The Baker Street Vice Ring and the Birth of the Asian American Homo

0

A number of historians have marked the late nineteenth century as the beginning of U.S. queer history as we understand it today. Gender impersonators performed to enthusiastic audiences, romantic same-sex friendships abounded, and new modes of womanhood brought women into professional work spaces, college classrooms, and sports. As divorce rates climbed in the early twentieth century, women sought more independence, discarding long skirts for bloomers, donning neckties, pedaling around town on bicycles, and clamoring for the right to vote. It appears to have been a time of immense LGBT possibilities, even if no one explicitly identified as such. As mores of gender and sexuality expanded for middle-class whites, one might assume that they did for newer Americans as well. Yet a closer look at San Francisco reveals just how narrow and constricting the “wide open town” could be for its Chinese and Japanese communities. Middle-class whites enjoyed new freedoms, but these freedoms were predicated on gendered and sexualized stereotypes of the “Orient.” Specifically, the formation of an urban gay community depended on the fundamental presumption that Chinese and Japanese culture and people facilitated male same-sex sexuality.

On February 16, 1918, San Francisco police began a “ten-day raid” of two flats on Baker Street to end a “vice ring” that had been active for two years. “A large number of vicious men” had been using the apartments—rented by Hugh Allan, a singer, and Clarence Thompson, a decorator—as a rendezvous site. The police placed a Chinese servant in the apartments to collect evidence. By Tuesday, February 26, authorities had arrested eleven men from various walks of life, including businessmen and high-ranking military personnel. By the end of the three-year investigation in 1921, thirty one men had been implicated.

When questioned by authorities, many of the young men at Baker Street claimed it was their first encounter with parties of “all gentlemen” and “no ladies,” where men sang or shared poems and short stories. Soldier John Bosworth ate sandwiches and enjoyed music and conversation among a group of eight to twelve men on his first visit. James Mackey, a receiving teller at Hibernia Bank, also recalled Oscar Frank impersonating various “actresses,” “principally in the nude.” At other parties such as those hosted by William Hatteroth, men dressed as women, called each other “Miss,” inquired as to who made their dresses, and danced with each other in a “love-making” manner. Upstairs, at a second party, fellatio and anal sex, known more commonly as “browning,” sometimes ensued. For weekend parties, guests began arriving on Saturday and did not leave until Monday morning.

In January 1919, nearly a year after the initial arrests, the California State Supreme Court reasoned that section 288a of the California penal code, which prohibited fellatio, was unconstitutional. The court reasoned that the word fellatio was “unintelligible” to “a man of common understanding.” According to the court, the Latin term was as esoteric as if it had been written “in Japanese or Chinese characters.” Though the investigation lingered for two more years, all cases were eventually dropped and those who had been sentenced were freed. According to historian Paul A. Herman, the Baker Street Club sparked no significant public reaction in San Francisco. It received far less public denouncement and outcry than “homosexual orgies” in Los Angeles and Long Beach.[1]

In 1921, seven months after the authorities closed the last of the Baker Street cases, a writer named Florence Estella Taft published “Taka,” a short story, in the Overland Monthly. The story details a same-sex romance between a white man, Fred Robinson, and his “Jap servant,” Taka. Taka, who desires to have Fred all to himself, attempts to kill Fred’s wife, but fails and then kills himself. Though the fictional homicidal Japanese homosexual might appear unrelated to the Baker Street Club, Taka’s debut was no coincidence. At the moment when same-sex sexuality emerged as a new gender and sexual frontier—as illustrated by Baker Street and a series of other vice rings exposed across California—the author Taft painted “homo-sexuality” in racialized tones. Taft projected the increasing visibility of same-sex sexuality on an Asian man.

A photograph displays a city street with several people walking, streetcars in the middle, and multistory buildings.

Kearny Street 1924
San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

The association likely made sense to Taft as well as to her larger readership because whites had apparently viewed same-sex sexuality through the lens of the “Orient” long before Taka’s appearance. The police department employed a “Chinese Servant” to secretly collect evidence at Baker Street because he could occupy a space of sex between men. He did not raise suspicion because as a houseboy he was invisible and because white Americans associated Chinese men with deviant sexuality. The California State Supreme Court’s characterization of fellatio as a term as inscrutable as “Chinese or Japanese characters” associated the word and its very meaning with Asian cultures rather than American. Grand Jury witnesses further testified that the Baker Street men used Chinese and Japanese collectibles, storefronts, and lodging houses to facilitate their forbidden intimacies. Tebe Creighton was looking at “some Japanese and Chinese art in the window” along Geary Street when Max Koenig approached him and made a date to meet at the St. Francis Hotel. Creighton himself later approached Army Field Clerk M. J. Hughes as he stood in front of a “Japanese Store.” Creighton asked Hughes if he liked the gown in the window before making plans to meet at the St. Francis Hotel. When Hughes wanted more privacy, he took men to “a place in Chinatown, perfectly safe and run by a Chinese.” Creighton also knew of a Chinatown location, a lodging house on Pine Street just below Kearny. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the “Orient” became a vehicle through which white men could forge otherwise illicit sexuality among themselves.

A photograph shows a multistory hotel building.

St. Francis Hotel 1912
San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

The Baker Street Club does more than illuminate a link between gender, sexual freedom, and the creation of the Asian American homo. It also demonstrates how the “Orient” played a central role in the formation of early queer communities in the United States. As white as we might imagine early gay history to be, San Francisco’s Chinese and Japanese men, both real and fictitious, played a significant role in defining what it meant to be “tempermental,” or queer, in America. The Baker Street men faced three years of shame after being outed coercively, but Taka’s century-long career as an Asian American homosexual archetype had only just begun.

Image of the book cover for "Discriminating Sex."From the forthcoming book Discriminating Sex: White Leisure and the Making of the American “Oriental” by Amy Sueyoshi. Copyright 2018 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.

Amy Sueyoshi is the Associate Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University. She is the author of Queer Compulsions: Race, Nation, and Sexuality in the Affairs of Yone Noguchi and also a founding co-curator of the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco. In 2017 San Francisco Pride honored her as a Community Grand Marshal.

 

[1] Paul A. Herman, “American Homophobia: ‘The Homosexual Menace’ in Twentieth Century American Culture,” (PhD dissertation, Stanford University, 2005), 69.

Share.

Share your thoughts