Ann Aldrich flung a provocative assertion at her readers in 1955 when she opened her landmark account of lesbian life in New York City by saying this book was the “result of fifteen years of participation in society as a female homosexual.”
After the release of We Walk Alone, Aldrich became both a heroine and a scapegoat in some of the period’s most contentious public debates over what exactly “lesbian culture” was. Her non-fiction pulp literally transformed the landscape overnight, and “the effect on women was electric. From every corner of creation, they wrote wrenching letters of relief and gratitude” (Ann Bannon, author of The Beebo Brinker Chronicles).
Part Kinsey-esque portraits of real people, part you-are-there reports on the scene in bars and offices and at clubs and house parties, We Walk Alone is revealing and compelling composite of an alienated yet amazingly self-aware community—one that Aldrich would revisit three years later in We, Too, Must Love. Today, “these essential cultural artifacts” (UTNE Magazine), as Stephanie Foote explains in her afterword, are “as rich and conflicted a look at the formation of lesbian urban culture as that of any contemporary queer historian.”
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About the Author
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WHO IS SHE?
"I can always tell a 'lessie,'" a young Yale man who claimed to be a student of psychology told me one Saturday evening as he sat beside me in a Greenwich Village "gay" bar, frequented by many female homosexuals. "And I don't mean just the kind you see in here. These are obvious types. I mean the discreet 'lessies,' the ones who try to cover up, the ones who wouldn't be caught dead in a joint like this. I can spot them every time. Even the real subtle ones. Eventually they give themselves away."
I asked him to elaborate, and he said, "There are various telltale signs. Some you know by their choice in clothes. They wear suits a lot, and tailored blouses. They jump at the chance to buy any new boyish-styled fashions that these fairy designers dream up for them. Like the button- down shirts Brooks Brothers started carrying a few years back for women, and the trench coats with the belt in the back, copying the man's style, and the kilts with the high socks, and the vests, and the slacks and shorts with the fly front — all made for women. Some gals refused to be defeminized; others went along on a couple of items; and a few went whole hog like kids in a department-store toyland at Christmastime. They're the same few that hustled out and had their hair cut off when the Italian-boy cuts came along, and shelled out for women's pipes at the first rumor of a cancer scare for cigarette smokers. Do you understand what I'm getting at? Just give these 'lessies' an inch of encouragement to be more masculine, and they'll walk the mile."
"You seem to know an awful lot about lesbians," I said.
"I've made a study of them," he told me proudly. "Once you know the clues, you never have any trouble picking them out."
As we talked further, the young man enlightened me as to other "clues." Lesbians favor little finger-rings. Lesbians like cigarette holders. (This, he explained rather condescendingly, if not too clearly, had something to do with penis envy.) Lesbians are good at sports; indeed, he informed me that most gym teachers are "lessies," as are a majority of women athletes. Lesbians drink more than most women, and they drink their liquor "neat" or "on the rocks." Lesbians want careers; they like to "show men up" in the business world. Lesbians are more intellectual than average females; they read more, know more about art and music and scoff at men who aren't interested in these things. Lesbians who date men try to tear them down, instead of building them up; they are cold; their kisses are proffered as great favors. Lesbians argue a lot. Lesbians are more interested in politics than other women are. Lesbians curse. Lesbians talk out of the sides of their mouths. Lesbians like to tell dirty jokes in mixed company, and act like "one of the boys." Lesbians like big dogs like boxers and police dogs to protect them from the man they always imagine is out to attack them.
"Lesbians," the young man concluded, "have one or two, many, or all of these traits. I know one when I see her!"
If the boy from Yale had been correct in his assumptions about the ingredients that go into a lesbian's makeup, he would have the edge on every student of psychology, psychiatry, and sociology, from Freud to Henry to Kinsey. The fact of the matter is that lesbianism cannot be accurately defined, nor can the lesbian's personality traits be lumped into any category that will include all of her characteristics, and yet exclude those of the remainder of the female population.
Who is the lesbian?
