George Chauncey’s Gay New York gives the reader an excellent insight into how New York is constantly evolving. His cultural history of how this community grew and blossomed is written in an accessible and coherent style. Chauncey offers the reader a linear history, from 1840 – 1940. What is most interesting about this, is the way he reveals how identity became a major issue and how theories surrounding sexuality evolved over the course of a hundred years.
The book was published in 1994, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Stonewall. Chauncey’s mission is to put Stonewall into perspective and show how many strong communities existed before this landmark event. He is convincing as he offers an insight into how a widespread nightlife existed in bars, parks, streets, and cafeterias. The author makes heavy use of primary sources such as newspapers, police records, as well as written personal accounts. This adds much more credibility to his work and helps the reader to understand how New York as a city continued to change and adapt to this growing underground movement.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how he shows that before World War II the boundaries between homosexuality and heterosexuality were quite different to now. He reveals how many men moved to New York for economic reasons, towards the end of the nineteenth century. This movement from the countryside to the city was because of limited opportunities in rural areas. In big eastern cities such as New York, heavy industrialization meant that factories were opening. Therefore, many men migrated to cities for this reason, with New York being the number one choice for many. Furthermore, before World I, immigration laws were not very restrictive. As a result, many single men from Europe moved to New York in search of work. This also helped to create a larger community in the city.
Chauncey also shows the repression that many members of the gay community experienced during this time. This is important because it shows how some prejudices continue to exist, making the book relevant for our time, even though it focuses on the turn of the twentieth century. He shows how, in 1927, the New York State Assembly abolished plays dealing with what they called “perversion” (148). Hollywood also agreed not to show anything immoral in their movies. The legal challenges and the harassment by police that members of this community experienced in New York was quite shocking, and it is important that histories such as this are remembered today, so that they aren’t repeated.
There is real sense of geography in the book as well. Chauncey explains how the community was often isolated to parts of the city including the Bowery and the waterfront. These places would have been unattractive at the time, and often dangerous. Eventually areas such as Greenwich Village became centers of bohemian communities, allowing them some security in numbers. Visitors to the city could go to gay areas very quickly and easily as the community grew. As it grew, it became more accepted. Even so, there was risk. People who were identified as homosexual were in danger of violence, unemployment, and even prison. When readers look at how contemporary American attitudes are changing, we need to remember the dangers that these people faced.
In conclusion, George Chauncey’s Gay New York is a very important book about New York as a place of opportunity. It is a social history of a community whose history is important so that people continue to understand each other today. Chauncey’s book is objective, full of primary information and sources, and written in a style that is accessible to readers. Although it is a very long book, this is not an issue, because it shows the amount of research the author did. New York is a city of diversity and this book shows that.
- Chauncey, George, Gay New York, Picador, New York, 1994