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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 December 2018

Brian Stack*
Washington State University
Peter Boag*
Washington State University
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When George Chauncey's Gay New York appeared a quarter century ago, it did so with deserved fanfare. Reviewers celebrated it as “brilliant,” “magisterial,” “exceptional,” “monumental,” “light-years ahead,” “masterful,” “seminal,” “groundbreaking,” “absolutely marvelous,” a “new beginning,” and a “landmark study.” While reviews of Gay New York appeared in the usual American history journals, many of these were uncommonly long, indicating the book's immediate importance. This importance was also felt beyond the discipline of history with reviews appearing in sociological, anthropological, environmental, American Studies, and even speech journals. The Association of American Geographers held a roundtable on Gay New York in 1995 in which a participant dubbed it, “one of the more important texts written by a nongeographer to be included in a canon of new social geography.” Beyond the academy, the popular press also expressed considerable interest in the book, with the New York Times, the New Yorker, the New Republic, and the Gay Community News each taking up the matter of Gay New York in its pages. And beyond the bounds of the United States, scholarly publications in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom also commissioned reviews of Gay New York. A year after its American debut with Basic Books, the parent firm of HarperCollins released it in the United Kingdom, and then eight years later the noted historian Didier Eribon translated it into French for the Parisian publisher Fayard. Within its first few years of publication, Gay New York also collected a number of notable prizes, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for history, the Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians (OAH), the Lambda Literary Award for gay men's studies, and the Merle Curti Award from the OAH.

Classic Book Reflection
Copyright © Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2018 

When George Chauncey's Gay New York appeared a quarter century ago, it did so with deserved fanfare. Reviewers celebrated it as “brilliant,” “magisterial,” “exceptional,” “monumental,” “light-years ahead,” “masterful,” “seminal,” “groundbreaking,” “absolutely marvelous,” a “new beginning,” and a “landmark study.”Footnote 1 While reviews of Gay New York appeared in the usual American history journals, many of these were uncommonly long, indicating the book's immediate importance.Footnote 2 This importance was also felt beyond the discipline of history with reviews appearing in sociological, anthropological, environmental, American Studies, and even speech journals. The Association of American Geographers held a roundtable on Gay New York in 1995 in which a participant dubbed it, “one of the more important texts written by a nongeographer to be included in a canon of new social geography.”Footnote 3 Beyond the academy, the popular press also expressed considerable interest in the book, with the New York Times, the New Yorker, the New Republic, and the Gay Community News each taking up the matter of Gay New York in its pages.Footnote 4 And beyond the bounds of the United States, scholarly publications in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom also commissioned reviews of Gay New York.Footnote 5 A year after its American debut with Basic Books, the parent firm of HarperCollins released it in the United Kingdom, and then eight years later the noted historian Didier Eribon translated it into French for the Parisian publisher Fayard.Footnote 6 Within its first few years of publication, Gay New York also collected a number of notable prizes, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for history, the Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians (OAH), the Lambda Literary Award for gay men's studies, and the Merle Curti Award from the OAH.

In this essay, we reflect on Chauncey's Gay New York and its impact twenty-five years since its publication. We expect that those reading this retrospective will be familiar with the book, but we recapitulate its major contours here. Gay New York revealed an extensive gay male world in New York City that existed between 1890 and 1940. Chauncey argued that during these years, this world was more vibrant and visible than in the second third of the twentieth century. He made his case in three parts that explored, respectively, the cultural, spatial, and political geography of gay New York. At that time, Chauncey showed, the homosexual–heterosexual binary was only formative, with male sexual identities being constructed from a combination of gender presentation and sex acts that a man was willing to perform. Chauncey claimed that the working-class “fairy,” an effeminate man who openly transgressed gender and sexual boundaries, and patterned himself on the working-class, female sex worker, stood at the organizational center of this sexual system. He then used this insight to revive the language and identities of middle- and working-class men who sought out sexual relations with other men during the early twentieth century. Chauncey uncovered gay people's existence in, and uses of, varied urban institutions and locations, including bathhouses, bars, restrooms, parks, cafeterias, tearooms, drag balls, subways, and house parties. In addition to charting the vocabulary and spaces of early twentieth-century gay men, Chauncey detailed how gay men found and aided each other while navigating state surveillance and regulation. He explained that New York City's gay male world grew up in the city's Bowery District in the late nineteenth century, thrived in Harlem and Greenwich Village from the 1910s to the 1930s, and during the era of Prohibition increased in visibility in places like Times Square, as best seen in New York City's “pansy craze.” The repeal of Prohibition, and the subsequent regulation of gay bars by authorities willing to revoke an establishment's liquor license for knowingly catering to gay people, drove the gay male world from wider visibility, essentially into the closet.Footnote 7

