Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940
Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940
Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940
Type: eBook
Publisher: Basic Books
Page Count: 493
Format: pdf
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0465026214
ISBN-13: 9780465026210
User Rating: 4.3333 out of 5 Stars! (3 Votes)

Chauncey reconstructs New York's pre-WWII gay community, revealing a group that was deeply involved in the city's social and cultural scenes.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. Historian Chauncey (Univ. of Chicago) brilliantly maps out the complex gay world of turn-of-the-century New York City. This book's publication is timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the uprising at the Stonewall Inn, which is often hailed as the birth of the modern gay and lesbian movement. Yet Chauncey convincingly puts Stonewall in perspective: It hardly marked the beginning of urban gay pride or nightlife. Rather than languishing in obscurity and isolation, as has long been assumed, many gay male New Yorkers thrived in close, often proud communities decades before the famous riots. He argues that before WW II the boundaries between homosexual and heterosexual behavior were far looser than they were later, particularly among working-class men. Gay New York reconstructs prewar gay life through police records, newspapers, oral histories, the papers of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, diaries, medical records, and other fascinating primary texts. The material is rich and much of it startlingly revealing about prewar social mores: A State Liquor Authority investigator in 1939 amiably refers to a drag queen by the feminine pronoun, boasting that ``she liked us very much,'' while a musician's diaries tell of his often successful attempts at picking up uniformed policemen. This was clearly a world of permeable sexual boundaries. Chauncey (co-editor, Hidden From History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, not reviewed) is a savvy tour guide, leading us through bars, speakeasies, parks, bathhouses, streets, rooming houses, and cafeterias, always providing ample historical context and intriguing interpretive possibilities. He explores not only the mainstream culture's influence on gay urban life, but vice versa, arguing that homosexuality and heterosexuality are historically specific categories that evolved in the beginning of this century and shaped each other. Chauncey has made a stunning contribution not only to gay history, but to the study of urban life, class, gender--and heterosexuality. -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Charlus | 4 out of 5 Stars!
30/12/2003

This book was preceded in my conciousness by high critical praise and so I approached it with great expectations. And in great part it met these expectations.

More than anything else, this is a work of love, being the excavation of forgotten facts in the history of gay life as it was lived by decades of gay men, experiences now mostly forgotten or scattered in obscure and fading documents. It is an extraordinary work of social archeology, resurrecting a world I never knew exisited. And Chauncey does this in exceptional detail, using clear prose, so that by the end the geography of this world has been salvaged and reconstructed, like Combray from Marcel's teacup.

As the book proceeds, the writing becomes stronger, particularly as the facts become more readily available, and the arguments and conclusions become more convincing. The last chapter is especially good on the submergence of gay life after Prohibition. This book is clearly one of the masterpieces of gay history, on par with John Boswell's work especially in it's dependence on primary sources.

The only criticism I have lies in the fact that Chauncey often has trouble shaping his information and often can't create a forest out of the trees. Especially in the earlier chapters, he often fails to make a summary statement without such a host of qualifiers that you wonder why he bothers in the first place. And as a previous reviewer has noted, there are alot of repetitions that a good editor should have corrected.

Despite all these reservations, for those interested in discovering a lost world, this book will be a revelation.

disco75 | 4 out of 5 Stars!
15/06/2002

Chauncey's book offers serious and original thinking about queer history and about general urban history as well. Freed from the myths that have persisted about the place of homosexuals in U.S. society, the author paints a new portrait of what transpired just before the turn of the last century and into the early decades of the 20th century.

The most important idea he explains is that the concepts of "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality" as we understand them today didn't exist one hundred years ago. Chauncey's research shows that it was adherence to traditional gender role, rather than choice of sex partner, that labelled a man as either a "fairy" or "normal." The author provides detailed descriptions of the process by which working class men in particular could have sexual relations with other men and perserve a "normal" identity so long as the sex partners were effeminate. He uses extensive supporting materials that undergird his conclusions, including accounts of the "pansies" who were not, in fact, demeaned or ostracized but instead were tolerated, courted, and may even have served a vital purpose to working men who had relocated alone to the city to support families that lived elsewhere or to make their way into adulthood.

Chauncey shows how the definition of "invert"-- detour from standard gender role-- shifted gradually to the notion of "degenerate" or "homosexual"-- men who chose other men as sex partners. He makes clear how the emerging definition of homosexuality depended on a similarly new definition of heterosexuality. These subtle but powerful social mores are detailed at length, in convincing prose.

The book explains that there were places in early 20th century society for gays, countering the mistaken belief that the 1960's rebellions brought people out of the closet. The author hints, but doesn't explicitly state, that societal needs may have some not insubstantial effect on how prominent the gay people will be in our communities, or even how many young men may experiment with homosexuality for identity, financial need, or other reasons.

Chauncey's prose is vivid and evocative. He many times, especially in the early parts of the book, uses a hair-splitting preciseness with terms that can become tiresome to a reader. He also shows an academic's obsessiveness with source material: his book is chockful of lengthy source notes in the appendix and footnotes at the bottoms of the pages. These practices make his work explicit for purposes of academics but also tedious for general reading.

