Essence Precedes Existence? The Problem of Identity Politics in Hurewitz’s Bohemian LA

What does it mean to “be” white, or black, or gay, or working-class? How might a Jewish Ethiopian-American who grew up in poverty but now has a big bank account define himself? Which identity matters most – the current status of wealth and privilege, the experience of coming from a hardscrabble background, or Jewishness or Africanness or national identity (native or adopted)? Does one dimension of identity actually have to subordinate the others? Our current president is almost always described as being black, despite having one white parent and growing up almost entirely with a white family. His own experience is far more complex than our contemporary framework of race and identity allows, a fact he explored in Dreams from My Father to much praise but little apparent understanding. When it comes to identity politics, as Ani Difranco once said, “Their eyes are all asking are you in or are you out – and I’m like, what is this about?”

bohemian los angeles cover

Daniel Hurewitz’s impressive first book, Bohemian Los Angeles, attempts to provide a historical account of why we even ask these questions today. It shows how identity, particularly sexual identity, became a rigid and essentialized category as it became political over the course of the twentieth century. One’s political Identity has come to be associated with what Hurewitz calls one’s “essence.” Beginning in Los Angeles’s burgeoning Edendale community at the turn of the twentieth century, Hurewitz explores a world where manhood and womanhood were considered certain, consistent, even immutable; given this underlying certainty about gender, men like Julian Eltinge could “impersonate” women with thrilling exactness without compromising their identity as men.

A reader is right to question this schema, given Eltinge’s own clearly exaggerated self-presentation as a virile “manly man” when he was not (technically) performing. Hurewitz suggests that the star female impersonator’s PR spectacle of strength and manliness off-stage served to reinforce the remarkable quality of his transformation as a prim, demure, completely believable woman – which is no doubt true. Yet evidence suggests that Eltinge did have sex with men, a fact he was no doubt eager to keep secret, and his self conscious display of masculinity can also be read as an effort to dispel any doubts about his personal character (or what later generations would think of as “sexuality”). Other female impersonators had more feminine off-stage personalities, and they may have been suspected as being less manly (or straight) by the public. Hurewitz understandably focuses the most on Eltinge, due to his greater popularity and accessibility as a public figure, but one wonders if his dual identity as macho man and master female impersonator is really typical of or representative of men who performed in such a way (and who may have been more “queeny” than Eltinge). In short, Eltinge’s example may not adequately capture the experience of men who dressed as women or had sex with other men in this period.

Julian Eltinge at work

In any case, Hurewitz’s argument is that gender identity was more fixed in the early twentieth century, or at least undisturbed by the possibility of alternative conceptions of sexuality, such that people were more comfortable with a flexible approach to performing gender and sexuality then than in later years. Men could imitate women or have homosexual encounters in clubs and public parks without thinking of themselves as gay, bi, or transgender. Hurewitz is trying to tell a story both about how gay identity itself became conceivable and how such identity (along with others, such as race, ethnicity, and gender) became perceived as political constituencies.

It’s an ambitious project, and as a result it has many moving parts. Hurewitz attempts to link the emergence of a boho urban hipster milieu (Edendale and the broader Silver Lake area of LA) with the development of Communism as an essential identity, first for the party faithful in their tight-knit communities and then with the onset of post-World War II repression that made “being” Communist an irrevocable condition, an unwashable stain that disqualified one as a legitimate participant in political life or even the workforce. Along the way he discusses the idea of interracialism, the political fortunes of Japanese and Mexican Americans in Depression and wartime LA, and, most importantly, the influential project of the first gay rights movement in the US, the Mattachine Society.

This epic skein of interrelated political events does not always hold together. Showing how female impersonators in the 1910s relate to the political status of Mexican Americans and the zoot suit riots of the 1940s, for example, is not easy, but Hurewitz has still accomplished a significant historiographical feat. The Mattachine Society proposed “homophile” as a public identity, not merely a furtive secret or subterranean practice, confined to fleeting encounters in bathrooms and bars. Through the vision of Harry Hay, Mattachine imagined gayness as equivalent to blackness, Mexicanness, or Jewishness – a critical and ultimately persuasive point in Hurewitz’s overall argument.

Harry Hay

But is being gay or Communist really the same as being black, Jewish, or Mexican? Perhaps they are not exactly the same, but are they even of the same order of difference? A Communist could relocate (many did) to a different state and not necessarily be marked as Red, but it was much harder for a black person to stop being black. (Hard, but not impossible for some.)

