Always a New Frontier

As the discussion on sexuality in American history turns the page to sexuality in American current events, the trends and historiography of various topics that we’ve covered have become more apparent than ever. Sexual issues revolving around homosexuality, women’s rights, and transgender people have persisted from the early-modern America until the present day. In looking at some of the current issues, we can make connections to the past and mark ways in which they’ve changed.

The first article by Mariana Valverde is titled, “A New Entity in the History of Sexuality: The Respectable Same-Sex Coup”. This article really stressed that the issues regarding homosexual relationship, or as they are known today, ‘Same-sex couples’. Valverde did not take a necessarily negative stance in her article, but she made a couple of important points about the road to increasing rights and visibility of homosexuality. Her first major point was that when same-sex couples got married during the first wave of legality, the media covered it in a highly white, middle class- friendly manner.

San Francisco Chronicle photo, 2004
San Francisco Chronicle photo, 2004

Valverde argues that the weddings and recent media coverage of gay rights has increasingly de-sexualized it. She juxtaposed a 73-year-old Canadian homosexual activist with the current activists who has been working through the times of illegality with modern what she called Respectable Same-Sex Couples (RSSC) who are currently battling for the legality of their courtship rather than the right to practice their own sexual preferences. What immediately stuck out to me was the change that the gay world has seen over the last hundred and fifty years or so. Upon further reflection, while I will definitely say that the community has seen progress in many ways, that means that new frontiers must be crossed. The gay community has changed in ways that they have permeated mainstream society and are accepted in ways that someone from the mid-twentieth century would not believe; however, what exactly does that mean for the community? If you ask Valverde, she would argue that it means increasing acceptance for the RSSC, but maybe not as much for others, but also the de-sexualization of the community. While the gay community no longer operates as it did nearly a century ago, in special places like the YMCA or bathhouses, but that means losing a bit of their individual community and culture that was built during this time.

We also read two articles about the current transgender community. Instead of reading about the young and beautifully changed Christine Jorgenson, we considered two different groups of the transgender community, the young and the old- who are less likely to become sexualized in the way that Jorgenson was. For my generation, transgender people have become much more visual than in any other time. Similar to the gay community, though, just because your community has reached the mainstream does not mean that the challenges and new frontiers do not remain. In an NPR article, young transgender students talk about navigating the frontier in the school setting. These kids may have begun their transitions by asserting their true gender, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t face challenges that go far beyond bullying (which is a huge challenge on its own). These kids must get their school to recognize them by their names, and not the ones that they were born with. They must get permission and feel comfortable using the bathroom that they choose. Despite transgender children being able to show their true selves in the school setting, they are still pioneers navigating a new frontier.

bathroom-e1354047601170    And what about the opposite end of the spectrum- those who transition during their middle- to older ages. The New York Times published an article in March that dealt with this specific topic. As people transition in their later years, it is more difficult (and definitely more expensive) to “pass” because of the additional body issues that most people generally face in their old age. Aside from the physical issues aside, there are other issues that face people who transition after years of living through the changes of the twentieth century. For example, what ideas about gender does a newly transgendered woman who lived through the Mad Men era of the Fifties and Sixties bring to to the table? Definitely different ideas than someone will bring who was only born in the Nineties.

These people have far more options to live out their lives as their authentic selves than people did even just a decade or two ago. This can undoubtedly be seen as progress; However, similar to gay rights, progress does not mean new challenges in a frontier that is being covered for the first time. Undoubtedly, I think, the lives lived by Thomas/Thomasina, the Fairies of the Bowery, and Christine Jorgenson would look at young transgendered students in elementary school with pride and possibly envy, but these young people are following a path that few have followed and likely have just as many questions as their predecessors did.