Gay New York was one of three books that appeared in 1993 and 1994, offering the local, case-study approach that altered how we examine lesbian and gay history. The other two works were Esther Newton's chronicle of Cherry Grove and Fire Island, and Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis's study of the lesbian community in Buffalo, New York. Previously, book-length considerations of the lesbian and gay past, a field that was then in an embryonic state, utilized significantly different approaches. They include John D'Emilio's institutional study of pre-Stonewall homophile organizations; Allan Bérubé’s work on the transformative effects of World War II on gay and lesbian identity; Michel Foucault's, Jeffrey Weeks's, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's theoretical approaches to the emergence of sexual identities in Western history; Jonathan Ned Katz's collections of documentary evidence of the lesbian and gay past; Lillian Faderman's examinations of lesbian life over longer periods of time; and, of course, Estelle Freedman and John D'Emilio's general text on the history of sexuality in America.Footnote 8

Chauncey, along with Newton, Kennedy, and Davis, however, boldly applied the “new social” history techniques fashioned in the 1970s and the methods of oral history to the newly emerging field of lesbian and gay history. Chauncey's work differed from its two contemporaries in that it went back into even an earlier era, focusing especially on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Some reviewers, without criticizing Chauncey for speaking beyond what the evidence would allow, did wonder about the extent to which Gay New York was Gay U.S.A. But in his book, Chauncey carefully explained that it would take further case studies to determine whether or not New York was prototypical of developments elsewhere. This call for more work, in addition to the shear excitement the book created and the methodological barrier that the case-study approach helped to bust through, led to a reorientation in the field and numerous similar case studies followed. The indebtedness of some of these to Gay New York is clearly visible on their covers, sporting titles such as Gay Berlin, Gay L.A., Gay Seattle, Gay Metropolis, Lesbian and Gay Memphis, and Queer Twin Cities.Footnote 9

Such case studies are beholden to Gay New York in more meaningful ways, namely to the book's spectacular revelation that local archives contain rich materials for writing the history of same-sex sexuality. Diving into the files of social organizations, state agencies, popular literature, plays, films, legal and police records, diaries, vice reports, medical and sexological studies, tabloids, and African American newspapers, Gay New York directly challenged the assumption that the evidence for a rich local history of gay people (even as far back as the late nineteenth century) was slim. Granted, finding such sources in public archives takes time and patience. And, for those of us who have researched cities much smaller and less socially diverse than New York City, such time and patience still yields considerably fewer documents than Chauncey had at his disposal. This not only suggests the possibly unique nature of New York City's history at the turn of the century, but it also helps provide an answer to the question of whether it was or was not “gay U.S.A.” Moreover, many of us who have researched LGBTQ history for earlier eras such as the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era as Chauncey did, learned very quickly what we already knew: the highly gendered nature of society in those times that largely relegated women to the private world also largely excluded them from the public archive. These differences in men's and women's access to public space and thus visibility back then and in the historical documentation that came out of those eras is partly the reason why Gay New York consciously focuses on men, something for which it did receive some criticism at the time.Footnote 10

Regardless of either the surfeit or the deficit of certain sources available in early New York City, it has been more Chauncey's methods and focus that inspired the explosion of local-history studies that followed. So numerous would such works become in the ensuing years that one historian declared in 2009 “an end to the gay historiographical frontier for local urban case studies.” He was joined by another expressing the need now for national or global narratives of lesbian and gay history.Footnote 11 An end to local studies might be premature for several reasons. First, from the perspective of gay political history, Timothy Stewart-Winter demonstrates in his recent work on twentieth-century Chicago, that because “until 2003 nearly all of the gay movement's successes took place at the state and local levels,” the city must be a central focus of study. Second, we still have much to learn about other local places, namely rural areas, a need that Chauncey only teased us with in Gay New York in his consideration of topics such as chain migration of gays from the countryside to the city. Some historians, also following the case-study approach, sometimes with a more regional lens, have since contributed to this endeavor, for example, John Howard's Men Like That on the South, Peter Boag's Same-Sex Affairs on the Pacific Northwest, Colin Johnson's Just Queer Folks on rural America, and Nayan Shah's Stranger Intimacy about the West Coast. Each cites Chauncey's work and each considers, some even back into the late nineteenth century, the ways in which ideas about, and the regulation of, same-sex sexuality differed in urban and rural environments. Such works have also helped to place New York's prototypicality, and lack thereof, into a broader perspective.Footnote 12

