The Boys of Fairy Town reveals the little-known history of gay life in Chicago during its first century through the biographies of the men who lived there. It covers a diversity of individuals, from female impersonator to body builder, from activist to suicide, from black to white. Anyone, gay or not, will find the biographies presented captivating.
NOTCHES: What drew you to this topic, and what are the questions do you still have?
Elledge: As a reader of history, I prefer books that rely on the experiences of those who lived during the period under discussion. As a gay man who lived in Chicago during his young adulthood, I’ve always wanted to read a history of gay men there that went beyond the history-as-dates format. Neither have been available, so I wrote my own.
NOTCHES: Other than the history of sex and sexuality, what other themes does your book speak to?
Elledge: Homophobia, the Great Depression, the creation of gay communities, the gay arts in general and, specifically, the music scene of the Roaring Twenties….
NOTCHES: How did you research the book? (What sources did you use, were there any especially exciting discoveries, or any particular challenges, etc.?)
Elledge: I found important sources online, of course, but I also I conducted research in person and through the websites of several special collections and archives: the Special Collections of the Regenstein Library, University of Chicago; the Newberry Library, Chicago; the Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago; the Chicago History Museum; the Special Collections and University Archives of the Daley Library, the University of Illinois at Chicago; the Gerber-Hart Library and Archives, Chicago; the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, Woodson Regional Library, Chicago; the Historic New Orleans Collection; ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, USC Libraries, University of Southern California, Los Angeles; and the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.
NOTCHES: How did you become interested in the history of sexuality?
Elledge: As a gay man, the history of sexuality has been an interest of mine for years, and I was very happy when I learned that researchers had begun writing articles and books about it. The first book that I read was John Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, a brilliant investigation.
NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom? What would you assign it with?
Elledge: It presents history through the lives of individuals, which would make “leaning” an interesting experience for high-school students as well as undergraduate and graduate students. What I discovered and included in the book is the fact that the experiences of gay men in Chicago parallel those in, for instance, in New York during the same time. Chauncey’s Gay New York—or any history of gay life in a specific city—would be a good companion to it.
NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?
Elledge: I believe the saying goes, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” The reader will learn a great deal about the socio-political problems that gay men faced between about 1843 and 1943 and, to some extent, how they came to be. There are definite and obvious parallels between then and now. With the current administration in power in Washington, we—not simply the LGBTQ community, but all marginalized individuals—must recognize that history is repeating itself, and if we pay attention to how it developed, we can figure out how to stop it now.
NOTCHES: Your book is published, what next?
Elledge: I never work on just one book at any given moment. So right now, I’m working on a novel set in Chicago during the Roaring Twenties; a biography of a gay man who is virtually unknown today, but who was a male print model and a kept boy during the 1940s and ’50s; and a series of poems that I first began writing a decade or so and have published in journals and one of my collections of poetry since.
Jim Elledge’s most recent books are Bonfire of the Sodomites, poems about the arson of the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in the French Quarter (Main Street Rag Press, 2017) and The Boys of Fairy Town: Sodomites, Female Impersonators, Third-Sexers, Pansies, Queers, and Sex Morons in Chicago’s First Century (Chicago Review Press, 2018). He’s received two Lambda Literary Awards, one for his book-length poem A History of My Tattoo and the other for Who’s Yer Daddy? Gay Writers Celebrate Their Mentors and Forerunners, which he co-edited with David Groff. He lives in Middlesboro, KY and San Juan, PR.
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