“The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America” by Charles Kaiser— Struggle and Triumph

Kaiser, Charles. “The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America”, Grove Press, 2019 reprint.

Struggle and Triumph

Amos Lassen

 Charles Kaiser’s “The Gay Metropolis” is the story of the struggle and triumph of the LGBT movement in this country.  When first published fifty years ago, it was recognized as the most authoritative and substantial work of its kind. Now, for the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprisings, Charles Kaiser brings this history into the twenty-first century in this new edition in which he covers the three court cases that lead to the revolutionary legalization of gay marriage in America. He also includes the shifts toward inclusion in mainstream pop culture, with the Oscar winning films “Brokeback Mountain” and “Call Me By Your Name”.

The book is filled with amazing anecdotes and tales of heartbreak and transformation as it moves forward decade by decade presenting  the rise and acceptance of gay life and identity since the 1940s. We have a fascinating cast of characters that includes Leonard Bernstein, Montgomery Clift, Alfred Hitchcock, John F. Kennedy, and RuPaul. We read as gay people come into their own and out of the mire of fear and self-hatred. There are also many surprises like the story of Otis Bigelow who was known as the most handsome man in New York of the 1940s and desired by so many men who said that being gay “was an upscale thing to be”, but at the same time just “across town from Park Avenue there was a completely different kind of gay life was in Times Square. Here is New York City, a melting pot of cultures, where each culture wants to reclaim their identity. In the ’40s, we were hidden in plain sight and anonymity was the way to live. In the ’40s, the general opinion was that, you could be gay but you could not  flaunt it. One of them cite a certain Mrs. Patrick Campbell who said “My dear, I don’t care what people do as long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses”.

In a period when civil rights were starting to be a common agenda of many politicians, it was not the same when those rights regarded LGBT people. You were free inside your private home, (if you were wealthy enough to have that safe home), but you were also captive of your own golden cage.

During World War II, we read about those men who remained (or went back) into the closet, not for the fear of being discovered, but to avoid to be refused the chance to protect their country as soldiers. We reach the ’50s, a period of euphoria when being gay was dangerous, and was hidden; if in the ’40s you could be gay inside private walls, in the ’50s even that freedom was a danger, and the closet developed as a symbol of a safe place. As for many others, gays became the target of a witch hunt. Maybe for this reason, late in the ’50s the main tendency was to “blend” and you see gays people getting married, with or without the knowledge of the wife.

With the ’60s came a surge of consciences, in all levels of society and among gays and lesbians as well. New York saw not only the first religious congregation for gays, but also Columbia University was one of the first colleges to give formal recognition to a gay students organization. Homosexuality left the closet and television saw a ground-breaking documentary, “The Homosexuals”.

Stonewall bridges the ’60s and the ’70s and from that moment on there will be always a pre and post-Stonewall gay and lesbian movement and culture: “although millions would remain in the closet, within a year after Stonewall, thousands of men and women would find the courage to declare themselves for the first time”. Suddenly, being gay, or at least bisexual, was in style, and in many media, television, cinema, publishing, the gay characters not only started to make their appearance, they were also, sometime, positively accepted by the mainstream public. And also Forster’s Maurice came out of the closet. The ’70 see the sexual revolution, a sexual revolution that happened also within the LGBT community.

The ’80s and the beginning of the ’90 are the Dark Ages of the LGBT community with AIDS killing so many that an entire generation was lost. “New York had far more AIDS cases than any other city in America”. It’s painful to read this part of the book and it becomes more and more painful when you think about it.

The ’90s  bring us the LGBT community entering politics and starting to put their weight on those politicians who represent them. Writer Kaiser brings to life the men he writes about and he shares their dreams, fears, love and betrayals.

Kaiser’s book is a chronology of planned and deliberate oppression against gay men and women- not only by politicians and psychiatrists, but also by Christian churches. We gain a better understanding of LGBT community and reading it again fifty years later then the first time lets me see its relevance and importance.

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