I’m an avid reader and I’m always looking for new and interesting books that help me learn and grow. I mostly read non-fiction which helps a lot. However, the topics of those books are things that I may not be personally connected with. Since I live in Chicago and know the city well, I’m trying to broaden my reading material by including more local authors. I want to gain their insights into a city, culture, and way of life that I have in common with them.
This week, I’ve been reading The Boys of Fairy Town: Sodomites, Female Impersonators, Third-sexers, Pansies, Queers, and Sex Morons in Chicago’s First Century by local author Jim Elledge. Elledge’s latest book is a history of gay culture in the Second City from the 1840s through the 1940s. Based on a variety of sources, Elledge vividly portrays life in Chicago for the gay men who lived discreetly in order to pursue their passions and desires. He profiles key individuals that add a slice-of-life context or who were valued for their historical contributions as well as provides context on various areas of the city that were hubs for the gay community.
Some of the men Elledge profiles in his book may not have been historically significant with very little information available about many of them, but they add a historical context to what it was like to live as a gay man. Compared with today’s societal standards, your way of life was often misunderstood and mischaracterized (for example, a man who penetrated another man was masculine and, therefore, not a homosexual). The types of queer men that received the most scrutiny were the ones viewed as feminine. Female impersonators received the most trouble because their behavior was more visible than the type of queer man who dressed in a masculine man. During the 1800s, a man who dressed as a woman could be imprisoned.
I’ve been living in Chicago for nearly eight years. I’ve explored a lot of this city, but there is so much I still haven’t seen. Not only that, but there is a ton of history to explore. I have so much left to learn about the city from a modern context, but I also feel compelled to understand and contextualize its history as well. Knowing many of the neighborhoods now in 2018, it is so fascinating to learn how different those same neighborhoods were during the latter half of the 19th century.
For example, consider the area north of the Chicago River. The Near North and River North neighborhoods are home to amazing restaurants, condos, high-fashion shopping, hotels, and other qualities you would find in an affluent neighborhood. However, during the late 1800s, this area was a Bohemian neighborhood called Towertown. In Towertown, gay men with little money could find cheap accommodations and live within a community where their non-queer neighbors were more tolerant of their way of life. Many of these men were artists, performers, and transients who could, within societal reason, feel free to be unapologetically queer. Female impersonators could walk the streets freely and other types of queer men could pursue sexual conquests at any of the local clubs.
Other areas of the city were profiled as well and had their own distinctive qualities. In the 1800s, Chicago became a major railroad hub. Young men from around the country could hop the trains and ride the rails away from whatever they were trying to escape. Whether they were running from the law, abusive parents, or towns where their queerness was problematic, many of these young boys and men found refuge in Chicago.
In the West Side, where the railroads were serviced and operated, existed several hobo jungles where vagabonds lived and were serviced by the young boys coming off from the trains. There existed an active queer culture among the hobos who occupied the rail cars and abandoned buildings in the area. Even young men new to the city could make some money as prostitutes in the area. Their quality of clothes wouldn’t get them business from the wealthier older gay men at State and Randolph, but they could scrape together a few dollars here and there to survive.
While the Bohemians of Towertown and hobos of the West Side contributed to the city’s colorful and varied tapestry of queerness, the real action was in Bronzeville. Bronzeville, in Chicago’s South Side, is a predominantly African American neighborhood that was built up after many African Americans fled to the north from the south in what is referred to as the Great Migration.
Bronzeville was a haven for queer black men for a few reasons. First, it allowed them to pursue other queer men without racial discrimination being a factor. While white queer men in Towertown would preach free and open love for them as queer men, there were still lines drawn when it came to free and open love as far as black queer men were concerned.
Secondly, Bronzeville was also a very hip place to be because of the jazz and blues music one could see. While white queer men would perform vaudeville and burlesque acts that were inspired by and derived from minstrel shows popular several decades earlier, blues and jazz were the exciting new art forms queer black men pursued at the beginning of the 20th century.
Of all the people profiled in the book, no one fascinated me more than Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon. Jaxon was born in Montgomery, Alabama and referred to as “Half-Pint” because of his diminutive stature. In the early 1910s, he started his career as a singer in Kansas City before travelling around the country to perform. Eventually, he would find regular work in Atlantic City and Chicago with the latter becoming his home.
Jaxon’s performance style was unique. He often sang with a high feminine voice and performed as a female impersonator on many of his records. The best example of this is his recording of “My Daddy Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll).” Originally written and performed by Trixie Smith seven years prior to Jaxon recording his version, the song is about Smith, a woman, making love with her man. With Jaxon, a man, performing the song while imitating a woman with his signature feminine voice, the song takes on a whole new meaning that speaks to Jaxon’s queerness and queer culture. Jaxon also says the word “daddy” more than Smith did, so it heightens the queerness. In addition to the voice, Jaxon adds his own flavor by adding in various grunts and moans which leads many music historians to believe that this is the first recorded song to include an allusion to an orgasm.
The police and government officials in Chicago held varying views on queerness and vice in the city depending on external factors. For example, the queer community received less raids during the Great Depression because they were spending money and boosted the economy. Once that period was over, the city cracked down harder on vice.
With World War II looming over the horizon, the city and its police force began to take a strong stand against anything that was feminine or was anathema to masculinity. As a result, more and more queer clubs were getting raided and shut down. Reading the writing on the wall, Jaxon decided to officially retire from show business to avoid being arrested.
On April 17, 1940, Jaxon put his own feelings into one of the last songs he ever recorded. “Be Your Natural Self” was a declaration of advice to his brothers in the queer community. In the song, Jaxon declares his message that he wants queer men to be able to live freely and without apology. However, he also cautions them and implores them to be careful. It isn’t safe to be a queer man right now, so don’t flaunt your queerness openly. Maybe someday you can do that, but now isn’t the time. However, within the standards of society now, be your natural self the best way you can.
Not much is known about Jaxon’s life after he quit music. He did work for the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and was eventually transferred to Los Angeles. However, the date of Jaxon’s death has been up for date which various sources citing his death date as either 1944, 1953, or 1970.
Society ebbs and flows with regards to what it tolerates. Things are harder for queer men than for straight men, but how much backlash queer men have experienced varies over the years. In the days of Jaxon, it was a career killing move to be discovered as a female impersonator. Now, we have major television shows featuring female impersonators and drag queens.
Same-sex marriage is legal now, but that freedom might also be in trouble with Trump’s latest Supreme Court pick to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy. A lot of progress has been made within the realm of LGBTQ+ rights, but there looms over the horizon groups of people and actions that could potentially reverse that progress. While it has been fascinating to learn about Chicago’s gay community during the first 100 years of it being a proper city, but the discrimination that comes with that period is not something we need today.