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Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940

4.19  ·  Rating details ·  2,261 Ratings  ·  90 Reviews
Gay New York brilliantly shatters the myth that before the 1960s gay life existed only in the closet, where gay men were isolated, invisible, and self-hating. Based on years of research and access to a rich trove of diaries, legal records, and other unpublished documents, this book is a fascinating portrait of a gay world that is not supposed to have existed.
Paperback, 496 pages
Published May 19th 1995 by Basic Books (first published May 1994)
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Jul 14, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: lurid, history, americans
Heterosexuality had not become a precondition of gender normativity in early-twentieth-century working-class culture. Men had to be many things in order to achieve the status of "normal" men, but being "heterosexual" was not one of them.

If many working men thought they demonstrated their sexual virility by taking the "man's part" in sexual encounters with either women or men, normal middle-class men increasingly believed that their virility depended on their exclusive sexual interest in women.
Amy Wilder
Jan 18, 2010 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Amy Wilder by: Sharon Ullman
This is a big, big book and haven't nearly read it all. It's full of fascinating details that you can just read bits and pieces and be chatting about them for life, like I am. Sometimes you don't have to finish a book for it to change things for you. The vision of New York as it was in 1890-1940 changed forever how I see the struggle for gay rights.

I used to view it as springing suddenly into existence in the 60s on the larger tide of the Civil Rights movement. Stonewall marked a key turning poi
Jul 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
this book is an encyclopedic, hugely informative, and very accessible — the fact that it took me two years to find the time to finish it is a reflection of how busy the last two years have been for me, not of the quality of the book. aside from being a fascinating and engaging read, it’s also a hugely valuable resource just as a reference, for the breadth of sources Chauncey uses, literary, legal, historical, academic, and otherwise.

also, like, I hate New York City as much as the next Bostonian,
Nov 28, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Chauncey's history (1994) of the gay world of New York in the early twentieth century is encyclopedic. He did important original research, unlikely to ever be surpassed, mostly through oral interviews. He goes further in synthesizing the data into a convincing theory of the evolution of queer identity from "fairies" whose sexuality is based on behavior, into "gay" and "straight" desire representing the now ubiquitous homosexual/heterosexual divide. The book easily earns a full 5 stars for this w ...more
Oct 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book made me hungry for more information. I understand why the author decided to focus on New York and men's experiences, but I really wanted to know about other locations, such as in the west, and about women's experiences. I feel like bisexuality could've been brought up a little bit more as well, but I understand the parameters that Chauncey had to work with in order to write a full narrative about a specific group of people's experiences. It was awesome, but perhaps because I study of t ...more
Elisa Rolle
I was intrigued by this essay since recently some of my preconceptions are starting to fall down and I wanted a book that helped me to rebuild my basis. If I think to a hypothetic “modern” past (more or less pre II World War) I had the idea the gay culture was more or less “underground”, or better, completely hidden. My idea was that, if you were gay (and yes, I know at the time the word gay had a different meaning, but bear with me), you were also probably fated to be unhappily married, or comp ...more
Joseph Stieb
Feb 12, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the more remarkable history books I've read in a while. It is important both in a scholarly sense and to Americans' understanding of their own culture and history. Anyone with a brain knows that there were homosexuals in the past, but for Chauncey to dig up that history with such richness, depth, and clarity is a true achievement.

The basic argument is that a vibrant male gay community formed from the 1890's to the 1920's and began to go into the closet only in the 1930's and 40's
Feb 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: gay-interest, history
This well researched, well written, entertaining and well illustrated work does everything its title suggests, helping further establish the link between gays in the 19th century and those today. Of greatest interest is its discussions of how our modern notions of same-sex sexuality emerged from those of the past, and to whom exactly those notions applied.

