Gay New York

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


By George Chauncey

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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 Drawing on a rich trove of diaries, legal records, and other unpublished documents, George Chauncey constructs a fascinating portrait of a vibrant, cohesive gay world that is not supposed to have existed. Called “monumental” (Washington Post), “unassailable” (Boston Globe), “brilliant” (The Nation), and “a first-rate book of history” (The New York Times), Gay New Yorkforever changed how we think about the history of gay life in New York City, and beyond.



THIS BOOK HAS BEEN A LONG TIME IN THE MAKING AND WOULD NOT HAVE been possible without the help of many people. It is a pleasure to thank them.

The book began as a dissertation in the History Department of Yale University. I was fortunate to be in a graduate program with Eric Arnesen, Jeanne Boydston, Ann Braude, Ileen DeVault, Dana Frank, Lori Ginzberg, Carol Karlsen, Regina Kunzel, Molly Ladd-Taylor, David Scobey, Amy Stanley, and other students who became my friends and teachers and made Yale a wonderfully collegial and stimulating place to study American history. Many of us were privileged to have Nancy Cott as an advisor. Her enthusiasm for my work, her perceptive criticisms of it, and her breathtaking insights into the problems it addressed, as well as the model of her own scholarship, meant more to me than she could know. John Boswell’s scholarship, his counsel, and even his disagreements with me inspired, facilitated, and sharpened my work at every stage. David Montgomery profoundly influenced the way I thought about working-class history.

At a time when the federal government denied funding to gay-related research and art, I was fortunate to receive the support of several private foundations and research centers. The Danforth Foundation, the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, and the New York University School of Law made my studies at Yale and the completion of the dissertation possible. A postdoctoral fellowship year at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis in 1989–90 allowed me to begin rethinking the dissertation in a stimulating and collegial environment. I am grateful to Robert Nye, Barbara Sicherman, Jennifer Terry, Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Jacquelyn Urla, and especially John Gillis, the Center’s leader, for creating that environment and commenting on my work. A fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies for recent recipients of the Ph.D., as well as the support of the History Department and the Social Sciences Division of the University of Chicago, gave me the freedom of a year’s leave of absence in which to finish the manuscript. I am particularly grateful to John Coatsworth, Edward Laumann, and John Boyer for making that year possible.

One of my greatest debts is to the more than seventy men who let me interview them. Although I was able to spend only a few hours with many of them, others became enduring friends. I am deeply grateful to them all for sharing their memories and reflections with me. I have referred to particular interviews only when citing an actual quote or a particular point an interviewee made, but the cumulative experience of having listened to so many men has influenced every line of this book. I am also grateful to Senior Action in a Gay Environment (SAGE), which let me listen to several of the interviews their oral history committee volunteers had recorded, and to Ray Gerard Koskovich for letting me use his interview with Edouard Roditi.

The assistance of numerous librarians was also essential, and I especially want to thank Douglas Freeman at the Kinsey Institute Library and Melanie Yolles at the Manuscript Collection of the New York Public Library, both of whom pointed me toward valuable sources; Kenneth Cobb at the New York Municipal Archives, who cheerfully put up for a full year with my twice-weekly visits in search of sodomy case records; and John Hammond at the International Gay Archives, who let me examine his important collection before it was transferred to the New York Public Library. The Kinsey Institute Library in Bloomington, Indiana, is an extraordinarily rich resource for historians of sexuality, and I am very grateful to the Institute’s director, June Reinisch, for giving me permission to examine and quote from the papers of Thomas Painter and the pseudonymous “Will Finch.” Donna Anderson graciously gave me permission to study and quote selected unpublished papers of Charles Tomlinson Griffes; and Charles Boultenhouse, executor of the Parker Tyler estate, kindly let me read and quote some of Parker Tyler’s unpublished letters. I am also indebted to Ed Egan, Dick Leitsch, Boris Maysel, and the late Ermanno Stingo for sharing their priceless collections of books and newspaper clippings with me and/or granting me permission to examine and quote from their personal papers.

