Title: Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940
Author: George Chauncey
Categories: Sexuality, Urban History, Space, Cultural History, Class
Place: New York City
Time Period: 1890-1940
George Chauncey uncovers a previously hidden "gay male world" in New York City before World War II, a world that had been lost through the myths of "isolation, invisibility, and internalization." Instead, the world Chauncey describes is a vibrant and surprisingly visible gay culture between 1890-1940. In this world, the later homosexual/heterosexual binary was not yet in force, and men were defined on the basis of their masculinity or femininity rather than the sex of their sexual partners. In this way, working-class masculine men, particularly sailors and laborers, could have sex with effeminate "fairies" yet not be considered "gay" (provided they were the one doing the penetrating). In contrast, a growing middle class during the 1910s and 1920s turned to sexual preference to develop a heterosexual identity of masculinity in which "queers" (middle-class equivalents of "fairies") were defined by their attraction to men. Chauncey argued that this developed as an anxious response to working-class sexual practices (bottom-up influence on culture) and middle-class male anxieties over their own manhood.
In Part II, Chauncey describes how gay men produced the space of an urban "gay world." They turned to semi-public spaces as zones of security, such as local YMCAs, boarding houses, and cafeterias. Chauncey notes that, until the 1930s, authorities would often take a hands-off approach unless gay men's presence moved beyond the category of harmless spectacle. He also notes the tension between private and public, where gay men were often forced out of the public sphere to engage in activities and socializing in public areas (although places such as parks and streets were often dangerous). Chauncey links crackdowns on this public space to broader reformist crackdowns on the autonomy of working-class recreational spaces, such as Coney Island. Finally, he points to the development of two gay neighborhood enclaves: Greenwich Village in the 1910s (part of a larger bohemian culture) and Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s (which was much more visible and vibrant). Chauncey notes that until the 1930s, these spaces, in particular Harlem, became a space for highly visible spectacles of gay life - for example, massive drag queen balls in which thousands attended and were covered by the press. These undermine any notions of gay life being in deeply in the closet until the 1960s. Chauncey ends with a discussion of the decline of this gay world. He points to the end of Prohibition as a watershed, whose repeal was inspired in part by fears over criminality and sordidness that it inspired by driving behavior underground. With its repeal the state had broader surveillance and regulatory powers which they used to limit gay public space. This occurs most vividly with violent crackdowns on any bars that allowed gay men visibility (leading to the rise of exclusively gay bars). Chauncey's narrative ends with the gay world being driven largely underground during the 1930s.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Gay world was quite visible before 1930s, then went into the closet (anti-Whiggish view of history)
- Centrality of working class to gay world
- For much of period there was no hetero/homo binary, instead defined by masculinity/femininity, NOT sexual orientation - straight men could have sex with "fairies" and "queers" (defined by their femininity) and not be considered gay
- Gay men create a space for activity that bridges public and private (ex. bath houses, cafeterias, YMCA), and even become particularly visible in two neighborhoods: Greenwich Village and Harlem
- Decline of gay world (gets put into the closet) beginning in 1930s due middle class male anxieties and repeal of Prohibition (broader state surveillance)
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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