Gay New York

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George Chauncey. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940.. New York: Basic Books, 1994. pp. 496. $22.95. ISBN 0465026214

Summary

Gay New York reveals the history of gay males and their subculture as seen by the men in ‘the life’ as well as the larger world. Moving from ‘fairies’ in the late nineteen century to ‘pansies’ in the early twentieth, gay men have enjoyed varying degrees of freedoms in an urban environment. Importantly, New York and presumably other cities as well, provided a variety of social outlets for gay men as well as varying levels of anonymity. In fact, Chauncey makes the point that society was often tolerant of the entire spectrum of gay behavior although restaurants, bars, baths and other places often catered predominantly or exclusively to the gay trade. A work of social and cultural history, Gay New York also shows how definitions of gay were problematized (inverts) and then stigmatized (homosexual) over the years. The essential point in this text is the, ‘transition from a world divided into ‘fairies’ and ‘men’ on the basis of gender persona into one divided into ‘homosexuals’ and ‘heterosexuals’ on the basis of sexual object choice.” (358) In the early twentieth century, men who had sexual encounters with other men did not always self identify as gay and they were active participants in the cult of masculinity. Not surprisingly, gay New York men and lesbians (bulldagggers) later became the subject of increasingly restricted laws, police raids and attacks by city officials as sexual activity became the defining norm.

Beyond social mores and events, Gay New York reminds us that class also places a large role in an urban settings and Chauncey shows how the lower classes may have been more accepting of male to male sexual encounters than previously thought. It was only later that the middle classes became more accepting as part of the bohemian movement. This is also a work of traditional urban history and thus geography plays a large role as gay neighborhoods and enclaves develop. Some, like the Village and Harlem are well known and others like Central Park operated as cruising spots while gay dances and other events were regularly staged for years in night clubs. The change over time is the ways in which events like drag shows that evolved as meeting spots and became tourist attractions (slumming) to being hidden by World War II. We also learn that many of the gay gathering paces and those used for brief assignations also catered to the heterosexual trade and hosted affairs and prostitution. It is noteworthy that anti-vice groups often targeted prostitutes working in the back rooms of bars rather than gay men also meeting there.

Culture also plays a large role in this book and numerous references are made to the semiotics of gay life and the ability for gay men to read and recognize each other and how these symbols evolved from the red tie to more subtle clues. Mirroring African American culture, gay men often ‘passed’ as straight in the work place or other areas, coming out on weekends or at night. Also noteworthy is that the gay world appears to have been as class and race divided as the rest if New York society, although places like Harlem were more open to whites than the reverse. George Chauncey uses interviews, newspaper accounts, court and police records and other primary sources to show how gay New York operated during the height of the city’s prominence.

Commentary

Alan S. Brody

Gay New York is appealing because it brings to life a particular sub culture that existed in an urban setting and was clearly a part of the everyday experience and for a long period of time was unremarkable and that is what makes this story so powerful and cogent – that for many decades gay men were unremarkable. It was not until the linking of sexuality and homosexuality that the authorities really took notice and drove many gay establishments out of business. It would be an oversimplification to say that this was a totally idyllic or tolerant society what is clear, however, is that New York allowed for more liminal space and gay friendly opportunities than the rural areas and thus became a mecca for gay men. Chauncey is especially adroit in his explanation of stereotypes as the sailor image proves, the waterfronts and sailors on leave appear to be equally attractive and receptive to both men and women. The lisping, effeminate ‘fairy’ was also a confirmed stereotype as seen in cartoons and popular culture and even embraced by men themselves as ‘camping’. There is also an element of performer and spectator, as men would ‘let their hair down’ for both other gay men and tourists. Gay men also patronized selected restaurants and cafeterias with such regularity that different establishments took on personas serving the theater or the rough trade.

While many men live in apartments, rooming houses and other male enclaves, many were forced to meet in public and the t-room public toilet and the public baths were famous gay meeting paces for sex. I find this look at urban life especially appealing as it analyze the built environment and links it to social uses as not all baths were gay. In addition, Chauncey reminds us that places like the beaches or Coney Island also saw a number of gay males as visitors, making them no different than other New Yorkers. This is also a point that Chauncey stresses, that we can learn much about the heterosexual culture and New York by looking at the gay and lesbian community. This work has gender in its subtitle and the interpretation is that gender is not ‘fluid’ in the modern use of the word, rather it used throughout this study as an appositive term to play off of gay women and the larger heterosexual population. It seems that urban culture was fixated on gender because of its link to sexuality and immorality.

Gay New York also does useful work by encouraging us to think about boundaries and how they are crossed, when and by whom and in what context. Chauncey tells us that the real story of gay New York is one of nuance and subtlety within a larger world, it appeared that gay New York, like gay New Yorkers was both visible and invisible and the ways in which people negotiated and encountered this world varied over time and according to the cultural climate of the time. There is no doubt, however, that gay New York helped shape the culture of the arts and had strong influences in the theater and café society. The intersection of social history, gay history and urban history raises new questions about how one might conceive of urban spaces and the public sphere.

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