Wednesday, May 23, 2012

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

Contrary to popular beliefs that the mid-twentieth century gay liberation movements were working against entrenched anti-gay laws and mores.  In contrast, Chauncey shows that from the turn of the century until after Prohibition, there was actually an active gay community in New York City.  Chauncey looks particularly at working class culture in New York, where performances of gender “inversion” was, to a certain extent and in certain locations, an accepted gender identity.  In part, this is because “homosexual identity” was not understood as it was in the more closely pre-Stonewall (and certainly post-Stonewall) era: “One reason many men at this time found it easier to ‘pass’ in the straight world than their post-Stonewall successors would was that they found it easier to manage multiple identities, to be ‘gay’ in certain social milieus and not others” (274).  He discusses how, rather having a sexual identity based on sexual acts performed, such identity was instead based on inverted gender performance, where men identified as “fairies” and expressed this gender identity through traditionally feminine behavior, and were expected to take the bottom role in same-sex encounters.  At this time, men could engage in sexual behavior with other men and not necessarily identify as less masculine, as long as they maintained traditionally masculine behavior and took an insertive role in sexual acts.
Chauncey follows gay life in New York through Prohibition, which ironically allowed for more overtly homosexual behavior from these working class enclaves into more middle class enclaves, as the acceptance of other kinds of deviant behavior during Prohibition allowed for acceptance of gender deviance as well.  Bohemian enclaves such as Greenwich Village and Harlem also allowed for acceptance of more varieties of gender behavior, as such deviance in gender performance could be considered under the rubric of artistic behavior rather than sexual deviance.  Ironically, the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 led to both harsher regulation of public acknowledgement of homosexuality (as the serving of “known homosexuals” became a form of disorderly conduct) as well as more exclusively gay areas.  By the 1950s, such safe places were very much underground and known through codes.  However, Chauncey does a thorough job of showing how, during the time period he investigates, gay life in New York enjoyed a certain amount of publicness.

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