Allan Berube, John D’Emilio, Martin Duberman, John Gagnon, Bruce Kellner, David Levering Lewis, the late Michael Lynch, Edward Maisel, Joan Nestle, Esther Newton, Laurence Senelick, Jonathan Weinberg, and especially Eric Garber and Timothy Gilfoyle generously shared sources and research leads. My colleagues in the History Department at the University of Chicago have been generous in their support and their criticism, and have had a real influence on this book. Chad Heap provided invaluable research assistance during the last year and a half of this project; and Andrew Gillings spent several weeks reading newspapers for me. My friends Ed Cohen, William Cronon, Andrew Dolkart, Gert Hekma, Elizabeth Kennedy, Stanley Kurtz, Christopher Looby, William Nelson, William Novak, David Scobey, Anthony Stellato, Randolph Trumbach, Martha Vicinus, Kenneth Warren, and Jeffrey Weeks provided insightful criticisms of individual chapters and/or provocative discussions of ideas.

I am deeply grateful to Eric Arnesen, Kathleen Neils Conzen, David Halperin, James Schultz, Michael Sherry, and Judith Walkowitz for providing helpful readings of substantial portions of the manuscript at a late stage of revision. After I interviewed him about gay life in post–World War II New York, Joel Honig offered to read the entire manuscript, and I am grateful for his corrections, his suggestions, and his affirmation when he thought I had “gotten it right.”

Susan Rabiner, who had faith in this book from the beginning, has been a terrific editor: full of shrewd advice and encouraging and insistent in just the right measure. Anne Montague was a superb copyeditor, and the staff of Basic Books, from the publisher on down, moved mountains on behalf of the book. Mike Mueller, Bill Davis, Kermit Hummel, Helena Schwarz, Mark Pensavalle, and Ellen Levine all deserve thanks. It’s been a genuine pleasure to work with them.

Michael Sherry, James Schultz, and Kathleen Neils Conzen deserve special thanks for their unwavering support and good counsel during the final stages of this project. I also thank Leora Auslander, Steven Dubin, Kate Ellis, Shelley Fried, Susan Johnson, Stuart Michaels, Drew Minter, Catrina Neiman, Ken Rabb, Melissa Roderick, Daniel Walkowitz, Evan Wolfson, Jenny Wriggins, and especially David Hansell for the combination of intellectual stimulation, encouragement, prodding, and practical support that only true friends would provide. I also want to thank and honor the memory of Jack Winkler, Harry Scott, Michel Rey, and the other dear friends for whom I wrote this book and who did not live to see it.

Finally, I dedicate this book to my parents. I thank them for their support, even when my life took unexpected turns and my decisions seemed risky, and for the risks they have taken. Their love and the example of their moral vision and courage have been the greatest of gifts.

Drag balls were the largest communal events of prewar gay society, and the drag queens and other “fairies” spotlighted at them were its most visible representatives. In a sign of how gay life was integrated into African-American life, Harlem’s leading photographer, James VanDerZee, produced this formal portrait of a drag queen, “Beau of the Ball,” in 1927. (Copyright © 1985 by Donna Mussenden-VanDerZee.)



IN THE HALF-CENTURY BETWEEN 1890 AND THE BEGINNING OF THE SECOND World War, a highly visible, remarkably complex, and continually changing gay male world took shape in New York City. That world included several gay neighborhood enclaves, widely publicized dances and other social events, and a host of commercial establishments where gay men gathered, ranging from saloons, speakeasies, and bars to cheap cafeterias and elegant restaurants. The men who participated in that world forged a distinctive culture with its own language and customs, its own traditions and folk histories, its own heroes and heroines. They organized male beauty contests at Coney Island and drag balls in Harlem; they performed at gay clubs in the Village and at tourist traps in Times Square. Gay writers and performers produced a flurry of gay literature and theater in the 1920s and early 1930s; gay impresarios organized cultural events that sustained and enhanced gay men’s communal ties and group identity. Some gay men were involved in long-term monogamous relationships they called marriages; others participated in an extensive sexual underground that by the beginning of the century included well-known cruising areas in the city’s parks and streets, gay bathhouses, and saloons with back rooms where men met for sex.

