Gay New York brilliantly broke the myth that gay life only existed in the closet before the 1960s, where gay men were isolated, invisible and self-hatred.

Book Review: Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940
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Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 is the award-winning defining history of gay life in New York City from the early to mid-20th century. Gay New York brilliantly broke the myth that gay life only existed in the closet before the 1960s, where gay men were isolated, invisible and self-hatred.

There is a common misconception that before Stonewall (1969), all homosexuals were closeted and hated themselves. This is far from the truth. In the early 1920s, a doctor interviewed a group of working-class gender-nonconforming people in a New York City prison. They claimed that they were “proud to be degenerates and did not care to be cured!” The work of Dr. George Chauncey reveals that the booming gay world in New York City in the late 19th/early 20th century was “has been almost entirely forgotten in popular memory.”

By the 1890s, gender non-conforming people made Bowery the center of queer life. “By the 1920s they had created three distinct gay neighborhood enclaves in Greenwich Village, Harlem, and Times Square, each with a different class and ethnic character, gay cultural style, and public reputation.” Effeminate homosexuals-known as fairies-hosted elaborate underground dances with thousands of participants, hosted performance nights, stage plays, run their own venues, and more.

The most obvious difference between now and then is that men are able to have sex with other men, usually on a regular basis, without requiring them to consider themselves gay. Effeminate fairies usually had sex with masculine men (they have also slept with cis women). As long as they complied with male gender conventions, the sexual behavior of these masculine men were not be considered abnormal. In this way, homophobia was not based on sexual behavior, but based on gender expression. It was only in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s that men were divided into ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ according to the sex of their sexual partners replacing the division of men into ‘fairies’ and ‘normal men.’

Fairies often worked as sex workers at the piers, where masculine sailors responded to the solicitations of ‘fags’ no different from their response to female prostitutes. The term “trade” originally referred to the client of a fairy sex worker. Trade would offer refer to fairies as “cocksuckers” as they were especially known for this service that many cisgender women refused to provide. This kind of sexual and romantic relationship between wolves and punk were not uncommon. They were actually very common among seamen and casual male workers who traveled through American cities. These relationships were not secrets – mainstream newspapers used to publish cartoons about them.

If we start with the “closet” that is not an accurate framework for gender non-conforming people, immigrants, and communities of color, how could we change the LGBTQ history? There’s increasing recognition that it was trans and gender non-conforming people who led the resistance at Stonewall, but this doesn’t go deep enough. Since the beginning of queer life in the US gender, non-conforming people have been holding down the resistance.

About the author of Gay New York

George Chauncey is a professor of American history at the University of Chicago. His book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, won the distinguished Turner and Curti Awards from the Organization of American Historians, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Lambda Literary Award.

He testified as an expert witness for the history of anti-gay discrimination in the 1993 Second Amendment trial in Colorado, which led the Supreme Court to rule that the anti-gay rights referendum was unconstitutional in Romer v. Evans trial. He is also the main author of the Historians’ Amicus Brief which played an important role in the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to overturn the sodomy law in Lawrence v. Texas (2003). As a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, he lives and works in Chicago.

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