There is at least one more reason why calling for an end to local studies is premature. This relates to something largely left out of Gay New York, but which is an obvious approach to take in writing such a history now, given the explosion in transnational studies since the early 1990s. As all readers know, New York City during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era was a global port city with a population that included countless people newly arrived from around the world as well as countless people heading off to participate in the wider world. But save in the case of a few references to the sexuality of certain specific immigrant groups, Gay New York is in fact “New York City” despite that city's transnational reality. A few historians of the lesbian and gay past have now begun to reveal the rich insights that the transnational approach provides for specific American locales. In a 2003 article, for example, Clare Lyons examined different notions of homoeroticism and myriad reports of same-sex sexuality that circulated in the eighteenth-century trans-Atlantic world and made their way to the port city of Philadelphia. Specific local circumstances there, including demographic diversity, the strong Quaker presence, specific gender dynamics, and the coming of the American Revolution resulted in something of a different response to same-sex sexuality in Philadelphia than in London. In another example of placing the local into a transnational context, and one that is set during the same era as Gay New York, is Julio Capó’s 2017 book Welcome to Fairyland. “Fairyland”—a nickname for Miami that referenced the city's leisure activities, not its gay nightlife—was, at the turn of the twentieth century, an international place. Caribbean immigrants and the United States’ imperial ventures just miles south of the Florida coast shaped the lives of, and outsiders’ perceptions of, the city's inhabitants. For queer men and women in Miami, especially those of color, transnational developments relating to tourism and empire molded their experiences and identities.Footnote 13

Myriad local studies, some of which we have cited above, that turn our attention to earlier eras of gay history have also followed Chauncey in downplaying the singular significance of the Stonewall Riots for gay American history. But even Gay New York could not escape the Stonewall leviathan—the book's original publication was timed, in part, to coincide with the riots’ twenty-fifth anniversary. Moreover, Chauncey's principal arguments consciously responded directly to the various myths about gay history that Stonewall and its eternal commemoration have contributed to: that a visible and interconnected “gay male world” composed of stable and healthy participants did not exist prior to 1969. Certainly, other historians, such as John D'Emilio and Alan Bérubé (as Chauncey himself noted in his introduction) had previously done much to decenter Stonewall in American LGBTQ history in their respective works on the Homophiles and World War II. But Chauncey set out to do much, much more, namely revealing the existence of a dynamic, complex, and integrated gay male world that already thrived in America's largest urban center at the dawn of the twentieth century.

And yet in the twenty-five years since the appearance of Gay New York, Stonewall is, at least at the popular level (which, whether we like it or not, carries more weight than the academic), even more firmly entrenched as the key moment in American gay and lesbian history. Indicating this phenomenon is President Barak Obama's 2016 act of designating Stonewall Inn a National Monument. This continued infatuation with Stonewall has no doubt something to do with what Elizabeth Armstrong and Suzanna Crage explained in their 2006 article, “Movements and Memory.” They show that Stonewall has had better promoters than any other event in gay and lesbian history, such as San Francisco police raids on a New Year's ball in 1965 and on the Compton cafeteria in 1966. The “mnemonic capacity” of the Stonewall Riots, Armstrong and Cage demonstrate, resided in the strength of the local gay community to publicize the event and commemoration, as well as their ability to build on an already existing commemorative event held in Philadelphia on Independence Day.Footnote 14

