Last time I was here, I talked a little about what it was like to be gay in the 1920s. My new novel, Ten Days in August, is set in 1896. So what kind of difference does going back in time thirty years make?
The 1890s were a rough time for LGBT people. There was new scholarship on homosexuality and an increased recognition of it in some medical circles, but in the U.S. and Europe, prosecution for sodomy was on the rise. “Gay” as we think of it now wasn’t really a thing yet; men who we’d call gay or bisexual now often married women but hooked up with men on the side. In New York, men could go to find other men in dance halls and clubs, particularly those in what is now the East Village, along the Bowery or tucked into Bleecker Street. Men of the 1890s had their own version of the hankie code, too—men seeking men could identify each other by certain markers: a red ascot, dyed blond hair, a certain way of dressing.
Most of the clubs of the era were considered dens of sin by the general populace. The most notorious gay club of the time was a place called the Slide, called by many the worst dive in the city. Criticism of the clubs may have had more to do with the homosexual behavior of the men who frequented them more than the actual conditions of the clubs, but regardless, most of the clubs were seedy and frequented by male prostitutes.
It would have been a difficult time to be a gay man, in other words, but not impossible. The real difficulty is for characters like Nicky, a female impersonator, who can’t dress like a woman outside of his club without risking getting arrested for wearing the wrong gendered clothing. And for police detective Hank, who works in a department run by Theodore Roosevelt (yep, that Theodore Roosevelt) who is on a mission to clean up the police department and the city. I referenced this in the book, but this is true: under Roosevelt’s tenure as police commissioner, he fired officers who had taken bribes or let crime occur on their watch, but he also fired officers who committed adultery. (Or else the officer was transferred uptown to the precincts in upper Manhattan, referred to as Goatville by police officers because, at the time, goats still roamed wild.) I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that if Roosevelt discovered one of his detectives had routinely committed homosexual acts that the detective would be out of a job.
But, even in the face of adversity, I like to think love would win. Twenty or more years prior to the events of my novel, Walt Whitman was writing poems about homosexual relationship, before anyone really had a name for them. By the 1870s, the term “homosexual” had been coined, and we know of same-sex couples who beat the odds and lived out their days together. I like to think a couple like Hank and Nicky would find a way.
About Ten Days in August
From the Lower East Side to uptown Manhattan, a curious detective searches for clues on the sidewalks of New York—and finds a secret world of forbidden love that’s too hot to handle…
New York City, 1896. As the temperatures rise, so does the crime rate. At the peak of this sizzling heat wave, police inspector Hank Brandt is called to investigate the scandalous murder of a male prostitute. His colleagues think he should drop the case, but Hank’s interest is piqued, especially when he meets the intriguing key witness: a beautiful female impersonator named Nicholas Sharp.
As a nightclub performer living on the fringes of society, Nicky is reluctant to place his trust in a cop—even one as handsome as Hank. With Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt cracking down on vice in the city, Nicky’s afraid that getting involved could end his career. But when he realizes his life is in danger—and Hank is his strongest ally—the two men hit the streets together to solve the crime. From the tawdry tenements of the Lower East Side to the moneyed mansions of Fifth Avenue, Nicky and Hank are determined to uncover the truth. But when things start heating up between them, it’s not just their lives on the line. It’s their love…
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 has served as President of Rainbow Romance Writers, the LGBT romance chapter of Romance Writers of America, and is currently the president of RWANYC. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.