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

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

Whether homosexuality is good or bad, chosen or determined, natural or unnatural, healthy or sick is debated, for such opinions are in the realm of ideology and thus subject to contestation, and we are living at a time when a previously dominant ideological position, that homosexuality is immoral or pathological, faces a powerful and increasingly successful challenge from an alternative ideology, which regards homosexuality as neutral, healthy or even good (p. 13).

 

About the Author*:

George Chauncey is currently a Professor of History and the director of the Columbia Research Initiative on the Global History of Sexualities at Columbia University. His research primarily focuses on urban living, gender, and American LGBTQ history. He has served as a historical consultant in numerous public history projects and has participated as an expert witness in more than thirty cases regarding gay rights.  Since 1987 he has been awarded several fellowships and recognitions, has published two books including Gay New York, and worked as an editor for two others. Chauncey is currently working on a follow up book that will study race, urbanism, and gay male culture and politics in postwar New York City.

Brief Summary of the Book:

Chauncey centralizes his study on the changes of gay culture, specifically gay male culture, in New York city between 1890 and 1940. The book challenges ideas not only on what homosexuality has been historically defined as, but also how homosexuals communicated with one another and how they saw themselves within the larger context of pre-World War II American society. It also highlights the differences many homosexual men argued when comparing themselves with both heterosexual men and other homosexual men within their communities. Most importantly, this book gives a historical narrative that supports the existence of gay culture and community prior to the Stonewall Riots in 1969. Chauncey organizes this fifty years into three sections that he claims defines the overall attitudes towards gay culture in American history:

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Part I: Male (Homo)sexual Practices and Identities in the Early Twentieth Century

The first portion of the book focuses on defining and shedding light on the early existence of gay communities and cultures in American history. Chauncey does well in providing a foundation that explains how individuals navigated the secret, underground world of homosexual partnerships and networks. He explains that definitions of an individual’s sexuality was closely linked to their socioeconomic class, wherein lower class gay men were often more likely to be labeled as effeminate “fairies”, while middle and upper-class men where more likely to accept terms such as “queer”. New York City, as his research explains, became a central hub for many men who found themselves longing for connection and relationships in the homosexual community regardless of how they chose to identify themselves due to it’s plethora of entertainment venues and scandalous, public sexual practices.

 

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Part II: The Making of the Gay Male World

Section two goes into greater detail about the emergence of homosexual communities in America’s urban centers prior to the Second World War. Chauncey argues that during the beginning of the twentieth century, many homosexual communities served as refuges for not only white members of the community, but also welcomed many gay African American men who melted gay culture with that of the Harlem Renaissance. These epicenters of culture, life, and networking created atmospheres within which homosexuals could hide their sexuality within an open context of “artsy” and creative personalities. This connection with art and “free love”, as Chauncey explains, attracted attention to the neighborhood from tourists and outsiders of the community, which opened up the “gay world” to outsiders.

 

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Part III: The Politics of Gay Culture

The third, and final, portion of Gay New York explains the role that homosexuality and gay culture had in American politics just prior to World War II. Faced with the dangers of discrimination and marginalization based on their sexuality, many queer men found themselves leading double lives in which one persona was recognized as straight while the other was recognized as gay. Being forced once again into discrete life habits due to social and political push back against homosexual communities, gay men were forced to develop, or often return, to new methods of communication and engagement with other homosexuals within their public networks. Chauncey ends his narrative by claiming that due to increased support in both homosexual suppression and prohibition during the 1930’s, the removal of gay men from the public sphere became demanding, as many laws regarding the sale and distribution of alcohol was enacted with the clear intent on disrupting and eliminating public venues prominent in gay culture.

 

Scholarly Reviews:

In reviews on the book, many scholars praise Chauncey’s direct and informative approach to telling the history of homosexuality in New York City. Sociologist Vern L. Bullough comments that this study should be seen as a motivation to bring to light other stories of homosexual communities elsewhere in the United States, and applauds Chauncey for creating a “new beginning” in the study of gay and lesbian history (1).  Others, such as historian Lizabeth Cohen, applaud Chauncey’s insistence on the method of social history as opposed to cultural history when telling the important narratives of individual lives and motives (2).

 

My Review:

My opinions of Gay New York by George Chauncey actually reflect those of the scholarly reviews mentioned above. I felt that not only did this book do extraordinarily well with detailing the history and culture of gay communities during the fifty years between 1890 and 1940, but it also emphasized the point that gay communities and individuals have long been a part of the larger narrative of American history as a whole. Chauncey makes clear arguments on how gay culture has not only existed, but has continued to thrive regardless of being marginalized and numerous attempts made at destroying it. If anything, I would argue that this book should be seen as an encouragement to those within the LGBTQA+ community that the legacy of their communities will be historically bound to the story of American urbanization and the development of the United States.

Really the only negative I have, which actually is more of a positive, is that this book is incredibly packed with information and individual stories that I couldn’t find a way to mention everything without this post being a book in itself. Therefore, I must offer my apologies to not only the readers of this blog, but also to Dr. Chauncey himself for having to leave out as much as I did. I encourage those who do decide to read the book to take special note of the role of bath houses, the particular interesting telling of the formation of drag shows, and the attention that Chauncey gives use of language and word choice that was used within homosexual communities.

>> All opinions are mine, and do not reflect the thoughts of any institutions with which I am affiliated, my academic advisers, or are intended to be viewed as a promotion for any purchases.
* All information about the author was taken from Columbia University’s website. More details about George Chauncey, including those mentioned above can be found at https://history.columbia.edu/faculty/chauncey-george/.
**All images on this post were taken using the camera feature on my personal cellphone.
1. Vern L. Bullough, “Reviewed Work: Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. by George Chauncey.” American Journal of Sociology vol. 100 no. 6 (May, 1995). pp. 1636-1637.
2. Lizabeth Cohen, “Reviewed Work: Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. by George Chauncey.” The Journal of American History vol. 84 no. 2 (Sept., 1997). pp. 685-687.

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