November 6, 2012

Expert debunks myth of post-war closeted gay life

Former U of C professor and renowned LGBT historian George Chauncey spoke on gay life in postwar New York City on Sunday as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival.

In his talk, Chauncey proposed a new way of reconstructing gay life in past eras without relying on assumptions that we make about gay life today, particularly that it was always secretive.

“Repression and shame have still not gone away for the gay community, but they were also not as dominant in the past as we tend to imagine, even in the highly conformist McCarthy era,” Chauncey said.

From influential artists and intellectuals such as Andy Warhol, Leonard Bernstein, and Gore Vidal to advertising executives on Madison Avenue and clerks in New York’s famous department stores, Chauncey placed gay men at the helm of New York’s postwar artistic and cultural renaissance.

“What Paris was for the arts of the 19th century, New York was for the 20th, and that was due in large part to influential circles of gay men,” he said.

His research is grounded in hundreds of interviews that he has conducted with gay men who recalled their experiences in postwar New York in addition to decades of archival research.

Chauncey dismissed the contrast in current terminology between gay men being ‘out’ and ‘closeted’ as anachronistic to gay life as it existed decades ago. “Instead, it was more like living a double life,” he said, noting that many gay men had both impressive professional lives and vibrant night lives in New York City’s networks of artistic venues and gay bars.

In response to the dominant culture’s shaming of homosexuality, Chauncey argued, large numbers of gay men actually developed a sense of cultural superiority and became highly influential figures, rather than being shamed and silenced as many assume today.

In his introduction to the talk, a former student Matti Bunzl (Ph.D. ’98) praised Chauncey’s work for “restoring the complexity of gay lives to full historical view” and overcoming the simplistic assumptions we make about gay life today.

Chauncey began chronicling this investigation with his landmark book, Gay New York, which chronicles gay life in New York City from 1890 to 1940 and was published on the 25th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. His talk on Sunday continued that history beyond 1940 into wartime and postwar New York City, which will be the topic of his next book.

The talk took place at the Chicago History Museum, where Chauncey was the founding historian for the 2011 exhibit Out in Chicago. Chauncey taught at the U of C for 15 years before leaving in 2006 for Yale University, where he is currently chair of the history department.