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.


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Kelsey Shober

Senior History and Political Science major at Virginia Tech. I have written blogs for multiple classes including: Twentieth Century Russia, America in the 1960s, and the History of Sexuality in America.

One thought on “Creation of the (opened and rather large) Closet”

  1. Your post was well researched and interesting to read. When you discussed the movement of gay culture into a more public sphere, I was reminded of the chapter of Gay New York which mentions that there were several “signs” that someone was a fairy. Plucked eyebrows and red articles of clothing were just a few. This follows along with your theme of perhaps underground, but still apparent.

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