George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940
List: 20th Century.
Subjects: Gender, Masculinity, Homosexuality, Urban Culture, Progressivism, New Era, New Deal.

George Chauncey's innovative and prodigiously researched Gay New York belies the myth of the pre-Stonewall closet and unearths a thriving gay culture in Gotham in the half-decade before World War II, before "the decline of the fairy and the rise of the closet." (23) Contrary to Whiggish notions of severe homosexual repression up until the liberating 1970s, Chauncey argues that "the gay male world of the prewar years was remarkably visible and integrated into the straight world" in the first decades of the twentieth century. (12) In fact, it was not until after the close of Prohibition that new social norms and cultural anxieties forced a restructuring of urban gay life. "To use the modern idiom," Chauncey writes, "the state built a closet in the 1930s and forced gay people to hide in it." (9)

Chauncey's book is rife with fascinating insights and conclusions, perhaps none so immediately surprising as the discovery that "in important respects the hetero-homosexual binarism, the sexual regime now hegemonic in American culture, is a stunningly recent creation." (13) Tracing the rise of the word gay to encompass all homosexual men (be they previously classified as queers, fairies, trade or another term now considered much more perjorative), Chauncey argues that "the ascendancy of gay reflected...a reorganization of sexual categories and the transition from an early twentieth-century culture divided into 'queers' and 'men' on the basis of gender status to a late twentieth-century culture divided into 'homosexuals' and 'heterosexuals' on the basis of sexual object choice."(23) Put another way, Chauncey argues that "homosexual behavior per se became the primary basis for the labeling and self-identification of men as 'queer' only around the middle of the twentieth century; before then, most men were so labeled only if they had displayed a much broader inversion of their ascribed gender status by assuming the sexual and other cultural roles ascribed to women. The abnormality (or 'queerness') of the 'fairy,' that is, was defined as much by his 'woman-like' character or 'effeminacy' as his solicitation of male sexual partners; the 'man' who responded to his solicitations -- no matter how often -- was not considered abnormal, a 'homosexual,' so long as he abided by masculine gender conventions. Indeed, the centrality of effeminacy to the representation of the 'fairy' allowed many conventionally masculine men, especialy unmarried men living in sex-segregated immigrant communities, to engage in extensive sexual activity with other men without risking stigmatization and the loss of their status as 'normal men.' (13)

Besides uncovering this striking shift in gender and social norms, Chauncey accomplishes similar linguistic feats in his study of the term coming out. "Gay people in the prewar years," he notes, "did not speak of coming out of what we now call the 'gay closet' but rather of coming out into what they called 'homosexual society' or the 'gay world,' a world neither so small, nor so isolated, nor, often, so hidden as 'closet' implies." (7) Indeed, "like much of campy gay terminology, 'coming out' was an arch play on the language of women's culture -- in this case the expression used to refer to the ritual of a debutante's being formally introduced to, or 'coming out' into the society of her cultural peers." (7) As the debutante connotation indicates, the prewar gay world of drag balls and speakeasies was one much more open and public than the prevailing trope of the closet suggests.

Of course, Gay New York tells us much not only about the construction of "homosexual" as a category but also of its opposite, "heterosexual." Echoing the work of T.J. Jackson Lears in intellectual history, Chauncey describes the "crisis of masculinity" that afflicted middle-class culture in the early years of the century. From the "captains of industry" bestriding industrial capitalism and destroying earlier conceptions of male independence at work to the increasing numbers of women challenging male prerogatives over suffrage and the public sphere, all "the social patterns and cultural expectations that had formed men's sense of themselves as men were being challenged or undermined." (111) As a result, a "cult of muscularity" ensued -- middle-class men began to glorify the virility of the "prizefighter and the workingmen" and to deplore the effects of "overcivilization" (including neurasthenia...again, Lears' No Place of Grace is valuable here) on leisured middle-class men. (113-114) Indeed, Teddy Roosevelt's entire public persona, from the strenuous life to the big stick, can all too easily be read as a manifestation of this crisis in gender. As a result, "heterosexuality became even more important to middle-class men because it provided them with a new, more positive way to demonstrate their manhood...Middle-class men increasingly conceived of their sexuality -- their heterosexuality, or exclusive desire for women -- as one of the hallmarks of a real man. It was as if they had decided that no matter how much their gender comportment might be challenged as unmanly, they were normal men because they were heterosexual." (117) Chauncey also notes that this shift in gender thinking happened a few generations later in minority and working-class culture, so that differing cultural conceptions of manliness and masculinity shared New York's streets in the years leading up to WWII.

Along the way, Chauncey manages to upend another traditional historical view in his discussion of the end of Prohibition. While historians tend to think of the collapse of prohibition as a victory for the tolerant-minded, Chauncey instead argues that it spelled the end for the gay prewar world. "The anti-gay reaction gained force in the early to mid-thirties as it became part of a more general reaction to the cultural experimentation of the Prohibition years and to the disruption of gender arrangements by the Depression. As the onset of the Depression dashed the confidence of the 1920s, gay men and lesbians began to seem less amusing than dangerous." (331) In effect, when Prohibition speakeasies remained outside the public sphere, the prevailing culture was more live-and-let-live. But, when drinking establishments are returned to the public sphere, "a powerful campaign to render gay men and lesbians invisible -- to exclude them from the public sphere -- quickly gained momentum." (331) (One ironic consequence of this growing anti-gay regulation movement, Chauncey notes, was "the creation of exclusively gay bars." (348)) "The reaction against the challenges posed to manhood by Depression conditions was widely evident in the culture," Chauncey concludes, "from the celebration of powerful male physiques in the public art of the New Deal to the attacks on married women for 'stealing' men's jobs and the laws passed by several states requiring women to be dismissed from teaching jobs when they married. Lesbians and gay men began to seem more dangerous in this context -- as figures whose defiant perversity threatened to undermine the reproduction of normative gender and sexual arrangements already threatened by the upheavals of the thirties." (354)

In the last chapter, Chauncey deliberately echoes C. Vann Woodward's Strange Career of Jim Crow in outlining the "Strange Career of the Closet" in the years following WWII. According to Chauncey, "the dangers gay men faced increased rapidly in the postwar decades, even as the cultural boundaries of their world were changing." (360) The details of this story he leaves to his forthcoming sequel, The Making of the Modern Gay World, 1935-1975. With this first volume, however, Chauncey has done an exquisite job not only of revealing a lost world but also of illustrating how such seemingly static categories as gender status and sexual orientation are in fact continually in flux.

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