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Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940

by George Chauncey

Jim Kepner: Jim Kepner was founder of the International Gay and Lesbian Archives, and co-founder of ONE Institute. A major pioneer of the Gay movement as well as a founder of Gay Studies, he died in 1997. His most recent book is ROUGH NEWS, DARING VIEWS: PIONEER GAY PRESS JOURNALISM IN THE 1950S, published by Haworth Press.

This reviewer found in 1943 that most young San Francisco queens each thought they'd invented the gay scene. Some older gays had longer memories—and I talked to a few whose memories dated back to the turn-of-the-century. Now, in one of the great gay books to date, George Chauncey of the University of Chicago gives a marvellously thorough sociological account of an almost forgotten, but at the time astonishingly open, diverse, extensive and well-publicized gay life between 1890 and 1930, when most of today's gay liberationists assume that gay life was almost totally smothered in ignorance and oppression.

Most recent historical writers on American gay life have assumed that “the scene” came into being only during World War II, or even as late as the 1969 Stonewall resistance in New York. Many gay historians feel a compulsion to explain “when it all began”—and what mechanism created it—and have set for Europe and the world the date which Chauncey starts with: 1890. With nominalist reasoning, such historians have insisted that homosexuals as a class came into being in the U.S. and Europe about that date after “authorities” named them as such—the name having supposedly created the condition. Chauncey does not push that view.

But while he attempts to explain with much repetition why it all came into being in New York City, at that time overflowing with tens of thousands of working class bachelors, (Chauncey admits that similar things may have happened on a smaller scale elsewhere, though his rationale for the New York scene suggests that gay life was scarce throughout what New Yorkers call the hinterland) he powerfully refutes three important misconceptions that have since dominated much Gay thinking about the past:

  1. the myth that anti-gay hostility prevented the development of an extensive gay subculture and forced gay men to lead solitary lives in the decades prior to the gay liberation movement.
  2. the myth that, even if something of a gay life existed, it was kept invisible, difficult for isolated gay men to find.
  3. the myth that gay men uncritically internalized the dominant culture's view of them as sick, perverted, and immoral, so that their self-hatred led them to accept the policing of their lives rather than resist it.

Despite some points of criticism I'll raise, this is an enormously important, eminently readable and very sound book. Like several before it, and far better organized than most, it is packed with enough research to make twenty additional volumes, and lifts a big curtain on our lost history. I only wish that the faddish bias of current historians had not led Chauncey to ignore the gayness that was also common among members of Bohemia and “high society”—but that is a book for someone else to write. Gay actors, writers, socialites and even politicians' ways of dealing with a stigmatized orientation were more resistant to broad generalization than the mostly nameless faeries and working class men he discusses.

Drawing on newspapers and gossip sheet reports and cartoons, on files and reports made by a wide assortment of “vice investigators” and city and state licensing agencies, as well as several memoirs of individual gay men, Chauncey paints an authentic picture of widespread cruising in various streets and parks, of vast men's residences in which gay life was often fairly open, of gay bars, baths (Ira Gershwin managed one awhile!), of drag shows and of popularly advertised and reported drag balls which sometimes drew as many as 8,000 attendees, mixing a dazzling parade of costumed fairies with hundreds of working class men and members of high society. Dance teacher and bon vivant Harry Otis (Shelton Dewey), a long-time participant in that scene during the twenties and thirties, had described it in articles in ONE Magazine and interviews with ONE's staff. The balls (sometimes hundreds were licensed in a single year) were very large, and lavishly described in the press. The dangers of arrest, raids, gay bashers and exposure were there, but seemed less common than they would later be, and New York's overt gay world seems to have been much more open from 1910 to 1930 than it was between 1940 and 1950. That contrast long remained a mystery.

Chauncey touches on the flowering of gay literature in this period, refuting the notion that gay novels and books dealing frankly with homosexuality only began to appear about 1950—and he avoids the mistake made by so many gay critics, of expecting the literature of 1930 to reflect the accepted views of 1970.