The gay world that flourished before World War II has been almost entirely forgotten in popular memory and overlooked by professional historians; it is not supposed to have existed. This book seeks to restore that world to history, to chart its geography, and to recapture its culture and politics. In doing so, it challenges three widespread myths about the history of gay life before the rise of the gay movement, which I call the myths of isolation, invisibility, and internalization.

The myth of isolation holds that anti-gay hostility prevented the development of an extensive gay subculture and forced gay men to lead solitary lives in the decades before the rise of the gay liberation movement. As one exceptionally well informed writer and critic recently put it, the 1969 Stonewall rebellion not only marked the beginning of the militant gay movement but was

the critical . . . event that unleashed a vast reconstitution of gay society: gay bars, baths, bookstores, and restaurants opened, gay softball teams, newspapers, political organizations, and choruses proliferated. Gay groups of all sorts popped up while gay neighborhoods emerged in our larger, and many of our smaller cities. This was and is a vast social revolution . . . a new community came into being in an astonishingly short period of time.1

This has become the common wisdom for understandable reasons, for the policing of the gay world before Stonewall was even more extensive and draconian than is generally realized. A battery of laws criminalized not only gay men’s narrowly “sexual” behavior, but also their association with one another, their cultural styles, and their efforts to organize and speak on their own behalf. Their social marginalization gave the police and popular vigilantes even broader informal authority to harass them; anyone discovered to be homosexual was threatened with loss of livelihood and loss of social respect. Hundreds of men were arrested each year in New York City alone for violating such laws.

But the laws were enforced only irregularly, and indifference or curiosity—rather than hostility or fear—characterized many New Yorkers’ response to the gay world for much of the half-century before the war. Gay men had to take precautions, but, like other marginalized peoples, they were able to construct spheres of relative cultural autonomy in the interstices of a city governed by hostile powers. They forged an immense gay world of overlapping social networks in the city’s streets, private apartments, bathhouses, cafeterias, and saloons, and they celebrated that world’s existence at regularly held communal events such as the massive drag (or transvestite) balls that attracted thousands of participants and spectators in the 1920s. By the 1890s, gay men had made the Bowery a center of gay life, and by the 1920s they had created three distinct gay neighborhood enclaves in Greenwich Village, Harlem, and Times Square, each with a different class and ethnic character, gay cultural style, and public reputation.*

Some men rejected the dominant culture of the gay world and others passed through it only fleetingly, but it played a central role in the lives of many others. Along with sexual camaraderie, it offered them practical support in negotiating the demands of urban life, for many people used their gay social circles to find jobs, apartments, romance, and their closest friendships. Their regular association and ties of mutual dependence fostered their allegiance to one another, but gay culture was even more important to them for the emotional support it provided as they developed values and identities significantly different from those prescribed by the dominant culture. Indeed, two New Yorkers who conducted research on imprisoned working-class homosexuals in the 1930s expressed concern about the effects of gay men’s participation in homosexual society precisely because it made it possible for them to reject the prescriptions of the dominant culture and to forge an alternative culture of their own. “The homosexual’s withdrawal, enforced or voluntary, into a world of his own tends to remove him from touch with reality,” they warned in 1941, almost thirty years before the birth of the gay liberation movement at Stonewall. “It promotes the feeling of homosexual solidarity, and withdraws this group more and more from conventional folkways . . . and confirms them in their feeling that they compose a community within the community, with a special and artificial life of their own.”2 Once men discovered the gay world, they knew they were not alone.

