Down and Out in Paris and London: Where the Gays are Not Out

posted by Madame Bubby

Ok, George Orwell. I had to read Animal Farm in grade school, 1984 in high school, and of my own volition, I read and even identified with the main character the infinitely dreary Keep the Aspidistra Flying (yes, nerdy guys with aspirations to writing and other academic pursuits really shouldn’t try to escape their heteronormative lower middle class roots). And, more significantly, I even snuck a read at my dad’s worn copy of Down and Out in Paris in London.

George Orwell
George Orwell (Source:

Supposedly based on Orwell’s own experiences, this book, written in 1933, narratives the life of a down and out academic/artist type who out of necessity has to take first, a job as a dishwasher in a hotel and then a restaurant in Paris, or plongeur (sounds like plunger, very apropos). Then, arriving back in England, he ends up in the heart of “tramp” culture (homeless persons) and suffers from the futile attempts of both government and private institutions to either contain or reform the organic connection between poverty and society.

1930s Paris
1930s Paris (Source:

When I read it as an adolescent, I was more fascinated by the seedy details (especially about food preparation, as in, let’s wipe the sawdust off the toast dropped on the floor so the hotel guest can get the breakfast quickly), the suspense that occurs as the persona struggles to obtain basic necessities, and even the threat of and eruptions of violence.

Yet, now, re-reading it, I noticed the author’s virulent homophobia. Yes, definitely a product of the time and place, but even though it isn’t a main theme, it shows up at various cringeworthy points in the narrative in language of contempt or titillation. Orwell assumes this underbelly of society at that time is the place where such persons can pursue their “perverted” desires, which in most cases exploitation of the even less powerful.

Down and Out in Paris and London book cover

For example, in recounting his experience as a dishwasher at a hotel in Paris, he titillates, but does not give details, about the “old debauchees who frequented hotels in search of pretty page boys.” The “French episode,” of course, focuses more on illicit heterosexual sex; it’s a given that most of the men will have “mistresses.” Yet, and for Orwell this fact is an indictment on the condition of poverty, no one seems to be married, except for the couple who deceptively sells packets of pornographic postcards to tourists. Deception, because once the buyers open the packet, no dirty pictures, but instead pictures of common Parisian tourists destinations. And the buyers of course are too embarrassed to complain!

Men asleep on Southwark Bridge
Men asleep on Southwark Bridge (Source:

In the “English episode,” however, the attitudes of contempt and disgust toward homosexuality really come to the fore. The persona in his journeys among the tramps ends up at some place called a “spike.” These prison-like places (inmates are locked in for the night) apparently served as shelters for the homeless population during this period. He gets an involuntary roommate for the night in a room with no beds:

About midnight the other man began making homosexual attempts upon me – a nasty experience in a locked, pitch-dark cell. He was a feeble creature and I could manage him easily, but of course it was impossible to go to sleep again. For the rest of the night we stayed awake, smoking and talking. The man told me the story of his life – he was a fitter, out of work for three years. He said that his wife had promptly deserted him when he lost his job, and he had been so long away from women that he had almost forgotten what they were like. Homosexuality is general among tramps of long standing, he said.

There’s definitely an awful truth here, but it’s not the dynamic of same-sex sex occurring in prison or prison-like settings. It’s his view that such relations are perverse, and as Orwell later argues in the book to the point of a tirade, that the lack of stable relationships with women drives these men to such antisocial acts. What’s kind of queer about this account, though, is that the persona doesn’t attack the guy or even kill him; he ends up forming a sort of bond, however forced because of the situation. But then, the fact that the guy is definitely not an effeminate type but really a manly man out on his luck makes such bonding acceptable.

Later, in one the awful cheap lodging houses where the persona spends the night, he encounters an extremely drunk older gent who claims to be in the same social class as him, an “old Etonian” or “public school boy,” that is, someone of the more genteel class with an education. The social bond does not occur here, because the guy is too drunk to even offer him his cherry brandy, and the other occupants of the room yell at him to go back to his bed and shut up. The older gent keeps talking to himself, muttering, (quite tellingly given the persona’s reflection on the incident) “M -- , you are past redemption,” before finally passing out, and thus giving the persona time to write a description and an assumption rooted in a stereotype:

Common lodging house
Common lodging house (Source:

He was a man of about fifty, with a refined, worn face, and, curiously enough, quite fashionably dressed. It was queer to see his good patent-leather shoes sticking out of that filthy bed. It occurred to me too, that the cherry brandy must have cost the equivalent of a fortnight’s lodging, so he could not have been seriously hard up. Perhaps he frequented common lodging-houses in search of the “nancy boys.”