This comes to the greatest weakness in Hurewitz’s provocative and thoughtful book – his concept of essence or “inner life.” He aims to show with Bohemian LA how people’s interior worlds came to have political meaning akin to one’s outward identity as a worker or farmer or businessperson, or any other economic or political status. In other words, he seeks to answer the question of why Americans’ cultural, racial or sexual identities came to surpass class as a prime political consideration in the late twentieth century, which is, of course, a widely remarked upon phenomenon. Liberals in particular have bemoaned this shift, exemplified by exit polls that showed “moral values” to be the top concern of voters in the 2004 presidential election. Surely moral values reflect one’s “inner life” more than the economy as a political issue. (Many Evangelical Christians likely view their faith as the most salient fact about their political identity, not unlike the passionate, one might say obsessed, Communists of 1930s Los Angeles.)

Yet this argument runs into some trouble. In what is otherwise a lucid and deftly written book, Hurewitz’s language gets notably fuzzier when he starts talking about essence and the inner life. The passive voice creeps in, and the author seems to be on less sure footing. Rightly so. Skin color and race are simply not internal essences in the way being Muslim, or gay, or a postmodernist might be – though blackness or Asianness may have come to be seen as essential, unchanging identities by many Americans in the years since WWII (and not just in the generalizing and universalizing minds of racists, but in the way African or Asian Americans view themselves). Moreover, one can reasonably question whether essence or an interior life became important for American politics only in the twentieth century. Certainly, identities such as white, Irish, black, Northern, Southern, Transcendentalist, abolitionist, woman (think of republican motherhood, the domestic sphere, the suffrage movement), Democrat, Republican, or any number of ethnic self-identifications played a major role in the passionate and participatory politics of the nineteenth century.

Ultimately, the link between a gay or homophile identity and political or racial identity – the idea that one’s identity as a man with a feminine persona, or a man who has sex with other men is an essence of the same order as being Communist, or Jewish, or Mexican – still feels tenuous and hypothetical. The Mattachine Society sought to articulate such a vision of a common minority political project, but it remains unclear whether they affected the way other groups thought of themselves or were thought of by others. No doubt the author would echo the words of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri:

Race is just as much a political concept as economic class… Neither ethnicity nor skin color determine race; race is determined politically by collective struggle. Some maintain that race is created by racial oppression, as Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, claims that anti-Semitism produces the Jew. This logic should be taken one step further: race arises through the collective resistance to racial oppression. (Multitude, 104)

In other words, race is not a fact in and of itself – it is created by racism, or, better still, in the struggle against racism that generates a self-concept shared by members of the repressed group. In this sense, it was the struggle of gays, blacks, Mexicans, Jews and Communists against exclusion and injustice that created their identities, and led to their recognition as political interests based on identity.

That this struggle created a world in which racial and sexual identity is more rigid and essentialized than before is one of the great ironies of this book. People who identify as bisexual, for instance, often feel marginalized by both straight and gay communities, thanks to the widespread belief (reinforced by the debatable view that people are “born gay”) that a person who sleeps with both men and women is simply a gay or straight person who went off the reservation. Similarly, contemporary discussions of race seem to fall into clichés of whiteness, blackness, Mexicanness and so forth – a comic goldmine that has been exploited by the brilliant (Dave Chappelle) as well as the decidedly un-brilliant (Carlos Mencia). The blog Stuff White People takes a pre-existing assumption of white racial identity and jumbles it with class and subcultural stereotypes, proposing (only half-kiddingly) that all white people are bourgeois urban hipsters who love Animal Collective and complicated sandwiches. The idea of blackness has at least received a more nuanced and intelligent discussion in recent years, though an observer like Randall Kennedy – who has been on the wrong side of accusations of selling out and racial betrayal before – still feels compelled to argue that the boundaries of blackness ought to be policed for African Americans to retain a distinct and coherent identity. Rich Harvard law professors apparently make the cut; African Americans who do not meet his definition of blackness need not apply.

Studies estimate that fully a fifth of the so-called Millennial Generation (Americans born since 1982) have one foreign-born parent. I do not have statistics close at hand for how many young Americans come from mixed-race families. Whatever the numbers may be, a new generation of multiracial, ambisexual Americans may have to find a voice to awaken themselves and the rest of society to the apparent truth that identity is, in fact, fluid, and essences are not always so essential.