Since the publication of Gay New York, moreover, gays and lesbians have become more integrated into mainstream American society and culture and thus the more popular renditions of their history, including what now counts as their “origin” story, are becoming part of the American saga, as President Obama's action indicates. Other recent signals of the popular acceptance of Stonewall are the Public Broadcasting Service's airing of the documentary “Stonewall Uprising” in 2011 in its long-celebrated American Experience series, and the 2015 release of Roland Emmerich's major motion picture Stonewall.Footnote 15 Historians have also jumped on the Stonewall bandwagon. To illustrate this, we randomly looked at just ten different standard textbooks on American history published since the year 2000 to consider their perspectives on Stonewall and LGBTQ history. We found that each discusses Stonewall and does so as the central moment in modern lesbian and gay history. We would add, however, that the six of these ten volumes that also included any consideration of lesbians and gays in the era prior to World War II, did so by referencing turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York, indicating the direct influence that Gay New York has had on our textbooks’ coverage of the LGBTQ past.

Naturally, given that this is America, controversy surrounds the memory and commemoration of Stonewall. Critics of Emmerich's film, for example, point to its stereotyped and sanitized history of the riots, told through the fictional story of the young, white, masculine, attractive, rural-to-urban gay escapee Danny Winters.Footnote 16 Bringing this back to Gay New York, we would point out that Chauncey did not ignore issues of race in his book—he made use of African American newspapers, the sermons of black preachers, reports and testimonies about drag balls in Harlem, and he discussed how Italian and Jewish men fit into early twentieth-century sexualities. But unlike a few works before his, and many of the ones that would follow, race was not a central category of analysis in Gay New York.Footnote 17 Therefore, one often gets the sense that by fallback, the gays in Gay New York, especially those in the middle classes who frequented baths, cafeterias, boarding houses, and the YMCA were white. One is left to wonder what role race played in this highly visible world that gays constructed and that Gay New York resurrected.

Critical Race Theory was really just taking off in historical studies when Gay New York appeared. That Chauncey did not more thoroughly employ it is one way, in addition to its relative silence on transnational issues, that we can see how the book was in part a product of the time when it was produced. A few other examples of Gay New York’s rootedness in the era in which it initially appeared relates to issues it considers and that were at the forefront of gay politics in the late 1980s and the early 1990s: the closet, outing, gay bathhouses, and sexual and gender identities, each of which connected to the AIDS crisis, then at its peak in the United States.

In the late 1980s, for example, urban officials campaigned to close bathhouses, seeing them as primary spots for the transmission of the then deadly virus. Many gays protested that this was really more a direct assault on them than the disease. Chauncey devoted an entire chapter to the significance of bathhouses to New York City's early twentieth-century gay male world. This was not simply a historical perspective on the bathhouse, but a defense of it in line with protestors at the time—he opened his chapter with the unequivocal statement that “The safest, most enduring, and one of the most affirmative of the settings in which gay men gathered in the first half of the twentieth century was the baths.”Footnote 18

Also, at the time Chauncey was completing Gay New York, radical gay activists began engaging in the controversial act of outing public figures to draw attention to hypocrisy, complicity, and stereotyping, all of which they contended contributed to the AIDS crisis. Public outing was also not entirely unrelated to ACT UP's campaign slogan “Silence = Death.” Outing was then and is still hugely controversial among gay and lesbian activists. In Gay New York, Chauncey explored the meaning of coming out, “outing,” and the problems of the metaphor of the “closet” in the lives and for the identities of gay men in early twentieth-century New York. He explained that, for those men, whether or not one was “out” was determined by whether a man was willing to acknowledge his sexuality to other gay people. One did not necessarily need to come out to coworkers or parents—where the repercussions could be quite devastating—so long as one was willing to be “out” when with others like himself. In light of the divisiveness of outing in the 1990s, Chauncey's statement that “a central requirement of the moral code that governed gay life and bound gay men to one another was that they honor other men's decisions to keep their homosexuality a secret and do all they could to help protect that secret from outsiders,” appears now to have a decidedly political meaning.Footnote 19 And in light of the politics of the 1990s more generally, when anti-gay campaigns raged in places like Colorado, Oregon, and Cincinnati, and when anti-gay policies like the Defense of Marriage Act and Don't Ask Don't Tell took center stage, Chauncey's book that spoke positively about the gay and lesbian past was itself a political statement.