She is many women.
Look at her, and she cannot be distinguished from her more normal sisters. Test her mental development, and she ranges from feeble-minded to superior. Examine her background, and she comes from the smoky slums of Pittsburgh; the exclusive homes of Oak Park, Illinois; the sprawling campuses of Cornell, Radcliffe, Michigan, Stephens; the boxed-in Lower East Side of New York City; the sun-baked open plains of Texas and Wyoming. Expose her to psychotherapy, and she is "undersexed" and "oversexed," man-hungry and a man-hater; an overt participant with a "girl friend," a repressed homosexual with a husband and a family; a secretary with a crush on her female boss, a divorcee with nymphomaniac tendencies, a society matron, a widower, a teen-aged high-school girl, a whore.
There is no stereotype in the over-all picture of the lesbian. This is the first discovery I ever made about the group of which I am a member.
I have seen the professional "butches" in all the Greenwich Villages from Los Angeles to Paris. These girls make careers of their abnormality, displaying themselves in homosexual hangouts for whatever pittance they are able to maneuver — a sandwich on the house, bought by the management, who exploits them; a whisky bought by a lonely sailor; a five-dollar bill from a curious party of tourists who want them to sit down and tell how they got "that way"; a pickup by some prostitute who spends her wages supporting less industrious lesbians; and often as not at the end of the evening a "roll job" in an alley, performed deftly by one who has had her eye all evening on the fellow with the thick wallet sitting at the bar, and getting drunker with each round he orders.
I have seen the innocent crushes between young girls, prevalent in most boarding schools, where the sight of boys their own age is a rarity, grow from tender concern to violent passion. Hands that at first merely passed notes in study hall became hands that caressed one another in lovers' fashion after "lights out" in a darkened room along a lonely dormitory corridor.
I have seen the more sophisticated big-city "gay" women, whose lavish parties are attended exclusively by homosexuals, many times with males included. There I have met actresses, advertising people, publishing people, musicians, society women, husbands and wives who have married one another to ward off any suspicions on the part of their normal friends and their families; dancers, designers, buyers, writers, and realtors. In some of these self-assured cliques, homosexuality is as fashionable as heterosexuality is unfathomable.
I have seen the lesbians who live ostensibly as roommates, whether in a sorority house on a Midwestern campus, a rooming house in Salisbury, North Carolina, or an apartment house in New York City. They date men; often they double-date. Sometimes their dates are a defense against gossip; sometimes they are offered as proof to themselves that they are not truly pure homosexuals, but bisexuals.
I have seen the extremely feminine lesbians who choose only very masculine partners; in many instances actual transvestites whose male appearances fool even the wary observer. Because these "fems" must support their butches, who either cannot find work because of their masquerade or more often dislike work even when it is available to them, they invariably become "hookers," or whores, while the more energetic butch sometimes pimps for her girl. If whoring does not pay amply, dope peddling might, and more than one of this sort of prostitute has found herself an addict.
In gay bars of vast assortment, from the frowzy to the plush, I have seen the wholesome-looking, twentyish blonde, swathed in a creamy polo coat, buying drinks for a sullen-faced, boyish brunette her same age, saying, "But don't you understand? If my mother and father ever found out about us, they'd kill me! And you too, darling! That's why you mustn't call me at home — ever!"; the pretty, liquid-eyed sixteen- year-old who wanders in with a couple of her school chums, "just to see what it's like," self-consciously accepting a suave Negro butch's invitation to "Dance, honey?"; the haggard, middle-aged teletype operator in the pin- striped woman's suit, nursing a beer and listening to the lyrics of "Lush Life," telling anyone who will listen about the beautiful girl she used to have; the poor people's Tallulah Bankhead, in dark glasses, strutting back and forth in a shaggy fox jacket, a satin dress, and spike heels, her hair lustrous and loose at her shoulders, laughing raucously at her own jokes while she waits for "my girl" to arrive, and murmurs frequently, "Now, damn! Where is that chick? She should have been here by now!"; the graceful elder woman with the impeccable English accent, her arm wrapped around a fawning peroxide blonde still in her "show clothes" from an uptown club where she performs; the studious college seniors who claim to be there only in the interests of research, their hands touching gently under the table; the pair of smart-looking, urbane women executives at a table in a corner getting high on Rob Roys; the ugly, deformed creature in the man's overalls, with a huge bosom, frizzy hair, a scarred face, and a soft, lonely voice, finding some peculiar solace in a world where men don't matter; the good, the frightened, the beautiful, the bad, the ignorant, the confident, the uncertain, the intelligent, and the mean — they are everywhere homosexuals gather, and they are incognito in the dominant society of the normal.
