Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series about the gay-rights movement and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.
Aaron Payne, a music student and aspiring performer from Trenton, New Jersey, got his big break near the end of 1947, when he was 23. The Salle de Champagne, a Greenwich Village cabaret, which stood on Macdougal Street next door to the Provincetown Playhouse and was popular among the sophisticated theater crowd, offered him a steady job that he very much wanted. Young, African American, and estranged from his family, Payne was especially vulnerable as he sought to make a life for himself. Like any performer, he had to secure a cabaret card from the New York Police Department’s Cabaret Bureau before he could start work. But the bureau’s regulations prohibited the employment of anyone who “was or pretended to be a homosexual,” an expansive rule designed to prevent queer-themed entertainment, including the so-called pansy acts that had been all the rage in New York clubs near the end of Prohibition, as well as homosexual entertainers themselves. In January 1948, Payne’s application was rejected because of “two arrests and convictions for degeneracy,” which the Cabaret Bureau considered prima facie evidence that he was, in fact, a homosexual.
Between 1923, when the New York state legislature specifically criminalized male homosexual cruising as a form of disorderly conduct (“degenerate disorderly conduct,” or simply, in police lingo, “degeneracy”), and 1966, when a loose coalition of pre-Stonewall gay activists, civil libertarians, café owners, and bohemian writers persuaded newly elected Mayor John Lindsay to end the police department’s use of entrapment to arrest men on this charge, more than 50,000 men were arrested for cruising in bars, streets, parks, and subway washrooms in New York City alone.