Yes, here is the stereotype. Wealthy drunk “old queen” slumming and exploiting the effeminate types who are probably selling their bodies to survive. Yes, that exploitative dynamic was definitely occurring, but the author reveals an almost laconic contempt for this person, in fact, anyone in the sexual underground of the period. Apparently, in this case, they are too queer to be redeemed from a world sullied by a hopeless cycle of poverty that degrades human self-respect and dignity, as the narrator is so intent on exposing in this book.

The word queer, for Orwell, true again to his time and place, doesn’t equate with LGBTQ; for him, it means anything, yes anything out of that ever elusive and illusory life of Father reading the paper and Mother sewing and the dog and two children playing in the living room in front of the fire, what he claims in The Road to Wigan Pier is a rare place of goodness and security in a world built on various forms of exploitation. For him, it seems the exploited will only find salvation in a future utopia, which somehow will take the raw materials of the Industrial Revolution and shape them into a world of infinite leisure devoid of any contact with the dirt and chaos and violence and perverted gay sex of Down and Out in Paris and London.

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Some LGBTQ Slang Terms from the Early '60s & Before: Revealing a Hidden Culture

posted by Madame Bubby

Cover of The Guild Dictionary of Homosexual Terms

In our archives, we carry a fascinating title called The Guild Dictionary of Homosexual Terms, which looks to be from the early to middle of the 1960s. Guild Press was a grounbreaking outfit as H. Lynn Womack was not afraid of being open about the audience of his diverse array of publications: gays and lesbians. He did not censor, he did not code, and by publishing this small book by one Dr. Albert Ellis, he claims that LGBTQ persons existed and still exist in history, and their cultural vocabulary developed under systemic oppression matters.

Now, some of the terms to a contemporary audience might seem degrading or even offensive or at least quaint, but that's part of the creative paradox of a vocabulary that is trying to linguistically interpret something as complex and fluid as sexual experience, and in this case, more so, as the persons who participated in non-heteronormative sexual experiences couldn't even speak of them or themselves.

Here are a few that I think give some insight into the hidden culture of that time, understanding that many of these terms were employed heterosexually as well, and used by heterosexuals to denigrate LGBTQ persons.

Abdicate: Forced to leave a public toilet by an attendant, said of male homosexuals who frequent public rests rooms. Thus, queens are forced to abdicate.

Central Park men's room, 1962
Central Park men's room, 1962 - Source:

Angel with a Dirty Face: A male homosexual who would like to indulge in homosexual practice but who is timid or hesitant about it. (Originated in mid-30s with motion picture Angels with Dirty Faces, a 1930s gangster film with James Cagney.)

Auntie: Middle-aged or aging male homosexual, usually (but not always) overly effeminate in character. The term can be applied either in a manner mildly derogatory or even as a term of slight affection.

Bugle Boy: Refers to the person who permits someone to perform fellation upon him. (Supposedly, according to the text, popular with the “sophisticated college set.”)

Checkers, Play: To move from seat to seat in a motion picture house in an effort to find a willing youth. A homosexual sits next to a likely “candidate” and makes some verbal or physical overture or “pass”; if rejected, he moves to another seat, and so on.

Chicago theater and other State Street theaters in Chicago, 1950

Fruit Picker: Term used to describe men who both think of themselves as “straight” and who are so considered by those who know them, but who seek out homosexuals for sexual gratification at the moment.

Motel Time: Can be used as a call to closing in a gay bar as part of “Suck up, everybody, it's motel time.” Now is the time to get down to sex and indicates where. Can also be used (alone) as a call to closing in a heterosexual bar.

Tampa, Florida gay bar, 1950s
Tampa, Florida gay bar, 1950s

Poundcake, To Eat: To lick the anus.

There's so much more in this little book, including some tidbits on some famous gay historical figures.

One wonders, not so much that some of the types of persons described above and even some of the scenarios are still part of the LGBTQ experience, but that we've developed new language for such persons and experiences in a markedly different social context. After all, what the book calls “green queens” still hang out in parks and forest preserves for public sex, but they often hook up via the ubiquitous smart phone.