Finally, in the 1980s, when the HIV crisis began in the United States and appeared especially prevalent in the so-called “gay community,” many referred to it as the “gay disease.” Likewise, Kaposi sarcoma (KS), the cancer so often afflicting those with compromised immune systems and which so often and obviously appeared as skin lesions, was dubbed the “gay cancer.” Essentially conflating gay men with HIV and KS not only further stigmatized gay men, but ignored the fact that AIDS could infect and was infecting people from all backgrounds and all social levels. Part of the AIDS battle for gays was thus to disentangle gay identity from HIV. Relatedly, epidemiologists soon learned that to understand and to combat the spread of the disease, using the category of “men who have sex with men” rather than “gay” was considerably more effective and accurate, since gay and AIDS had nothing to do with each other except to stigmatize both. At the scholarly level, these developments ran parallel to and directly fueled the then current debate about the social construction of sexuality and identity. This theme is one that Gay New York did not just examine, but it provided the book with its central organizational structure. In stunning detail, Chauncey revealed that same-sex desire and same-sex sex acts did not make one gay, but that the latter identity was one developed from a whole set of historical, cultural, and spatial conditions.

In the early 1990s, however, Chauncey could only go so far down the continuum of human sexuality, gender, and identity. He wrote just prior to the rise of “trans” theory and history, if not gender theory itself. By the time of Gay New York, Judith Butler had, for example, pointed to the myriad ways in which gender has been constructed, controlled, and lived in the past. Chauncey acknowledged Butler and these approaches as influencing the way that he thought about New York's gay men. But in looking at the fairy, female impersonation, the confluence of gender and sexual inversion, and the conclusions of medical professionals studying those who transgressed gender and sexual boundaries, Chauncey was unable to detail the extent that these sources were about transgender, not homosexual, identities. Although the field of lesbian and gay history was growing at a rapid rate, the “T” (and for that matter the “B”) in LGBT was not yet receiving the same kinds of scholarly inquiry that it would later in works such as Joanne Meyerowitz's How Sex Changed, Susan Stryker's Transgender History, and Peter Boag's Redressing America's Frontier Past. They would wrestle with how to write the histories of people who moved across gender and sexual boundaries in a time when the words “transgender” and “transsexual” did not exist. These theoretical issues compounded by political opposition to such topics and the difficulties of finding historical sources make the archival records of Gay New York seem even more vast. Even twenty-five years later, the need for transgender histories, particularly those about the experiences and identities of people of color, remains strong. Gay New York is generally mute on transgender topics, but since its publication many have used queer and trans theory to reevaluate such sources with transgender topics in mind.Footnote 20

Certainly, Gay New York addressed issues for the era in which Chauncey wrote it just as it was limited by some of those very same issues. But using his own study and the historical contributions that others already made and would soon make, Chauncey would profoundly influence lesbian and gay politics in the years to come. When the Supreme Court heard the case Lawrence v. Texas in 2003—which ultimately overturned sodomy laws in the United States—Chauncey was among the lead authors of a historian's amicus brief in support for sodomy law repeal. In its ruling, the court made explicit reference to how works like Chauncey's helped convince the majority of justices about the unevenness of sodomy laws’ regulations of homosexuality over time. At least five times in the amicus brief to Lawrence, New York is used as an example of some crucial developments in gay history; Gay New York itself is cited eight times. Chauncey would later go on to author the OAH's amicus brief that influenced the Supreme Court's 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that now makes it possible for same-sex couples in the United States to marry. The brief also cited Gay New York on numerous occasions.Footnote 21

From a historiographical perspective, Gay New York also contributed to, and pushed forward, trends significant to lesbian and gay history and the history of sexuality more generally. Chauncey addressed quite early concerns about interpreting sexuality through the “bottom-up,” not just the “top-down” approach that dominated so much of the literature at that point. Such literature had relied especially on old sexological studies, since in them were some of the most readily available evidence for the gay and lesbian past.Footnote 22 Instead, Chauncey looked carefully at the lives and writings of the men who engaged in same-sex sex and forged a gay identity outside the boundaries of those proscribed by the medical profession. He drew on the groundbreaking work of Gilded Age/Progressive Era scholars such as Kathy Peiss who a few years earlier had examined the ways that working-class ideas of leisure filtered up to the middle classes at the turn of the century. Chauncey argued that ideas about the nature, mannerisms, and activities of homosexuals and heterosexuals were first embodied by those individuals themselves before becoming “elite discursive categories,” something that we now take for granted.Footnote 23 That sexuality is constructed was not a new argument by the time of Gay New York but Chauncey's approach reinvigorated methodological approaches to the subject.