He employs other techniques that I believe weakened the impact of the reading. Chauncey summarizes a great deal at the end of each chapter, which dilutes the momentum of his historical survey. He is prone to repetitions of concepts and quotes. He also divided his themes such that each chapter covers expansive times. This has the reader continually moving back to the beginning of his chosen era, which diffuses the reader's sense of progressions over time. My sense is that he was not able to decide if the book were to be textbook for teaching, academic document for university colleagues, or general historical account. Nevertheless, his interesting prose, his unique perspectives, and his strong synthetic thinking make this an important work.

Steven S. Berizzi | 5 out of 5 Stars!
17/11/2000

I read a lot of history, but generally not read social history. Nevertheless, this is one of the best books I have read in recent years. According to Author George Chauncey, who teaches at the University of Chicago, a "myth of isolation" "holds that, even if a gay world existed [in New York between 1890 and 1940], it was kept invisible." Chauncey's main premise is that, not only was there a gay New York beginning in the 1890s, it was not invisible.

In the marvelous introduction, Chauncey also makes the profound point that the gay male world of the pre-World War II era "was not a world in which men were divided into `homosexuals' and 'heterosexuals.'" Chauncey proceeds to explain: "This book argues that in important respects the hetero-homosexual binarism, the sexual regime now hegemonic in American culture, is a stunningly recent creation." Later in the introduction, Chauncey writes: "Heterosexuality, no less than homosexuality, is a historically specific social category and identity." Chauncey's study begins in the 1890s, "a time when New York was famous for being a `wide-open town,' [when] some clubs went so far as to stage live sexual performances." The so-called "Bowery resorts were only the most famous elements of an extensive, organized, highly visible gay world." At the turn of the century, men who were "`painted and powdered,' used women's names, and displayed feminine mannerisms" were called "fairies." According to Chauncey, fairies were tolerated, but not respected, in much of working-class society. During this period "Many men alternated between male and female sexual partners without believing that interest in one precluded interest in the other." Men, who "maintained a masculine demeanor and played...only the `masculine,' or insertive role in the sexual encounter" were not considered to be "queer." According to Chauncey: "many workingmen knew precisely were to go to find fairies with whom, if they chose, they need not exchange a word to make their wishes clear." Chauncey explains: "Most commonly, gay men simply offered to perform certain sexual acts, especially fellation, which many straight men enjoyed but many women (even many prostitutes) were loath to perform." If the sexual landscape was fluid in turn-of-the-century working-class New York, a more rigid adherence to the regime of heterosexuality was emerging in middle-class culture. By the 1920s, according to Chauncey, "the style of the fairy was more likely to be adopted by younger men and poorer men who had relatively little at stake in the straight middle-class world, where the loss of respect the fairy style entailed could be costly indeed." Chauncey explains that, in the first two decades of the 20th century, "heterosexuality became more important to middle-class than working-class men" because of the growing belief that "anyone who engaged in homosexual activity was implicated as `being' a homosexual." In Chauncey's view: "The insistence on exclusive heterosexuality emerged in part...in response to the [late-19th, early-20th century] crisis in middle-class masculinity....Middle-class men increasingly conceived of their sexuality - their heterosexuality, or exclusive desire for women - as one of the hallmarks of real men." According to Chauncey: "The association of the homosexual and the heterosexual with middle-class culture highlights the degree to which `sexuality' and the rooting of gender in anatomy were bourgeois productions," which explains why Chauncey asserts that the rigid heterosexual-homosexual dichotomy is a recent creation. This is historical exposition and analysis at its very best

Middle-class sensibilities also were at the center of efforts, beginning early in the 20th century, to police, if not suppress, the "city of bachelors." According to Chauncey: "The city was a logical destination for men intent on freeing themselves from the constraints of the family." In turn, according to Chauncey, middle-class reformers demonstrated a growing anxiety about the threat to the social order posed by men and women who seemed to stand outside the family." According to Chauncey, "World War I was a watershed in the history of the urban moral reform movement" because the war "embodied reformers' darkest fears and their greatest hopes, for it threatened the very foundations of the nation's moral order - the family, small-town stability, the racial and gender hierarchy." The streets of New York "were filled with soldiers and sailors," as a result of which, according to Chauncey, the war "threatened to expose hundreds of thousands of American boys from farms and small towns to the evil influences of the big city." Furthermore, as Chauncey puts it, although "[i]t is impossible to determine how many gay soldiers stayed in New York after the war,...it was, indeed, hard to keep them down on the farm after they've seen gay New York."

There is much else about this book to admire. After Chauncey defines the boundaries of his study, he devotes several chapters to describing in fascinating detail the gay male world in New York between 1890 and 1940, from YMCAs and rooming houses to saloons and gay bars to the baths to assignation hotels. I am simply in awe of the research Chauncey did for his chapter entitled "`Privacy Could Only Be Had in Public': Forging a Gay World in the Streets," the sources for which include not only the predictable secondary materials but also letters, interviews, oral histories, and court files in the New York Municipal Archives. There also is a fine selection of photographs, cartoons, and other visual aids.

The gay world in New York was tolerated by middle-class authorities as long as it did not spread to middle America or to threaten its values. During World War I, when thousands of young Americans in the military visited the city, the relatively open gay life there threatened to corrupt them, and that contributed to the creation of what Chauncey calls "police-state conditions," which evolved until they had firmly taken hold by 1940. I understand Chauncey currently is writing the history of gay New York from 1945 until 1975, and I await publication of that volume with great impatience.

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