Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
Subject: The existence of a myriad of complex homosexual identities and “gay spaces” that existed in New York City well before the gay liberation movement began in 1969.
Author’s Arguments: Chauncey challenges three central myths of gay life before the rise of the gay rights movements of the late 20th century: 1) the myth of isolation, that stated that before 1969, anti-gay hostility prevented the development of any extensive gay subculture(s) and forced men to lead solitary lives. However, Chauncey shows that gay men had to be cautious, but like other marginalized peoples, they were able to construct spheres of relative cultural autonomy. 2) the myth of invisibility, which stated that even if a gay world existed, it was below the radar and hard for straight society (and even other gay men) to find it. However, Chauncey does an excellent job of showing that gay men were highly visible figures in early twentieth century New York, and that before the world wars gay men mingled in the same places as everyone else. 3) the myth of internalization, which held that gay men uncritically internalized the dominant culture’s view of them as sick, perverted, and immoral, and that their self-hatred led them to accept the policing of their lives rather than resist it. BUT, many gay men celebrated their difference from the norm, and organized to resist anti-gay policing.
Another main argument of the book is that the idiom of “the closet” that the gay community came out of in the 1970s is somewhat faulty, in that the “closet” is not as old as we once thought. In fact, Chauncey argues that the closet (a system of repression in which gay men had to hide) wasn’t created by the dominant society until the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. The words left behind by early 20th century homosexuals show that while some of them adopted a total identity based on their preference for men, other (like the self-identifying “queers”) went back and forth between double lives (thus showing that they did not feel constricted by any “closet”). In the prewar years, “coming out” was more of a “coming into” a homosexual society or gay world; in other words, it was more of an initiation into the gay world (and importantly: it was originally something that gay men helped other gay men do, whereas now “coming out (of the closet)” is now something that a gay person primarily does to straight family members).
So, this strikingly recent construction of the closet goes against any teleological or “Whig history” of homosexual emancipation (at least in NYC). It shows that from 1890-1930, a homosexual/gay world thrived until it was driven underground (where it continued to flourish, albeit in a less-public manner).
Chauncey also charts the words that homosexuals used to define themselves, while also looking at the words that “normal” society used to describe homosexuals. Pre-war homosexual identities were dependent on gender roles of masculinity/femininity. “Fairies” were flamboyant and feminine homosexual men, while “queers” were often (middle class?) men who engaged in homosexual acts, but did not identify with the flamboyant fairies, and who could often pass as “normal” men. “Trade” referred to men who had sex with feminine men, but who were otherwise “straight.” They were not homosexual in the sense that they did not necessarily seek out sex with other men, yet when solicited by a fairy for instance, they did not turn down the sex. At the same time, the “normalcy” of trade men was not questioned as long as their masculinity wasn’t endangered and they maintained a dominant role in the sexual encounter.
However, by the middle of the 20th century, the word “gay” had begun to gain dominance. Whereas the term had been used early on as a code word that other homosexual men could use to communicate (to ask for “a place to have a gay old time” for instance, was code asking for a homosexual bar), it eventually became a word that more broadly referred to all homosexual men together. “Gay” tended to group all of the previous types (fairies, queers, trade) together, to deemphasize their differences by emphasizing the similarity in character they had presumably demonstrated by their choice of male sexual partners.
The result was the construction of a binary: gay vs. straight, homosexual vs. heterosexual. Trade virtually disappeared as a sexual identity within the gay world as men began to regard ANYONE who participated in a homosexual encounter as “gay” and conversely, to insist that men could be defined as “straight” only on the basis of a total absence of homosexual interest and behavior. Now, more masculine men could identity openly as gay (because they enjoyed homosexual acts) but no longer had to “give up” their masculinity. By 1960s, “trade” had disappeared because both gay and straight men had redefined the roles so that there was no middle ground. One was either gay or straight. (However, Chauncey does acknowledge that the new “gay” identity did not simply replace the others; for a time, all identities coexisted, until the new “gay” identity eventually became dominant.)This book challenges the assumption, for instance, that the 19th century medical discourse was solely responsible for constructing the “homosexual” as a personality type, and that the appearance of “the homosexual” in medical discourse should be taken as indicative of or synonymous with the homosexual’s appearance in the culture as a whole. The book argues that “the invert” and “the normal man” were not inventions of the elite, but were popular discursive categories before they became elite discursive categories.
My Comments: I really enjoyed Gay New York, and I want to reread it again. Chauncey showed beautifully how this subculture was continuously defining and redefining itself. I like that he showed how “gay spaces” weren’t just separated or “quarantined” from the rest of society, but instead were spread among “normal” life. I also respect how he used even “traditional” sources such as police records, and simply read them in a new light to show how the new regulations of the 1930s and later did not eradicate the gay world, because the gay subculture provided men with resources that they needed to get around the new regulations. This was also the first work that I’ve read that dealt directly with the words that homosexuals used to refer to themselves and a shift in terminology reveals a fundamental shift in they way gays thought about themselves, and in the way the straight community thought about the gay community.
His tracing of the evolution of the homosexual/heterosexual binary makes more sense to me (than the “power-based, medicalization and classification model”), and maybe that’s because Chauncey returns a powerful sense of agency to gays in (helping to) form their own identity
For more books on the history of sexuality and gender, see my full list of book reviews here.