on gay new york

George Chauncey’s Gay New York shatters the myth that before the 1960s gender variant people had never understood themselves as anything but gay men or lesbians trapped inside a closet of self-loathing.

Written in response to the notion that the ‘closet’ always has existed for American gay men and lesbians, as well as the concept that gender and sexuality always have been distinct domains of personhood, George Chauncey’s Gay New York argues that gender nonconforming people were not isolated, invisible, and self-hating during the first decades of the twentieth century. Instead, Chauncey claims, they reterritorialized the neighborhoods of New York in order to construct a vibrant deviant city in the midst of the normative city. Within that urban subculture, a wide array of gendered and sexual identities—inflected by class, race, ethnicity, and religion—flourished from about 1890 to 1940. Before WWII, that is, the nation’s social imaginary had not yet reduced all citizens to being either homosexual or heterosexual, and same-sex romance as well as gender deviancy were permissible in certain contexts. Only after the war, when what Chauncey calls “homo-heterosexual binarism” became hegemonic across America, were all gender nonconforming people forced to hide inside a closet newly constructed by the state, until the advent of the modern gay rights movement in 1969 made possible liberation and re-entrance into the public sphere. Early on, the scholar outlines the mission of the book in his typical dense but lucid prose:

This book charts the shifting boundaries drawn between queers and normal men, as well as among queers themselves, in the decades before the meaning of gay had broadened to incorporate almost all homosexually active men under its rubric. [. . .] It develops an ethnographic account of the social organization and cultural meaning of sexual practices and of the dominant cultural categories by which sexually active men had to measure themselves as they constructed their identities. (24)

To that end, the ethnography is divided into three parts, each of equal interest to the lay reader. The first part differentiates male sexual practices and identities in the early twentieth century from those that became hegemonic after WWII. Chauncey brilliantly details how a diverse range of gender/sexual identities co-existed with each other within New York during the period, all the while tracking how at the same time “homosexual” and “heterosexual”—the two sexual identities that would overpower and erase the rest after the war—rose to prominence in white middle-class society. The second part shifts from describing the gender/sexual identities of pre-war NYC to exploring the process by which a subculture of deviant men first emerged in the city. Chauncey analyzes the major facets of that world, from the ways in which authorities policed it to those in which its members found housing, ate, and socialized with each other. The last part explores the politics of the subculture, and the book’s conclusion overviews its recession from the public sphere during the 1930s and its erasure from historical memory after WWII.

In all the parts, though,Chauncey, rejecting a top-down approach to history, attends to the nuances of his subjects’ everyday experience: lively anecdotes illustrate abstract points. He is not interested in analyzing the discourse of elites but in “reconstructing the maps etched in the city streets by daily habit, the paths that guided men’s practices even if they were never published or otherwise formalized” (26). The scholar analyzes in great detail the gender/sexual identities and practices of working-class culture, and he makes his arguments racially and ethnically specific whenever the data allows him. The sole flaw of the book’s methodology is that Chauncey self-admittedly only focuses on men, as he felt it would have been practically impossible to have given both men and women the attention they deserved in a single study. Considering that the ethnography is packed with information, he seems to have been right, but his limited focus necessarily narrows the book’s scope of insight.

Chauncey’s argument itself is two pronged. He first takes great pains to show that, in working-class New York neighborhoods during 1890-1940, gender and sexuality were not conceived of as separate from each other. Same-sex activity was widespread and not stigmatized among working-class bachelors, so long as they adopted the dominant role during sex. The ‘faeries’ whose bodies were penetrated during sex were not immune from harassment and violence, but their presence in the public sphere was tolerated and even encouraged by working-class bachelors, who in large part viewed them as male counterparts to female sex workers. Simultaneously, Chauncey discusses how, during the same time period, middle-class white men increasingly conceptualized sexuality and gender as distinct from each other, through the discourse of heterosexuality. Anxiety over women’s growing presence in the public sphere, as well as fear of working-class men’s physical strength and political power, led them to locate the source of their social dominance within the body itself; specifically, the middle-class white male body’s ability to resist sexual desire for other men. Heterosexuality, in other words, emerged as a tool through which those men made exclusive sexual interest in women the precondition of masculinity itself and, thus, of sociopolitical power. The discourse of homo-/heterosexuality at its core, then, aimed to exclude all female-bodied persons and all “sexually” aberrant male-bodied persons from participating in the public sphere.

Gay New York is a cornerstone of gay history, and for good reason. It convincingly demonstrates that a subculture of gender/sexual deviants blossomed in New York before WWII, contrary to the invalidating claim that such lives were characterized by abject helplessness until 1969. It also draws attention to the historicity of the split between gender and sexuality, deconstructing the idea that the two have functioned as separate domains of personhood across time and space. The ethnography pairs exceptionally well with David Valentine’s Imagining Transgender, which in a sense can be approached as the sequel to Gay New York that Chauncey initially planned but never wrote. Together, the two studies chart how gender and sexuality emerged as ostensibly distinct domains of personhood in America’s social imaginary during the twentieth century.

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