Finally, the third reading dealt with sexual violence as experienced at Columbia University (& Barnard College) by women from the Sixties to present-day.  Sexual violence in universities is an extremely hot topic right now that constantly receives media attention- though that has not stopped its high number of cases. Columbia student, Emma Sulkowicz, began taking a stance against sexual violence at universities after being the victim of such violence. To protest in 2014, she carried her mattress around on the Upper West Side campus to raise awareness and seek justice. Sulkowicz’s story is one of thousands. As the article showed, sexual violence is hardly a new thing at Columbia- or ANY University- and it is interesting to see how it has been handled by women throughout the decades. One women shared her story from the 1960s, at the time when students were fighting to rid of the In Loco Parentis policies of the universities. She was violated by a member of the campus SDS, an activist group which ironically worked for liberal change in the 1960’s. Her response was to just call her abuser her “boyfriend”, because during this time, sexual activity between unmarried people often happened, especially during the dating “steady” stage. The author recounted her own experience in the 1990s, in which she just told herself that “Nothing Happened” as sexual violence was beginning to gain some media attention. The writer did not want to be seen as a victim. Emma Sulkowicz in 2014, on two decades after the author’s experience, took a certain control over the violence committed against her. She took a stand. The previous women who reacted in different, arguably more passive, ways are not any less strong than Sulkowicz. but rather they are a product of their times. In the 1960’s, there was a lot of student activism, but there were still affirmed gender roles in the movements. The goals of students in SDS  would have been tainted if one of their own members carry her mattress around in protest against another.

columbia student

Sulkowicz is a pioneer of a new frontier as well as the other subjects of the articles. This frontier in the area of sexual violence against women is a new one, but the path is hardly old. We’ve have seen this topic from the beginning of history. An early example that we read was Harriett Jacobs’ account of the violence committed against her during her life as a slave. Recall the Bowery g’hals who asserted their own independence by working and earning their own money. Still, even these women who were “protected” by the Bowery b’hoys were often the sexual victims of the b’hoys. Recall the women in the 1970s and 1980s who fought against pornography in the interest of fighting violence against women. Pornography persists, sexual violence persists, but the visibility each gains raises awareness and if nothing else, it provides a voice that tells the public, “Violence against women is NOT okay”. Throughout history, women have been fighting this, whether through the feminist movement or otherwise, and have asserted their agency in ways that their socio-political circumstances have allowed.

What does this mean for the history of sexuality in American history? It is still going. There is always a new frontier. There are always new issues and concerns that arise as others are confronted and solved. Currently, if you just scan the news stories, there are tons that relate to sexuality. In all stories, you can trace these new frontiers to paths that have been followed since the founding of the nation.

Where to find works:

“A New Entity in the History of Sexuality: The Respectable Same-Sex Couple”. Mariana Valverde in Feminist Studies.

Creation of the (opened and rather large) Closet

The making of the gay world is a process that began nearly two centuries ago and has defined and redefined itself despite opposition from various forces. At the turn of the twentieth century, during the height of the Victorian-era, police and anti-vice crusaders tried to reform the ever changing societal changes that had occurred in urban American cities. Following WWII, the government stressed sexual order in a post-war American society was dominated by conformism. During these times, the gay world was under fire as not being ‘normal’ as it presented an alternate lifestyle that was not followed by most Americans. In both cases, the forces fighting against homosexuality inadvertently created the gay world as they forced gays into a ‘closet’ that was certainly not small or isolated.

The second part of Gay New York (Chauncey) focuses on the places in which the gay world took place and focuses it’s majority to the the beginning of the twentieth century prior to World War II. It essentially maps out the gay world of New York City by describing the various places and institutions that became fixtures to this set of people. In many minds, prior to any type of visual gay rights movement, homosexuality was not a united world- it was one of secret and isolation. Chauncey disposes this myth as the book shows that there was a vibrant gay world that had its own institutions, norms, and cultures that was not always separate from heterosexual society. Chauncey shows that this culture flourished in places such as the YMCA, apartment hotels and houses, cafeterias, bath houses, and even on public streets, parks, and beaches.

