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

de George Chauncey

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A fascinating look at a gay world that was not supposed to have existed, this book shows that gay life in prewar New York was not only remarkably visible but extensively integrated into the straight world.

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Really interesting preface to the reprint edition about how Chauncey would treat transgender issues differently if he were writing it 20 years later. Chauncey argues that in the 1890s and for several decades thereafter, the flourishing gay life in NYC was not defined by sexual object choice but by gender—“fairies” etc. were men who “took the woman’s part” and therefore “had a woman’s soul.” Among other things, this meant that many men who had or even preferred sex with women were willing to interact with and have sex with men we’d now call gay. Relatedly, working-class gay male life was heavily integrated with working-class heterosexual male life. Although many men saw themselves as living a double life or wearing a mask, they did not see themselves as “closeted” in the sense of isolated from other gay men. There were robust public forms of gay life, including balls, bathhouses, and bars, most of which were shut down by midcentury (the bathhouses lived until the AIDS crisis) but which before that were publicly acknowledged by newspapers, police, and others. It wasn’t that being gay was safe—arrests and attacks were real, albeit less common than they became—but that gay men nonetheless carved out lives that included public aspects. ( )
  rivkat | Jun 25, 2021 |
A superbly-researched history of gay lives, where the author sought to dispel the myth that gay male culture itself only fermented in WWII and fully exploded into the cultural consciousness with the Stonewall riots in 1969 but that a very active and vibrant gay (sub)culture existed very publicly in New York from 1890 to 1930.

It was fascinating to learn about the way gay men created their own social world in both public and private spheres of their lives. How they constantly walked the line of being ostracised and acknowledged (or just tolerated) as long as they still conformed to social ideas of masculinity and femininity. How they manage to transform public areas into their own, recognising each other via subtle cues of conversation etc, undetected by the otherwise heteronormative, social-purity surroundings. How they persisted and created a culture of their own in the face of constant oppression, to thrive in their own private social lives, and fostered a supportive environment for the next generation of gay men.

Chauncey acknowledges the difficulty of doing research on such a suppressed culture, the source texts mainly involving court records and oral history from interviews he conducted. Despite this, he managed to recreate the vivid everyday lives that gay men achieved in spite of the constant opposition they faced. Black gay history of the Harlem area was also included in the book (but to a lesser extent than the white gay lives of the Village) which I think could be a really great book on its own. As would the lesser-discussed lesbian lives of the same era.

Truly an important and much-needed addition to gay history. I look forward to his next book on the postwar gay world.

Fascinating things I've learnt:
- the rise of the word gay (the semantics of labels defining particular sexual identities, which later became perjoratives, which in turn led to gay being adopted as an umbrella term whose dominant use and whose redefined parameters helped increase the visibility of gay culture),
- how working-class culture was the driving force in the establishment of gay culture in then New York (which made sense since the burgeoning middle class sought to distinguish themselves from the working class, one aspect of which meant they centred their lives more around their private homes whereas the tenement housing of the working class means they sought for public places such as saloons to congregate where like-minded people might meet and be able to mingle more freely),
- the difference between working class men and middle class men of era. The former can be with effeminate gay men while retaining their "masculine" identity (without having to label themselves as gay) within the working class community, provided they maintain the dominant male roles in the relations. Meanwhile middle class men are slowly enforcing the strict heterosexual/homosexual binary because they feel like their masculinity are being threatened (by working class men because they're viewed as more traditionally masculine than middle class men who work in an office and are in deference to bigger bosses, by women because they want to vote which undermines the man's position at home and also because they're taking over the work domains of middle class men [albeit in subservient roles but I suppose the presence of the women is enough to make the men feel threatened]). Which leads to the interesting pursuits that these middle class men thinks would restore their masculinity, such as, bodybuilding for the purposes of admiring each other naked... Men! ( )
  kitzyl | Feb 27, 2021 |
I read this for research for a queer historical fiction novel I'm writing, and it was interesting.

Chauncey gives a very detailed, thorough, well-researched account of queer meeting places, attitudes and urban culture in New York from the 1800's till 1940 and even slightly beyond that. It was a fascinating social history, although I found parts of it often dragged on or were repeated, I learned a lot and books like this will prove invaluable in my research.

I would also like to add that this focuses purely on queer men, not so much queer women. The writer acknowledges that a whole book ought to written about queer women and their respective collective identities in New York City.

While I was a little disappointed, I do agree. I also really appreciate Chauncey's concerted efforts to dismantle white privilege and how so many people thought they were being progressive in NYC, but were not necessarily, especially when it comes to black creators, performers and singers in the Harlem Renaissance.

I'd happily read his second book. ( )
  lydia1879 | Feb 1, 2020 |
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 |
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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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A fascinating look at a gay world that was not supposed to have existed, this book shows that gay life in prewar New York was not only remarkably visible but extensively integrated into the straight world.

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