47 internautes sur 47 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile
Steven S. Berizzi
- Publié sur Amazon.com
I read a lot of history, but generally not read social history. Nevertheless, this is one of the best books I have read in recent years. According to Author George Chauncey, who teaches at the University of Chicago, a "myth of isolation" "holds that, even if a gay world existed [in New York between 1890 and 1940], it was kept invisible." Chauncey's main premise is that, not only was there a gay New York beginning in the 1890s, it was not invisible.
In the marvelous introduction, Chauncey also makes the profound point that the gay male world of the pre-World War II era "was not a world in which men were divided into `homosexuals' and 'heterosexuals.'" Chauncey proceeds to explain: "This book argues that in important respects the hetero-homosexual binarism, the sexual regime now hegemonic in American culture, is a stunningly recent creation." Later in the introduction, Chauncey writes: "Heterosexuality, no less than homosexuality, is a historically specific social category and identity." Chauncey's study begins in the 1890s, "a time when New York was famous for being a `wide-open town,' [when] some clubs went so far as to stage live sexual performances." The so-called "Bowery resorts were only the most famous elements of an extensive, organized, highly visible gay world." At the turn of the century, men who were "`painted and powdered,' used women's names, and displayed feminine mannerisms" were called "fairies." According to Chauncey, fairies were tolerated, but not respected, in much of working-class society. During this period "Many men alternated between male and female sexual partners without believing that interest in one precluded interest in the other." Men, who "maintained a masculine demeanor and played...only the `masculine,' or insertive role in the sexual encounter" were not considered to be "queer." According to Chauncey: "many workingmen knew precisely were to go to find fairies with whom, if they chose, they need not exchange a word to make their wishes clear." Chauncey explains: "Most commonly, gay men simply offered to perform certain sexual acts, especially fellation, which many straight men enjoyed but many women (even many prostitutes) were loath to perform." If the sexual landscape was fluid in turn-of-the-century working-class New York, a more rigid adherence to the regime of heterosexuality was emerging in middle-class culture. By the 1920s, according to Chauncey, "the style of the fairy was more likely to be adopted by younger men and poorer men who had relatively little at stake in the straight middle-class world, where the loss of respect the fairy style entailed could be costly indeed." Chauncey explains that, in the first two decades of the 20th century, "heterosexuality became more important to middle-class than working-class men" because of the growing belief that "anyone who engaged in homosexual activity was implicated as `being' a homosexual." In Chauncey's view: "The insistence on exclusive heterosexuality emerged in part...in response to the [late-19th, early-20th century] crisis in middle-class masculinity....Middle-class men increasingly conceived of their sexuality - their heterosexuality, or exclusive desire for women - as one of the hallmarks of real men." According to Chauncey: "The association of the homosexual and the heterosexual with middle-class culture highlights the degree to which `sexuality' and the rooting of gender in anatomy were bourgeois productions," which explains why Chauncey asserts that the rigid heterosexual-homosexual dichotomy is a recent creation. This is historical exposition and analysis at its very best
Middle-class sensibilities also were at the center of efforts, beginning early in the 20th century, to police, if not suppress, the "city of bachelors." According to Chauncey: "The city was a logical destination for men intent on freeing themselves from the constraints of the family." In turn, according to Chauncey, middle-class reformers demonstrated a growing anxiety about the threat to the social order posed by men and women who seemed to stand outside the family." According to Chauncey, "World War I was a watershed in the history of the urban moral reform movement" because the war "embodied reformers' darkest fears and their greatest hopes, for it threatened the very foundations of the nation's moral order - the family, small-town stability, the racial and gender hierarchy." The streets of New York "were filled with soldiers and sailors," as a result of which, according to Chauncey, the war "threatened to expose hundreds of thousands of American boys from farms and small towns to the evil influences of the big city." Furthermore, as Chauncey puts it, although "[i]t is impossible to determine how many gay soldiers stayed in New York after the war,...it was, indeed, hard to keep them down on the farm after they've seen gay New York."
There is much else about this book to admire. After Chauncey defines the boundaries of his study, he devotes several chapters to describing in fascinating detail the gay male world in New York between 1890 and 1940, from YMCAs and rooming houses to saloons and gay bars to the baths to assignation hotels. I am simply in awe of the research Chauncey did for his chapter entitled "`Privacy Could Only Be Had in Public': Forging a Gay World in the Streets," the sources for which include not only the predictable secondary materials but also letters, interviews, oral histories, and court files in the New York Municipal Archives. There also is a fine selection of photographs, cartoons, and other visual aids.
The gay world in New York was tolerated by middle-class authorities as long as it did not spread to middle America or to threaten its values. During World War I, when thousands of young Americans in the military visited the city, the relatively open gay life there threatened to corrupt them, and that contributed to the creation of what Chauncey calls "police-state conditions," which evolved until they had firmly taken hold by 1940. I understand Chauncey currently is writing the history of gay New York from 1945 until 1975, and I await publication of that volume with great impatience.
