Mapped: The underground origins of LA’s queer nightclubs

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Earlier this year, Curious Coast set out to investigate what our team initially thought to be an ostensibly clear-cut — albeit, nonetheless compelling — question. The question was submitted to us by Jim Lingenfelter, one of our historically-inclined Los Angeles listeners. He wanted to know more about the origins of our city’s LGBTQ nightclubs, specifically those that existed in the 1930s, during a particularly fascinating (and, as our months-long quest for answers has confirmed, particularly cryptic) sliver of queer history known as the “Pansy Craze.” And, to set the record straight upfront: Yes, gay nightclubs did exist in 1930s Los Angeles. In fact, for a short-lived while, queer visibility in nightlife spaces actually seemed to flourish.

It might be worth noting here that, at the time, the term “gay” was essentially synonymous with the contemporary use of “queer.” According to LGBTQ historian Lillian Faderman, who authored the 2006 book, “Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians,” “[The word “gay”] was an umbrella term for all those who weren’t ‘straight,’ in effect,” adding that “it really described perhaps everyone that is now described under ‘L’ and ‘B’ and ‘T’ and ‘Q.'”

Most historians trace the origins of LGBTQ nightlife (in U.S. cities, but also abroad) back to the “Pansy Craze,” which unfurled during the early-mid 1920s and lasted until the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. During the Craze, drag performers — then called “pansy performers” — saw a notable increase in both underground and mainstream popularity.

By the end of the 1920s, the mainstream popularity of drag balls had increased pretty significantly —  a byproduct of Prohibition’s impact on the nation’s nightlife.

Prohibition played a somewhat paradoxical role, considering its intentions, in prompting this mini-wave of visible queer culture, which rapidly spread from its origins in New York to a medley of other metropolitan cities, like San Francisco and Los Angeles. With the onset of Prohibition in 1920, legitimate bars across the U.S. were forced to close down, making way for a mecca of illegal speakeasies to crop in in their place. Many of those underground (as in, literally underground, most of the time) clubs featured musical acts by drag performers, or “pansies.” Everyone — queer, straight, or otherwise — was flocking to the same subterranean venues looking for alcohol.

In Los Angeles, the 1920s saw the rise of West Hollywood (originally called Sherman) as a hub for queer culture and, by proxy, queer nightlife. As most Angelenos are likely well-aware, West Hollywood’s legacy as a home for the city’s LGBTQ community has endured.

During the Prohibition era, West Hollywood became an attractive nightlife spot for the LGBTQ community, in large part, because of its location: First, Sherman existed in unincorporated county territory, which meant the town and its establishments saw relatively lax oversight by the notoriously homophobic Sheriff’s Department; second, its position between Hollywood and Beverly Hills made it a natural stopover for film industry personnel, dozens of whom were suspected to have been queer, though it was ostensibly uncouth (and potentially dangerous) to say so at the time.

But, while West Hollywood might be the most famous L.A. neighborhood to house a notable LGBTQ presence, history says otherwise. So, in an effort to showcase the evolution of L.A.’s queer nightlife scene — with a particular focus on its Pansy Craze origins — we’ve compiled an interactive map, charting the initial germination and proximate spread of nightclubs catering to LGBTQ folks across the city.  

What do you want to know more about?

(Photo: Promotional photo of Bruz Fletcher, who performed on the Sunset Strip for five years. Photo courtesy of Tyler Alpern)