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Gay New York gender, urban culture, and the…

Gay New York gender, urban culture, and the makings of the gay male world,… (1994)

by George Chauncey

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In Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890 – 1940, George 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” (pg. 9). Further, he argues “that in important respects the hetero-homosexual binarism, the sexual regime now hegemonic in American culture, is a stunningly recent creation” (pg. 13). Through his work, Chauncey maps both the physical and social topography of gay culture in New York City. Finally, Chauncey 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” (pg. 28).
One of the most interesting parts of Chauncey’s analysis details the manner in which gay and heterosexual men interacted. Chauncey writes, “The earlier culture [pre-1950s] permitted men to engage in sexual relations with other men, often on a regular basis, without requiring them to regard themselves – or to be regarded by others – as gay” (pg. 65). Due to this, “many men alternated between male and female sexual partners without believing that interest in one precluded interest in the other, or that their occasional recourse to male sexual partners, in particular, indicated an abnormal, ‘homosexual,’ or even ‘bisexual’ disposition, for they neither understood nor organized their sexual practices along a hetero-homosexual axis” (pg. 65). Chauncey adds an element of class to his analysis, specifically when discussing the differences between those groups of gay men that self-identified as queer and those that identified as fairies. Chauncey writes, “The queers’ antagonism toward the fairies was in large part a class antagonism. Not all queers were middle class…just as not all fairies were of the working class. But if the fairy as a cultural ‘type’ was rooted in the working-class culture of the Bowery…the queer was rooted in the middle-class culture of the Village and the prosperous sections of Harlem and Times Square” (pg. 106). His discussion of police power further demonstrates the complex relationships between the queer and normal worlds.
Chauncey discusses the anti-vice societies’ and police focus on sexuality targeting primarily female prostitutes. Chauncey writes, “The campaigns to control assignation hotels illustrate the degree to which the anti-vice societies often neglected homosexuality because of their preoccupation with controlling female prostitution, as well as the ability of ‘normal’-looking gay men to manipulate observers’ presumption that they were straight to their own advantage” (pg. 163). When the police did charge gay men, they usually did so with disorderly conduct charges. Chauncey writes, “The use of the disorderly conduct law against gay people was consistent with the intent of the law, which effectively criminalized a wide range of non-normative behavior in public spaces, as defined by the dominant culture, be it loitering, gambling, failure to hire oneself out to an employer, failure to remain sober, or behaving in a public space in any other manner perceived as threatening the social order” (pg. 172). After the end of Prohibition, the State Liquor Authority controlled both those spaces where patrons could drink and what type of clientele they could host. According to Chauncey, “The genius of the licensing mechanism lay in the way it expanded the state’s ability to survey and regulate public sociability…By threatening proprietors with the revocation of their licenses if its agents discovered that customers were violating the regulations, it forced proprietors to uphold those regulations on behalf of the state” (pg. 336). This public role of policing fed into later Cold War fears, in which “the specter of the invisible homosexual, like that of the invisible communist, haunted Cold War America. The new image was invoked to justify a new wave of assaults on gay men in the postwar decade” (pg. 360). This effectively ended the broader public realm open to gay New Yorkers while cementing the hetero-homosexual binary. ( )
  DarthDeverell | Mar 17, 2017 |
A life-changing book for gay people who think they have no history. Although it focuses almost exclusively on gay men (with good reason, and Chauncey acknowledges that reason,) and only looks at New York City, Chauncey masterfully strips apart dominant narratives about the history of sexuality and explores the nuances of masculinity at the turn of the century. My primary complaint is that communities of color are not as present as they could have been; although Chauncey devotes some space to Black men and women in the section about Harlem, that constitutes half a chapter, with no real acknowledgement as to the gap he's left behind.

Regardless, this book is life-changing and definitely necessary for those interested in the history of sexuality in general, and of gay male history in particular. The notes alone may also be worth a serious look for those less interested in gay men--the sources he draws from also cover urban history, some Black history, the history of sex work, women's history, and lesbian history. We can also argue here (happily!) over whether or not it's a work of transgender history--certainly it's a history of gender variance in this country, and for that I think it is worth for transgender people, especially transfeminine folk, to look at this too, despite the title. ( )
  aijmiller | Dec 24, 2016 |
I'm glad I read Gay New York just after reading Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: the differences between the two queer social histories was edifying. Where Odd Girls attempts to create a narrative structure, in which queer culture progressed in a straight line, Gay New York looks at the first third of the 20th century thematically rather than chronologically. While this certainly makes it a much more difficult, dense read, it has the wonderful effect of showing the many simultaneous gay experiences of New Yorkers from different racial and economic backgrounds. In the end, Chauncey has described a vibrant polyphonic culture, and done it great justice. ( )
  circumspice | Mar 18, 2013 |
I was intrigued by this essay since recently some of my preconceptions are starting to fall down and I wanted a book that helped me to rebuild my basis. If I think to a hypothetic “modern” past (more or less pre II World War) I had the idea the gay culture was more or less “underground”, or better, completely hidden. My idea was that, if you were gay (and yes, I know at the time the word gay had a different meaning, but bear with me), you were also probably fated to be unhappily married, or completely alone; some exception were allowed to the very wealthy men that sheltered themselves in some isolated paradise, far from the society eyes and judgement. Then I started to read about John Gray (March 2, 1866 – June 14, 1934), the man who apparently inspired Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, and who, more or less, lived happily together with his lover Marc-André Raffalovich (September 11, 1864 – February 14, 1934): when John Gray, a catholic priest, went to Edinburgh Marc-André Raffalovich settled nearby; he then helped finance St Peter's Church in Morningside where Gray would serve as priest for the rest of his life. And is it a coincidence that John died barely 4 months after Marc-André?

