THIS IS A STORY about gay history ó about how much things have changed and how much they havenít. Fifty years ago this month, George Mansour and three other men were arrested on charges of "morals violations" while attending a gay party in a private apartment in Bay Village. Mansour, who for the past 40 years has been one of the most noted film bookers in the United States ó he was influential in turning the Nickelodeon and Orson Welles theaters into nationally renowned art theaters and now books the Angelika Film Center in New York ó was 19 at the time.
This rather routine arrest ó it was not that uncommon for Boston police to violate basic privacy rights to pursue "morals violations" ó nevertheless made headlines in the Mid-town Journal. The Journal was the cityís premier scandal sheet, a local National EnquirerĖlike eight-page tabloid published in the South End at 37 Rutland Street and sold for a nickel. It specialized in turning routine police reports into hot, sexy news items with shocking headlines, like that on the arrest of a drunken elevator operator: tipsy lift man did not go down on it. So, no surprise, the arrest of five gay men for having sex was prime meat for Journal staffers. The story appeared in the March 13, 1953, edition; the front-page headline, which ran in bold capital letters above the paperís logo, was curiously vague: wild stag bags drag lads. But the subhead, which took up three lines and ran to the right of the logo, explained all: copenhagen kidsí odd birthday party features sex orgy. Pretty racy for 1953.
The story (read an excerpt below) was ó like everything in the paper ó poorly written, riddled with typos (Mansourís name was spelled throughout as Monsour), strewn with almost-endearing distortions of the English language, and shot through with (now) shocking violations of journalistic ethics. For a 900-word news report, it is a masterpiece of wrongness. But its basic facts were true. On March 9, four men ó John Morello, George Mansour, Louis DeBourbon, and Elvin Lewis (all between the ages of 19 and 30) ó attended a private party in an apartment at 17 Melrose Street, in Bay Village, during which they were arrested by Boston police and detectives. Lewis and Mansour were caught engaging in a sexual act in a second-floor bedroom behind a closed door; DeBourbon and Morello were just partying in another room. The police came to the house on an alleged complaint about a loud party by a neighbor. When they arrived at the house shortly after midnight, two men were just leaving, and the police used the opportunity to enter. A fifth man, John Perkins, 56, who held the lease on the apartment, was also arrested, even though he was at work while the party was taking place. Police apprehended him there.
The four men were taken from the house, booked at the police station on Warren Street, jailed, and ordered to appear in Central Criminal Court the following morning. Lewis, Mansour, DeBourbon, and Morello were convicted of morals charges and sentenced to six-month suspended sentences with two years of probation. Perkins was charged with the more serious crime of allowing his home to be used for "lewd purposes." He was sentenced to nine months in jail.
In many ways this story feels like itís 50 years ó a half-century! ó old. Just imagine: men arrested at a private party for having sex. It conjures up pre-Stonewall images of the gay world, captured so expertly by the blurbs on the ubiquitous gay pulp novels of the time: "twilight men and their tragic lives" and "the secret world of the homosexual living in the shadows." The Mid-town Journal article, with its lurid details and intensely homophobic prejudices, is almost campy in its extravagance. Take the articleís lengthy opening line: "Raising their plucked eyebrows and pursing their lips that retrained faint traces of hurriedly removed Chinese red as the faint odor of Chanel number 7 and Bewitching Hour wafted gently across the room in Central Criminal Court, five defendants, arrested the night before during a wild birthday sex party, who sat perched on the edge of their chairs like special bound copies of the Kinsey Report, entered not guilty pleas to charges of morals violations, then cast haughty glances of disdain at spectators who they were certain had already judged them."