12 internautes sur 13 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile
Daniel A. Stone
- Publié sur Amazon.com
George Chauncey gave himself an incredibly daunting task when he set out to reconstruct the sexual and gender landscape that Gay Male New Yorkers inhabited from the fin de sielce until the beginning of World War II. In order meet this challenge, and make sense of the awe inspiring amount of research he was able to amass, Chauncey finds it necessary to set himself up with a mega question--what did it mean to be a gay man in New York during the period in question?--with a series of much smaller topical questions. From the myriad of smaller questions I have mined Chauncey's work in order to concentrate upon four questions. First, what was the dominant understanding gender, male sexuality and sex practices during the period in question? Second, how did Gay men in New York negotiate their way through a city that was largely hostile to their existence and make themselves visible to each other? Third, how were Gay men able to appropriate public and private spaces for their own purposes? Fourth, how did the increasingly draconian laws and regulations that followed in the Great Depression's wake affect Gay life? Only by exploring these questions can we even begin to understand how Chauncey was able to construct Gay New York.
Chauncey asserts, quite convincingly, that we have a fundamentally different understanding of sexuality and gender than the generations that he studied. Most peoples' understanding of sexuality is a binary one based on the anatomy of the two sexual actors--homosexual if the actors have the same anatomy and heterosexual if they do not. A person attracted to both sexes fits within the small space left between the poles known as bisexual. In sum, our definition is based solely on sex actors' biology. Though by the end of the nineteenth century, this view of sexuality had made some in roads among the medical community and was beginning gain credence among the middle classes, it was not the dominant view of sexual practice of society as a whole and was not the view of huge swathes of working class men from many backgrounds. The understanding that working class men had of sexual practice, as well as the one that much society had, was a gendered view that fit under the rubrics of normalcy and deviance. This understanding allowed normal men to play the penetrating or fellated role in same sex acts and not have their masculinity questioned. The dominant understanding regarded all men who played of gratifier as feminine. Ours is a world where men and women are gay or straight. Theirs' was a world wherein men were men and women were women, but men were also women because sexual aim took precedence over sexual object. This view allowed for a great deal of sexual contact between men where only one of the actors would be viewed as a homosexual.
Gay New York existed as a city within a city. Words were part of an intricate code that, along with dress and affectation, allowed gay men to recognize each other while remaining largely invisible to the outside world. The dropping of certain words in a conversation; a loud suit with a red tie; bleached hair and tweezed eyebrows; the gait of one's walk or the rhythm of one's speech--all these and many other things played their part in allowing gay men to operate in public surreptitiously when the need to do so arose, but they also allowed straight men (or those who were defined above as normal) to identify gay men within realms that were dominantly straight but allowed for a large amount of intermingling between straight and gay men. Putting aside the person of the fairy--a hyperbolic form of gay affectation that most gay men could not maintain without a the threat of ostracism--the great body of gay men had a tenuous position within the communities lived in and sought partners because communities and private vigilance groups hostilities towards their existence, and law enforcements official virtual outlawing of their sexual behavior. To be gay during this period meant knowing how to behave in ways that signify homosexuality to other gay men (and those interested in affairs with gay men) while having that behavior appear ambiguous enough to those of ill will to avoid censure or worse.
Gay men did not always have to operate through the use of coded behavior. In the worlds of rooming houses, or with the connivance merchants, restaurants and saloons, gay men were able to turn much of what would be regarded as public spheres into primarily gay spaces or at least gay friendly. This was certainly the case with several YMCAs' throughout Manhattan. As Chauncey points out Y's had a legendary aura around them regarding gay activity: "some New Yorkers," he writes, "took rooms at the Sloane House for the weekend, giving fake out-of-town addresses."(156) In the case of the YMCA's security could be bribed, indifferent, or it could be the job of gay men to enforce managements rules that would have the effect of hindering openly homosexual behavior. Since it was not until the 1930's that serving gay people became a business liability, many bars and restaurants were happy to have their business. Being a public space, but in point of fact private property these venues allowed for more overt forms of same sex courtship and interaction. Like the YMCA's and rooming houses Gay men were able to operate here under the sufferance of only unofficial supervision and were therefore only obliged to worry about the community where the venue was located and the proprietors. Although there were occassional police raids, or a proprietor could enlist the help of police forces to make his establishment more or less off limits to openly gay people, these venues would still generally allow for a greater freedom of movement and interaction.
Gay life in New York always had to operate underground, beyond both the official and unofficial radars of society because of the possibility of harassment, arrest and sometimes long prison terms. If the first third of the twentieth century was a time where cunning, code, and great circumspection would have to be employed in order to build an actively gay life, then these tools would become doubly necessary to keep the edifice of gay life from crumbling in the period that immediately followed it. With the end of prohibition putting a huge venue, bars, of gay life under the microscope of a newly vigilant law enforcement community--both the police and a new and militant State Liquor Authority--that was becoming more and more hostile to gay life. New Yorkers of this period, because of the economic calamity all people suffered as part and parcel of the Great Depression, also knew a gender anxiety which they had not know immediately before this because of the massive number of men who were no longer bread winners. Coupling all of these factors together with the election of the dynamic, but moralizing Fiorello La Guardia, in 1933 and the campaign to sanitize the city in time for 1939 World's Fair (especially the areas where the greatest number of gay friendly haunts were) and a situation was created where gay life was severely circumscribed.
At the very least, Chauncey is able to thoroughly dispels the notions that Gay life as we know it today began with the Stonewall revolt and the history of Gay life is one of unimpeded progress. As his narrative shows the history of the oppressed shows, we never live in the best of all possible worlds and very often the past can seem much rosier than the present because it was just that.