Together with Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century, Gay New York provides readers a much completer panorama of gay history th
Aisyah  (´。• ᵕ •。`) ♡
Bill Hsu
Dec 10, 2014 rated it it was ok
A lot of fascinating material here. Unfortunately, one has to slog through sentences like this (from p. 66):

The strongest evidence that the relationship between "men" and fairies was represented symbolically as a male-female relationship and that gender behavior rather than homosexual behavior per se was the primary determinant of a man's classification as a fairy was that it enabled other men to engage in sexual activity with the fairies --- and even to express publicly a strong interest in suc
Nov 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
A dense book about a seldom covered topic, gay/fairy/trade/homosexual/what-have-you men, before the gay rights movement. Chauncey's work is well-written, and a tad long. The length of the book is warranted, and the level of detail provided is impressive---but it's still long. Luckily skipping a chapter that does not particularly interest you will not detract from your reading experience. This is because he is sure to rephrase and refer back (sometimes to previous chapters or mentioned locations ...more
Dec 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing
"But we should never presume the absence of something before we have looked for it."
May 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Chauncey argues in this groundbreaking history of Gay culture in New York City in the late 19th through mid 20h century that there were thriving and open gay male cultures well before the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Chauncey sought to restore lost histories and challenge myths of gay history. He argued that, at the center of gay culture was the “fairy”, or receptor of sex, whom acquired some gender of women, while men who were the penetrators were not considered gay, a concept that continues in man ...more
Nov 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, nonfiction
A few things that I appreciated about this:

- the author's adept use of municipal and state records to trace an under-documented group. Its hard to imagine the work that went into combing through these sources. I think he also has a knack for reading the sources for telling details that other people might miss

- his contextualization of gay cultures/subculture in working class and immigrant groups and neighborhoods (his discussion of the prevalence of actively gay men in Italian catholic immigrant
Apr 22, 2014 rated it really liked it
One of those "everything you know is wrong" accounts that will rewrite what you think you know about the early 20th century. While gay people hardly had a walk in the part in the 1910s and 1920s, one would imagine, based on the political and social frameworks of the pre-Stonewall decades, that this would have been the worst time of all to be a member of "the third sex," as they were often called (along with "inverts," suggesting that they weren't so much men interested in men as secret women tra ...more
Joey Diamond
Jun 11, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Holy shit this book is brilliant. I had been putting off reading if for ages because I've read a fair bit of queer history and it often falls for predictable ahistorical projections and appropriations. This is nothing like that. Quite the opposite of books which tromp the old "everything gets better path", this book makes the reader feel that being a man who had sex with men in the 1920s might well have been the most exciting life ever.

Every chapter would have been revelatory to justify a book
Oct 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
I first encountered this book as an undergraduate writing my American Studies thesis on "Mormons and Marriage" and my adviser recommended this as a foundation for acquainting myself with "gay history" so that I could address Prop 8 with greater background. Although this study focuses primarily on sexuality rather than marriage, there is a chronology of legislation limiting the overt practice and congregating of gay men in the 1930s, which served as an interesting parallel to anti-polygamy legisl ...more
Michael Armijo
Nov 02, 2010 rated it liked it
I read this book over a matter of 6 days. I've had the book for about a year before I finally read it because I was into so many other books. Anyway, it's much to wordy and quite redundant in parts. It was extremely informational in a historical sense...I grant you that! It's worth reading for someone who wants to know 'what was' in the Gay New York world in the early part of the 20th Century. It's clear that homosexuality and heterosexuality are modern terms of the times and the idea that any ' ...more
Oliver Bateman
Mar 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Staggeringly, breathtakingly good. What happens when critical theory meets serious outside-the-box primary source scholarship? This. Want to teach your students what can actually be learned from research or how to substantiate meaningful claims or maybe even how to produce a work of such magnitude that it can't come from anywhere save that place deep inside where obsession intersects with love? This book. I'm not a scholar of sex/sexuality/gender, though I'm goodness knows I've written enough ga ...more
Tristan Goding
Oct 23, 2015 rated it liked it
Those of you who are asleep will be surprised, maybe pleasantly, to know that homosexuality is hardly a new thing. Obviously, when one takes into consideration how far we have come since the time that this book first entered our central hemispheres, it may seem like a new thing to some people, but not to me. In a way, there is irony in that. When I came out, for example, it seemed like everyone knew it at the time except for me. It's the same with many of the folks in this book. Guys have had li ...more
Sep 17, 2009 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Historians, Students, Feminists, Gay Activists
Recommended to Michael by: Karen Hagemann
Chauncey's intention is to add to the literature that sets gay rights activism as beginning before Stonewall, by going back to one of the liveliest of the gay scenes of the early twentieth century. He claims that "the gay world that flourished before World War Two has been almost entirely forgotten in popular memory and overlooked by professional historians; it is not supposed to have existed" (p.1). Chauncey denies that this world was one of "isolation, invisibility, and internalization" (p.2), ...more
Just A. Bean
Jan 17, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This has been called a keystone text of queer history by... almost everyone really, and that's totally justified. It changed the narrative of how we saw ourselves, and is gorgeously researched to boot. I'm really glad I finally got around to reading it (having been using it as an actual door stopper for a few years now).