The myth of invisibility holds that, even if a gay world existed, it was kept invisible and thus remained difficult for isolated gay men to find. But gay men were highly visible figures in early-twentieth-century New York, in part because gay life was more integrated into the everyday life of the city in the prewar decades than it would be after World War II—in part because so many gay men boldly announced their presence by wearing red ties, bleached hair, and the era’s other insignia of homosexuality. Gay men gathered on the same street corners and in many of the same saloons and dance halls that other working-class men did, they participated in the same salons that other bohemians did, and they rented the same halls for parties, fancy balls, and theatrical events that other youths did. “Our streets and beaches are overrun by . . . fairies,” declared one New Yorker in 1918,3 and nongay people encountered them in speakeasies, shops, and rooming houses as well. They read about them in the newspapers, watched them perform in clubs, and saw them portrayed on almost every vaudeville and burlesque stage as well as in many films. Indeed, many New Yorkers viewed the gay subculture’s most dramatic manifestations as part of the spectacle that defined the distinctive character of their city. Tourists visited the Bowery, the Village, and Harlem in part to view gay men’s haunts. In the early 1930s, at the height of popular fascination with gay culture, literally thousands of them attended the city’s drag balls to gawk at the drag queens on display there, while newspapers filled their pages with sketches of the most sensational gowns.

The drag queens on parade at the balls and the effeminate homosexual men, usually called “fairies,” who managed to be flamboyant even in a suit were the most visible representatives of gay life and played a more central role in the gay world in the prewar years than they do now. But while they made parts of the gay world highly visible to outsiders, even more of that world remained invisible to outsiders. Given the risks gay men faced, most of them hid their homosexuality from their straight workmates, relatives, and neighbors as well as the police. But being forced to hide from the dominant culture did not keep them hidden from each other. Gay men developed a highly sophisticated system of subcultural codes—codes of dress, speech, and style—that enabled them to recognize one another on the streets, at work, and at parties and bars, and to carry on intricate conversations whose coded meaning was unintelligible to potentially hostile people around them. The very need for such codes, it is usually (and rightly) argued, is evidence of the degree to which gay men had to hide. But the elaboration of such codes also indicates the extraordinary resilience of the men who lived under such constraints and their success in communicating with each other despite them. Even those parts of the gay world that were invisible to the dominant society were visible to gay men themselves.

The myth of internalization holds that gay men uncritically internalized the dominant culture’s view of them as sick, perverted, and immoral, and that their self-hatred led them to accept the policing of their lives rather than resist it. As one of the most perceptive gay social critics has put it, “When we hid our homosexuality in the past, it was not only because of fear of social pressure but even more because of deeply internalized self-hatred . . . [which was] very pervasive. . . . Homosexuals themselves long resisted the idea of being somehow distinct from other people.”4 But many gay men celebrated their difference from the norm, and some of them organized to resist anti-gay policing. From the late nineteenth century on, a handful of gay New Yorkers wrote polemical articles and books, sent letters to hostile newspapers and published their own, and urged jurists and doctors to change their views. In the 1930s, gay bars challenged their prohibition in the courts, and gay men and lesbians organized groups to advocate the homosexual cause. A larger number of men dressed and carried themselves in the streets in ways that proclaimed their homosexuality as boldly as any political button would, even though they risked violence and arrest for doing so.

Most gay men did not speak out against anti-gay policing so openly, but to take this as evidence that they had internalized anti-gay attitudes is to ignore the strength of the forces arrayed against them, to misinterpret silence as acquiescence, and to construe resistance in the narrowest of terms—as the organization of formal political groups and petitions. The history of gay resistance must be understood to extend beyond formal political organizing to include the strategies of everyday resistance that men devised in order to claim space for themselves in the midst of a hostile society. Given the effective prohibition of gay sociability and the swift and certain consequences that most men could expect if their homosexuality were revealed, both the willingness of some men to carry themselves openly and the ability of other gay men to create and hide an extensive gay social world need to be considered forms of resistance to overwhelming social pressure. The full panoply of tactics gay men devised for communicating, claiming space, and affirming themselves—the kind of resistant social practices that the political theorist James Scott has called the tactics of the weak—proved to be remarkably successful in the generations before a more formal gay political movement developed.5 Such tactics did not directly challenge anti-gay policing in the way that the movement would, but in the face of that policing they allowed many gay men not just to survive but to flourish—to build happy, self-confident, and loving lives.

