May 14, 2016

What Kind of Flower are You: Queer Boys of the 1920s

Before World War II, teenage boys were not expected to like girls.  At Everett High School in Washington, most of the boys in the graduating class in 1925 are memorialized in their yearbook with manly "woman-hating mottos": "Tall, dashing, quick and fair, spurns all girls with vigilant care!"

In movies and literature, the teenage boy who liked girls was labeled gay, an effeminate contrast to the real, red-blooded, masculine boy who “spurned all girls with vigilant care.”   He was jeered, blackmailed, and ostracized. He was asked “What kind of flower are you?” and “Can I borrow your lipstick, dearie?”  His peers called him “honey-boy,” “panty-waist,” “mollycoddle,” and “Percy,” and the adults, “sensitive,” “gentle,” “artistic,” and “sweet.”




Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922), though hetero-horny himself, worries when his son Ted, “a decorative boy of seventeen,” offers to give two girls from his high school rides to a chorus rehearsal.  “I hope they're decent girls,” he muses. “I wouldn't want him to, uh, get mixed up and everything.”  (Ted was played by Raymond McKee in 1924 and Glen Boles in the 1934 movie version.)

His wife suggests that he take Ted aside and give him a little talk about “Things,” but he rejects the proposal: “no sense suggesting a lot of Things to a boy’s mind.”  He assumes that no seventeen-year old boy could possibly experience heterosexual desire unless he is manipulated from outside.

The next summer, Babbit discovers Ted kissing a girl, but he blames her for "enticing him," refusing to believe that any eighteen-year old could want to kiss girls of his own accord.


Richard, a boy just short of his seventeenth birthday, falls for a girl in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! (1933), but he is coded as gay.  There is “something of extreme sensitiveness. . .a restless, apprehensive, defiant, shy, dreamy, self-conscious intelligence about him.”  He reads too much poetry, especially sexual anarchist Swinburne and gay icon Oscar Wilde, whose trial and incarceration for “the love that dare not speak its name” was still freshly scandalous in 1904 (the date of the plot).

“He’s a queer boy,” his mother muses. “Sometimes I can’t make head or tail of him.”

Richard has been played in movies by Eric Linden (1935), Simon Lack (1938), and Lee Kinsolving (1959), and in the theater by many actors, including Luke Halpin (of Flipper), left and T.R. Knight (of Grey's Anatomy), top photo.

In the first movies of his series (1937-1939), Andy Hardy (played by Mickey Rooney, left) had an effeminate girl-craziness and was  psychoanalyzed as "queer," suffering from a “unconscious fixation on youth.”

Henry Aldrich, gay girl-crazy star of his own movie series (1939-1944) (played by Jimmy Lydon of Tom Brown's School Dayswas subject to pummeling by bullies and tense heart-to-hearts with his parents.  His buddy Dizzy usually tolerated his eccentricity,  but sometimes even he couldn’t take it anymore, and yelled “What the heck’s the matter with you, anyway?”