Saturday, March 26, 2011

Review: Gay New York

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

A friend suggested this book as one of several to make my sourcing for a particular chapter of my own books a bit more robust. I only needed to engage with it deeply enough to write a sentence or two that it would support, but I decided that I wanted to read the whole thing. I'm glad to have done so. It is dense and academic but it is also a truly fascinating piece of social history that is both grounded in real lives and that challenges contemporary assumptions about sexuality and identity.

The dominant culture and even the commonsense in some queer spaces are based on some common but incorrect assumptions. One is that queer history began with Stonewall, the uprising in response to a police raid on a New York gay bar in 1969 that is commemorated (even if this legacy is not always remembered) in Pride celebrations around North America every year. Another is that the gay/straight binary (with reluctant and unstable middle ground occasionally granted for bi sexualities) is the only and eternal way in which human beings have organized selves and practices. Gay New York engages in a painstaking and detailed reconstruction of the practices of men who had sex with men in New York City between 1890 and 1940 -- of their sense of themselves, of the ways they were perceived in the mainstream, and most particularly of their creation, appropriation, and delightfully subversive use of urban spaces, from the streets of working-class immigrant neighbourhoods to the original gay bathhouses to Harlem's extravagant drag balls to YMCA rooming houses to Time Square to Broadway. In the course of using old newspapers, diaries and personal papers, interviews, published memoirs, rare early research (usually medicalized) into queer lives, and archives of police and organizations concerned with 'public morality' to recreate this world, Chauncey robustly dismantles those assumptions and others.

The myth that queer history started in 1969 takes a variety of forms. The sillier, straighter version is that people 'like that' didn't exist back before the '60s ruined our morality. This is really a specific incarnation of a more general assumption lodged in the historical imagination of many North Americans that the caricature in our culture of the 1950s represents a snapshot of stable and timeless ways of living that were attacked by the decadent '60s, and that there is an inevitable cultural chasm between those with loyalty to nostalgia for the former and those committed to the free-for-all of the latter. This is silly on many levels, of course. There is also a less ridiculous version that assumes that gay men and lesbians have always existed and understood themselves and their desires in ways we would recognize, but before 1969 they mostly lead lives of quiet, unfulfilled desperation. This, too, is based on a projection backward of a caricatured 1950s (as well as a caricatured today).

In fact, queer history did not begin in 1969, as this book so skillfully demonstrates. In New York City, there were vibrant networks of men who desired other men who not only survived but thrived in earlier decades. Moreover, the post-Second World War phenomenon of the closet, into which queers were pushed by the conservative social reconfiguration that began in some ways in the '30s but intensified with the Cold War, did not exist, or at least not in the same form, in earlier years. (Chauncey prefers the label "double life" for the way it worked for many men before the Second World War, both because it is how many men from that era talked about it themselves and because it has quite a different inflection from "closet" that more accurately captures its social organization in those year.) Chauncey shows that the gay world in New York before the Second World War was smaller than after, but it was also less sharply separated from the rest of the city. Though there were certainly dangers, openly gender-variant and overtly queer men took up visible space in working-class neighbourhoods in New York in the early 20th century. Police repression was sporadic but not absent, and vigilante violence certainly a possibility, but in contrast with the 1950s, in earlier decades there were many places in New York where men could, with reasonable safety and without segregating themselves from 'normals,' comfortably exhibit queer ways of doing gender and sexuality.

This was all tightly tied to the significantly different social organization of gender and sexuality in those years. Today, the existence of two distinct types of human beings, divided further into those that like to get it on with the same type and those that like to get it on with the other type, is deeply embedded in our commonsense understandings of the world and in our culture. People who do not fit within that framework today fight for space beyond its constrictions, but that space is constantly contested and unstable, or else it is granted with a kind of rhetorical sleight of hand that treats it as a minor oddity that leaves the framework intact as dominant commonsense. Yet this framework is a relatively recent invention.

Chauncey demonstrates that in early 20th century New York, particularly in working-class sexual cultures, senses of self and sexual practices were organized quite differently. The most visibly non-normative face were men who were often labelled 'faeries' who did gender in very effeminate ways and who were very visibly queer. To most of the mainstream world, these men and the gender inversion they were thought to embody were the beginning and end of what we now might call queerness, though in fact they were quite a small proportion of men who engaged in sex with men. There were also men -- seemingly quite a large proportion of working-class men -- who were at least open to the idea of having sex with faeries, though only playing the so-called 'male' role, either when no woman was available or more frequently than that. These men, often referred to as 'trade' by those in gay social networks, did not consider themselves to be anything other than normal men, and were not considered so by other working-class men, in stark contrast with the organization of sexuality today. And, finally, there was a third grouping of men which at least sometimes used the label "queer" to understand themselves, though not in quite the sense it is used today. Unlike the "faeries," these men did not do gender in visibly feminine ways. They had fairly stable desire to have sex with other men. It is in part because the dominant public assumption about men who had sex with men was that they inevitably demonstrated visible effeminacy that allowed men in this 'queer' grouping to hide in plain sight. They developed elaborate cultural codes that allowed them to identify and interact with each other with relative safety.

Chauncey argues that the flourishing of gay culture in the '20s and early '30s was a result of the upheaval of the First World War and the way that Prohibition pushed people who otherwise would never have flaunted the boundary between acceptable and not (as dictated by bourgeois morality) to open their lives to all kinds of spaces and possibilities unimaginable a decade before -- that is, to get a drink, nice respectable folks went to places they otherwise wouldn't and it became more acceptable among significantly larger layers of the New York population to mingle (and therefore perhaps discover unexpected affinity with) 'undesirables,' including queers. Later on in the '30s, though, the gender anxiety prompted by the Depression's attack on central pillars of masculinity for many men -- especially the ability to earn a living -- and the reimposition of more conventional moral boundaries after the repeal of Prohibition began the trajectory towards the world of the '50s: a sharper division between queer and straight spaces and consequent creation of many more queer-only spaces, and a much more relentlessly enforced closet -- enforced in the senes of prompter and more consistent punishment for visibility. This was also connected to shifts in the organization of sexual categories. The homo/hetero binary had appeared in some medical discourse and in some corners of middle-class sexual cultures before the end of the 19th century, and by the middle of the 20th century it became dominant much more broadly. This, too, sharpened boundaries and helped to produce the modern closet.

It's hard to know how to relate to the fact that this is all about New York City, though. Manhattan is, after all, not quite like anywhere else. The author admits this and agrees that research of this kind focused on other cities is necessary. Given the character of the spaces and networks at the heart of this work, extensive local variation is likely.

My only real wish for what else the book might do is, sadly, anachronistic and therefore impossible. I couldn't rhyme off the details in the same way as some other people I know, but I know that there have been a lot of developments both at the level of high theory and in practices of pockets of more assertively counter-normative queers on the ground in the two decades since the writing for this book was done. It would be interesting to see the history in this book discussed with some of those things in mind -- the increasing space in some corners of queer communities to identify in ways that are assertively not straight but that aren't "gay" or "lesbian" either, for example, or the many different ways in which people born in male bodies do and conceive of doing femininity today.

I don't think too many people are likely to pick up this book based on my review. It is, as I said, dense and academic. But it is a neat book and a valuable contribution to our understanding of the history of sexuality in North America.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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