You Know How I Know You’re Gay?

Homosexuality and gay rights are a controversial issue issue in America and to many, it has probably always seemed that way. Today, every issue that affects the homosexual community turns into a shouting match between pro and anti gay advocates, who will never really agree with each other. It’s difficult when one group believes that gays should receive the same rights as other Americans and the other believes that homosexuality is an abomination. There is not a lot of room for compromise. With that in mind, George Chauncey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male  World 1890-19140 is a very important book. Gay New York shows that homosexuality has not always been a black and white issue, men were not always simply gay or straight, and  what qualified one as gay has not always been the same. At least during this period in time and in this particular place, there were many gray areas.

The most important paragraph in  Gay New York is at the beginning of chapter three, 65 pages into the book. Chauncey writes

“The most striking difference between the dominant sexual culture of the early twentieth century and that of our own ear is the degree to which the earlier culture permitted men to engage in sexual relations with other men, often on a regular basis, with requiring them to regard themselves-or to be regarded by others-as gay…[Men] neither understood nor organized their sexual practices along a hetero-homosexual axis. “[1]

Chauncey argues that men would often switch between male and female sexual partners regularly and never be considered “abnormal.” The defining factor in the early twentieth century as to whether a man was gay or not was  his masculinity. Men, specifically in the working class communities of New York, had a gender identity rather than a sexual identity. The men who were labeled as homosexuals or “abnormal” were the fairies, or men who acted in a feminine way. [2] A man would still be viewed as normal ““So long as they maintained a masculine demeanor and played only the ‘masculine,’ or insertive role, in the sexual encounter.” [3]

This picture, from the magazine Broadway Brevities and featured in Gay New York, demonstrates this belief. The sailor has maintained his masculinity despite choosing to go with the male prostitute instead of the female. [4]

Think about what a different mindset that is from today. That way of thinking about homosexuality does not exist in modern American society.Today, men can act effeminately and it does not label them as gay, but sex with another man does bring on that label. It’s almost a complete inversion from how working class New Yorkers viewed homosexuality at the turn of the century.

Gay New York shows that between 1890 and 1940 men in New York were not simply gay or straight, rather they were trades, queers, fairies, or attempting to pass as straight. Each of these identities were an integral part of gay life in New York and they blurred the line between hetero and homosexual. By demonstrating that the current way Americans view homosexuality has not always existed, as many assume, Chauncey’s book forces the reader to examine their position on the issue.

[1] George Chauncey, Gay New York (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 65.

[2] Chauncey, 48.

[3] Chauncey, 66.

[4] Chauncey, 178.

2 thoughts on “You Know How I Know You’re Gay?

  1. I’m glad you pointed out the quote at the beginning of Chapter 3 of the book. I felt that was a very important part of Chauncey’s argument as well. It made me wonder if our society has become more open-minded, or close-minded? Men were free to choose between a man or a woman without definition attached at the turn of the century. Is it any better now that everybody is forced to belong to a certain role, be it straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered…&c.? What is so important about defining ourselves? Does it make us all different, or all the same? Should identity be formulaic or personal?

  2. From a mainstream early 20th century perspective, it seems like “homosexual” was equated with the fairy culture. If you had sexual relations with another man but otherwise conformed to all other gender norms, you simply weren’t considered gay.

    Comparing that to attitudes toward sexuality in recent decades, I’d say that the effeminate, coiffed stereotype of the 20th century fairy is still very much at work. I’d argue that if a man acts effeminately today, he IS more likely to be labeled as gay. On the other hand, when a masculine “macho” man comes out of the closet, a la Rock Hudson, it’s a huge shock to mainstream America. While there’s not necessarily *denial* about such an announcement, there’s certainly disbelief and incredulity, at least temporarily.

    So…have things changed so dramatically? I’m not sure. I think the effeminate fairy stereotype is/was incredibly influential to mainstream ideas about homosexuality, both in the early 20th century and today. If we were asked to think of a gay man, I’d say it’s fairly likely that someone like singer Clay Aiken would come to mind before, say, 6′ 3″, 300 lb. former NFL defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo. And in both time periods, we see either an inability or unwillingness to consider a masculine “manly man” as a member of the gay community.

    All in all, I feel like today, we could do a much better job of getting away from the long-held assumption that gay men look or act one particular way, or have one particular set of mannerisms, interests, or physical qualities.

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