George Chauncey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 uses archival and oral sources to debunk three myths about gay male culture in turn-of-the-century New York: the myth of isolation, the myth of invisibility, and the myth of internalization. In doing so, he shows that a well-developed gay culture existed in New York long before Stonewall. Further, by reconstructing the spaces, symbols, events and people that made up gay male culture from the turn of the century to WWII, he both establishes the social construction of a gay male identity and argues against any cultural analysis that posits linear progress or a liberation politics as a key component of this identity.
Chauncey studies the development of gay culture in four New York neighborhoods: the Bowery, Greenwich Village, Harlem, and Times Square, and tries to pinpoint the moments when a gay presence became visible in each. He bases his argument on a huge quantity of primary materials, including police and trial records, diaries, documents from the District Attorney’s office and the city magistrate, records of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, the Committee of Fourteen, and anti-prostitution organizations, and old gossip sheets like the Broadway Brevities. And the worlds that he meticulously reconstructs from this mountain of empirical data reveal several unique cultural patterns: gay rituals and institutions that foster a collective identity, gay migration patterns that parallel ethnic migration patterns, a kind of semiotic ingenuity that allowed many men to lead double lives, and a consistent definition of homosexuality as the passive acceptance of penetration rather than as a desire for someone of the same sex. This behavior-based definition allowed working-class and middle-class men in modernizing New York to treat “fairies” in the same way that they would female prostitutes, while the myriad spaces of New York’s permissive sexual underworld (including the rooms at the YMCA) allowed for a flowering of gay sexualities and sexual expression, especially during Prohibition. By the 1930s, pansy culture provided opportunities for voyeuristic escape from middle-class life, even as gay culture was increasingly seen as a threat to the post-Prohibition moral order.
Throughout, Gay New York builds an interpretation of culture from empirical evidence about particular spaces, performances, people, and objects in New York. Chauncey thus locates gay male culture in both a particular time and place and a particular social, economic, and cultural milieu: a modern New York grappling with the social upheaval of industrial capitalism.