The Great Migration allowed Bronzeville’s gay people to increase. In a setting of virtual sexual liberty, African-Americans in Bronzeville forged relationships with those of the same sex. Quite a few gay blues singers also enjoyed great fame in Bronzeville’s clubs in the twenties and thirties. Blues singers, such as ‘Ma’ Rainey, Gladys Bentley, and Alberta Hunter entertained in Chicago and recorded several sexually explicit tunes that involved narratives of gay acts. “Sissy Man Blues,” an old tune sung by many male blues singers, proclaims, “If you can’t bring a woman, bring me a sissy man.” The blues mirrored a society that accepted sex—and not excluding gay acts and personalities–as a normal part of life.
Female impersonators (a name commonly used in the 1930s-1950s to refer to drag performers) also had great fame due to the “drag balls” arranged every Halloween and New Year’s Eve. The official “approval” was made feasible because events often happened on those holidays and could pass as regular masquerade balls. The first Chicago balls were racially mixed, a fact often observed by those in attendance or who wrote of them.
The most well-known of these events was “Finnie’s Balls,” which debuted in 1935 by a Black gay street hustler and gambler named Alfred Finnie in the basement of an inn on the corner of 38th Street and Michigan Avenue. Guests paid twenty-five cents to attend.
In the sixties and seventies, African-American gays had shaped a distinct neighborhood with distinct spaces, codes, and vernacular outside of Bronzeville. Hyde Park, South Shore, and the southern part of Grant Park became gay areas. Clubs, such as the Kabbutz or the Jeffery Pub, became a part of Chicago’s African-American gay bar culture. Third World Studios of Chicago distributed a magazine devoted to African-American gay males.
Queers had access to the local Black media. As early as February 1978, talk show host Ouida Lindsey interviewed two Black gay men about the challenges of being African-American and gay on her successful WFLD prime-time talk show. The Civil Rights Movement, the Gay Liberation Movement, and AIDS were key occurrences that intensified the breakdown of Chicago’s Black gay cultures and increased the visibility of the culture’s diversity.
In all of its history and splendor, Bronzeville is evidence that…