That Gay New York had a significant impact on LGBTQ and sexuality studies is clear, but it also helped us to look at the Gilded Age and Progressive Era with fresh perspective, in part through placing gay stories within broader historical developments of urban culture, reforms, and gender. One such new perspective was Chauncey's detailing of gay migration to the city. In light of this migration, Chauncey imagined the burgeoning gay subculture as akin to the urban ethnic enclaves and subcultures fostered by Europeans’ massive turn-of-the-century journey to American cities. Gay men in New York found, mentored, and supported each other by developing a distinctive language, cultural codes, and cultural politics. Alongside institutions like the gay bathhouse, drag ball, and tearoom, gay men created a subculture and unique identities that reflected ethnic communities in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America.Footnote 24

Gay New York also contributed to the literature on the “masculinity crisis,” which is today seen less and less as an actual crisis and more and more a continuous evolution of gender. Borrowing insights from the historian E. Anthony Rotundo, Chauncey noted that at the turn of the century, the landscape of American employment was changing.Footnote 25 The rise of middle-class and middle-manager professions challenged nineteenth-century ideas about manhood by forcing men to report and submit to superiors within a corporate bureaucracy. Victorian manhood, on the other hand, had required a man to earn a self-made living if he wanted to exercise claims to manliness. But the new corporate structure increasingly erased such self-made employment opportunities. The lost manhood resulting from the changing work world combined with other gendered concerns about the increasing role of women in the public sphere. This, Chauncey argued, contributed to middle-class men's negative reaction to the fairy, whose “effeminacy represented … the loss of manhood middle-class men most feared in themselves.”Footnote 26 Among the almost three thousand citations of Gay New York that we uncovered using Google Scholar, several local case studies citing Chauncey have engaged with such questions about the relationship between masculine subcultures, work experiences, and sexual identities, pointing out how the geography of the gay male world in other locations made for sometimes differing gay male experience and identities. National- or transnational-focused histories of urbanization and the implications of the masculinity crisis—even if not focused on same-sex sex in particular—have likewise cited Gay New York’s theoretical insights.Footnote 27

Relatedly, Chauncey also detailed the meaning of masculinity to the turn-of-the-century working classes, in part, through his examination of bachelor subculture. This bachelor subculture was made up of single men, often immigrants, whose employment or living conditions prevented them from supporting a “family.” Instead, these mariners, transients, and common laborers lived, worked, and socialized among other working-class and/or immigrant men in similar positions to themselves, sometimes engaging in same-sex sexual intimacies. The fairy, in particular, could more readily express himself within this subculture for two reasons. One is that the men there were more willing to have sex with him. The second is that as a gender invert, he could more easily navigate a subculture where masculinity meant something different from middle-class definitions. Some of these insights on the bachelor subculture influenced other historians’ works.Footnote 28

In terms of Progressive Era ideology, Chauncey joined other historians who have noted the impacts of World War I and Prohibition on the waxing and waning of reform. Arthur Link and Richard McCormack, for example, argued that in the aftermath of World War I the “coercive progressives”—those interested in temperance and social control—expanded, while progressives interested in labor regulations and government reform, themselves alienated by the carnage and hysteria of war, generally fell by the wayside. Chauncey, too, recognized how reformers’ goals changed because of the war. He identified World War I as a “watershed” moment for “the role of homosexuality in reform discourse.” The urban regulations brought about by the war increased public concerns about homosexuality. That the First World War resulted in an expanded regulatory state concerned about illicit activities was not itself a new idea, but Gay New York differed by detailing the public's fears that war and urban degeneracy nurtured urban gay life. Such fears further motivated New York City's infamous Committee of Fourteen and purity reformers afraid of negative influences on soldiers in the city.Footnote 29

