Gay History as Guest Speaker




T

his
year was the fourth time I’ve taught “Introduction to
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies” at Dartmouth
College. The course covers history, sociology, theory, and current
events and usually draws students from a wide variety of backgrounds.
While these are all eager students, the part of this that they have
the most trouble with is the history. I don’t mean reading
German pseudo-medical tracts about homosexuality from 1869. I’m
talking about the 1950s. First year students were born in 1988 so
gay life in the 1950s seems an awfully long time ago. 




Six
years ago I had an idea. A close friend, George Mansour (now 72),
was arrested in Boston in 1953 at a gay party in which some men
were having sex. The story was reported in a local Boston tabloid,
the

Mid-town Journal

. I first read the

Journal

story
in 1983 when

Gay Community News

, a Boston-based national
newspaper, ran an article by the Boston Gay History Project that
featured excerpts from the tabloid article. The names of the arrested
men had been blacked out, but that evening I received a phone call
from Mansour telling me that he was one of the men in the story.
Although he was delighted about seeing the article again, he was
also somewhat disturbed. Obviously, getting arrested at 19 for having
gay sex was not a young person’s ideal method of coming out—especially
in 1953. 


Over the years, Mansour and I have joked about the article. I’ve
brought a photocopy of it to dinner parties when the talk has turned
to gay history in the 1950s. 


In 2002 I decided it would be a good academic exercise for my students
to learn how to plan and execute an oral history, and for them to
meet Mansour. I made copies of the

Mid-town Journal

article
and chose—seemingly at random— Mansour’s name from
the article and told them to focus their questions on his experience.
I didn’t tell them that he was alive and well, living in Boston,
and that he was a friend of mine. On the day the questions were
due, George came to class. The students were amazed. 


They conducted their oral history and Mansour dazzled them with
stories of Boston’s gay night life in the 1950s, growing up
queer 50 years ago, and what it was like to be arrested for being
gay. 


The astonishing thing about those classes was how well the students
responded to the material. The sensationalistic language of the

Mid-town Journal

reminded them of the

Enquirer

, but also
of the tone of

Fox News



The

Journal

’s story was simple:  on March 9, 1953,
four men—John Morello, George Mansour, Louis DeBourbon, and
Elvin Lewis (between the ages of 19 and 30)—attended a private
party in an apartment at 17 Melrose Street in Bay Village, Boston,
during which they were arrested by Boston police. Lewis and Mansour
were caught engaging in a sexual act in a second-floor bedroom behind
a closed door; DeBourbon and Morello were partying in another room.
The police came to the house on an alleged complaint about a loud
party. When they arrived at the house shortly after midnight, two
men were just leaving and the police used the opportunity to enter.
A fifth man, John Perkins, 56, who held the lease on the apartment,
was also arrested, even though he was at work while the party was
taking place. 


Lewis, Mansour, DeBourbon, and Morello were convicted of morals
charges and sentenced to six-month suspended sentences with two
years of probation. Perkins was charged with allowing his home to
be used for “lewd purposes” and was sentenced to nine
months in jail. 


For the students the

Mid-town Journal

article, with its “shocking”
details and intensely homophobic prejudices, sounded to them campy
in its extravagance. Take the article’s lengthy opening line:
“Raising their plucked eyebrows and pursing their lips that
retained faint traces of hurriedly removed Chinese red as the faint
odor of Chanel number 7 and Bewitching Hour wafted gently across
the room in Central Criminal Court, five defendants, arrested the
night before during a wild birthday sex party, who sat perched on
the edge of their chairs like special bound copies of the Kinsey
Report, entered not guilty pleas to charges of morals violations,
then cast haughty glances of disdain at spectators who they were
certain had already judged them.”  


But, after the campiness wore off, it was clear that the students
understood the implications for these men—as well as for their
own lives in the Bush America of 2006. Being a gay or lesbian 19-year-old
may be different now than in 1953, but much about this story was
contemporary. It was only in 2003 that the Supreme Court decided

Lawrence v. Texas

, which declared U.S. sodomy laws unconstitutional. 


While the oral history project is designed as a “history lesson,”
the best aspect of Mansour’s visit was for the students to
hear someone speak frankly about sex. They laughed at his stories,
but you could see their amazement when they realized that not only
is gay history about sex, but that average, everyday sexuality can
exist for older people and be spoken about in terms that are not
sensationalistic, prurient, or commercialized. 


