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Gay New York

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Making use of oral histories, diaries, police records, newspaper accounts, and other archival material, George Chauncey has written a compellingly readable, densely packed social history of pre-World War II urban gay life. His is an overwhelmingly revisionist account of the way several generations of gay men came to understand their identity, forge a community, and conduct their social lives. Whereas it has been generally assumed that prior to the birth of the gay rights movement (launched by the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots) gays lived in deeply closeted existence, isolated from each other and invisible to the rest of society, Chauncey demonstrates that long before mid-century a complex, amazingly visible, and continually changing gay male world had taken shape. Neighborhood enclaves developed in Greenwich Village, Times Square, and Harlem; gay saloons and bathhouses, cheap cafeterias and elegant restaurants flourished; widely publicized dances and elaborate drag balls were regularly held and even straight spectators flocked to them. Gay men carved out public and private space for themselves in parks and on beaches, in books and on stage. What Chauncey does is to chart the geography of this newly recovered gay world and recapture its culture and politics.

In addition to the colorful tours of Bowery bars (where perhaps surprisingly the most obvious gays were working-class men, largely African Americans and Irish and Italian immigrants) and uptown speakeasies (where rouged “fairies” mixed easily with straight patrons), Chauncey points out how remarkably integrated gay men were within the dominant straight culture. Despite a degree of persecution, gays were simply a part of the urban scene to many New Yorkers of the time. Only later, after the height of gay visibility and openly gay entertainers in the 1930’s, did anti-gay ordinances,...

(The entire section is 432 words.)