Vagabond Blues : GAY NEW YORK: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, <i> By George Chauncey (Basic Books: $25; 478 pp., illustrated)</i>
What would homosexuality be, without its penumbra of covert locations? The genius of George Chauncey’s “Gay New York” is its respect for vanished bathhouses, tearooms and saloons where gays cruised and commingled; its respect for homosexualities of the street corner, pier and park--all those lost, aromatic rendezvous. Even if you are not a devotee of theory or history, you will want to read “Gay New York” for its profusion of anecdotal detail--its coordinates of a gay Atlantis, a buried city of Everard Baths, Harlem drag balls and Vaseline Alley. Chauncey has found evidence--in police and court records, in the popular press, in diaries--of a gay underworld whose complexity and cohesion no previous historian dared imagine.
“Gay New York,” however, isn’t just the definitive history of gays in New York from 1890 through 1940; it’s also a wonderful account of the metropolitan character of modern gayness itself. You may remember, reading “Gay New York,” how sexuality first woke in you as an emanation of avenue and marquee, a shabby sign advertising “Rooms"--how sexuality, in fact, may have seemed the very perfume of the “urban” or the “urbane.”
Chauncey remaps the inner as well as the outer metropolis: if modern queer self-conceptions are ruled by the Scylla and Charybdis of the closet and coming out, Chauncey proves the limitations of those terms. Originally, the concept of gay coming out spoofed the debutante’s; coming out didn’t mean disclosing one’s homosexuality to straights, but rather, it meant initiation into gay networks. Once tuned into those networks, one wasn’t in the closet; one was afoot in a wild and full (if sequestered) world. Overreliance on the closet as a term describing gay life before Stonewall gives short shrift to tearoom and bathhouse, sites unseen by straights but vested, slantly, with presence. The slantness--the obliquity--was part of the game; the gay world could thrive because its argot was not widely understood. For example, until the 1930s or even later, one could could call a restaurant gay, even in print, and only insiders would know the word’s significance.
The most remarkable aspect of Gay New York is its argument that homosexuality was visible on the streets of New York decades before it appeared in medical journals and juridical records. Chauncey argues against the common premise that there was no visible gay culture until Stonewall, and that homosexuality first appeared as a concept within arcane sexology circles, only later trickling down into ordinary people’s consciousness.
Prime among these originating types of the homosexual was the so-called “fairy"--an effeminate man, often a prostitute, often in drag--who was a recognized figure in the Bowery as early as 1870, 25 years before Oscar Wilde’s trial. Just as drag queens catalyzed gay liberation at Stonewall, so were fairies, in the late 19th Century, the first to step, hairpins dropping, into the streets. Chauncey frequently reminds us, indeed, of the “continuing centrality of gender inversion to gay culture”; the flaming fairy, though he seems a mere stereotype to be discarded or “transcended,” is actually a resonant provocateur, ignored at our peril.
By tracing gay New York demimondes back to Bowery fairies, Chauncey implies that gender blur and outrageousness are crucial to gay history and politics. Indeed, the contemporary Puritanical drive to mainstream queer culture by having it renounce excess is not a progressive tendency. In the history of homosexual identity one sees repeated the brutal story of the fairy’s expulsion: as middle-class men sought to define their masculinity around heterosexuality, the fairy, with his deliberate effeminacy, became the easy scapegoat. We reprise that scape-goating when we banish femmes from gay-affirmative discourse. Masculinity needs to be eroded; in dismantling masculinity, we should look to fairy culture for guidance.
To fairy culture, Chauncey demonstrates, we owe treasures of homosexual manner, too often deemed a shameful inheritance: makeup, perfume, mincing, dishing. . . . No nuance of camp culture is accidental; each is worth mining and memorializing. Chauncey shows us how overdetermined and rich are the origins of camp culture, particularly its cult of such movie stars as Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich and Mae West. Mae West, it seems, modeled her own mannerisms after those of fairies, who were themselves imitating female prostitutes. (Some enterprising publisher should reissue Mae West’s pioneering play, “The Drag,” which included an unscripted drag ball of the sort that Chauncey chronicles in “Gay New York"--drag balls which, attended by thousands, represent the most public manifestation of pre-WWI New York gay life.)
Chauncey’s book should also remind us of toleration’s tenuousness. Now gays seem more or less accepted, at least in urban circles; gays are even subject to intense--if often unreliable--media coverage. However, we should remain aware of the potentially subversive relation that homosexuality bears to the stultifying regime of “normalcy.” When we demand that gays resemble the “norm,” we banish eccentricity and individuality; and when we banish perversity, we retreat into prototypes of fascism.
Not that homosexuals have the monopoly on subversion. Indeed, assignations between so-called “fairy” and “trade” undermine our current complacent sense of an absolute divergence between “hetero” and “homo.” At the turn of the century, having sex with a fairy didn’t make you queer. It meant you were “trade.” Thus Chauncey dismantles heterosexuality and homosexuality: imagine a world where men having sex with men didn’t signify ineluctable membership in a prohibited identity. Before WWI, men who would now be “confined” to straightness could “go both ways.” That freedom explains the still controversial Kinsey Report, which demonstrated the frequency with which men (at least in earlier eras) had homosexual experiences without defining themselves as gay.
The early 20th-Century Greenwich Village and Harlem demimondes that Chauncey chronicles were hardly utopias. Fairies were often bashed; the consequences of being arrested for sodomy or indecency or soliciting--whatever the name, the crime was the same--were severe. We don’t know how many lives were ruined in this fashion. The early modern world of fairies and trade, of the Y and the “pansy craze,” may not have been sheer gravy, but it was better than the 1950s. For someone like myself, born in the Cold War era of the closet, “Gay New York” recreates a fantasy marketplace of flaming men, a bazaar where sexual identities weren’t yet fully scripted, a louche time of speak-easies and bachelor flats. After Prohibition’s repeal, backlash set in; homosexuality disappeared from the streets and retreated into bars, themselves fragile institutions, frequently raided. A bar that willingly served a gay person lost its license. Thus began the descent into what we remember as the closet, false foundation from which gay lib erupted.
Every city needs its George Chauncey. Now someone should unearth gay L.A. In days of yore, where did men cruise? Where were the back rooms? Who found themselves in back rooms and how did those men conceptualize their conduct? Every city needs sexual explication. Every city is a tabula rasa upon which sex inscribes its demotic scrawl, an intricate text commanding awe and deserving patient translation.