One striking sign of the strength of the gay male subculture was its ability to provide its members with the resources necessary to reject the dominant culture’s definition of them as sick, criminal, and unworthy. Some gay men internalized the anti-homosexual attitudes pervasive in their society. Many others bitterly resented the dominant culture’s insistence that their homosexuality rendered them virtual women and despised the men among them who seemed to embrace an “effeminate” style. But the “unconventional folkways” of gay culture noted by the two 1930s researchers were more successful in helping men counteract the hostile attitudes of their society than we usually imagine. Many gay men resisted the medical judgment that they were mentally ill and needed treatment, despite the fact that medical discourse was one of the most powerful anti-gay forces in American culture (and one to which some recent social theories have attributed almost limitless cultural power). Numerous doctors reported their astonishment at discovering in their clinical interviews with “inverts” that their subjects rejected the efforts of science, religion, popular opinion, and the law to condemn them as moral degenerates. One doctor lamented that the working-class “fags” he interviewed in New York’s city jail in the early 1920s actually claimed they were “proud to be degenerates, [and] do not want nor care to be cured.”6 Indeed, it became the reluctant consensus among doctors that most inverts saw nothing wrong with their homosexuality; it was this attitude, they repeatedly noted, that threatened to make the “problem” of homosexuality so intractable.

All three myths about prewar gay history are represented in the image of the closet, the spatial metaphor people typically use to characterize gay life before the advent of gay liberation as well as their own lives before they “came out.” Before Stonewall (let alone before World War II), it is often said, gay people lived in a closet that kept them isolated, invisible, and vulnerable to anti-gay ideology. While it is hard to imagine the closet as anything other than a prison, we often blame people in the past for not having had the courage to break out of it (as if a powerful system were not at work to keep them in), or we condescendingly assume they had internalized the prevalent hatred of homosexuality and thought they deserved to be there. Even at our most charitable, we often imagine that people in the closet kept their gayness hidden not only from hostile straight people but from other gay people as well, and, possibly, even from themselves.

Given the ubiquity of the term today and how central the metaphor of the closet is to the ways we think about gay history before the 1960s, it is bracing—and instructive—to note that it was never used by gay people themselves before then. Nowhere does it appear before the 1960s in the records of the gay movement or in the novels, diaries, or letters of gay men and lesbians.7 The fact that gay people in the past did not speak of or conceive of themselves as living in a closet does not preclude us from using the term retrospectively as an analytic category, but it does suggest that we need to use it more cautiously and precisely, and to pay attention to the very different terms people used to describe themselves and their social worlds.

Many gay men, for instance, described negotiating their presence in an often hostile world as living a double life, or wearing a mask and taking it off.8 Each image has a valence different from “closet,” for each suggests not gay men’s isolation, but their ability—as well as their need—to move between different personas and different lives, one straight, the other gay, to wear their hair up, as another common phrase put it, or let their hair down.9 Many men kept their gay lives hidden from potentially hostile straight observers (by “putting their hair up”), in other words, but that did not mean they were hidden or isolated from each other—they often, as they said, “dropped hairpins” that only other gay men would notice. Leading a double life in which they often passed as straight (and sometimes married) allowed them to have jobs and status a queer would have been denied while still participating in what they called “homosexual society” or “the life.” For some, the personal cost of “passing” was great. But for others it was minimal, and many men positively enjoyed having a “secret life” more complex and extensive than outsiders could imagine. Indeed, the gay life of many men was so full and wide-ranging that by the 1930s they used another—but more expansive—spatial metaphor to describe it: not the gay closet, but the gay world.

