Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 332-334
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Gay Urban Histories since 1600
Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories since 1600. Edited by David Higgs. New York: Routledge, 1999. Pp. 240. $75.00 (cloth). $22.99 (paper).
Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories since 1600, a recent collection of historical gay urban studies, contains a useful set of chronicles of homosexual male social experience the world over. While the collection is more impressive for breadth than depth, each essay provides an excellent jumping-off point for more scholarly and analytic work on any of the featured cities. Indeed, though few grand themes or overarching concepts are tendered, the studies as a group offer ample evidence for the centrality of public and commercial space in the cultivation of Western gay urbania.
The essays cover seven cities: Paris, London, Moscow, Amsterdam, Lisbon, San Francisco, and Rio de Janeiro. Most of the essays begin somewhere in the seventeenth or eighteenth century and then march, some more lightly than others, century by century (and sometimes decade by decade) up to the contemporary period. As editor David Higgs argues in his introduction, although "furtive urban subcultures" existed and expanded in all [End Page 332] seven cities, "there were sharp cultural differences in how same-sex practices were manifested" among them (pp. 5, 7). What emerges is a series of careful catalogs of the central places within those subcultures and of how those sites were used.
Michael Sibalis's essay on the "invisible city" of Paris is emblematic (p. 10). Beginning with the early 1700s, Sibalis draws on police reports, newspaper accounts, and fiction to document the homosexual uses of public and commercial spaces in the city. He describes the centuries of cruising within the Tuileries gardens and along the banks of the Seine. Following the police, he tracks the sexual traffic in public urinals, which had been busy enough in 1910 to provoke one columnist to call them "a school of apprenticeship in the supreme vice" (p. 20). And he notes the transformation of the commercial demimonde from one of select cafes and taverns in the 1700s to a much more dominant neighborhood presence in places like Montmartre and Le Marais in the 1900s.
Similarly, Dan Healey's presentation of Moscow moves diligently from the early seventeenth century to the late twentieth. His discussion of earlier centuries is marked by speculation on the erotic elements in Moscow's popular spas or spiritual practices. As his sources become stronger for the nineteenth century and beyond, he is able to document more confidently bathhouse sex, street cruising, and the uses of public greenery and toilets. Interestingly, in his material on the twentieth century, Healey does explore how the Soviet command economy put a low priority on spatial privacy; this practice, he argues, forced the homosexual Muscovite into public spaces much more often than his European counterparts.
Higgs on Lisbon and Les Wright on San Francisco follow comparable paths. Indeed, a familiar litany of demimonde locations--parks, restrooms, bathhouses--appears from essay to essay (as do shared historiographic concerns about skewed and absent sources). While geography and sometimes even demography become clear in these studies, what remains absent is a cogent sense of purpose for all that mapping. Several of the authors point toward the possibility that notions of identity or community changed along with these geographic developments, yet these issues are not strongly fleshed out: exploring those relationships would give greater meaning to the catalog of sites. Equally, while many of the writers have pursued comparable avenues of research, making broader connections among the essays is left largely to the reader.
An exception to these criticisms is Randolph Trumbach's uniquely engaging study of London. In addition to providing a geographic chronicle, Trumbach proposes an expansive analytic framework that focuses on the nexus of sex, gender, and geography in the city as a whole. In so doing, he is able to demonstrate how the dominant cultural system shaped and organized the world of the eighteenth-century sodomite and the nineteenth...