No closet at all, just leading double lives

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George Chauncey | University of Chicago | 14344

Gay historian George Chauncey told the Chicago Humanities Festival about gay life in postwar New York City.

He thought that gay life in the past was not as secretive as we might think today. “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.”

From 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.”

After conducting hundreds of interviews with gay men during his researches, 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.” Many gay men had both impressive professional lives and vibrant night lives in New York City’s networks of artistic venues and gay bars.

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.

Chauncey’s book “Gay New York”, which chronicles gay life in New York City from 1890 to 1940, was published on the 25th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. His next book will extend that history beyond 1940 into wartime and postwar New York City.

Chauncey is currently chair of the history department at Yale University.


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