I have seen them often, know them, watched them, listened to them, talked with them, lived with them, and been a part of their life. I have seen them, and I am one of them; yet I have never been able to pick a lesbian out of a crowd. There is no definition, no formula, no pattern that will accurately characterize the female homosexual.
She is any woman.
Are there many of us?
The section of the Kinsey report pertaining to male homosexuality dropped like a bombshell on the unsuspecting public. Braced for a similar explosion in the subsequent study of the American female, Kinsey readers were confronted with little more than a mild firecracker. With the figure set below 4 per cent, a much smaller percentage than the 10 per cent of the male population that had been estimated as being homosexuals, Kinsey researchers disproved any notion that there is a vast number of female homosexuals. The validity of his findings, as well as the estimates of men like Havelock Ellis, George W. Henry, Ford and Beach, and other old and new astute researchers, can be questioned, argued, and discussed interminably, without conclusion. The glaring fact remains that there is probably no way of calculating the true proportion of homosexuals, male or female.
Whether or not male homosexuality is more frequent than female homosexuality, certainly outward evidences of the former are displayed much more often than those of lesbianism. There are two possible explanations for this. One is that the lesbian camouflages her abnormality more easily than her male counterpart is able to do. Women, in sharp contrast to men, go arm and arm along the streets, address one another as "darling" and "honey," embrace quite openly, often share the same bed as roommates, and generally indulge in open gestures of affection without arousing any suspicions in the community.
The tomboy stage in a young girl's life is accepted as a normal phase of her development, whereas any proclivity toward the "sissy" in the young boy is promptly counteracted with boxing lessons and Boy Scouts. In the eyes of the mother of a teen-aged daughter, blue jeans and flannel shirts are just part of the high-school girls' fads; a parallel feminine inclination in the son of the family is a worrisome symptom of a morbid disorder.
A woman today is free to enter almost any profession she chooses, from engineering to medicine to the Marine Corps, with little speculation from others as to her normality or femininity. The war years resulted in the final emancipation of women. But male designers, decorators, hairdressers, ballet dancers, artists, and nurses continually find their lines of work maligned by innuendos.
The female homosexual who cares to be discreet knows little restriction in her personality, appearance, or choice of profession. Her presence in a business establishment, in a restaurant, along the boulevard, or at a party is inconspicuous. If her hair is cut ear-length, it is a new style. If she walks with giant strides, and stands with legs spread and arms akimbo, she is forceful, aggressive, and probably a good golfer. She can wear slacks and shirts virtually anywhere. If her voice is pitched differently than most women's, she is the sultry type.
Not so the male. In the recent Broadway play Tea and Sympathy, by Robert Anderson, the young hero, forlorn at his colleagues' accusations that he is "queer," implores his roommate, a husky, virile football player, to teach him how to walk. A favorite criticism of the male homosexual is "the way he walks."
"The fag," a disgusted man said to me at a party one evening, as he noted the entrance of a lithe fellow with mincing steps, "like the fog, comes on little cat feet!"
A man, if he is to be respected as a man, must walk like a man, speak up like a man, with a man's good deep voice, stand like a man, dress like a man, and fight, eat, love, drink, and die like a man.
The emasculated male is a misfit in the world of men; an insult to them; a stain on their clean blotter of ripping masculinity; a curious creature who causes discomfort and stimulates anger, and a spectacle akin to a freak.