Fifty years may seem like a long time ago, but itís not really much time at all. After all, much about this story is contemporary. Later this month, the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments in Lawrence v. Texas, a case challenging the Lone Star Stateís sodomy law ó which is aimed only at people engaged in same-sex sexual activity (see "The Other Matthew," News and Features, February 21). The case is being brought by Lambda Legal Defense, a nonprofit gay-rights legal organization, on behalf of John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner, who were arrested in their Houston bedroom for having sex after a neighbor filed a false complaint of a break-in. They were charged and convicted under the Texas anti-sodomy statute, and the conviction was upheld by the Texas Supreme Court. The state of Texas has every intention of upholding its sodomy law and has filed its own brief, as well as solicited a slew of amicus briefs from conservative Christian groups, to ensure that it is not held unconstitutional. As Yogi Berra said, itís déją vu all over again.
I first read the Mid-town Journal story in 1983, when Gay Community News, a Boston-based national newspaper, ran an article by the Boston Gay History Project that featured excerpts from the true-crime tabloid. The names of the arrested men had been blacked out, but that evening I received a phone call from George, with whom I had been friends for nearly a decade. He excitedly told me that he was one of the men in the story. Although he was delighted about seeing the article again ó he claimed not to have thought about it much over the years ó he was also somewhat disturbed. Obviously, getting arrested at age 19 for having gay sex and having your name and address printed for the whole city to see was not a young personís ideal method of coming out ó especially in 1953.
Over the years, George and I have joked about the article. Iíve been known to bring out a photocopy of it at dinner parties when the talk has turned to Boston gay history or just queer sex in the 1950s. But Iíve always wanted to do something more with the story and finally, this past fall, I had the perfect opportunity. Teaching "Introduction to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies" at Dartmouth, I decided it would be a good academic exercise for my students to learn how to plan and execute an oral history. And for them to meet George Mansour ó a real, live homosexual from the 1950s ó though I didnít tell them George would be coming to class. I made copies of the Mid-town Journal article and gave them basic instructions about doing an oral history. I chose ó seemingly at random ó George Mansourís name from the article and told them to focus their questions on his experience.
Almost all these students were born in or after 1980, so the decade of the í50s is truly historical for them. I didnít them that George was alive and well, living in Boston, and that he was a good friend of mine. So on the day the questions were due and George came to class, the students were amazed. At 68, he was as old as some of their grandparents. Nevertheless, they conducted their oral history. George ó a raconteur par excellence ó dazzled them with stories of Bostonís gay night life in the 1950s, sex, growing up queer 50 years ago, more sex, and what it was like to be arrested in 1953 for being gay. The interview that follows includes some of their questions for George.
Q: How accurate was the reporting in the Mid-town Journal article?
A: How accurate? Youíre kidding. It was almost totally inaccurate. No one was doing drag, no one was wearing makeup. It was completely sensationalized in that respect. They also got my age wrong ó although they did get my address correct ó I was 19 at the time, not 24. Morello ó whom I hardly knew ó and I didnít go shopping the day before to buy cookies and fudge; thatís a detail that is totally made up.
Q: But was the party like they described?
A: No. There werenít those many people there. I have no recollection of an exotic dancer named Roxanne ó please, Roxanne! How could they make that up? Itís too good. And there were no jacketless sailors meandering around in their T-shirts. It makes it sound like Querelle by Fassbinder. It wasnít that much fun.
Q: Did you know the other men involved?
A: Well, I knew John Perkins ó who was in his 50s and seemed very, very old to me. And I was friends with Louis DeBourbon. Actually, Iím still friends with Louis; he lives in San Francisco and visits once a year. But I didnít know the others.
Q: Did you invite the sailors from a local bar named "Jockís"?
A: Well, I didnít. Morello might have. And of course it is not "Jockís" but "Jacques" ó and itís still there right in Bay Village. Sure, Iím not going to pretend that it wasnít a party that was set up to encourage some sex. But it wasnít an all-out orgy.
Q: But you did have sex with a sailor named Elvin Lewis?