Historians have long loved to point out the ironic implications of progressive reformers’ lofty goals; Prohibition has made an easy target. Temperance advocates hoped to limit vice and promote morality in society by banning alcohol, but their actions resulted in unintended consequences. In Gay New York, Prohibition fuels the public popularity of gay life in New York City through bringing underground vice to the surface. Speakeasies as illicit establishments brought middle- and working-class New Yorkers together, where they then consumed the same kinds of performances and popular culture. Prohibition's end also brings changes to New York's gay male world. The state's new liquor licensing laws enabled agencies to revoke alcohol permits from any establishment that allowed gay people to congregate. This new system forced gay people underground just as they were peaking in popular consciousness. Since Gay New York, other historians have looked for this trajectory of gay male visibility elsewhere, often pointing to racial and transnational influences Chauncey did not fully explore in his own study.Footnote 30

Chauncey also wondered whether “the scope, chronology, duration, and causes” of the “pansy craze” that he discovered in Prohibition Era New York were prototypical of developments elsewhere. He revealed a wide obsession in New York City with pansy acts and female impersonation. Establishments, legal or otherwise, that hosted these kinds of acts catered to gay and straight cliental. Venues featuring such performances peaked in 1930/1931—despite a ban on openly gay themes on stage—but were more highly regulated following the end of Prohibition. In the years following Gay New York’s publication, other historians furthered Chauncey's inquiry into pansies. For example, Chad Heap discovered a similar craze in Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s, but it included lesbian transgressive public performances in addition to pansy acts.Footnote 31

Chauncey's view of the Progressive Era did not end with Prohibition; he traced the impact of that era's reforms through to the 1930s and, in doing so, his work fits with those historians who have taken a longer view of that era, in ways folding progressivism into the New Deal, and therefore seeing it as a cohesive whole.Footnote 32 Gay New York does conclude in the decade of the Great Depression and it does so with the depressing story of the state's reaction against gay men once Prohibition ended. At that time, the state, through the powers of its Liquor Authority and the use of police surveillance, worked to suppress bars, a highly visible and central institution for gay people (thanks to the speakeasy of the Prohibition years) that allowed such people to openly congregate in them. The expansion of state interest in, and regulation of gays in the 1930s would become a topic that other scholars would pursue. The historian Margot Canaday, for example, in her groundbreaking The Straight State, did this specifically with the New Deal, showing how federal concerns over homosexuality in the 1930s shaped the policies of its programs and worked to provide state benefits to those who adhered to heterosexual norms.Footnote 33

The repression that set in in New York City's bars in the 1930s expanded, moving in new directions in the 1940s and 1950s, as Chauncey reminded us at the end of Gay New York. But, “the effort” at repression was also “unsuccessful in many respects,” Chauncey remarked, “for the gay world continued to thrive and became more extensive than it had been before the war.” The effect of the reaction was what was more central to Chauncey's argument—it forced this ever-expanding gay world to “become less visible in the streets and newspapers of New York” and to make “gay meeting places … more segregated and carefully hidden” while “the risks of visiting them increased.”Footnote 34 In arguing this point, Gay New York made the case for a counter-Whiggish interpretation of the trajectory of the gay past—a declension narrative of sorts—that also provided a tidy way to end a sprawling history that began in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era but really never did in fact come to an end.

At least one reviewer at the time of Gay New York’s appearance, Ramón Gutiérrez, asked a question about Chauncey's conclusions regarding the 1930s that others of us also had: How and why was it that the change that set in during the 1930s could have been accomplished so quickly and effectively, given that during the previous four decades or so, to use Chauncey's own words, that city's “gay male world” had become so “remarkably visible and integrated into the straight world”? Gay New York, Gutiérrez noted, offered “little explanation.”Footnote 35 But Gutiérrez also expressed hope that the answer to this question would be forthcoming in Chauncey's follow-up book to Gay New York—a study that would cover the city from the 1940s to the 1970s, and one which Chauncey announced twice in the pages of Gay New York.Footnote 36 Professor Chauncey's current Columbia University website tells us that he is indeed still busily at work on what very much appears to be that book.Footnote 37 Many of us have eagerly anticipated it for twenty-five years now.