It is a bit of a door stopper. I mostly read it in twenty-page chunks, because it was so dense, and a little bit dryly written (though also often quite funny). However, it was wo
Apr 30, 2007 rated it really liked it
Affluent aristocrats cavorted with the pansy proletariat. Flaming fairies, dressed to the nines, freely walked the rough and tumble streets of ethnic ghettos attracting attention to themselves and to their lifestyles. Music, liquor, and spectacle converged and hypnotized a diverse crowd of thousands at annual gay balls. Despite what the history books tell you (or rather do not tell you), this was the New York gay scene at the early twentieth century—at least, according to historian George Chaun ...more
Nelson Minar
Feb 12, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book is a study of gay society in New York from 1890-1940. It's a wonderful piece of social history, completely destroying the myth that there was no gay life before Stonewall. It also pursues one of my favourite themes, exploring the different ways that men express their homosexuality: "straight" men who would occasionally go out and play, gays who tried to pass, pansies who were outrageous. So much of modern gay consciousness and politics is focussed on "we are all alike", it's refreshing ...more
Ai Miller
Mar 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: queer-history
A life-changing book for gay people who think they have no history. Although it focuses almost exclusively on gay men (with good reason, and Chauncey acknowledges that reason,) and only looks at New York City, Chauncey masterfully strips apart dominant narratives about the history of sexuality and explores the nuances of masculinity at the turn of the century. My primary complaint is that communities of color are not as present as they could have been; although Chauncey devotes some space to Bla ...more
Nov 15, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Leah by: Layla
This book is brilliantly researched, easy (and often titillating) to read, and challenges (indeed, blows out of the water) the theory that there was no gay social organizing prior to Stonewall. It's kind of a must-read, really, for anyone who wants to say anything about the history of queer visibility, tolerance, and social organization.
However, I did get a bit frustrated with the conflation of gay culture with "who you have sex with." Chauncey addresses this, a bit, but really finds no better w
Michael T.
Aug 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
You'll never see Popeye & Bluto the same way after this one. That being said, the tone is just a wee bit more academic than the gay romp which both the title and the cover had led me to expect. But some really good information here about how the American, & specifically the New York City, society evolved in it's relations with the gay men & women in their midst. One surprise was what they called the "Pansy Craze", part of the "Roaring Twenties" mindset, even though it happened in 193 ...more
Oct 19, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Really fascinating, an analysis of gay culture in New York in the early part of the century, showing how much more prominent it was than we would think today. Chauncey has all kinds of interesting sources, and really does a great job of arguing his thesis that the 'closet' that gay culture came out of in the 70s was created by society in the 30s and 40s as a crackdown on a visible, vibrant gay culture that existed in the 20s and early 30s. Basically he's saying that societal views of sexuality h ...more
Topically fascinating, but lags somewhat in the telling.
Jul 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
This is a real history book with an 80-page source notes section! It’s a fascinating look at how and why what we know today as gay urban culture came together. In writing about gay people in the fictional present, knowing our past and how that forms us is a crucial exercise in back story. Until I read this book, I never knew how recent (big picture-wise) a recognizable “gay community” was. This book covers a ton of topics, including looking at the police repression of gay men and lesbians and ho ...more
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“Most gay men did not speak out against anti-gay policing so openly, but to take this as evidence that they had internalized anti-gay attitudes is to ignore the strength of the forces arrayed against them, to misinterpret silence as acquiescence, and to construe resistance in the narrowest of terms - as the organization of formal political groups and petitions.” 0 likes
God made them, wrote one man who said his son was homosexual. They did not choose their status. ... It is not a medical matter. ... You know there are quite as many people among them as among your so called 'normal.' ... Let your campagin remove the penal laws which make these 'diseased' people a prey for mackmailers. Give them recognition and let them live their lives.' 0 likes
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