“A Coming Outrage” and the Power of Media Influences on Homosexuality in 1920’s New York

George Chauncey describes the expression of homosexual urban culture in New York during the twenties as a “flurry of gay literature and theater” and “the height of popular fascination with gay culture” (Chauncey 1, 4). Chauncey further explains the actions taken by the government, as tolerance waned, to counteract this cultural movement—(for example, the Wales Padlock Act of 1927 which prohibited sexual perversion from being portrayed or incorporated into the theatre); however, a Wall Street Journal article titled “A Coming Outrage” challenges the positive impression given to readers by Chauncey’s statements on the twenties (“Banned on Broadway”). “A Coming Outrage” demonstrates the way the social and public forces of the twenties were more destructive to the conceptualization and acceptance of homosexuality by appealing to the public as social influences, rather than as government mandates.

In January of 1927, the Wall Street Journal published “A Coming Outrage” by journalist Metcalfe supposedly giving ‘notice’ for a new play, The Captive, written by Edouard Bourdet. Bourdet’s play, a drama centered around a lesbian relationship, immediately faced controversy as it tried to enter the New York theater community. Earlier, in November of 1926, New York’s play jury voted as to what would be the fate of Bourdet’s play of ‘sexual perversion.’ With six votes to prevent the play’s production, five votes to allow it, and one abstained vote, the jury lacked the three-fourths agreement needed and The Captive was green lit (“Play Jury”). Where the judicial institution failed to hinder the play’s production, a social institution stepped in. The Wall Street Journal was enjoying a height of success in the late 1920s with a circulation of 50,000 publications before the Great Depression hit and, thus, had immense social reach within New York (Crossen). Therefore, Metcalfe’s “A Coming Outrage,” was an explicit, powerful, and, most importantly, public criticism of The Captive’s production and a response to the influence the play was feared to have at ‘normalizing’ homosexuality.

The power of “A Coming Outrage” stems from Metcalfe’s ability to make pointed comments without ever actually being seen pointing his finger in one direction. Ignorant of the development of the gay world in early twentieth century New York, a modern reader of Metcalfe’s article would take away that there is a new theater production coming to New York that is purely amoral, alluding to sexual perversion (which a reader today would most likely interpret as an act such as pedophilia or sexual violation), and that the government is neglecting the play’s negative cultural implications. However, Metcalfe uses double meanings and assumed understandings of his readers based on linguistic and cultural references to make his true argument: The Captive is a disgrace coming to New York because of its depiction of homosexuality and its green lit production reflects the morally desolate New York police force, actors, and public.

Metcalfe begins this attack on public homosexuality in his article’s very title, “A Coming Outrage.” The inclusion of “coming out”—a phrase interwoven into the gay world, at that time referring to a person’s entrance into the gay world, according to Chauncey—into the title of his article immediately signifies to the reader that he is commenting on homosexuality in New York. Being that linguistic clues were an essential component of gay life in the 20s, Metcalfe’s ironic use of that same linguistic veil is perhaps an even more pointed remark to the gay community and his gay readers—that the ‘world’ they have created is insecure. Metcalfe continues his rant-like article with a high frequency of superlatives: the worst example yet of the degradation to which the theatre has descended” and “the most revolting form of sexual perversion” are found in the first two sentences. Metcalfe concludes his piece, “This isn’t a very complimentary notice for a new play. It isn’t meant to be.” Noteworthy, however, is that Metcalfe never says to what play, nor to what disgraceful act, he is referring. The reader is able to deduce Metcalfe’s topic of the homosexual play based on the publicity surrounding The Captive’s controversy and four direct nods to the gay world—the title; his statement that the play is about “sexual perversion,” the umbrella term homosexuality belonged to; his declaration that “If, for the sake of realism, the stage is to be filled with actual types from an unspeakable underworld, we shall have one of the most disgusting exhibit yet shown…,” which, thus, confirms that his critique is around a ‘type’ of person; and finally, Metcalfe’s nod to the older police forces historical precedent of having relations with “fairies” (a phenomenon George Chauncey, too, depicts) (Metcalfe). These rhetorical tools allowed Metcalfe to devalue something that he has not even acknowledged.

The significance of Metcalfe’s piece are these three layers—his superficial message, his implied message to the public, and the effect of his rhetoric on the institutionalization of ‘homosexuality’ as a construct. While his disgust and hate are intentionally demonstrated by his article, Metcalfe most importantly undermines homosexuality. If something is blatantly prohibited, it is still acknowledged, made real in the printed words of a successful publication. Metcalfe, thus, takes that usually unintended empowerment away from the concept of homosexuality by never validating the existence of the homosexuality explicitly. His execution of this devaluing, still, delicately reaffirms that there is a ‘right’ way of existence, that heterosexuality is a well and alive construct, and that it is the only construct that has space in modern New York. Metcalfe criticizes while using extreme, unprofessional, and decisive diction so that the reader is made aware ‘it’ is wrong, but never directly illuminated on what ‘it’ is. The strength of this rhetoric is that Metcalfe cements the cultural, romantic, and sexual prescriptivism of binarism without giving the gay community the power of identifying as the gay community.

In Chauncey’s Gay New York, he examines the policing of homosexuality quite closely; however, he does not touch on the involvement of influential non-government entities. Chauncey begins immediately by refuting the “three myths” of twentieth century gay New York, yet he lacks a description of the active movements of the non-gay community to perpetuate these myths. Isolation, invisibility, and internalization were all perpetuated by New Yorkers; it is not just out of ignorance that these myths came about. Metcalfe and other urban, non-gay influential voices used not what they said, but their method of saying it, to oppress not just the gay community, but the gay narrative, too. Suppressing the gay narrative is just as important as suppressing the community itself, as New York was seeing an influx of gay identifying men and women who sought the famous gay world that the early twenties flaunted in gay balls and pop culture.

Metcalfe is an example of the rhetorical undermining that promoted the myths that homosexuals were so alone he would not even validate their existence directly, invisible as to not constitute enough of a population, and internalized by criticizing the amorality necessary for actors to portray homosexual actors. Metcalfe complicated Chauncey’s narrative by showing that, while the non-gay community was clearly not blind to the gay community, they actively perpetuated these myths by direct oppression veiled as indirect—regardless of the gay galas and productions that seemed to symbolize this “height of interest in the gay world.” This stemmed from Metcalfe’s unique position of power—media that the public subscribed to, not government policy that the public obeyed.

Works Cited

  1. “Banned on Broadway but Coming to a Theater Near You: The Captive and Rethinking the Breadth of American Anti-Lesbian Hostility in the 1920s and ’30s.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 17.1 (2013): 40–55. Print.
  2. Crossen, Cynthia. "It all Began in the Basement of a Candy Store; Dow Jones Saga Reflects the Forces that Shaped the Wall Street Journal." Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition ed.Aug 01 2007. ProQuest. Web. 11 Sep. 2017 .
  3. "PLAY JURY SPLITS OVER SEX PRAMA IN NEW YORK CITY." The Atlanta Constitution (1881-1945): 10. Nov 16 1926. ProQuest. Web. 11 Sep. 2017 .
  4. "THE THEATRE." Wall Street Journal (1923 - Current file): 4. Jan 29 1927. ProQuest. Web. 11 Sep. 2017 .