Elledge, Jim. “The Boys of Fairy Town: Sodomites, Female Impersonators, Third-Sexers, Pansies, Queers, and Sex Morons in Chicago’s First Century”, Chicago Review Press, 2018.
There’s A Story About That
Reading Jim Elledge’s excellent history of Chicago made me think about how much fun it would be to learn the history of any place from its queer population. That is what he has done here. “The Boys of Fairy Town” is history of gay Chicago told through the stories of queer men “who left a record of their sexual activities in the Second City”. This book gives us a deep look at the neighborhoods where gay population tended to meet. We meet reporter John Wing, an established public figure and Henry Gerber, who created the first “homophile” organization in the United States. As active s these men were, they “were practically invisible to their contemporaries.” The stories we read here are wonderfully riveting and I soon realized that I was not going anywhere without first finishing this book. It was a different time during Chicago’s first century. Female impersonators and striptease artists Quincy de Lang and George Quinn were arrested and put on trial at the behest of a leader of Chicago’s anti-“indecency” movement. Tony Jackson an African American ragtime piano player wrote his most famous song, “Pretty Baby,” about one of his male lovers. Alfred Kinsey was exploring Chicago’s netherworld and changed the future of American sexuality and he shared his own queer proclivities. This is quite a history and even though I have never been to Chicago or even thought about going there but that has been changed by what Elledge gives us here. Looking through Elledge’s eyes, we get a complex portrait and a virtually unknown history of one of the liveliest cities in the United States.
Elledge has done outstanding research and his prose is excellent. Looking at Chicago from 1840-1940 uncovers some surprises in America’s second city. The people we meet here have largely been forgotten aside from in small groups of like-minded souls. Time marches on many times without looking back but we certainly get the chance to look back here. By bringing the people and the groups out of the past allows them to be not only remembered but also revered. I love what Harvard professor Michael Bronski has to say, “The Boys of Fairy Town vividly illuminates the past so we can see where we have been as we boldly move into the future.” The gap in the gay history of Chicago has been partially filled with this.
This is a history that is fun to read and I bet that it was just as much fun to research. Jim Elledge went through large collections of personal correspondence as well as newspaper reports and here is the result. Elledge has always set high standards for his work and he adheres to them.
The subtitle of the book shows that “queer men were a diverse group with types” and it is these types that are discussed in the chapters. I think that readers will be surprised to learn the size of the Chicago community. We read about how Chicago society reacted to the community and vice versa. It is also surprising to see that the community was by-and-large a happy and well-adjusted one and it was not as depressing or lonely or isolated as history would like us to believe.
I have always liked Jim Elledge’s writing style and here I loved it as it felt like we were sharing a chat conversation replete with photos of what we were talking about. This is the perfect book for Pride week as it makes the point that there are some (in the Chicago area and elsewhere) who have always been proud of who they are and who have “always been fabulous”. Once again hold out my hand to shake Jim’s and to thank him for his wonderful book.