By Brandon Wolf
George Chauncey has solid gay-history credentials. He teaches LGBT history at Yale, and is the author of the best-selling 1994 book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940.
Not only has Chauncey written about gay history—he has participated in it as an expert witness in more than 30 gay-rights court cases. Five of those cases went to the U.S. Supreme Court, including the recent marriage-equality cases.
Soon, Chauncey will publish his long-awaited sequel, The Making of the Modern Gay World, 1935–1975. From these vast resources, Chauncey has built the lecture series that he will present in Houston.
Gay New York Paints a New Vision of 20th Century Gay Male Life
Chauncey spent 10 years researching gay male life in New York at the turn of the century and up through pre-World War II days. He searched through police records, newspapers, oral histories, diaries, medical records, the papers of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and other obscure sources. Gay New York readers enter a formerly unknown world of bars, speakeasies, parks, bathhouses, rooming houses, and cafeterias beginning in the 1890s through 1935.
Weaving a full fabric, Chauncey also interprets the cultural significance of his research. A true historian, he provides 90 pages of source notes to back up what he writes.
Chauncey’s book shows that beginning in the 1890s, gay life was a visible element of Manhattan’s working-class society, especially in areas like the Bowery and Harlem. The word “gay” was not in use then—the popular nickname was “fairy.” Men were classified not by their sexuality, but by the gender roles they adopted.
Only effeminate men and those who played “the woman’s part” in sex were fairies. Masculine men, either gay or straight, were not considered “inverts” because they still followed the common gender binary and adopted the male role.
Fairies mixed with straight men in bars, some working as prostitutes. The effeminate men often wore rogued cheeks, sleek haircuts, and dressed flamboyantly in coded “gay” colors that included red ties and green suits.
Some “resorts”—large bars, often with rooms upstairs for sexual coupling—catered specifically to gay men. The most famous was Paresis Hall. Visitors to New York who wanted to see the “debauchery” of big-city life toured these places regularly. The most infamous was The Slide, where tourists gasped at behavior they never realized existed.
When Prohibition began in 1919, the gay world became even more visible. Driven underground, gay men surfaced in the speakeasies of Harlem, where nonconformity was part of the allure of the clubs. New York police were lenient with the clubs in Harlem, since that allowed clubs serving alcohol to migrate out of white neighborhoods.
Huge drag balls were regular events in Greenwich Village and Harlem, drawing both straight and gay audiences. Newspapers wrote accounts of the lavish outfits worn by the drag queens. During this time, “coming out” had a totally different meaning—it was used in the debutante sense to denote gay men coming out into the gay world.
Sailors were notoriously drawn to gay men for the oral sex they offered. When a fleet came into New York, the downstairs bathroom in the Times Square Building would be packed with sailors looking for sexual release. Gay men campily referred to sailors as “seafood.”
By 1930, when the “Pansy Craze” became popular, two of the three largest nightclubs in Times Square had gay male emcees dressed in tuxedoes who lisped and swished, working the audiences by walking amongst the tables of patrons.
Ironically, the end of Prohibition in 1933 ushered in an era of repression and punishment for gay men. Morality crusaders blamed the hard times of the Great Depression on those who had enjoyed the liberation of the Roaring ’20s. Accusing fingers pointed to gay men as one of the causes of the hard times.
For Chauncey, a special moment during the writing of the book came when he sat down to start the first chapter. As he sorted out the information he had written on index cards, he suddenly discovered that all of the gay resorts and bars he had identified were located in the same small area—a final validation that had eluded him before.
Chauncey’s book is packed with insights and information, and this summary is but a small portion of what awaits the reader. Chauncey intended to start writing a sequel to his popular book in the mid-1990s, but a marked increase in gay-rights court cases intervened.
Serving as an Expert Witness
Chauncey was surprised when he was asked to serve as an expert witness in the 1993 Romer v. Evans case, a Colorado statewide referendum that nullified local LGBT antidiscrimination ordinances. The case ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996, and Justice Anthony Kennedy gave the LGBT community an identity as a “class” of people for the first time.