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posted by Madame Bubby

Lately many libraries (probably more boards that run libraries composed of evangelicals or traditional Catholics, now in alliance against anything that doesn't endorse “heteronormativity”) are censoring LGBTQ-themed books, especially that bestselling book by John Oliver, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, about a certain male bunny named Marlon Bundo who discovers the love of his life, who happens to be another male.

Marlon Bundo book cover

We seem to be going around in a circle where instead of a person, a book or any artistic creation is branded with as scarlet letter. Here are some the more extreme, even ludicrous instances of censorship against LGBTQ-related artistic creations:

Michaelangelo was homosexual, but he worked for a papacy which was becoming increasingly puritanical as it attempted to restrengthen itself in response to the Protestant Reformation. Male nudes appeared in his fresco The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. In 1559, five years before the artist's death, the Vatican hired someone to paint loincloths on the more risuque ones. Poor Daniel de Volterra became “the breeches maker.” In 1563, after the Council of Trent really started to crack down on any nudity in religious art (or any art, in fact), there was even talk of destroying it. Luckily, it did not happen thanks to protests by nobles and other artists. The Church had to back down. (It needed money.)

The Last Judgment

Then, much later, in 1933, a time of reaction to the Roaring Twenties, a shipment of art books containing images from The Last Judgment was seized by U.S. Customs as obscene material (someone who worked there had never heard of this painting; shows the importance of an liberal education, in my opinion). A few days later, the Treasure Department admitted the mistake and turned over the books.

Also during the 1930s, the screen version of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour was reworked, even bowdlerized, to omit any references to lesbianism. The lesbian character became a heterosexual, making the love triangle heteronormative. In fact, the Code, now in full force, even forbade meniton that the movie, called These Three, was based on the play.

The cast of These Three
The cast of These Three

In 1961, the Motion Picture Association of America relaxed the code mentioned above, which forbade any portrayal of homosexuality on the screen. But, in 1962, it still did not approve of the film Victim, because it actually metioned those “H” words, homosexual and homosexuality, on screen. Its star, Dirk Bogarde, was gay, but given the overall social climate of the period, he had to keep it in the closet. (He came close to really revealing his sexuality when he sported tight leather pants in the campy Western, The Singer Not the Song.)

Dirk Bogarde in Victim
Dirk Bogarde in Victim

In 1979, when the sexual liberation movements were in full swing, right before the age of AIDS and the ascendancy of Reagan/Thatcher and the Religious Right, British customs officials seized and burned 100 copies of The Joy of Gay Sex. They ignored 200 copies of The Joy of Lesbian Sex, but in 1984 they seized and shredded both books.

Cover of The Joy of Gay Sex

I wonder if the real issue here is fear combined with a substantial dose of ignorance. It's not like these creations are going to appeal to children, though I am certain some fanatics would use the for them appropriate religious imagery of The Last Judgment to scare children.

The irony here is those who would use power to limit knowledge and impose rigid boundaries, even though knowledge itself is power. When used wisely, it is a power that acknowleges limitation but at the same time understands that the world and those who dwell in it will always be more than we know.

Source: Leigh Rutledge, The Gay Book of Lists

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Bijou Classics for the Fourth of July 2018

I'm feeling kind of blogged out as the dog days of summer approach, so this Fourth of July weekend I am showcasing a couple of our titles that are relevant to the violent tensions between boundaries and bridges, ideals and ideology, illusion and reality that our country is currently wrestling with.

In our title Blue Angel (1986), directed by Jurgen Bauer and produced by and starring Mackenzie Poe, a cabaret gay sex show in the style of 1930's Weimar Berlin draws disturbing parallels between the rise of fascism in Hitler's Germany and the continued oppression of LGBTQ Americans. One could even claim this show is an act of resistance as the performers break sexual taboos but also dress in leather gear that both embodies and transcend the culture's oppressive power structures.

Images from Blue Angel
Images from Blue Angel

In our title American Cream (1972), director Rob Simple (aka playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie) has created a masterful three-part pictorial comment on America, masculinity and desire. In the final vignette, “Roles,” juxtaposition of the well-heeled Tom and the rough and studly Doug and their ultimate interchangeability as they play roles speaks to a culture that easily blurs any distinction between illusion and reality.

Images from American Cream
Images from American Cream

These movies are both available on DVD and Video on Demand. Don't forget take advantage of our 35 percent off DVDs sale on the website.

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