Or about Edward Carpenter (August 29, 1844 – June 28, 1929), the man who most used the term “intermediate sex”, referring to those men who were not exactly men, not exactly women, men who were attracted by other men, but usually stronger and masculine men. Edward Carpenter was a strong advocate of sexual freedom, living in a gay community near Sheffield, and had a profound influence on both D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster, so much that they said Forster took inspiration from Carpenter for Maurice and D.H. Lawrence for Lady Chatterley’s Lover: Edward Carpenter had a long-lasting relationship with George Merrill (1866–1928), a working class man also from Sheffield. Again, when Merrill suddenly died in January 1928, Carpenter was devastated and 13 months after, he himself died, on Friday 28 June 1929.

And what about F.O. Matthiessen (February 19, 1902 - April 1, 1950), the noted Harward literary historian and critic, who wrote to his lover, the painter Russell Cheney (1881–1945), “we are complex – both of us – in that we are neither wholly man, woman, or child”. In another letter he noted, “just as there are energetic active women and sensitive delicate men, so also there are… men, like us, who appear to be masculine but have a female sex element”. Both Yale graduate and members of the Skull & Bones, Matthiessen was 20 years younger than Cheney, but they died at only 5 years of distance.

And then there is the story of Glenway Wescott (April 11, 1901 - February 22, 1987) and his lover Monroe Wheeler (February 13, 1899 - August 14, 1988); despite apparently having an open relationship, and an on-off ménages a trois with fashion photographer and male nude artist George Platt Lynes (April 15, 1907 – December 6, 1955), they lived together until old age, hosting one of the most important intellectual saloon in their Greenwich Village apartment. Again, when Wescott dies in 1987, Monroe followed soon after 1 year and half later (on a sad note, it seems that to Monroe Wheeler was prohibited to live in the country house he had always shared with Glenway; truth be told, the house was not of Glenway, but of his brother who had married a wealthy heiress who apparently maintained for all her life both her husband than Glenway and Monroe).

But other than tidbits about these men, you will read also about the Harlem’s drag balls with the quintessentia of Harlem Renaissance poets like Langston Hughes and Richard Bruce Nugent, but also with, among the attendants, Broadway gay celebrities like Beatrice Lillie, Clifton Webb, Jay Brennan and Tallulah Bankhead (it’s a coincidence that most of these names are almost forgotten? I loved black and white movies by Clifton Webb, but those other names were completely new to me). It was the chance for me to google about Beatrice Lillie and Tallulah Bankhead, and rediscover these fascinating women.

On a closing note, even if today there seems to be more “freedom”, popular culture still likes to erase the memory, like in the case of Charles Henri Ford (February 10, 1913 - September 27, 2002) whose lover Indra Tamang is still today identified as “the butler”; upon her death, Charles Henri Ford’s sister, actress Ruth Ford (July 7, 1911 - August 12, 2009), according to the newspapers left 2 multimillionaire apartments in New York City plus an art collection (n.d.r. Charles Henri Ford was the partner of painter Pavel Tchelitchew, until his death in 1957) to her “butler”… who is no one else than Indra Tamang that already in the ’70 and ’80 was well known as to be Charles Henri Ford devoted partner. It’s so hard to imagine that she was not leaving an unthinkable generous legacy to a simple partner, but was probably honouring the memory of her late brother?

Gay New York is maybe a little more academic than my review is letting you believe, and that is a worth for the essay I suppose. But to me, romantic reader, it allowed to have a more solid basis to read about the above men and women, and their sometime hidden lives. It’s a pity they are hidden, since apparently, these men and women were not afraid, at their time, to openly live their love.

1 vote elisa.rolle | Aug 16, 2011 |
Reviewed here.
  scott.neigh | Mar 26, 2011 |
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Full title (1994): Gay New York : gender, urban culture, and the makings of the gay male world, 1890-1940.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0465026214, Paperback)

Gay New York brilliantly shatters the myth that before the 1960s gay life existed only in the closet, where gay men were isolated, invisible, and self-hating. Based on years of research and access to a rich trove of diaries, legal records, and other unpublished documents, this book is a fascinating portrait of a gay world that is not supposed to have existed.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:04:51 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

This groundbreaking work shatters the myth that before the 1960s gay life existed only in the closet where gay men were isolated, invisible, and self-hating. Based on years of research and access to a rich trove of public and private documents, this is a look at a gay world that was not supposed to have existed. Focusing on New York City, the gay capital of the nation for nearly a century, Chauncey recreates the saloons, speakeasies, and cafeterias where gay men gathered, the intimate parties and immense drag balls where they celebrated, and the highly visible residential enclaves they built in Greenwich Village, Harlem, and Times Square. He offers new perspectives on the gay rights revolution of our time by showing that the oppression the gay and lesbian movement attacked in the 1960s was not an unchanging phenomenon--it had intensified in the 1920s and 1930s as a direct response to the visibility of the gay world in those years.--From publisher description.… (more)

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