There was a fairly open gay culture in Manhattan in the last decades of the 19th century, including private clubs where men could openly solicit the company of other men. A 2012 weblog post at The Art of Manliness provides some wonderful images from that time and place.
George Chauncey’s 1995 Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 is an excellent source of information.
From that book, this story of a young medical student’s visit to the city and first visit to The Slide, a Bowery nightclub where, he found, gay men met and felt comfortable in contrast to the media representations of such places as spectacles of evil and debauchery:
Moreover, the record of another man’s conversation with a “degenerate type” at the Slide also indicates that the men who were made part of the spectacle at such resorts nonetheless managed to turn them into something of a haven, where they could gather and find support. Charles Nesbitt, a medical student from North Carolina who visited the city around 1890, took the slummer’s tour with a friend. As he later recalled, he visited several beer gardens on the Bowery where “male perverts, dressed in elaborate feminine evening costumes, ‘sat for company’ and received a commission on all the drinks served by the house to them and their customers.” Such men dressed in male attire at the Slide, he discovered, but still sat for company as their transvestite counterparts did elsewhere. Intrigued, Nesbitt asked one of the men, known as “Princess Toto,” tO’join his table; to his surprise, he found the fellow “unusually intelligent” and sophisticated. Princess Toto, he quickly decided, was “the social queen of this group” and “had pretty clear cut ideas about his own mental state and that of his fellows.” Nature had made him this way, Toto assured the young medical student, and there were many men such as he.
He indicated his pride in the openness of “my kind” at places like the Slide, calling them “superior” to the “perverts in artistic, professional and other circles who practice perversion surreptitiously.” “Believe me,” the student remembered him commenting, “there are plenty of them and they are good customers of ours. ” Sensing the medical student’s interest, Toto invited him to attend a ball at Walhalla Hall, one of the most prominent of the many Lower East Side halls that neighborhood social clubs rented to hold their affairs Nesbitt went and discovered some five hundred same-sex male and female couples in attendance, “waltzing sedately to the music of a good band.” Along with the male couples there were “quite a few … masculine looking women in male evening dress” dancing with other women, many of whom seem to have impressed the student as being of “good” background. “One could quite easily imagine oneself,” he recalled with amused incredulity, “in a formal evening ball room among respectable people.” (Chauncey, 40-41)
Image from THE SLIDE AND THE EXCISE: NYC’S MOST NOTORIOUS 19TH CENTURY GAY BARS
The Bowery Boys. June 15, 2015, reprinted from the 2015 NYC Pride Guide.
See also: LGBTQ History: Cooper Square and Bowery