A Bathhouse
A Bathhouse
A cafeteria with large front windows
A cafeteria with large front windows

During this time, anti-vice crusaders/social purity acitivists (such as Anthony Comstock) sought to reform society specifically in New York through restoring the moral order that they believed had been lost in the industrialization and commercialization of the city. Chauncey argues that their efforts significantly effected the emerging gay world even without focusing on it (Chauncey, 137). For example, the YMCA movement began in the middle of the nineteenth century as a way to give young, unmarried workers from the country an “urban counterpart to the rural family that they left behind” (Chauncey, 155). The New York YMCA, of which Anthony Comstock was a big proponent in forwarding, began to build dormitories in 1896, and according to a sailor cited by Chauncey, by World War I “everyone” knew that the Y was the “headquarters” for gay men (Chauncey 155). In addition, in 1896, the state legislature enacted the Raines Law which closed saloons on Sundays. To keep up profits, the saloons began renting rooms called ‘Raines Law Hotels’. These rooms were frequented by prostitutes as well as gay men, but when the police and anti-vice squads raided them, they focused on the prostitutes. This became one place where gay life was able to thrive. There was plenty of opposition, surveillance, and legal action taken against places where gay life began to thrive, so open public spaces became another place where gay life was able to take shape as it was less regulated than residential or commerical venues (Chauncey, 179). Gay life was active and vibrant throughout New York’s history and Chauncey argues that the culture that flourished allowed gay men to locate and communicate with one another and it, “attests to the resiliency of their world and to the resources their subculture made available to them” (Chauncey, 205). Many of these resources were made available only after others were limited by opposition, but the thriving “gay map” created in New York attests to the agency shown in contexts that were at often times limited by laws and mainstream societal beliefs.

Similar to Comstock and the anti-vice crusaders, the post-war Atomic Age carried its own notions about the ways in which society should act.  During this time, America tried to create an image for itself that was the antithesis of the Communists and sexual order was extremely pervasive into society. In Elaine Tyler May’s article, she mentions a doctor who worried that following an atomic bomb explosion, citizens would erupt in sexual chaos (as if that would be the worst of the country’s problems). In response to the conformist outlook, homosexuals were prevented from jobs in the government, schools, etc. Even Batman and Robin were called out for their supposed sexual perversion.  In his 1953 outing, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham said that the comics contained, “a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature ‘Batman’ and his young friend ‘Robin’ (MP, 380).

The dominant culture of America at this time condemned homosexual acitvity of any kind. There was a particular fascination with the former G.I. turned transvestite, Christine Jorgenson in the 1950s. Despite the negative reaction, in his essay Serlin asks the important question of what exactly had been discovered in the outing of Chrstine? Was it that she was actually formerly a man? He asserts that really at this time, the homoerotic imagination of American post-war culture (MP, 393) was actually what endured from the case. With all of the hysteria, one may wonder why this lifestyle was still active. In the early twentieth century, it was not as heavily pervasive across America. In her document on entering the Lesbian community in 1955, Marge McDonald sums it up quite well. She knew that by choosing the gay life she would face some condemnation from society, but believed that the happiness she would endure by living her true life outweighed any of the societal pressure.

Blond beauty, Christine Jorgenson
Blond beauty, Christine Jorgenson

Despite the various opposition that the gay world faces, throughout the early twentieth century, the culture flourished and endured. It found some spaces because it was excluded from others, but above all agency of the people forming the culture allowed it to make those places in society their own.


The Entrance and Responses to Fairies in the New York Social World

Today, most Americans imagine sexuality in binary terms- gay or straight. It is hard for us to imagine a world that did not include these two ways of imagining sexual aspirations, but in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries it was much more complicated than that. In these times, gender played a much bigger role in defining a person’s sexual aspirations and a ‘third gender’ played a major role in the creations of the modern ideas of sexuality, homosexuality, and heterosexuality.

