Gay New York by George Chauncey

In George Chauncey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, the revitalization of gay history during the pre-World War II era comes to light. This book is vital to the study of gay history and gender studies. Not only does it uncover an entire social network from within New York, it does a fantastic job of uncovering the stories of LGBTQ peoples that have been under-analyzed in the historical record. In particular, Chauncey sheds light on a period in which this topic is relatively lost to oblivion. The work is significant as it shows gay culture between 1890 and the 1930s and ‘40s; by doing so it shows a trajectory in how the relationship between homosexual and heterosexual Americans was constructed and intertwined within U.S. culture and society.

Chauncey’s approach seeks to not only demonstrate that times were much different, especially for gay men, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but that era defined the relationship between culture and homosexuality in the United States. This blog post, however, focuses more specifically on the idea of binaries in Chauncey’s book. One of the key ideas that stood out to me primarily was the differences in gay men; one masculine, one more feminine-like. The argument on page 13 discusses this section quite succinctly: men who followed their gendered roles—being more manly and masculine—were far more accepted in society than those who “ascribed gender status by assuming the sexual and other cultural roles ascribed to women” (13). This is where the term “fairy” comes to light. Primarily a word which joined the ranks of others, like “faggot” or “queen,” that separated men who “dressed or behaved in what [was] considered to be a flamboyantly effeminate manner.” These men who accepted “fairy” also accepted, or “embraced,” as Chauncey states, the term “gay.”(16)

The nomenclature of the term “gay” strived to be a term in which gay men could identify with each other without “revealing their identity” to those who were heterosexual. That means that the lines were blurred between who was a “fairy” and who was “more masculine” or “manly.” The binary between the two was formed by who was more masculine or effeminate—or, more simply, who was more “penetrative” or “receptive” in the relationship, whether long or short term. Chauncey concisely suggests  that masculinity came in the form of power, and “sexual penetration symbolized one man’s power over another” (81). To Chauncey, this period brought about social change and resistance by gay men to these stereotypes by accepting and embracing “gay” as a means to hide their sexual identity.

This is where our general conversations on binaries come back into frame. In Joan Scott’s article, we notice that binaries are a useful category of analysis. Chauncey seems to move past the idea of binaries. The term “gay” was used as a means to bring homosexuals together to combat the taboo and public perceptions on homosexual peoples. Moving past binaries is exactly what Chauncey is doing here. In the case of Gay New York, gay men would purposely shift their masculinity depending on the context and to avoid persecution, stigmatization, and  stereotypes. So, maybe, this work would rather fit in with Boydston’s article, to show that “gay” meant different things, for different peoples, at different times; however it was used as a unifying term to attempt to remove stigma from homosexuals in New York.

Gender and Jim Crow

Generally, when we think about the complicated period of Jim Crow, we think of systems, beliefs, and motivations by white peoples to continually push down the growing rights of African American peoples. Following the turbulent period of Reconstruction, the newly rejoined (but still contested) the United States enacted laws in which segregation policies incessantly degraded the political and socio-cultural standing of African Americans. To the general public, these laws seemed to be some dominating force—especially in the South, but throughout the U.S., too—to control the new freedoms that African Americans gained in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. With all of that said, there have been some dominant notions about the Jim Crow era, generally as a moment in history where white Southerners continued to use racial superiority to control African American peoples following the emancipation of slavery. Besides, this tumultuous period generally follows a focus on intense racial violence that African Americans, especially men, faced throughout the Deep South. In Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore’s book, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and Politics of White Supremacy, however, she recasts that focus of Jim Crow to examine the role of women, especially Black women, who formulated new political standings in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century America. This not only reshapes our understanding of Jim Crow but also on the history of gender and women in the South. 

This book is a remarkable measure of the persistence of African American women in the South during this trying period. In the section that Gilmore addresses the “civil death” of African American men—a notion quite similar to the “civic death” of women during Colonial America—she examines how African American women rose to the occasion to demonstrate political participation; a fact that demonstrates that African Americans had staked a claim to politics of following the gilded age and at the start of the Progressive Era. The disenfranchisement of African American men gave whites a motive to exclude them from the political realm of the day; however, black women (especially middle class) demonstrated that through their strategies to combat these measures they, too, had an important voice to lead African Americans forward. 

A few bloggers in class have brought up the “Best Man” ideal; a process by which white leaders chose the men “who by faith and by works, exhibited benevolence, fair-mindedness, and gentility” as a means to best serve political interests of the state. Those interests were to lower the status of African Americans into, yet, another form of paternalistic control. A movement away from the plantation system, these systems contributed to a similar system in which African Americans faced situations where their political voices were not heard. Moreover, Gilmore states that “African Americans constantly had to prove their manhood to maintain civil rights.” So this “Best Man” idea brings up ideas of masculinity, themes we have seen in many other readings this semester.

I wonder, then, how does this book relate to the past readings we’ve done in class? In comparison to Revolutionary Backlash and Riotous Flesh, how does the participation of African American women bolster a sense of community action against the unbridled Jim Crow Era? In regards to masculinity, how does the “Best Man” ideology translate to other works we’ve read in demonstrating manhood in some specific society and period? 