A second explanation for the seemingly greater number of male homosexuals than of female homosexuals can be found in their propensity for promiscuity, and for gatherings of their clan. There are countless bars and cafés all over the world that cater exclusively to the male homosexual trade. Their promiscuity has made them infamous in the eyes of society. In the public parks of cities like New York, Washington, Baltimore, and Chicago, a silent sunset gun seems to set off the hunt of one male homosexual for another. In bars, steam baths, subway stations, and washrooms, the normal male is many times solicited by his abnormal brother.
While it is not unusual for an ordinary man to find himself on the receiving end of one of these homosexuals' preliminary advances, it is rare indeed for the average woman to be approached by a lesbian. The female homosexual, for reasons I shall discuss in later chapters, shies from any such behavior, as a rule, just as she does from open meetings with her own kind. In proportion to the number of male homosexual bars and cafés, lesbian hangouts are relatively scarce. Even there, the lesbian is less prone to "pressure" a likely subject than is the male in a similar situation.
Because the female homosexual masks her abnormality with chameleon-like dexterity, because she is less disposed to promiscuous and indiscriminate relations, and because, as Freud once wrote, she "has not only been ignored by the law, but has also been neglected by psychoanalytic research," the ostensible scarcity of her species makes her a more interesting, if not a more sympathetic, character than the male homosexual.
"He's a fairy!" whispered in a public place, does not usually inspire half as much concern as "She's a lesbian!" People may turn once to view the fairy; they turn twice and a third time to see the lesbian.
"It's an odd thing," a New York City publisher told me once, "but novels about male homosexuals just don't sell the way those dealing with female homosexuals do. Either the public is more curious about lesbian life, or it's repulsed by the fairy's. It doesn't seem so bad, somehow, to read about two women kissing one another — but men? Uh-uh!"
Perhaps the best proof of this remark is in the fact that probably the most well-known novel about homosexuality in the English language is Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, a story of lesbianism. No book written about male homosexuality enjoys such notoriety. Capitalizing on the general public's familiarity with that title, movie houses billed Colette's sensitive story of homosexuality in a French boarding school for girls, Olivia, as The Pit of Loneliness. Although this motion picture was made in France, where such subject matter seems to be handled far less vitriolically, the fact that American film people chose it as one of the few French films for import shows the ever widening curiosity of the public about lesbianism.
In the past decade, sophisticated society has adopted an inquiring disposition toward the prodigy of homosexuality in general. It is no longer considered intelligent to react with belligerence, distaste, or complete ignorance toward the abnormality. Today, a male or female who vigorously protests homosexuality as being ugly, lewd, or repulsive often meets with the retort "Methinks you do protest too much." As one psychiatrist with whom I discussed this put it, "It used to be that folks were afraid to show any interest in the subject for fear others would accuse them of being homosexual. Now, for the very same reason, they are afraid not to show an interest."
Thus, in this climate of concern, novels, plays, movies, psychological studies, short stories, and poems are more and more reflecting the various aspects of the homosexual's situation in relation to the more fortunate normal society. Despite the fact that the public seems to show a greater sympathy with the female homosexual than with the male, the mirror of mass media is held up less often to the lesbian's life.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "We Walk Alone"
Copyright © 1955 Ann Aldrich.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction to the 2006 Edition by Marijane Meaker,
Foreword by Ann Aldrich,
1. Who Is She?,
2. How Did She Get That Way?,
3. Looking Backward,
4. Types and Stereotypes,
5. Keep It Gay!,
6. Gay Paris,
7. Cocktails at Kitty's,
9. Love That Dares Not Tell Its Name,
10. The Bisexual,
11. Unconscious Homosexuality,
12. There's a Law against It!,
13. Can a Lesbian Be Cured?,
14. Here Comes the Bride,
15. A Word to Parents,
16. Looking Forward,
Afterword: Ann Aldrich and Lesbian Writing in the Fifties by Stephanie Foote,