Encounters in the Gay Underworld
Tom Vaughn comes from a respectable family yet he chooses to become a hustler, a male prostitute, working for the upper class, elite gay men of New York in the 1860’s. What he did not expect was to fall in love but he met Walter Whiting, a scholar and lecturer, who while a difficult client, struggled with his sexuality. Whiting was married and actually resents that Tom is so much at home with his gay life. As the two men come together, we get a look at the gay underworld and read about encounters there.
Tom found his way to that world after his family actually went through a period of rough times and took in a boarder, Neil, to help their financial situation. Tom befriends him and finds it fascinating that he sells his body to men and decides that he will do the same. He takes a job with a call boy service and discovers that most of his meetings are with older men of whom many have to deal with the guilt of who they are and how they find sexual release. But then there are others including his own pastor who are perfectly okay with what they do.
Tom eventually meets Walter who finds that Tom’s acceptance of his own sexuality is offensive to him yet it is also amazing and over a period of time the two men find themselves involved in a special relationship but it took an act of violence to bring things to an understanding. I have always heard about the dangers of working prostitution but we rarely get to read about them. Here we see that world during a time when men having sex with men was considered an aberration and a crime. The Lustgarden was the place where hustlers and clients came together and is the backdrop for what we read about—a world of guilt about sex.
After Neil moves in, Tom is curious about and smitten by him, his style and means. Tom soon sees that Neil keeps very strange hours and is well always beautifully dressed and presentable. A friend of Tom’s from school tells him about clubs and bars in the “not so nice” part of town and Tom begs him to take him along on an outing and Tom sees men dancing with men, men dressed as women and young men making passes at older men. He is shocked, fascinated and totally convinced that this is the kind of life he wants. When Tom and his friend go to the Lustgarden, Tom sees Neil there and learns that he works for the Young Messenger and Courier Service which is just a front for a male prostitution ring that is owned by businessmen and corrupt politicos. Now Tom wants to learn all about becoming a hustler and asks Neil to teach him about it and Neil is more than glad to do so.
Tom is soon among the “gentlemen of the evening” and has a “stable” of clients, mostly older men and he soon meets Walter who will change Tom’s life forever. The sexual activities that we read about are relatively tame compared to other books I have read but the description of the clients and the boys are quite detailed.
Walter Whiting is a well respected scholar and an advocate of the Greek language and sexual proclivities. Tom also has had quite an education and he even is able to correct Walter when they discuss poetry. Walter offers tutor Tom in Greek and in Greek love techniques. The book takes us to places we have not been before and we are treated to a relatively unknown bit of gay history. Browder writes with freshness and his prose is crisp and a pleasure to read. I love that we get the chance to be with Tom as he matures from an innocent young boy into a mature young man and that we get to read about, quite vividly I must add, about the way things once were.