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15th Annual Los Angeles Times Book Prizes : WINNER: GEORGE CHAUNCEY 'GAY NEW YORK' : Out of the Closet, Into the City

November 13, 1994|ELAZAR BARKAN | Elazar Barkan, a judge for the history book prize, is director of the humanities center and professor of history at the Claremont Graduate School

George Chauncey maps a topography that historians and others have long found inaccessible: that of the gay male world from the 1890s to the 1930s. Centered on New York, his map guides us through restaurants, clubs, bathhouses, parks and streets where gays lived a public life, at times interacting, and on occasion coexisting, with the mainstream "outside" culture.

The "public" life of gay New York is in this context public only in certain specific circumstances. Still, from a highly distinctive appearance and behavior in 1900, gay culture grew--with expanding confidence and effervescence--to animate numerous New York scenes.

The celebration reached its apex in the gay '20s. Gays during Prohibition "acquired unprecedented prominence," Chauncey observes, and as "the 'pansy craze' swept through New York, they became the subject of newspaper headlines, Broadway dramas, films, and novels . . . The drag balls . . . attracted thousands of spectators and the nightclubs where they performed became the most popular in the city." The speak-easies blurred legal and moral boundaries for the middle class, and the gay party bloomed in this expanding demimonde.

By 1931, curious tourists were "advised" by Vanity Fair and the tabloids to hang around Times Square and have their picture taken with pansies, while Harlem was attracting domestic tourism from the like of the Astors and the Vanderbilts together with numerous middle-class gawkers. In the next few years, the party moved to mid-town, and when the Pansy Club opened in Times Square, it featured Karyl Norman, heading "Pansies on Parade." The advertisement billed the show as "something different."

Chauncey not only splendidly re-creates this little-known chapter of New York history, but also produces an exquisite story, combining extensive original historical research with captivating narrative passages. His material is primarily drawn from court trials, the papers of the Manhattan district attorney, of the city magistrates' courts and other governmental regulators, as well as various committees of harassment such as the records of the anti-prostitution society and the Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Given such an ample record of repression, arrests, investigations, and trials for sodomy and prostitution, it no doubt must have been tempting for Chauncey to compose a persecution story. After all, the philosopher Michel Foucault achieved his immense contribution to the history of sexuality by highlighting the discursive network (penal codes, institutions, politics and cultural condemnation) which society constructed in order to control this and other "deviant" behavior. Before the '60s, few outside the medical Establishment and various disciplinary and penal institutions had written about sexuality at all. What gives "Gay New York" its excitement and appeal, then, is Chauncey's ability to transform these narratives of persecution into an often affirmative tale.

In Chauncey's interviews, the gay men who lived through the pre-repression period describe gay New York early in this century as the good old times. Through these interviews, the streets and clubs of Harlem, the Village, Uptown, Broadway and Times Square come alive as scenes of gay life in a period when the homosexuals supposedly existed only in the closet. The celebration of the drag-queen in the good old days before repression is told in vivid colors, highlighting the pleasure and the playfulness, even when the images depict arrest and harassment. The tone only changes in the last chapter, which briefly describes "the exclusion of homosexuality from the public sphere in the 1930s." On the page preceding this chapter, a picture (1940, at right) depicts a glowing drag queen emerging from a police van, posing for the camera.

The juxtaposition--of the picture and the text, of the celebration and the repression--is illuminating. Victimization, as Chauncey shows here, can also be subverted into cultural and political resistance. Homosexuals, although persecuted during those years, were able to create a temporary enclave that shielded them and much of their culture from harassment. It is Chauncey's celebration of this ambivalent space between victimization and self-affirmation that has great significance for contemporary understanding of culture, as well as for the relationship of different groups, including ethnic and racial minorities, among themselves as well as with the state.

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