In the meantime, the first Gay New York will remain required reading for scholars focusing on the sexual and gender history of the turn-of-the-century United States. During the last quarter century, so much has changed, and significantly so, in LGBTQ, American, urban, local, transnational, race, and other relevant histories and historiographies. Gay New York helped initiate some of these transformations, others it was silent on. Perhaps Gay New York II will respond to them. Yet when it comes to understanding how the urban, white and black, gay male worlds developed, this book remains a standard text. Its influence on our understanding of topics in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era—the professionalization of medical knowledge and the rise of corporate bureaucracies, gendered anxieties informing the masculinity crisis, war regulations and urban reform, the unintended consequences of Prohibition, the legacies of Progressive Era reform during the New Deal, and much more—is almost unrivaled for a work whose title might suggest it was “just” about gay men or LGBTQ history. Despite any shortcomings that have emerged since its publication, Gay New York still offers inspiration for how LGBTQ histories of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era can go beyond just detailing the lives of sexual minorities to inform the politics, identities, and stories about the past that we tell in the present.


The authors wish to thank Robert D. Johnston and Marc Stein, whose insights and suggestions helped to improve this essay.


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13 Lyons, Clare A., “Mapping an Atlantic Sexual Culture: Homoeroticism in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia,” William & Mary Quarterly 60:1 (Jan. 2003): 119–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Capó, Julio Jr., Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Miami Before 1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Armstrong, Elizabeth and Crage, Suzanna, “Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth,” American Sociological Review 71:5 (Oct. 2006): 724–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 American Experience, episode 10, season 23, “Stonewall Uprising,” directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, aired Apr. 25, 2011, on Public Broadcasting Service; Stonewall, directed by Roland Emmerich (Los Angeles: Roadside Attractions, 2015).

16 See, for example, Timothy Stewart-Winters, “Stonewall and the Politics of Memory,” Process: A blog for american history, (accessed Feb. 13, 2018).

17 Garber, Eric, “A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem” in Hidden From History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, eds. Duberman, Martin, Vicinus, Martha, and Chauncey, George (New York: New American Library, 1989), 318–31Google Scholar; Duggan, Lisa, Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001)Google Scholar; Mumford, Kevin J., Interzones: Black/White Sex Districts in Chicago and New York in the Early Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997)Google Scholar; Shah, Stranger Intimacy; Somerville, Siobhan B., Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000)Google Scholar; and Thorpe, Rochella, “‘A House Where Queers Go’: African-American Lesbian Nightlife in Detroit, 1940–1975” in Inventing Lesbian Cultures in America, ed. Lewin, Ellen (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 4061Google Scholar.

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19 Chauncey, Gay New York, 276.

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22 On the influence of the medical model and top-down approaches, see Duggan, Sapphic Slashers; Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers; and Newton, Esther, “The Mythic Mannish Lesbian: Radclyffe Hall and the New Woman,” Signs 9:4 (Summer 1984): 557–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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24 On the experiences of immigrants and ethnic group formation, see Handlin, Oscar, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1951)Google Scholar; Cohen, Lizabeth, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990)Google Scholar; Sánchez, George, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993)Google Scholar; and Matsumoto, Valerie J., Farming the Home Place: A Japanese American Community in California, 1919–1982 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993)Google Scholar.

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26 Chauncey, Gay New York, 115.

27 Capó Jr., Welcome to Fairyland; Harris, Andrea, Making Ballet American: Modernism Before and Beyond Balanchine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hoganson, Kristin, Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998)Google Scholar; Summers, Martin, Manliness and its Discontents: The Black Middle Class and the Transformation of Masculinity, 1900–1930 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004)Google Scholar; Boag, Same-Sex Affairs.

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31 Chauncey, Gay New York, 320; Heap, Slumming; Capó Jr., Welcome to Fairyland; and Loughery, John, The Other Side of Silence: Men's Lives and Gay Identities, A 20th Century History (New York: H. Holt, 1999)Google Scholar; Hurewitz, Bohemian Los Angeles.

32 On the debate over the connection between Progressivism and the New Deal, see, for example, Hofstadter, Richard, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (New York: Knopf, 1955)Google Scholar; Brinkley, Alan, “Richard Hofstadter's the Age of Reform: A Reconsideration,” Reviews in American History 13:3 (Sept. 1985): 462–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. 475–77; and Rodgers, Daniel T., Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

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34 Chauncey, Gay New York, 9.

35 Gutiérrez, “Mapping the Erotic Body,” 505.

36 Chauncey, Gay New York, 9 (quoted), 12 (quoted), 23, and 360–61.

37 We reached out to Professor Chauncey for clarification about his book in progress, but he did not respond. See (accessed Mar. 24, 2018).

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