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  • A Golden Age in Gay Gothem
  • Clayton R. Koppes (bio)
George Chauncey. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994. xi + 478 pp. Illustrations, notes, note on sources, and index. $25.00.

George Chauncey has embarked on a monumental reconstruction of American gay male history over the past century. In this riveting, eagerly awaited first volume, he shows that a diverse, complex gay world flourished in New York during a period when its very existence had been in doubt. He advances a provocative argument about the social construction of homosexuality and heterosexuality and its relationship to class. A triumph of theory, research, and vivid writing, his book is a major contribution not only to gay history but to social history and the study of sexuality. In combination with such outstanding work as that of Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis, Chauncey’s book confirms the maturation of queer history in a discipline that has been relatively slow to embrace gay and lesbian topics. 1

Chauncey audaciously seeks to overturn conventional interpretations of how sexuality has been organized in the past hundred years. He contends that today’s stark division between heterosexual and homosexual, based on sexual object choice, is “a stunningly recent creation” (p. 13). Before World War II men were labeled by their “imaginary gender status.” “Fairies,” who took the passive role in sex with men, assumed women’s status. Many working-class men placed fairies in a category similar to female prostitutes, with the advantage that fairies would perform some acts, such as fellatio, that women were reluctant to do. Men who engaged in sex with men were considered “normal” so long as they remained “masculine,” i.e., did not allow themselves to be penetrated by their partner. His emphasis on gendered roles is largely persuasive. Although homosexual behavior has ancient roots, the term homosexual is only a century old. This gendered understanding still persists in Chicano, Latin American, and some Mediterranean cultures. 2

Chauncey’s further intuition is more problematic. He argues that this gendered construction freed most men, especially from the working class, to have sex with men. “In the right circumstances, almost any man might choose to experiment with the queer pleasures of sex with a fairy,” he writes (p. 86). [End Page 304] “Almost all workingmen . . . considered it unremarkable that a man might go with a fairy” (pp. 96–97). One problem with this argument is that, even though cultures may have understood same-sex acts in gendered terms, they may still have thought such liaisons were wrong and levied heavy religious and legal strictures. Working men in New York not only had sex with fairies, they also beat them up with some regularity—a marker not simply of class hostility, as Chauncey says, but surely of prejudice against fairies.

Bourgeois male anxieties brought this ostensibly freer sexual regime to an end. Following Foucault’s idea that the reconfiguration of sexuality was a bourgeois project, Chauncey argues that a middle-class masculinity crisis in the early twentieth century triggered an assault on earlier understandings. In a model synthesis he explains how large corporations shattered male independence and work autonomy, and women invaded traditionally male spheres. Both homosexuality and heterosexuality were thus early-twentieth-century inventions of the middle class, and sexual object choice came to be a crucial component of one’s masculinity.

This is a powerful and intriguing analysis, but it is complicated by the complex interaction of class and culture. Quantitative data is inadequate; estimates of gay men in New York varied from 50,000 to 500,000. As a result Chauncey usually falls back on the elastic word many. He makes a heroic effort to plumb the working class and shows great sensitivity in “reading across the grain.” For the most part, however, middle-class men infer, or impose, meaning on the working class. This may be the best historians can do for a time period this distant, but as a result the data, particularly on sexual identity, remain less solid than the probing oral histories done by Kennedy and Davis for the 1940s and 1950s. Similarly, it...

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pp. 304-309
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