A: The Journal claims I was "having an affair" with him ó I think I was blowing him. He was the cutest one there. I remember when the police came to the bedroom door I looked up, thinking it was some of the other party people, and said, "Oh, are they selling tickets now?"
Q: Did you go to a lot of parties like this back then?
A: No, unfortunately. Well, I mean not unfortunately because I got arrested, but because I would have had more sex with people.
Q: What happened that night when you were arrested?
A: I really donít have a clear memory. I guess we went to the jail, and I have no idea if I stayed over or not. It was all very traumatic since I was 19 and this is 1953 ó getting arrested on a sex and morals charge is not something that was taken lightly. And I was living at home.
Q: Did your parents get involved? What did they say?
A: I remember the next morning my father was there with me at the court. They were wonderful. These were not sophisticated, educated people, and my father said to me, "If you want to meet people I want you to bring them back to the house, that will be safer for you." Itís incredible, when you think about it. Other people would have disowned their children, but they wanted me to be safe.
Q: What happened to the other men?
A: I really donít know. I presume that those of us on probation just went on with our lives. I have no idea whether or not John Perkins had to spend time in jail. I donít think he did, but I really donít know.
Q: What happened to Elvin Lewis, who was, I suppose, stationed in Boston?
A: I never saw or heard of him again. I imagine he might have been dishonorably discharged. There was no "donít ask, donít tell" ó and getting arrested certainly looked bad. I like to imagine that he is a happily married grandfather in Iowa who dreams about the best sex he never got to finish with me, 50 years ago.
Q: Aside from the trauma of being arrested and convicted, did the arrest have any other effect on your life?
A: My God, yes. I had graduated high school and was valedictorian. I had applied and was accepted at Boston University. When they discovered that I had been convicted on a morals change, they rescinded the acceptance. So because of this, I never went to college or had any education after high school. One hopes things are better now ó but given BUís recent decisions to ban gay-and-lesbian clubs from the Boston University Academy, one has to wonder.
Q: Were you completely crushed by this? You were 19 years old and were being prevented from getting an education.
A: Well, I guess the good part of this was that I just changed my whole attitude. I just said, "Fuck it, if this is what it means to be gay, Iím just going to do whatever I want and need to get ahead. If they arenít going to treat me with any respect, why should I play by their rules?" The arrest really gave me the courage to face down people in charge and see through their completely bankrupt rules. I guess it turned me into even more of a rebel than I was before.
Q: What did you do?
A: Well, I had a series of jobs ó lying about the arrest record to get them ó and finally got a job working as a film dispatcher. I remember that the ad for the job said that it was an "equal opportunity" employer ó which, of course, at that time meant that they did not racially discriminate. And most of the dispatcher jobs were seen as "womenís jobs," but I wanted a job in the film industry ó I loved movies, even then ó and said they had to hire me, a man, because they were an equal-opportunity employer. They did. And ó this is terrible ó they paid me more for doing the job than they paid the women, just because I was man.
Q: Did the arrest follow you through your life?
A: Not really. I was on probation, but it did give me this enormous sense of anger and of knowing that if I were to go anywhere in life I had to make my own rules, that it was stupid to follow societyís rules. And Iíve done quite well. Iíve had a very successful career as a film booker. I had a very successful 44-year-long relationship ó my lover died last year ó and am quite happy.
Q: Did the arrest teach you anything?
A: Well, a few months ago I was coming back from a day trip to Northampton, where I book a movie theater. I stopped at a rest stop to take a break from driving and noticed a truck parked. The driver motioned to me and ó well, it was clear that he was cruising. So I climbed in and we spent a great couple of hours having sex in the sleeping compartment in back of his truck.
Q: Given that you could have been arrested ó there are signs forbidding loitering at rest stops ó you really havenít learned anything from the events of 50 years ago, have you?
A: Yes, I have. I learned that I had to take chances to get what I wanted and that what I wanted was fine.
Michael Bronski is most recently the author of Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps (St. Martinís Press, 2003). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org