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.

3 Replies to “Gay New York by George Chauncey”

  1. John,
    Thanks for posting. Your post has made me think more intently on the concept of binarism in historical scholarship, as Boydston and Chauncey also inspired. The different uses of language, often codified language, was very interesting to read in Gay New York. The advanced tactics and language used by the gay subculture of the early 20th century was critical for Chauncey to make his argument of a developed gay world pre-war years. That world was hidden enough from the dominant heterosexual culture but was also accessible and visible enough to other gay individuals.
    Looking forward to discussion tomorrow!
    Henry Clay Adkins

  2. John,

    Great post! As you described in the introduction paragraph, I also thought it was helpful how Chauncey framed his book as reviving gay history pre-World War II. By looking at this period before WWII, Chauncey provides a rich analysis of gay life in New York before the gay rights movement.

    On another note, the way you tied Chauncey’s book into our previous conversations about binarism adds to our collective understanding of primary and binary as a historical form of analysis. As you also mentioned, although the term “gay” probably meant different things to different people at different times, it served also as a unifying term. I think this is a very important point when thinking about how one interacts with gender. Thanks for the great post!

  3. I like how you highlighted the discussion of binaries in the book. I agree that he probably leans more towards Boydston in how he sees them. I think it also show the importance of terminology in the book.

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