Queer was in the air in the Los Angeles of the Prohibition and post-Prohibition eras

Friday, June 4th, 2021

Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerI jokingly noted that The Big Sleep features a number of “pansies” and a lot of alcohol. The annotations in my copy explain the first ingredient:

Queer was in the air in the Los Angeles of the Prohibition and post-Prohibition eras. The 1920s and early ’30s saw no fewer than ten new terms for “homosexual” recorded, including “fag” (ca. 1923) and, for that matter, “queer” (Auden used it in its current neutral/proud sense in a letter of 1932). Gay and lesbian subcultures were more visible than they had ever been before, thanks in large part to Prohibition speakeasies, where otherwise law-abiding Americans of all sexualities mingled and were often entertained over drinks by drag performers. The so-called Pansy Craze was all the rage in post-Prohibition New York and moved west in the early 1930s. At B.B.B.’s Cellar (where the floor show was called “Boys Will Be Girls”) and the Bali nightclub on the Sunset Strip, gay entertainers sang and danced for Hollywood celebrities. It was considered de rigueur to employ an obviously gay maitre d’, even at restaurants and clubs that were not considered “gay.” Flighty hotel clerks and swishy sidekicks, played by renowned queer actors like Franklin Pangborn and Edward Everett Horton, were featured in Hollywood films. Marlowe’s “fag party” reference may be to Hollywood parties, covered with a wink and a nod by the newspapers. All-male pool parties were hosted by, among others, Cole Porter and George Cukor; according to Irwin Winkler, director of De-Lovely, a 2004 film about Porter, they competed “to see who could have more boys by the pool.”


“Punk” first appeared in Elizabethan England, initially meaning “prostitute,” then more widely naming the mistress of a criminal or soldier. By the American 1920s it had jumped genders and referred to a young male, generally a criminal or a ne’er-do-well, and frequently the male concubine of a prison inmate, hobo, or sailor. “I told you I didn’t like that punk,” Sam Spade growls of the youthful Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon.


  1. Bruce Purcell says:

    E.E. “Doc” Smith used “punk” to mean a miner’s assistant or striker, but he had to insert an explanation into the story.

  2. Brod Ross says:

    Punk was an acronym of “Puny under nourished kid”. originating from New York orphanages early 1900s.

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