The Bi Decades?

This originally appeared in BCN issue 111.

The 1920s and 30s were rich in bisexuality, says Juliette

The theme for last summer’s BiCon Ball was 1919-1939,which at first glance might seem to be a rather random period of time to pick out. But it is a period rich in Bi history and Bi icons.
In 1919, in Berlin’s Tiergarten, the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft or Institute of Sex Research was opened by Magnus Hirshfeld, and until its closure in 1933, it was a pioneer for civil rights and social acceptance for LGBT people, as well as providing counseling, sex education, treatment for STDs. It was also a research library with a large archive. Hirshfeld coined the term transexualism, and the Institut offered some of the first modern sex change operations.

Sadly with the change from the Weimar Republic to the Third Reich, the Institut was attacked in May 1933, and its library of 20,000 books and journals, and 5000 images were burnt. It is believed that the list of addresses that the Insitiut had for issuing of its periodicals was used by the Nazis. There is now a new Institut für Sexualwissenschaft which was opened in 1993 at the Hombalt University of Berlin.

Hirshfeld had been a pioneer for equal rights since 1897. He believed in ‘Justice through Science’ and felt that a better scientific understanding would result in less hostility towards LGBT people. He co-wrote a film which featured one of the first portrayals of a gay character on screen. He also campaigned against policies that banned female teachers and civil servants from marrying or having children. Hirshfeld died from a heart attack in 1935, but left a legacy for LGBT rights.

Berlin was the leading city for LGBT visibility, with clubs, newspapers and demos in the 20s and early 30s. It gave the world Marlene Dietrich, who defied convention by having an open marriage, wearing masculine clothing and kissing a woman on screen (‘Morocco’ in 1930). Marlene was discovered by Josef Von Sternberg in 1929 when she played Lola Lola in his film ‘The Blue Angel’. It was Von Sternberg who directed her in Morocco, which earnt her her only Oscar nomination. Marlene had affairs with James Stewart, Edith Piaf, John Wayne and Mercedes de Acosta among others, her husband had a long term mistress that lived with him in a house that Marlene maintained. In some ways it could be said that Marlene and her husband were a poly couple!

In France, Josephine Baker became an instant sensation with her dancing and singing. She was the first African American woman to star in a major motion picture, the first to integrate an American concert hall and the first to become a world famous entertainer. She campaigned for civil rights, and aided the French (her adopted country) during World War II, earning her the Croix de Guerre.
She was famous for her ‘Danse Sauvage’ which she performed wearing a skirt of fake bananas. She was hugely popular in France, but sadly never achieved the same success in the US. She refused to perform to segregated audiences, and this led to Las Vegas integrating its venues. She had many relationships with women as well as men during her life, among them Frida Khala.
Elsewhere in Europe, Russia recognised same sex marriage in 1917 and in 1922 decriminalised homosexual acts. Sadly this was later repealed by Stalin in 1933. Poland made the age of consent for both gay and straight sexual acts equal at 15 in 1932. Incidentally Poland has never criminalised homosexuality; it has always been occupying powers. Denmark decriminalises homosexuality the following year.
In the UK, the emergence of The Bright Young Things, a group of socialites in the 1920s who threw elaborate fancy dress parties that featured cross dressing, dressing up like children and more. There was also the Bloomsbury Group, who were principally writers, intellectuals and artists who held informal discussions in Bloomsbury. Its most well known members were Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, and E. M. Forster. They believed that love was more important than monogamy, and rejected what they saw as the repressive practices of sexual inequality. Much of their work were attacks on these practices.

In 1928, ‘The Well of Loneliness’ was published, which brought the topic of homosexuality to public conversation. Under the threat of criminal proceedings, the publisher withdrew the book after only two editions. Incidentally in 1921, there was an attempt to make sexual acts between women illegal which was rejected by the House of Lords. It is believed that the reason sexual acts between women was never included in the criminalisation of homosexuality was that the authorities did not wish women to become aware that they could have sex with each other!
In the US, there was a level of LGBT acceptance that would not be seen until the 1960s. Until the early 30s, gay clubs were openly operated, and gay actor William Haines was able to live openly with his lover Jimmy Shields. In 1927, Mae West wrote and performed ‘The Drag’ which had homosexuality as its main theme. Mae West was an advocate for LGBT rights, and regarded talking about sex as a basic human right.

Bessie Smith was one of the first recorded blues singers in the US. She was hugely successful from the 20s until her death in a car accident in 1937. She was the highest paid black entertainer of her day, and was known as ‘The Empress of the Blues’. She was also bisexual, and it was a before her funeral, and the funeral itself was attended by over 7000 people. Sadly her grave was unmarked until 1970, when Janis Joplin and Junita Green paid for a headstone. Previous attempts had been thwarted by her estranged husband, who had pocketed money raised for this purpose.
The events of more recent history – Stonewall, Pride, Section 28 etc, have all eclipsed this period of history. Also as this period is between two world wars, those events mean that the period between the wars can be ignored. It can also be difficult to discover bisexual events and people as homosexual was used for all non-heterosexual occurrences.
However it is a fascinating period in history and the more you dig into, the more you find!
Juliette Dowling