An “expert witness” is a person with professional knowledge of facts that may bear on a court’s decision in a case. A judge must certify that the person is indeed an expert, usually based on their publications, academic appointments, and other scholarly credentials.
Chauncey says that his testimony was vital to establishing a history of discrimination against the LGBT community. When a court is presented with such a history, they have reason to suspect that an entire “class” of people is being singled out unfairly. It is then the responsibility of the state to show they have a compelling reason for treating that class differently than other citizens.
Gay New York had not been published when Chauncey was first approached by Lambda Legal. “At the time, there weren’t many people to choose from,” Chauncey says. He taught a gay and lesbian history class at the University of Chicago, and had published various academic papers about LGBT history. This was enough to bring him to Lambda’s attention.
In 2003, Chauncey worked with the Lawrence v. Texas case that ultimately found sodomy laws unconstitutional. He organized nine other historians and served as the lead author for their historians’ amicus brief.
In 2010, he was asked to help with the Proposition 8 case in California, where a referendum against marriage equality was overturned by a judge’s decision. That decision was appealed. Chauncey was on the witness stand for up to seven hours at a time in the appeal cases that led to the Supreme Court’s 2013 Hollingsworth v. Perry decision that declared Prop 8 to be unconstitutional.
Chauncey drafted the “friend of the court” briefs submitted by the Organization of American Historians for Hollingsworth, as well as the Windsor v. U.S. case that partially voided the Defense of Marriage Act. He was called on once again to draft a brief for the Obergefell v. Hodges case in 2015 that finally brought marriage equality nationwide.
Chauncey took part in court cases that ranged from gay adoptions to the military ban. He says it felt very rewarding to read quotations from his testimony and briefs in judges’ decisions, knowing that he had helped the LGBT community advance to a new point of acceptance by Americans.
But the efforts required lots of evenings and weekends of work, year after year. The time spent on supporting those court cases impacted his effort to publish the sequel to Gay New York. Now, 23 years after the first book’s publication, Chauncey is finally on the verge of publishing the sequel. Asked about the length of the book, Chauncey laughs and says, “Big!”
A Preacher’s Kid Goes to Yale
At 63 years of age, Chauncey looks back and says his life has been very fulfilling. But getting to this point has been a long journey, and he is still amazed at the successes of the gay-rights movement.
Perhaps he was destined to make a difference. Born in Tennessee in1954, Chauncey is the son of a Presbyterian minister who believed deeply in social justice. His father was actively involved in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.
Chauncey’s early years were spent on the move as his father transferred from one church to another in the South. His mother was always active as a minister’s wife, in addition to raising Chauncey and his two younger sisters.
By the time he was in the sixth grade, the family had settled down in Richmond, Virginia, where he graduated from high school in 1971. His high-school years were times of turbulent racial unrest in Richmond. His father pastored the only integrated church in the city.
Chauncey was involved in church events, and at school he was the newspaper editor and performed with the theater group. At graduation, he was #2 in his class. “My gym grades brought down my average,” he laughs.
An excellent student, he won a scholarship to Yale University. “It was very different for me, growing up as a preacher’s son, to now be mixing with the sons and daughters of the elite and the wealthy,” he remembers.
Chauncey came out at Yale, and took part in the gay student group there. “A lot of colleges fought against gay student groups. The ones that didn’t still had an attitude of just putting up with us.” When the group sponsored events such as on-campus gay dances, they printed up enough posters so that they could replace them daily, as the signs were usually ripped down and trashed by students who didn’t approve. In high school, Chauncey had been more interested in philosophy than history. But now he saw history as a way to make a difference in contemporary issues. “Understanding historical background is important to realizing what the origins of issues are,” he says.
