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

4.22  ·  Rating details ·  2,766 ratings  ·  128 reviews
The award-winning, field-defining history of gay life in New York City in the early to mid-20th century

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. Drawing on a rich trove of diaries, legal records, and other unpublished documents, George Chauncey construct
Paperback, 496 pages
Published May 19th 1995 by Basic Books (first published May 1994)
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Average rating 4.22  · 
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 ·  2,766 ratings  ·  128 reviews

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Start your review of Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940
Aug 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2018, recs
Written in response to the notion that the 'closet' always has existed for American gay men and lesbians, as well as the concept that gender and sexuality always have been distinct domains of personhood, Chauncey's Gay New York argues that gay people were not isolated, invisible, and self-hating during the first decades of the twentieth century. Instead, the scholar claims, they reterritorialized New York in order to construct a vibrant gay city in the midst of (and often invisible to) the norma ...more
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.
Samantha (AK)
Dec 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone Interested in Early 20th Century NYC
“Identities are always relational, produced by the ways people affiliate themselves with or differentiate themselves from others -- and are marked as different by others.” [p273]

I broke some personal reading rules with this book. I don’t write in my books (except my cookbooks), but if you flip through my copy of Gay New York, you’ll find notes in the margins and a handful of underlines. It’s big enough, even as a paperback, that I couldn’t reasonably maneuver it and a notebook around my cat, but
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
and you can want who you want! boys and boys and girls and girls! welcome to new york!

i regret nothing

so this review is just going to be random quotes, things i found interesting, and some commentary

content/trigger warnings; queerphobia, homophobia, lesbophobia, anti-gay violence, misogyny, anti-sex work, uncensored use of anti-gay slurs/derogatory terms, uncensored use of racist slurs, racism, descriptions of queerphobia from police/doctors/legal professionals, ableist language,

coming out/the c
Aug 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
a perfect social history on queerness in NY from the turn of the century to the 1930s. highly recc
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
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
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,
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
Aug 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
This was a very interesting and thought-provoking book. Especially at first, I found it somewhat repetitive — Chauncey is constantly re-iterating the premise of a given chapter, or of previous chapters, or possibly making points with very subtly different implications, and it gets a bit annoying. This is also, I think, primarily aimed at being a popular academic history, rather than simply a popular book — I believe Chauncey was looking to make a case for what Gay life was like in the late 19th ...more
Dan Gorman
Jul 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: us-history, favorites
Contender for the best work of American history from the 1990s. George Chauncey reveals how male gender expression and sexual orientation in early-twentieth-century New York were fluid categories, with a totally different language for homosexuality than we have today. After reading this book, it is impossible to claim, as some conservatives do, that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice or an invention of the mid-1900s. Chauncey's genius is to also convey how rigid gender and sexual terminology — ...more
Apr 24, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: books-of-2020
A fascinating look on how progress is never linear and that we should always be questioning pre-conceived notions of what the past may have been like. I'm only giving three stars because it is written in a very academic style which made it difficult to get through at times, but this is such a thorough account of how gay men interacted with each other and made a space for themselves in turn-of-the-century NYC that I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the topic.
Ai Miller
Mar 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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 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
Feb 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, gay-interest
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
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 wome ...more
Dec 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing
"But we should never presume the absence of something before we have looked for it."
Prathyush Parasuraman
This is a book that was written to shatter the notion that gay public life was a post-Stonewall phenomenon. I was one of those ignoramuses- not that I thought this consciously, but just a passive assumption that life before stonewall for the queer community was muted.

I loved the historical dating of words we use today- gay, pansy, queer, closet, coming-out. I loved how the early 20th century preferred distinguishing sex as opposed to sexual orientation. So a homosexual man was seen as a woman,
Jun 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A must-read for any Gay man or Ally, as it reconstructs a much forgotten chapter in Gay history. Look for the updated edition that was released back in May.
Stephen Arkley
Was making notes for this for a History essay and ended up reading the entire thing, really interesting insight into gay life in 19th century New York
Michael Dipietro
Oct 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Excellent and eye opening - a fascinating read. It is very humbling as a gay man to realize the extent to which hegemony has shaped our internal conflicts as a community, across class/race/gender expression. Also, social trends and politics c. 1933 look a lot like 2019 in some startling ways... a bit scary to think about in terms of horrors that might still be in store, but good to recognize we have been here before politically.
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
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
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
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
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
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