most famous of a series of gay manifestos that appeared over the decade. It also served as a how-to manual for many nervous cruisers.
    Cory explained that a “gay street” might look like any other street. If you were a man interested in men, when you struck up a conversation on such a street, you had to pay close attention. So would your interlocutor, if he was what you hoped. “In the exchange of words,” Cory wrote, “each is seeking a clue. Neither desires effeminacy, yet each needs just a suggestion of it, in a softness of tone, an over enunciation of word sounds, an affectation in the movement of the hands or in the method of holding the cigarette.”
    To get what you wanted, you had to recognize, while being recognizable. And so you played it, slightly, up. Men learned to imitate the signals they saw other men send: the lift of a voice, the tilt of a head. But to out yourself in the 1940s or

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