It is often thought that before events such as the Stonewall Riots incited a gay movement there was no existing queer culture because people felt compelled to hide their identities. In George Chauncey’s 1995 book, Gay New York, he shows that this claim is misguided through a variety of collected evidence. He instead explores a world in which the homosexuals between 1890 and the 1940s forged safe spaces for themselves throughout New York, and there was a web of complex relationships including sexual meet-ups, social connections, drag shows, and more.
Gay New York refutes the widespread beliefs about pre-World War II queer culture. Chauncey not only proves that there was “gay” activity, but that these events “sustained and enhanced gay men’s communal ties and group identity.” In fact, before the 1930s, there was a certain openness two men could have regarding sex and romance. However, that is not to say that the two men could stroll down the street holding hands. Instead of coming out, the term we use today, the men “came in” to the homosexual society. This coming in process was almost a ritual of being introduced to cultural peers. Instead of coming out of the closet, which sounds hidden or isolated, this was being introduced to a society that shared feelings and interests. Walt Whitman was writing in the mid to late 1890s, but his story seems different. Perhaps the relationships and intimacy he describes in his poems were similarly rich to those in the New York gay culture, but he was one of the members that became involved in the night life, but hid his identity behind a veil of respectability and masculinity during the day. Chauncey’s book describes the life that many speculate Whitman to have led. He might have been a victim of the “crisis of masculinity” that Chauncey describes, in which men were challenged by the more fluid gender roles of the early 20th century, thus causing them to overcompensate with shows of strength and heterosexuality. This could be the cause of Whitman’s adamant negation of John Addington’s Symonds question regarding the poet’s relationships with men. He wanted to adhere to the masculinity of the time to maintain his image and popularity.
The homosexual culture described in Chauncey’s book had different norms than the heterosexual culture of the time. While looking at Gay New York, it is worthwhile to compare the acceptance of very “queer” and flexible norms to the emphasis on normalization in today’s queer culture. The largest fight of the current community is the fight for marriage equality. The way that this is often presented is through a lens of comparison to straight parents, because if queer couples can prove that they are not at all different from straight couples they will appear less threatening. Through this normalization, have we lost the rich culture that Chauncey writes about? Despite the strides we have made in a variety of areas, by claiming to be the same as the dominant culture the queer community has moved away from the richness of relationships that Chauncey describes. As we move out of the closet, we also seem to move away from one another. How can we maintain a sense of queer identity and accept our differences while still making strides towards deserved equality?