The handsome cover, showing two high society gentlemen, seems to have been done by someone who hadn't read the text with care, for ever since “new historians” Robinson, Beard and Breasted introduced the economic interpretation of history early in this century, deemphasizing the contributions of “great men” in favor of a sociological approach, it has become increasingly faddish to focus on the “common people,” particularly the working class, almost to the exclusion of artists, aristocrats, politicians and other famous people. Chauncey definitely focuses on workers, and since they as individuals left relatively few detailed records beyond statistics, it gives him elbow room to generalize—which he does, for too many pages.

The book is almost half over before he gets to more than passing references to specific happenings. Though Chauncey is an engaging writer, he seems more interested in theorizing than story telling. Some readers may tire of his extensive social philosophizing about, for example, whether Irish or Italian workers were more likely to have sex with the flaunting fairies, but about page 150, Chauncey gets into the YMCA—which ironically was established to prevent the very sort of “immoral” activity it became famous for. But the material he presents to develop a theoretical understanding, such as his discussion of the evolution of enormous bachelor housing facilities, is important, and he discusses numerous if random examples of vice arrests—while noting that the leading “protectors of morality” at that time were more interested in curbing female prostitution than other male activities. That, in a sense, permitted gay life to flourish.

He contrasts the large class of fairies, who paraded their femme gayness openly and defiantly in the Village, Harlem, Times Square and the Bowery, and queers (a term perhaps more used in New York than in the West) or homosexuals, who affirmed their homosexuality but often detested effeminacy, to the many men who engaged in frequent homosexual behavior, but stuck to “manly” roles and didn't regard themselves as being “that way.” He traces changes that seemed to take place in these forms of identity over the years, and quotes positive attitudes on the subject expressed by members of each class.

Chauncy documents the amazing openness of gay life in that period, even if not every homosexually-inclined person at the time knew about it, or was bold enough to enter it—but the reputation of New York, as well as of several cities, brought a stream of lonely gays from Peoria, Keokuk and Fort Worth. He is mistaken, I think, in tending to assume that such open gay life got started around 1890 (though he doesn't specifically assert that) and his explanation that things tightened up after the end of Prohitibion in 1932 because the government gave regulatory power over bars to Alcoholic Beverage Control Agencies is certainly important but far too pat. Clearly, those agencies laid an oppressive hand on behavior in bars, but they didn't affect the streets. Many other elements strengthened the dead hand of conformity that fell over gay life, and over American life in general, after World War II, as Allan Berube discussed in Coming Out Under Fire.

A very tiny point: Chauncey says that “the four horsewomen” was a general term for lesbians. I doubt that. Gossip columnists applied the term, “the four horsewomen of the Apocalypse” specifically to influential theatrical agent Elizabeth Marbury (who, among other things, organized Belgian War Relief during World War I and troop demobilization afterward) , her lover Elsie de Wolfe, who virtually invented interior decorating, Anne Morgan, somewhat radical daughter of millionaire J.P. Morgan, and Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt. The first three organized the first women's club in America, and were also often called “The three graces,” or “The women who made lesbianism fashionable.” Chauncey focuses exclusively on gay men—and while lesbian separatists feel that gay men ought not write about lesbians – its skews the story not to do so. Male and female gays were rarely entirely separate.

But whatever theoretical objections I find to parts of Chauncey's method, this book ought not be missed. It demonstrates that open gay life in America did not start after World War II as so many have assumed. Now we need someone to do such in-depth research about gay life in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans, Denver and other cities, as well as about the period prior to 1890, and to include those classes who left more complete personal records. Too many of our best theoretical historians have a doctrinaire bias against including the lives and doings of “famous people.” (Jim Foshee, a former volunteer at the International Gay and Lesbian Archives and the Denver Gay Archives, spent fifteen laborious years copying press reports about gays in many cities, mostly in the west, from as far back as library microfilms of the newspapers were readable, i.e., about 1870, but wasn't able to get his work in publishable shape. Some of what he found was used by Jonathan Katz, and a couple stories were used in the I.G.L.A. Bulletin, which also printed stories from the lively early-thirties gossip sheet, Broadway Brevities, which Chauncey has also used. Foshee's untrained research, like Chauncey's, proved that gaiety wasn't an unknown quality in the decades before Stonewall.)

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