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Vagabond Blues : GAY NEW YORK: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, By George Chauncey (Basic Books: $25; 478 pp., illustrated)

August 07, 1994|Wayne Koestenbaum | Wayne Koestenbaum is the author of "The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire," and two collections of poetry, including the recently published "Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offender."

What would homosexuality be, without its penumbra of covert locations? The genius of George Chauncey's "Gay New York" is its respect for vanished bathhouses, tearooms and saloons where gays cruised and commingled; its respect for homosexualities of the street corner, pier and park--all those lost, aromatic rendezvous. Even if you are not a devotee of theory or history, you will want to read "Gay New York" for its profusion of anecdotal detail--its coordinates of a gay Atlantis, a buried city of Everard Baths, Harlem drag balls and Vaseline Alley. Chauncey has found evidence--in police and court records, in the popular press, in diaries--of a gay underworld whose complexity and cohesion no previous historian dared imagine.

"Gay New York," however, isn't just the definitive history of gays in New York from 1890 through 1940; it's also a wonderful account of the metropolitan character of modern gayness itself. You may remember, reading "Gay New York," how sexuality first woke in you as an emanation of avenue and marquee, a shabby sign advertising "Rooms"--how sexuality, in fact, may have seemed the very perfume of the "urban" or the "urbane."

Chauncey remaps the inner as well as the outer metropolis: if modern queer self-conceptions are ruled by the Scylla and Charybdis of the closet and coming out, Chauncey proves the limitations of those terms. Originally, the concept of gay coming out spoofed the debutante's; coming out didn't mean disclosing one's homosexuality to straights, but rather, it meant initiation into gay networks. Once tuned into those networks, one wasn't in the closet; one was afoot in a wild and full (if sequestered) world. Overreliance on the closet as a term describing gay life before Stonewall gives short shrift to tearoom and bathhouse, sites unseen by straights but vested, slantly, with presence. The slantness--the obliquity--was part of the game; the gay world could thrive because its argot was not widely understood. For example, until the 1930s or even later, one could could call a restaurant gay, even in print, and only insiders would know the word's significance.

The most remarkable aspect of Gay New York is its argument that homosexuality was visible on the streets of New York decades before it appeared in medical journals and juridical records. Chauncey argues against the common premise that there was no visible gay culture until Stonewall, and that homosexuality first appeared as a concept within arcane sexology circles, only later trickling down into ordinary people's consciousness.

Prime among these originating types of the homosexual was the so-called "fairy"--an effeminate man, often a prostitute, often in drag--who was a recognized figure in the Bowery as early as 1870, 25 years before Oscar Wilde's trial. Just as drag queens catalyzed gay liberation at Stonewall, so were fairies, in the late 19th Century, the first to step, hairpins dropping, into the streets. Chauncey frequently reminds us, indeed, of the "continuing centrality of gender inversion to gay culture"; the flaming fairy, though he seems a mere stereotype to be discarded or "transcended," is actually a resonant provocateur, ignored at our peril.

By tracing gay New York demimondes back to Bowery fairies, Chauncey implies that gender blur and outrageousness are crucial to gay history and politics. Indeed, the contemporary Puritanical drive to mainstream queer culture by having it renounce excess is not a progressive tendency. In the history of homosexual identity one sees repeated the brutal story of the fairy's expulsion: as middle-class men sought to define their masculinity around heterosexuality, the fairy, with his deliberate effeminacy, became the easy scapegoat. We reprise that scape-goating when we banish femmes from gay-affirmative discourse. Masculinity needs to be eroded; in dismantling masculinity, we should look to fairy culture for guidance.

To fairy culture, Chauncey demonstrates, we owe treasures of homosexual manner, too often deemed a shameful inheritance: makeup, perfume, mincing, dishing. . . . No nuance of camp culture is accidental; each is worth mining and memorializing. Chauncey shows us how overdetermined and rich are the origins of camp culture, particularly its cult of such movie stars as Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich and Mae West. Mae West, it seems, modeled her own mannerisms after those of fairies, who were themselves imitating female prostitutes. (Some enterprising publisher should reissue Mae West's pioneering play, "The Drag," which included an unscripted drag ball of the sort that Chauncey chronicles in "Gay New York"--drag balls which, attended by thousands, represent the most public manifestation of pre-WWI New York gay life.)

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