The expansiveness and communal character of the gay world before World War II can also be discerned in the way people used another familiar term, “coming out.” Like much of campy gay terminology, “coming out” was an arch play on the language of women’s culture—in this case the expression used to refer to the ritual of a debutante’s being formally introduced to, or “coming out” into, the society of her cultural peers. (This is often remembered as exclusively a ritual of WASP high society, but it was also common in the social worlds of African-Americans and other groups.) A gay man’s coming out originally referred to his being formally presented to the largest collective manifestation of prewar gay society, the enormous drag balls that were patterned on the debutante and masquerade balls of the dominant culture and were regularly held in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Baltimore, and other cities. An article published in the Baltimore Afro-American in the spring of 1931 under the headline “1931 DEBUTANTES BOW AT LOCAL ‘PANSY’ BALL” drew the parallel explicitly and unselfconsciously: “The coming out of new debutantes into homosexual society,” its first sentence announced, “was the outstanding feature of Baltimore’s eighth annual frolic of the pansies when the Art Club was host to the neuter gender at the Elks’ Hall, Friday night.”10

Gay people in the prewar years, then, did not speak of coming out of what we call the “gay closet” but rather of coming out into what they called “homosexual society” or the “gay world,” a world neither so small, nor so isolated, nor, often, so hidden as “closet” implies. The Baltimore debutantes, after all, came out in the presence of hundreds of straight as well as gay and lesbian spectators at the public hall of the fraternal order of Elks. Their sisters in New York were likely to be presented to thousands of spectators, many of whom had traveled from other cities, in some of the best-known ballrooms of the city, including the Savoy and Rockland Palace in Harlem and the Astor Hotel and Madison Square Garden in midtown. Although only a small fraction of gay men actually “came out” at such a ball or in the presence of straight onlookers, this kind of initiation into gay society served as a model for the initiation—and integration—into the gay world for other men as well.*


How did we lose sight of a world so visible and extensive in its own time that its major communal events garnered newspaper headlines and the attendance of thousands?


  • "Monumental...a vital achievement in redefining and reassessing gay history."—Washington Post
  • "One of the most fascinating works of American social history I've ever read."—Frank Rich, New York Times
  • "A first-rate book of history...about all urban life, telling us as much about the heterosexual world as about the homosexual one."—New York Times
  • "A stunning contribution not only to gay history, but to the study of urban life, class, gender--and heterosexuality."—Kirkus
  • "Gay New York 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."—L.A. Times
  • "A brilliantly researched gift of history...unassailable."—Boston Globe
  • "A brilliant ethnographic analysis."—The Nation
  • "The impact made by this richly textured study is powerful."—Publisher's Weekly
  • "It's the fun, more than anything--the pleasure, the parties, the high jinks, the sex, and, yes, the love that gay men bear one another--that shines through so brightly...[a book of] erudition, discernment, sympathy, and wit."—New York Observer
  • "Chauncey's genius is the way he combines real lives and theory...a sharp and readable analysis of the way boundaries between 'normal' and 'abnormal' men bent and blurred in the early parts of the century."—Out
  • "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 of a gay world whose complexity and cohesion no previous historian dared to imagine."—Wayne Koestenbaum, Los Angeles Times

On Sale
Apr 9, 2019
Page Count
512 pages
Basic Books

George Chauncey

About the Author

George Chauncey is professor of American history at the University of Chicago and the author of Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, which won the distinguished Turner and Curti Awards from the Organization of American Historians, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Lambda Literary Award.

He testified as an expert witness on the history of antigay discrimination at the 1993 trial of Colorado’s Amendment Two, which resulted in the Supreme Court’s Romer v. Evans decision that antigay rights referenda were unconstitutional, and he was the principal author of the Historians’ Amicus Brief, which weighed heavily in the Supreme Court’s landmark decision overturning sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas (2003). The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, he lives and works in Chicago.

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