“Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940” by George Chauncey— A Classic Reprinted

Chauncey, George. “Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940”, Basic Books, 1994, Reprint 2019.

A Classic Reprinted

Amos Lassen

University of Chicago historian George Chauncey re-creates the prototypical pre-WW II gay community in New York City, which participated actively in the city’s social and cultural life, until restrictive legislation forced it underground. This is not the story we usually hear about New York City. Chauncey takes us on a tour of gay enclaves ranging from the Bowery’s “degenerate resorts,” where effeminate “fairies” openly mingled with working-class heterosexuals, to Harlem’s celebrated drag balls and Broadway’s (plus publishing row’s) “pansy craze.” Chauncey has deftly charted racial and class-divided clusters within the gay community itself  and this has deepened shifting heterosexual attitudes toward gays, as well as transitions in their own self-perceptions.

Even those who do not enjoy reading history will love this book. Chauncey  brilliantly maps out the complex gay world of turn-of-the-century New York City. This book’s new publication is timed to coincide with the 50th 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. We learn,  as has long been assumed, that many gay male New Yorkers thrived in close, often proud communities decades before the famous riots. Chauncey 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 offers revelations about prewar social mores. New York City was a world of permeable sexual boundaries. Chauncey is a knowledgeable tour guide who leads us through bars, speakeasies, parks, bathhouses, streets, rooming houses, and cafeterias. He provides ample historical context and intriguing interpretive possibilities. He explores not only the mainstream culture’s influence on gay urban life, but vice versa, and argues that homosexuality and heterosexuality are historically specific categories that evolved in the beginning of this century and shaped each other. Chauncey has made a wonderful contribution not only to gay history, but to the study of urban life, class, gender–and heterosexuality.

So many people think gay history, with a few minor exceptions, began only when the Stonewall Riots occurred in 1969, but we know that this is far from the case. George Chauncey sets out to disprove three myths: the myth of invisibility, the myth of isolation, and the myth of internalization.

The myth of invisibility says that the gay world prior to Stonewall was invisible and largely inaccessible. We see here that this was not the case as a vibrant culture around homosexuality was visible throughout the period he studied. He notes that even though his study is limited to New York City, similar advances were occurring in other major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco. The myth of isolation is similar in that it holds there was no gay culture to speak of, no gay-friendly places to hang out, no places where gay business was welcomed. Chauncey demolishes this myth as handily as he demolishes the myth of invisibility.
The myth of internalization holds that the gay and lesbian populations had internalized the messages of hate and shame promulgated by dominant culture, and therefore no move was made to establish a specifically gay culture. Gay people were subject to constant police harassment, but they nevertheless proudly, even exuberantly expressed their sexuality.

Although New York City is the focus of the book, the text is far more wide-ranging. New York is the right place for centering this story as it pertains to the America because it was not until the 1960s that San Francisco came to be known as a gay Mecca. Even today New York is a leading destination for those who wish to come out of the closet but are unable to do so in their provincial home towns. Nevertheless, New York is not the entire story, and Chauncey brings in other details as he feels they are needed. The book is full of facts and statistics, and this attention to detail sometimes makes the book a little dry. Yet it is very interesting and fascinating reading and fills in important gaps about understanding of gay history and corrects commonly held misconceptions.

Chauncey argues “that gay life in New York was less tolerated, less visible to outsiders, and more rigidly segregated in the second third of the century than the first, and that the very severity of the postwar reaction has tended to blind us to the relative tolerance of the prewar years.” He goes on and states “that in important respects the hetero-homosexual binarism, the sexual regime now hegemonic in American culture, is a stunningly recent creation.” Chauncey maps both the physical and social topography of gay culture in New York City and argues “that the construction of male homosexual identities can be understood only in the context of the broader social organization and representation of gender, that relations among men were construed in gendered terms, and that the policing of gay men was part of a more general policing of the gender order.”

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