In the late-nineteenth century a same-sex subculture developed in urban areas and became increasingly visible. Following industrialization and commercialization, many Americans lived in urban areas. These urban areas included a very visible working class that had their own neighborhoods, cultures, traditions, and norms. Most members of the urban working class lived in tenements or small apartments that allotted them little privacy. In addition, they needed somewhere to go after the working day with space to move about and socialize. The perfect place for this was the saloons. A good case study for this is the Bowery neighborhood of New York City. By the end of the 1800s, the Bowery was slum area that had rampant prostitution. In addition, many bars catering to gays and lesbians popped up in the city. In these such places (for example, The Slide) a very present gay subculture appeared. A major characteristic of these such places was the presence of ‘inverts’/’fairies’- what we could consider today as drag queens. Many gay men entered the scene by dressing as women and asserted that they were truly women born with male anatomical parts. These men wore women’s clothes, powdered their faces, and engaged in sexual activity with men.

drag queen

The fairies represented a ‘third gender’ of sorts that was fully acknowledged in the working class neighborhoods. The fairies were neither male or female, but rather a combination of both. While they were born males, they asserted that they were women in every other sense; They used higher-pitched voices, dressed like women, acted like women, and were attracted to men. Essentially, through the emergence of the fairy, the gay scene started to carve out a social life. The fairies were ever present in the many resort saloons in the working class neighborhoods of urban areas. They provided for entertainment by dancing and socializing, and received a commission on the drinks purchased on a given night. One aspect of this social life were the largely-attended Drag Balls. Hundreds of people attended these balls and the guest couples included couples of women and couple of men. In MP, Dr. La Forest Potter described a such drag ball and mentions that there is, “the greatest possible tolerance shown for almost anything- short of murder…” (MP, 346). At the drag balls, men dressed as women, women dressed as men, and there was a general sense of anything goes. The high level of tolerance allowed for a real flourishing of culture in these urban areas.

Drag Ball in the news (c.1950)
Drag Ball in the news (c.1950)

While tolerance was a key feature in the drag balls, it was not necessarily the case for the fairies within most of mainstream society. A fairy could rarely dress in their feminine outfits in public. If they did, they ran the risk of being arrested or beaten up. The fairies were easy targets for gangs who controlled the streets in the working class neighborhoods. In addition, many men would have sexual encounters with the fairies and then beat them up or rob them afterward as a sign of distance and dominance. The very fact that straight men engaged in sexual relations with fairies is a point of interest in the subculture. At this time in history, your gender superseded your sexual desires. This meant that straight men could have sexual encounters with fairies, whom they regarded as feminine, as long as they played the male role and were the ones who penetrated. This all added to the idea of fairies as a “third sex”, and the men did not see themselves as having sex with another man. In addition, many fairies were likened to female prostitutes, both in the way that they approached men for sex (sometimes they were paid) and in their actions (ex. oral sex). Chauncey regards the relations between men and fairies as a, “mixture of tolerance, desire, and contempt…” (60) all of which mixed in with the mainstream culture and subcultures of the working class.

If all of this was occurring in the working class, what was the mindset of the middle class? In the class structure, often when one culture is carved out, another culture must define itself by contradicting it. In this way, middle class men defined themselves as manly and family oriented. That is not to say that working class men did not- the sailors, construction workers, etc. tended to protrude very manly characteristics- but middle class men tended to distance themselves from the traditions of the working class in many ways. They did however go downtown for rendezvous with fairies, but it occurred in the context of a ‘double life’. As for middle class women, ‘slumming’ was essentially a right of passage as described in Chauncey. Women would often go downtown to resorts in the Bowery or Tenderloin for a night to enjoy what MP calls “encounters with the sexual other” (337).


The emergence of an active gay (sub)culture in the working urban districts in the late nineteenth century changes the typical assumption about the emergence of homosexuality. Prior to this cultures rise, men and women were in separate spheres and the determinant factor in defining a person was gender. Eventually, the sexual identity, whether it be homo or hetero would supersede gender in the definition of a person’s sexuality. It reminds us that if the idea of homosexuality was ‘invented’ as a historical phenomenon, so too was heterosexuality. In the context of a world ever changing, it is important to remember that that historical phenomenon is still in progress.


MP, Chapter 10 and Chauncey’s Gay New York (Part 1)