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Looking Out: Baltimore author to discuss 'Gay Mafia' at Pratt event

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In New York City in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, when city laws made it illegal to serve gay patrons or hire gay employees, it took a lot of money and clout for a gay establishment to stay ahead of the vice police and remain open.

The city's entrenched Mafia, of course, had both, and "specialized in illegal markets, which is what gay bars became in Gotham," writes 41-year-old Federal Hill resident Alex Hortis in his new book, "The Mob and the City," due out from Prometheus Books next week.

In the book, Hortis, a graduate of New York University School of Law, spends a good amount of ink providing "the first comprehensive history of the Mafia's control of gay bars and nightclubs from the 1930s up to the Stonewall rebellion," according to Prometheus. On Wednesday, he'll be hosting a special event at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's central library called "The Gay Mafia? The Mob's Historic Role in Gay Nightlife."

Hortis, who considers himself an ally to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, was witness to the struggle for gay rights in his own life in Minnesota as a kid, he said, when his aunt Karen Thompson led a high-profile legal battle to be with her partner Sharon Kowalski after Kowalski became paralyzed in a car accident.

But even without that connection, Hortis said, he still would have included the role the Mafia played in gay nightlife in his book.

In popular culture today, mobsters are often "portrayed as these black cat villains from stage right that enter and take over the city," Hortis said. "You have to look at how they were integrated into the city, and that includes the very extensive gay population in New York City at the time."

Despite the prism of bravado and machismo that many people see gangsters through today, the Mafia wiseguys who ran gay clubs in New York were often kinder and more accepting of their gay employees and patrons than the police ever were, Hortis said he found in his research.

"The system was lousy for patrons, but for a lot of people who worked there, [the Mafia managers] were not intensely homophobic towards them, and I think that was partly because they got to know them," Hortis said.

Of course, the arrangements were mainly about making a buck. Aside from running their own gay bars, the Mafia also muscled in on owners of other gay establishments, forcing them to pay for the Mafia's protection. Some patrons resented the fact that they had to put up with dingy, expensive mob-run bars just because the police shut down any legitimate gay bar.

As Hortis covers in his book, a famous picture from the iconic Stonewall Inn riots of 1969 -- when patrons of the gay mob-run dive bar stood up to police in one of the first seminal moments of the gay rights movement -- a patron wrote on a chalkboard, "GAY PROHIBITION CORUPT$ COP$ FEED$ MAFIA."

If you're interested in hearing more, Hortis' book is out Tuesday, and he will give an "audiovisual presentation" of his work on the subject at the Enoch Pratt central library, at 400 Cathedral St., on Wednesday at 7 p.m. The event, part of the Enoch Pratt Writers LIVE! series, is being co-sponsored by Free State Legal.

Also in the news this week: 

- Vice President Joe Biden said he doesn't see a "downside" to President Barack Obama signing an executive order to ban workplace discrimination against LGBT employees, but that passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act would be better.

- If you want to see a documentary film about the "gay voice," there's a Kickstarter for that.

- Transgender students are protected against discrimination, according to new guidance on Title IX interpretations issued by the U.S. Department of Education. Here's some more on the issue.

What do you think about "gay voice"? What do you think a 1930s gay-bar-running mobster would have to say about it?

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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