History and Historiography

The Power (And Powerlessness) Of Gays

By Andrew Sullivan, The Weekly Dish

A brilliant new history tells the real story of the 20th Century gay rights movement.

Frank Kameny, second in line, protesting with others outside the White House on Armed Forces Day on May 15, 1965. (Bettmann via Getty Images)

Odessa Madre grew up in a section of Washington DC called Cowtown, because farm animals would occasionally wander its streets. Born in 1907 in abject poverty, she nonetheless lived and thrived in a deeply segregated city as a dark-skinned African-American woman. “There was only three Blacks at Dunbar (High School) back then — I mean Black like me,” she later recalled. “I had good diction, I knew the gestures, but they still made fun of me.” Dess, as many called her, was also a lesbian, and not too shy about it. “I just couldn’t keep no watchamacallit — a man. I guess I was just born to give orders not take them. What kind of man wants a woman like that?”

She went on to become one of the wealthiest African Americans in an overwhelmingly black city — hauling in over $100,000 a year at her peak — by becoming “the female Al Capone.” She ran brothels, pimped women, owned speakeasies, as well as owning a legit and legendary institution on 14th Street, Club Madre. Jamie Kirchick conjures up a scene from the 1940s:

The crowd roared its approval whenever Madre, covered in mink furs and diamonds and trailed by a multiracial retinue of women for sale, entered the premises and sauntered over to the central table, denoted as hers by an ever-present vase holding a dozen long-stemmed roses.

Among the performers at the club: Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Madre kept all her illicit businesses alive by the old-fashioned method of bribing the fathomlessly corrupt DC police — “You know I practically ran that damn police department,” she later quipped — and became a renowned mediator of mob disputes across the country.

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