Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Always somewhat controversial

Yesterday morning, there was talk of a (fairly small) survey showing that teenage Australians are still, in significant number, not comfortable with having gay friends.  I'm not sure that this should be surprising, given the nature of adolescence, and I think the reporting of it as showing there is teenage "homophobia" rampant is PC exaggeration; but I have to admit, the Beyond Blue ad  aimed at teenagers against anti-gay bullying is pretty good, as far as these things go.   I still suspect that the media being so saturated with discussion of sexuality these days actually works to increase anxiety in teenagers to identify one way or the other, but what can you do about that?   A sudden increase in societal regard for privacy seems not exactly on the cards.

Then, there was this article about income comparison for gay and lesbian folk (gay men don't do so well, but lesbian women, working longer hours, do well compared to your average heterosexual woman), which made me notice another article at The Conversation which argues (not completely convincingly, I think) that "It turns out male sexuality is just as fluid as female sexuality."  The bit I don't find convincing is how it cites examples of men's ironic, often drunken, imitation of homosexual acts as evidence in favour of sexual fluidity.

But it does talk about something that sounds rather more interesting:  a 1994 book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 .  Looking back at how we got to where we are in terms of Western attitudes to homosexuality is always interesting, and here's a lengthy summary of the book's argument:
George Chauncey uncovers a previously hidden "gay male world" in New York City before World War II, a world that had been lost through the myths of "isolation, invisibility, and internalization." Instead, the world Chauncey describes is a vibrant and surprisingly visible gay culture between 1890-1940. In this world, the later homosexual/heterosexual binary was not yet in force, and men were defined on the basis of their masculinity or femininity rather than the sex of their sexual partners. In this way, working-class masculine men, particularly sailors and laborers, could have sex with effeminate "fairies" yet not be considered "gay" (provided they were the one doing the penetrating). In contrast, a growing middle class during the 1910s and 1920s turned to sexual preference to develop a heterosexual identity of masculinity in which "queers" (middle-class equivalents of "fairies") were defined by their attraction to men. Chauncey argued that this developed as an anxious response to working-class sexual practices (bottom-up influence on culture) and middle-class male anxieties over their own manhood.

In Part II, Chauncey describes how gay men produced the space of an urban "gay world." They turned to semi-public spaces as zones of security, such as local YMCAs, boarding houses, and cafeterias. Chauncey notes that, until the 1930s, authorities would often take a hands-off approach unless gay men's presence moved beyond the category of harmless spectacle. He also notes the tension between private and public, where gay men were often forced out of the public sphere to engage in activities and socializing in public areas (although places such as parks and streets were often dangerous). Chauncey links crackdowns on this public space to broader reformist crackdowns on the autonomy of working-class recreational spaces, such as Coney Island. Finally, he points to the development of two gay neighborhood enclaves: Greenwich Village in the 1910s (part of a larger bohemian culture) and Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s (which was much more visible and vibrant). Chauncey notes that until the 1930s, these spaces, in particular Harlem, became a space for highly visible spectacles of gay life - for example, massive drag queen balls in which thousands attended and were covered by the press. These undermine any notions of gay life being in deeply in the closet until the 1960s. Chauncey ends with a discussion of the decline of this gay world. He points to the end of Prohibition as a watershed, whose repeal was inspired in part by fears over criminality and sordidness that it inspired by driving behavior underground. With its repeal the state had broader surveillance and regulatory powers which they used to limit gay public space. This occurs most vividly with violent crackdowns on any bars that allowed gay men visibility (leading to the rise of exclusively gay bars). Chauncey's narrative ends with the gay world being driven largely underground during the 1930s. 
That last bit is a surprising argument:  that the removal of Prohibition actually worked to help drive gay men more underground.   Sounds plausible, I guess.  I wouldn't have picked Harlem as a centre of gay life for a time, either.

Given the book was talking about New York in a period when vaudeville was one of the main entertainments, I then Googled the topic of it and homosexuality, which led to links about a guy I had never heard of before - Julian Eltinge - who had for a time a spectacularly successful career as a cross dressing, mainly comedic, stage and film actor in the first half of the 20th century.  (He even travelled to Australia with his shows in the 1920's.)  His Wikipedia page provides the bones of his story, but this article is much more interesting. 

He never married, and lived with his mother, but apparently deliberately adopted a macho off stage persona and resented the never ending questioning of his sexuality.    Another book talks about how much time Eltinge, and the press, devoted to reassuring the public that he was a man's man.  For example:

Of course, this now sounds rather like too much overcompensating.  The guy lived long enough to see the (perfectly understandable!) decline of the popularity of his type of show, and seems to have died a lonely and overweight alcoholic.  

From pages 61 to 67 of this same book then goes on to talk about the scandal sheet interest in homosexuality in California (Sacramento and Long Beach are discussed in detail) pre World War 1.  The details are a tad too salacious for reprinting here,  but it both gives a sense of the "moral panic" about the issue, at least amongst some; and notes how some of the gay parties had a kind of modern air of decadence.  I find this particularly surprising for the pre World War 1 era - I had thought the relative decadence of the 20's and early 30's was a reaction to having survived the trauma of the War.

Some of the details are blackly funny - although men going to San Quentin for 25 years for sodomy isn't.    In fact, the interesting thing is how the "queers" thought they were being very modern and progressive with regard to one particular practice:

I wonder if this was somehow tied up with the cultural and intellectual shifts going on in the West following Darwin and the apparent rise of science and humanism?  I'm not sure that America had the same issue with the sort of upper class elitism of the gay set at Cambridge, but it's curious how (at least some?) of those partaking of the activity also saw themselves as riding a wave of modernity.

Anyhow, one thing I guess we can learn from such histories is that homosexual activity has been around a long, long time, as has uncertainty and unease it has caused in many societies.  We should give the teenagers of today a bit of a break.

Update:  you can read more about Eltinge and the popularity of female impersonator shows generally in a .pdf article here.  She notes that female impersonators in America evolved out of the minstrel shows of the mid 19th century.  (!)  

1 comment:

John said...

that "It turns out male sexuality is just as fluid as female sexuality." The bit I don't find convincing is how it cites examples of men's ironic, often drunken, imitation of homosexual acts as evidence in favour of sexual fluidity.

One the one hand they argue sexuality is NOT a choice then assert this nonsense. If an argument relies on simply observing male group behavior and inferring homosexuality tendencies from the same it is evidence of poor analytic skills or more probably ideological bias.