Today we’re joined by author Kate McMurray, whose newest release (out this week!) is a historical m/m romance set in the 1920s in America. It’s got Prohibition, dance, and the mob. Yow! Kate is here to talk about what it actually meant to be gay during that time.
My novel Such a Dance is largely about the relationship between a male dancer (Eddie) and a Mob boss (Lane), set in the era of Prohibition and Roaring Twenties. It was a particularly interesting period to write in because, contrary to what I think is widely believed, the 1920s were not a terrible time to be gay in New York City. So, in honor of the release of the book, I thought I’d talk a little about what it was like to be gay in the ‘20s.
Progress doesn’t always happen in a straight line. One of the things that I find particularly compelling about the Jazz Age is that it was this burst forward in almost every aspect of life—technology, fashion, sports, rights for women, and so on—but a lot of civil rights progress was later undone by the Great Depression, World War II, and a return to an emphasis on “traditional” values in the 1950s.
We forget, then, that New York City had thriving gay communities in the 1920s, especially in Greenwich Village, Harlem, and Times Square. In fact, George Chauncey, in his book Gay New York, makes a fairly compelling case that New York became less tolerant of LGBT people after World War II than it had been before the war.
Spaces for gay men had existed in New York since its founding, though the community began to coalesce in the late 19th century, particularly at dance halls and “resorts” along the Bowery. Many of these closed in the early part of the 20th century, but there were gay clubs and speakeasies throughout the city during the Jazz Age. The Hotel Astor is a classic example. The hotel stood on the block in Times Square currently occupied by MTV Studios, but in the 1920s, it was one of the most luxurious hotels in the city. The hotel bar had an entire section roped off for gay men to meet each other, and they were welcomed there as long as they kept their interactions discreet.
Gay men had often found refuge in the arts, and in the book, Eddie, who dances in a low-rent knock-off version of the Ziegfeld Follies, exists in a world where gay men exist but no one talks about them. He knows where to go to meet other men and he knows gay men are among his coworkers at the theater, but he has to maintain a certain image in order to keep theatergoers in their seats. He thus has a fake relationship with his dance partner Marian, and together they go out to all of the hottest clubs in Times Square, to see and be seen.
After all, sodomy in New York City was still illegal in the 1920s, and it was possible to be arrested for lewd activity if two men acted on their affection for each other in public. How frequently those arrests occurred depended on the whim of the police officers patrolling. The Bryant Park of the 1920s, for example, was a popular spot to pick up male prostitutes. In Such a Dance, the character of Julian is a part of this particular underground, and he frequently gets arrested and beat up for his trouble, but he doesn’t see another way to be himself within the confines of New York society of the time.
In the novel, Lane runs a speakeasy controlled by the Sicilian Mafia, created not out of charity for the gay community but instead to fill an economic niche. The Marigold is the brainchild of Lane’s boss, but he’s a little ahead of his time; gay bars controlled by the Mob weren’t really around much until the 1930s, as the Mob continued to find ways to monetize illegal activity. (Stonewall was, in fact, a Mob-controlled gay bar opened in the early 1960s, and the raid on the night of the riots was in part motivated by police trying to crack down on Mob activity.)
It’s worth noting that gay men of the 1920s were allowed to be themselves in part because it wouldn’t have occurred to many people that gay culture would even be a thing. Masculinity has been scrutinized and policed in different ways throughout history, and it may not have dawned on someone not of a certain sub-culture that a dancer or a flamboyant man had sexual interest in anyone other than women.
Such a Dance is a small slice of life in the 1920s, set in 1927, the high-water mark of the era. There’s a lot that happened that year that the book doesn’t touch on, but I tried to make my portrayal of gay men of the era authentic and realistic while still telling a good story.
When a vaudeville dancer meets a sexy mobster in a speakeasy for men, the sparks fly, the gin flows, the jazz sizzles—and the heat is on…
New York City, 1927.
Eddie Cotton is a talented song-and-dance man with a sassy sidekick, a crowd-pleasing act, and a promising future on Broadway. What he doesn’t have is someone to love. Being gay in an era of prohibition and police raids, Eddie doesn’t have many opportunities to meet men like himself—until he discovers a hot new jazz club for gentlemen of a certain bent…and sets eyes on the most seductive, and dangerous, man he’s ever seen.
Lane Carillo is a handsome young Sicilian who looks like Valentino—and works for the Mob. He’s never hidden his sexuality from his boss, which is why he was chosen to run a private night club for men. When Lane spots Eddie at the bar, it’s lust at first sight. Soon, the unlikely pair are falling hard and fast—in love. But when their whirlwind romance starts raising eyebrows all across town, Lane and Eddie have to decide if their relationship is doomed…or something special worth fighting for.
Kate McMurray is an award-winning romance author and an unabashed romance fan. When she’s not writing, she works as a nonfiction editor, dabbles in various crafts, and is maybe a tiny bit obsessed with baseball. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and KateMcMurray.com.