The following is an excerpt from Mansour’s oral history: 




Q: How accurate was the reporting in the

Mid-town Journal

?

 


MANSOUR: It was almost totally inaccurate. No one was doing drag,
no one was wearing makeup. It was completely sensationalized in
that respect. They also got my age wrong—although they did
get my address correct—I was 19 at the time, not 24. Morello—whom
I hardly knew—and I didn’t go shopping the day before
to buy cookies and fudge; that was totally made up. 




Was the party like they described? 



No. There weren’t that many people there. I have no recollection
of an exotic dancer named Roxanne, please. How could they make that
up? And there were no jacketless sailors meandering around in their
T-shirts. It makes it sound like

Querelle

by Fassbinder.
It wasn’t that much fun. 







Did you know the other men ? 



I knew John Perkins who was in his 50s and seemed very old to me.
I was friends with Louis DeBourbon. Actually, I’m still friends
with him; he lives in San Francisco and visits once a year. But
I didn’t know the others. 




Did you invite the sailors from a local bar named Jock’s? 



I didn’t. Morello might have. Of course it is not Jock’s
but Jacques and it’s still there in Bay Village. Sure, I’m
not going to pretend that it wasn’t a party that was set up
to encourage some sex. But it wasn’t an all-out orgy. 




But did you have sex with a sailor named Elvin Lewis? 



The

Journal

claims I was “having an affair” with
him—I think I was blowing him. He was the cutest one there.
I remember when the police came to the bedroom door I looked up,
thinking it was some of the other party people, and said, “Oh,
are they selling tickets now?” 




Did you go to a lot of parties like this back then? 



No, unfortunately. I mean not unfortunately because I got arrested,
but because I would have had more sex with people. 




What happened the night you were arrested? 



I really don’t have a clear memory. It was all very traumatic—getting
arrested on a sex and morals charge is not something that was taken
lightly then. And I was living at home. 




Did your parents get involved? 



I remember the next morning my father was there with me at court.
My parents were wonderful. These were not sophisticated, educated
people, and my father said to me, “If you want to meet people
I want you to bring them back to the house, that will be safer for
you.” It’s incredible when you think about it. Other people
would have disowned their children, but they wanted me to be safe. 




What happened to Elvin Lewis, who was  stationed in Boston? 



I never saw or heard of him again. I imagine he might have been
dishonorably discharged. There was no “don’t ask, don’t
tell.” Getting arrested certainly looked bad. I like to imagine
that he is a happily married grandfather in Iowa who dreams about
the best sex he never got to finish with me, 50 years ago. 




Aside from the trauma of being arrested and convicted, did the
arrest have any other effect on your life? 



My God, yes. I had graduated high school and was valedictorian.
I had applied and was accepted at Boston University. When they discovered
I had been convicted on a morals change, they rescinded the acceptance.
So I never went to college or had any education after high school.
One hopes things are better now, but given BU’s recent decision
to ban gay and lesbian clubs, one has to wonder. 




Were you completely crushed by this? 



I guess the good part of this was that I changed my whole attitude.
I just said, “Fuck it, if this is what it means to be gay,
I’m going to do whatever I want and need to get ahead. If they
aren’t going to treat me with any respect, why should I play
by their rules?” The arrest really gave me the courage to face
down people in charge and see through their completely bankrupt
rules. 




What did you do? 



Well, I had a series of jobs—lying about the arrest record
to get them—and finally got a job working as a film dispatcher.
I remember that the ad said that it was an “equal opportunity”
employer, which, of course, at that time meant that they did not
racially discriminate. Most of the dispatcher jobs were seen as
“women’s jobs,” but I wanted a job in the film industry—I
loved movies, even then— and said they had to hire me, a man,
because they were an equal-opportunity employer. They did. And—this
is terrible, but typical—they paid me more for doing the job
than they paid the women. 




Did the arrest follow you through your life? 



Not really. It did give me this enormous sense of anger and of knowing
that if I were to go anywhere in life I had to make my own rules,
that it was stupid to follow society’s rules. I’ve done
quite well. I’ve had a very successful career as a film booker.
I had a very successful 44-year-long relationship and am quite happy. 




Did the arrest teach you anything? 



Yes. I learned that I had to take chances to get what I wanted and
that what I wanted was fine.



 







Michael
Bronski teaches gender studies and Jewish studies at Dartmouth College.
His last book was



Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden
Age of Gay Male Pulps







(St. Martin’s
Press, 2003).