For five dynamic years – 1940 to 1945 – Detroit was the Arsenal of Democracy, a vital source of war material. First for England’s defense. Later, for our own.
Automotive factories focused on round-the-clock, nonstop production of bombers, tanks, jeeps, planes. And plumb Kate Smith kept singing God bless America!
Women in slacks – Rosie the Riveters – took over. Husbands, boyfriends, cousins, fought on the side of the Allies against the Axis: Germans, Italians, Japanese.
Soldiers, sailors, marines, WACs passed through Detroit before shipping overseas. (Many were inducted and processed in Quonset huts on Wayne University’s campus.)
A result of wartime migration to a big city like Detroit (population 1.3 million) was the popularity of gay bars. Detroit had three downtown.
Many small town inductees, stopping off briefly in the Arsenal of Democracy, found to their naive surprise (and probably relief) that they weren’t the only one’s who were “well, you know,” … gay! For them it was a golden opportunity.
(There was also a nagging feeling before facing combat that, “Hey, be your own self. Play around. Live a little. Who knows? God forbid. You may not come back alive. Take advantage – discreetly, of course – if the opportunity presents itself.” Often it did. More than once.)
Older gays were quite willing to play host, provide weekend housing, food, drinks, conversation, hugs and – at a time when good gals just didn’t give head – lip service to straight servicemen (defined then as the passive partner in BJs; the active partner in non-vegetarian “corn holing”).
As the Allies began to beat the Axis, a mood of cautious celebration took hold in Detroit’s gay bar clubs. Farmer and Bates streets, home of once-straight, now gay-for-pay Rio Grand, Silver Dollar and LaRosa’s bars, became less secretive. More visibly flouncing. More carefree obvious.
When Halloween 1944 swished around, the Grand Night of Enchantment became an opportunity for celebration, not to be missed. Following Prohibition’s end (1933), getting in drag was accomplished without much hoopla. Farmer and Bates were side streets, seldom visited at night. (Only occasionally by “tourists.” Guys with dates out to queer gawk. Beer, 20 cents a gawk.)
During the war years Detroit’s non-military gays – those 40 or older, or those classified 4F with “homosexual tendencies” (along with straights who had flat feet, and not necessarily because of high heels) – kept the home fires – and factories – burning.
These “left behinders” – no relation to recent biblical “right behinders” – were in a party mood. The war in Europe appeared to be winding down. Finally! So, why not celebrate? What better time than the only day when cross dressing is permitted without penalty, threat of incarceration, or, if your makeup’s thick enough, likelihood of recognition.
The first Halloween display of queens numbered 25 or 30. Those in other costumes, about 50. Some wore rhinestone tiaras and sequin embroidered titles across their ample, canary-seed-filled boobies. Miss Victory Garden. Red Cross Rita’s Revenge. Rosey Rivet Me. Miss Harry James’s Trumpet (pin-up Betty Grable’s husband). It was great fun. Cops looked the other way.
Each year Halloween was planned to outdo the last. Gatherings grew large. More glittering. More flamboyant. Sometime in the early ’50s, streets were cordoned off. Hundreds came to see and applaud. Ooo! and Ahh! the queens who arrived in convertibles. Everybody behaved.
In 1969, the year of Stonewall Riots, things got out of hand. Rednecks threw rocks. Tossed bottles. Shouted FAGS!. Ripped gowns. The party was over. Insulted (and very, very smart) gays moved north to the Diplomat bar.
Once home to the Motor City’s first Gay Pride Parades – they were certainly that, Mary! – Farmer and Bates Streets are now bare-assed naked. Serves them right. R.I.P. (Rest in piece, er, peace!)