The Evolution into a Gay Historian
After graduating from Yale in 1977, Chauncey spent a year in Africa on a fellowship that allowed him to study the effect of colonial rule on a small copper-mining town. He then moved to Boston and did odd jobs for two years before returning to Yale in 1980 to begin graduate work. In 1989, he received a doctoral degree at the age of 35.
Chauncey moved to New York, and held various teaching-assistant positions while doing research for the book he hoped to publish. In 1991, he was hired at the University of Chicago, where he taught in the history department and eventually became a full professor.
In 1994, Gay New York was published to much critical acclaim. His eye-opening revelations about gay life in New York during the early 20th century shattered popular myths that portrayed gay males as invisible, isolated, and filled with internalized guilt.
Chauncey began teaching a gay and lesbian history course, although it was only offered once every three years. “In those days, all the students in the class were either gay or part of the women’s studies program,” he says. Straight students feared they would be identified as gay if they took the class.
In 1994, as Chauncey was visiting the University of Oregon to lecture on gay and lesbian history, he met Ron Gregg, who taught cinema at the university. The two eventually became partners, and Gregg moved to Chicago so they could live together.
In 2006, Chauncey was invited to join the faculty of Yale University to teach history—and also specifically gay and lesbian history. Gregg was also offered a position at Yale, teaching cinema and introducing a course in gay and lesbian cinema.
Chauncey says that his first gay and lesbian studies class had 25 students, nearly all of them gay. Today, his Yale class has 325 students, and the majority of them are straight. He’s seen a sea change that he still marvels at.
In 2013, Douglas Carter Beane’s celebrated play The Nance opened on Broadway. Nathan Lane’s character, Chauncey Miles, was named as a nod to George Chauncey because the playwright relied so heavily on Gay New York to write his play. The PBS production of the play is available through the PBS website.
Both men have become beloved teachers at Yale, and are the epitome of a gay power-couple. In 2014, they married. “Love Like in the Movies” read the headline of a Yale Daily News feature story about them in 2016.
The Rice Lectures
On Monday, April 3, Chauncey will speak on “The Politics of Antigay Discrimination in the McCarthy Era and Beyond.” Many people don’t realize, Chauncey says, just how harsh life was in America for gay men during this time. Bars were not allowed to serve alcohol to known homosexuals, movies couldn’t portray them in a favorable light, and careers were ended if one’s sexual orientation became known.
On Tuesday, April 4, the topic will be “From Drag Balls to Vogue Balls: Black Gay Culture and Politics Before and After Stonewall.” Chauncey says he wants to show that the lives of gay African-Americans took a very different trajectory than their white counterparts.
On Wednesday, April 5, Chauncey will discuss “AIDS, the Lesbian Baby Boom, and the Campaign for Marriage Equality.” Chauncey notes that most people have no idea where the push for marriage equality came from. In the 1970s, activists thought of marriage as a flawed straight institution. But the realities of AIDS and the parenting responsibilities of lesbians raising children made it clear that the legal protections of marriage were essential to the LGBT community.
Dr. Chauncey’s visit to Houston for this lecture series is a rare opportunity. Anyone interested in the history of our community should circle April 3–5 on their calendars for what promises to be three memorable evenings.
The Chauncey lectures will be presented in the new Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University on April 3, 4, and 5. The lectures will be illustrated with slide shows, and question-and-answer sessions follow each lecture. The lectures are free and open to the public.
A welcome reception will be held in the Moody Center following the April 3 lecture. There is no charge for the lectures, but tickets must be obtained for entrance. The free tickets are available online at https://goo.gl/d2Q2AF.
Guests are asked to arrive at 5:45 p.m., as the lectures will start at 6 p.m. promptly. Anyone not checking in by 5:55 p.m. will risk having their tickets given to those on a waiting list. The auditorium seats 150, so seating is limited, and tickets should be obtained as soon as possible.
The nearest parking is West Lot 1, which is accessed from entrances #8, #17, or #18. The parking fee is $12. Economy parking is available in the Greenbriar Lot (entrances #13A or #13B) for $2. See map below.
Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.