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“In the 1940s, sexologist Alfred Kinsey, who was on the verge of publishing his first major report on male sexuality in the US, enlisted a photographer named Thomas Painter to investigate gay subcultures. Painter, a white, openly gay man, had taken to photographing hustlers on the beach at Coney Island, one of New York City’s earliest gay hubs. He was particularly drawn to masculine white men who generally viewed themselves as heterosexual; Painter offered to take their photos, a trick he used as a lead-in to sex. In letters sent to Kinsey, Painter reported on the men’s sexual prowess and the changing landscape of Coney Island’s gay scene.
Although Painter was sometimes physically attacked, many men agreed to sleep with him — sometimes for money, sometimes not. “They don’t necessarily see themselves as being any different because of what they’re doing with him or other men,” said historian Hugh Ryan, who featured Painter in his 2019 book When Brooklyn Was Queer.
In one letter to Kinsey, Painter paraphrased a heterosexual-identified man who explained why he slept with Painter: “It does him no harm, is not unpleasant … so why not do it?”
But by the mid-1950s, as categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality hardened in the American consciousness, Painter noticed a change. Where once these straight-identified hustlers could move freely in and out of queer spaces, they were now defined by their association with queer men. Women wouldn’t sleep with them because they assumed these men were homosexual; the mixed bars serving both queer and nonqueer clientele that Painter frequented started closing down, and a polar vision of sexuality that also discounted bisexuality took cultural hold. Men who had a more fluid sense of their own heterosexuality thus had to suppress their desires.”
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