Saturday, December 6, 2014

Gay New York. Gender, Urban Culture and the making of the Gay Male World 1890 - 1940 by George Chauncey

George Chauncey presents a vivid portrait of New York gay male culture in the years between 1890 and 1940. It is a rich, highly documented study that relies on evidence ranging from interviews and biographical accounts by gay men, to the less friendly testimony of police spies and citizen vigilantes attempting to contain this milieu. The result is a panorama of gay neighborhoods and meeting places that thrived during this period.

The book begins with scenes of an active 1890s “subculture of the flamboyantly effeminate ‘fairies’…who gathered at Paresis Hall and other Bowery resorts.” Many of these men are described as prostitutes directly employed by the owners, or passively encouraged because they enticed customers. While Chauncey is quick to point-out that this “was not the only gay subculture in the city,” it does begin the book on a sensationalist note (Chauncey, p. 34). It might have been more useful to progress from interviews and biographies showing private gay home life, relationships and friendships, which would have illustrated the solid foundation of gay community, but the beginning would have been less exciting.

From this unfortunate start, Chauncey progresses improvingly by depicting the attitudes of men who defined themselves positively as “queers” and “fairies.” This counters the myth that all gay men at the time had internalized the dominant culture’s negative image of them. Self-esteem existed prior to the activism of our current period. The book progresses from the Gay Nineties through the 1930s, when a number of proudly gay entertainers headlined Greenwich Village and Harlem night spots widely attended by the straight community. Chauncey does not pretend that the 1890s through the 1930s were free of harassment and prejudice. He spends a great deal of time highlighting assaults upon the gay male community during this period. But one cannot deny the evidence of a thriving public and private gay culture before World War Two.

While the elaboration of life from home to street is fascinating and opens the reader to a world presumed invisible if non-existent, Chauncey is a historian with a wider purpose. A common assumption is that US gay culture progressed, in a linear trajectory, from concealment to free expression; from oppression to acceptance. “The Whiggish notion that change is always ‘progressive’ and that gay history in particular consists of a steady movement toward freedom continues to have appeal” to the LGBT community and its optimistic allies (Chauncey, p. 9). Chauncey offers evidence that gay male culture was more visible, tolerated and permeable to outsiders between 1890 and 1930 than it was between 1945 and 1960. He claims that a “post-war reaction has tended to blind us to the relative tolerance of the pre-war years” (Chauncey, p. 9). Our lack of knowledge about this early 20th Century flourishing oasis is largely due to the success of post-war repression.

Despite the eye-opening, socially progressive purpose of the author’s work, his relative exclusion of lesbians will rankle with some readers. Chauncey self-consciously explains that “the book focuses on men because the differences between gay male and lesbian history and the complexity of each made it seem virtually impossible to write a book about both that did justice to each” (Chauncey, p. 27). This justification rings a bit hollow, since lesbians and gay men lived in the same neighborhoods and frequented many of the same social spaces.

Chauncey should be congratulated on his extensive coverage of African American life. Unlike his justification for excluding lesbians, Chauncey does not argue that the differences between Caucasian and African American history “made it seem virtually impossible to write a book about both.” While many white gay clubs excluded African American men, Harlem of the early 20th Century has a bountiful history of gay neighborhood cohesion, clubs and drag balls, which the author portrays in enthusiastic detail.

Gay New York may have its flaws and blind spots, but it is a significant adjunct to LGBT history. The myths of invisibility, isolation and self-abnegation are aptly countered by its testimony. It depicts a strong, vibrant and cohesive community that thrived for a period before being driven underground by prejudice. While the author’s coverage of post-war suppression is difficult to read, it is an important episode to face. The chronology from a more open and tolerated gay culture to one that was repressed, warns us that the forces of intolerance are persistent. We must be vigilant in order to retain recent LGBT gains.

Chauncey, George. Gay New York. Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

For review of a LGBT book on anarchist support for LGBT rights during this time in US history, see:
http://greatnonfictionbooks.blogspot.com/2014/01/free-comrades-anarchism-and.html