White Mother to a Dark Race

Jacobs, Margaret D. White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.

Today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and we should honor and acknowledge the resilience of Native peoples in the United States and Canada, as well as Indigenous peoples of Australia, New Zealand, and other places around the world. In Blacksburg, we sit on the homelands of the Tutelo and Monacan peoples; while their story may seem obscured through Virginia Tech’s presence, they are still with us. We are on Native land.

Native resilience and persistence through the on-going structure of settler colonialism demonstrates how groups of people survive and reject erasure by consistent straining efforts by a settler state—be it the U.S., Australia, Canada, etc. I bring this up because Margaret D. Jacobs’s book, White Mother to a Dark Race is a central work which delves into the issues and realities of settler colonialism.

When we think of settler colonialism, or the process by which white Euro-Americans expand their reaches onto stolen Native lands (or lands not upheld by federal treaties), we generally think of federal initiatives (as a top-down thing) set forth by law, policy, and conflict with Indigenous peoples. However, in Jacobs’s book, we see that the pressures to assimilate come from a gendered lens of focus. Also, it shows the “on the ground” efforts to participate in the dispossessing. White women held power as settler states moved west or onto Indigenous lands (in the U.S. or Australia). These women utilized the materialism and motherhood as a tool to construct movements to take Indigenous children from their families as a process of Christianization, assimilation, and also to “erase”—a key idea within the framework of settler colonialism—Native peoples as a means of progress and change.

This comparative study of the United States and Australia demonstrates that this process was happening globally, and is much more than a North American phenomenon. Though she covers the differences between American Indians and Australia’s Aboriginal populations, the main point of the book is clear. Indigenous peoples suffered from the process of colonization, and continue to suffer the on-going—and never-ending—structure of settler colonialism.

One of the key works surrounding settler colonialism is an article produced by Patrick Wolfe in 2006. This article, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” demonstrates how land dispossession is a process which “destroys to replace.” [1] Wolfe’s work draws a distinction between “colonialism” and “settler colonialism” in saying that the latter is about dispossessing people from their land. Settler societies invade a land to remove a native population to rebuild, restructure, and benefit from this “new found” place. One critique of Wolfe’s work is the process by which settler colonialism is more than simply removing Native peoples from their land; it also includes both land dispossession and a benefit from the extraction of resource. Though where Wolfe is correct in all of this is the process by which settler societies construct communities who believe they are racially superior than anyone non-white. This is where Margaret Jacobs’s book comes in handy. One major point to delineate is that the process of land dispossession and assimilation/control over an Indigenous society is much more than a racial phenomenon, but also a gendered one. This book is important in that regard, as she says on page 9, that gender “provide[s] fundamental mechanisms for the reproduction of the group and assertions of identity,” things that were ultimately ignored in previous decades that “marginalized all women and neglected questions of gender” (9).

[1] Patrick Wolfe,” Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research, Vol. 8, No. 4 (2006): 388.

 

Confederate Reckoning by Stephanie McCurry

Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South

In Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, the ideas and realities of Confederate demise are put under an analytical microscope. McCurry’s primary goal is to demonstrate that internal issues from within the Confederacy played a significant factor in its demise, all of which came from people often silenced in the military study of the Civil War—women and enslaved peoples. Ultimately, McCurry’s argument maintains that “the people, male and female, black and white, Southern and Northern, who confronted each other in 1865 and engaged anew in paramilitary struggle over the terms of social and political life, were not the same people they had been in the 1860s” (9). This book shows that social and cultural events changed as women and people of color became central to the political scheme during the 1860s. It demonstrates and upends traditional values set by the founding fathers. They are fluid and malleable, incorporating peoples often silenced in the writing of great white men. As the United States fully reunited (or did it?) after the Civil War, women and African American people—and I am sure other people of color—had a new political voice and set a precedent for future generations to look back on. 

White women did not figure in politically to the agenda of the Confederacy, but a series of confrontations with white women with political acts, like the bread riots, forced the Confederacy to deal with their presence and agency. Those moments asserted a new form of power, one in which defied white supremacy and masculinity and reified the role of white women in the South. The food riots in the South also gave voice to the poor, working-class women who had been struggling to survive under the Confederate regime. One of the crucial aspects while reading the book is the way in harkens back to the idea of the Little Commonwealth. “As a matter of law and custom [women] were regarded,” says McCurry, “as outside politics and war, members of the household, under the governance of husbands and fathers” (3). This precisely harkens back to John Demos’s A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony. Men remained at the top of the social order, but also leaders in their households. These men governed the houses, yet, when they went off to war, women had to take their place. These bread riots challenged the public space once dominated by elite white men. The demand for food, and the political movements to obtain better welfare support, added a new voice on the Southern political stage. Women demonstrated agency and self-determination for themselves and their fellow peers as a means to challenge the patriarchy and demand better treatment during wartime, all of which ushered in a new age for women in politics—or at least led them down a long and winding path towards political recognition and power. 

The significance of this work demonstrates that as the institution of slavery crumbled through the external pressures brought on by the tightening vice of U.S. power, women (as well as enslaved peoples) ballooned the South from the inside ultimately assisting in the destruction and demise of the Confederate States of America.