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  • Mapping the Erotic Body: Gay New York
  • Ramón A. Gutiérrez (bio)
Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. By George Chauncey. New York: Basic Books, 1994. xi + 478 pages. $15.00.

Race. Gender. Sex. Twenty years ago we thought of these words almost exclusively as nouns, as static and unchanging things. If recent historical scholarship has taught us anything, it is that race, gender, and sex are status distinctions of human invention that have constantly evolved. Forged in contexts of power through human practice, the status hierarchy that each word signifies varies and has varied considerably over time. Racialization is now thought of as a process, as is engendering. Multiplicity is implied when sex becomes pluralized to sexualities.

George Chauncey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 engages all of these issues, stunningly expanding our historical understanding of the complicated ways in which gender and sex were constructed in the United States from the end of the nineteenth century to the Second World War. Studying New York in a period of rapid transformation, Chauncey takes readers to four neighborhoods—the Bowery, Greenwich Village, Harlem, Times Square—and to those moments when a gay presence emerged in each.

Cautioning against presentism, debunking some of the cherished fictions of contemporary gay memory, Chauncey tells us that gay New York was [End Page 500] not a world of closet queers who lived lives of isolation, invisibility, and vulnerability. Granted, antigay ideology and prejudice abounded. But the “closet” as a spatial metaphor to describe gay oppression at that time simply does not work. The closet as a way of knowing and as disguise is of much more recent vintage. It originated in the 1950s, during the hysteria of the Cold War. Before the Second World War, a highly visible and remarkably complex gay world existed in New York City. It was a world of public places, a highly visible world where men together pranced and promenaded, often quite brazenly, along the city’s boulevards. Here, “fairies” and “pansies,” “queers” and “queens,” got their “trade,” both the rough type and gentler scores. In the Bowery’s bars, and later in scattered saloons, “wolves,” “lambs,” “queers,” men of every sort, hooted and hollered, balled and brawled. The drag balls, the beauty parades; they too were the talk of the town.

Providing official maps of the human body created by religious authorities, medical science, and state functionaries to protect the integrity of the body politic, Chauncey argues that the signs and symbols that signified gay were defined, delimited, and constrained by what was deemed “normal” in the sex-gender system. Men of every class resisted and subverted those maps and by their daily practices constructed identities for living and loving. But no matter how intense the resistance, or how dogged the subversion, normal men engaged exclusively in phallic insertive acts. Anal and oral receptivity was abnormal, be it with another man or woman. The saga here, then, is the triumph of the heterosexual-homosexual binary that eventually came to define the only options of sexual identity. Today that binary is quite hegemonic. Before that triumph was complete, men had infinitely more possibilities. Men were getting it and doing it with other men galore. Men never lost their manhood so long as they remained the insertive, not the receptive, score.

Modern gay culture had its debut in the Bowery, a neighborhood of mainly Italian and Jewish working-class immigrants in the 1890s. Known for its red light district, cheap hotels, and permissive sexual underworld, it was there that the stereotypic effeminate gay man, the fairy, first appeared. In juxtaposition to the public persona of the fairy, “real” men defined their sexuality, not by object choice or body parts. Men who desired other men were called “inverts.” “Sexual desire for men was held to be inescapably a woman’s desire, and the inverts’ desire for men was not seen as an indication of their ‘homosexuality’ but as simply one more manifestation of their fundamentally womanlike character” (48). To perform the gender [End Page 501] inversion that marked their...