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The third gender in twentieth-century America.

George Chauncey's brilliant and often persuasive study of male homosexual relations in early twentieth-century New York was published two years ago on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall riot that inaugurated the recent gay liberation movement. The world that he describes was the product of a major shift in western sexual behavior that had begun two hundred years before, around 1700. And his book is in dialogue with the scholars who over the past twenty-five years have tried to analyze that shift. The nature of the problem to be discussed can be indicated by asking whether homosexuality and heterosexuality are biological categories that divide the world into a majority and a minority that can be found in all times and places. To such a question most western people today would reply yes. And while they would probably wonder why a minority should be homosexual, they would simply accept without question that most people are heterosexual. Since the 1970s, however, the work of some historians and sociologists has radically challenged these presumptions. Mary McIntosh in a classic article in 1968 began the discussion by proposing that homosexuality in modern society was a deviant role into which some men were socialized beginning around 1700. Nine years later in 1977 Jeffrey Weeks and myself, under McIntosh's influence but independently of each other, rephrased McIntosh's proposal. Weeks maintained that the modern homosexual role emerged in the late nineteenth century when the concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality were invented.(1)

My tactic was to compare what I thought to be the traditional western pattern of homosexual behavior with the two patterns that could be found elsewhere. In Europe since the twelfth century adult effeminate men exclusively attracted to each other had met in urban subcultures that protected them from the hostility of the majority. Elsewhere in the world adult men had licit sexual relations with both males and females, provided that they remained dominant by having relations either with adolescent males or with a minority of adult males who had been transformed into women. One of these two patterns could be seen in each of the world's major cultural areas. Domination was achieved by differences in age in east Asia, Melanesia, the Islamic world, and the ancient Mediterranean. A minority of males were socialized into a third gender role throughout southern Asia from the Philippines to Madagascar and among some tribal peoples in Africa and the Americas. When I proposed this tripartite development very little was known about European homosexual behavior before 1700. John Boswell and Alan Bray changed that. Their books seemed to show (though neither put it this way) that the traditional European pattern was one in which most men had relations with both women and adolescent boys. This is now demonstrated with statistical certainty for Renaissance Florence by Michael Rocke in his brilliant dissertation and his new book. I therefore proposed in a series of articles (198594) that European society had always operated within the terms of the two worldwide systems, and that European homosexual relations had moved around 1700 from a system in which domination was achieved by differences in age to one in which a minority were socialized into a lifelong role as a third gender, producing thereby what the late nineteenth century categorized as homosexuality and heterosexuality. My evidence was drawn from England, but Theo van der Meer and Dirk Jaap Noordam have shown that something very similar occurred in the Netherlands, and the late Michel Rey and the new collection edited by Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant Ragan make the same case for France.(2)

But where in all this is Michel Foucault? In 1976 in a single paragraph of the introductory volume of his history of sexuality, Foucault made a proposal about the late nineteenth century that was similar to Weeks', and it is Foucault rather than Weeks whom many cite when they say that homosexuality has existed only for a hundred years. Ordinarily in scholarship a book would carry greater weight than a paragraph, but Foucault's authority for some is beyond logic. In his introduction, however, Foucault had proposed that most of the modern western sexual system came into existence in the early eighteenth century. It was only homosexuality that he put much later. Two years before his death in an interview that many of his followers have yet to deal with, he changed his mind and said that homosexuality became a problem in the early eighteenth century. But he never published any serious analysis of the evidence, and only his acolytes continue to invoke their master's name.(3)

George Chauncey, in a series of articles that preceded his book, was an active participant in this discussion. In two of these articles from 1983 and 1985 he laid out the presumptions that control the argument of his book. In 1985 he described an investigation in 1919-20 of a homosexual scandal in Newport, Rhode Island, that uncovered a world of adult effeminate men who had sexual relations among themselves and with "normal" men, a world with its own language, categories and behaviors, and one that knew nothing of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century discussions of homosexuality. The men instead were in many ways similar to the effeminate sodomites of eighteenth-century London, Paris and Amsterdam. In his book Chauncey finds a similar world in New York between 1890 and 1940. The late nineteenth-century discourse therefore did not create the behavior it tried to describe. But while Chauncey thinks it likely that the world in his book must have descended from its eighteenth-century beginnings, he cautiously notes that American historians have so far not pushed their evidence back beyond the 1870s. Jonathan Katz's new work (which builds on his two great documentary collections) will certainly locate the effeminate sodomite in America as early as the 1820s. But it remains a problem why no American evidence has yet turned up for the eighteenth century.(4)

Chauncey's other early article (1983) provides the argument which closes his present volume and will presumably open the successor which he promises on The Making of the Modern Gay World, 1935-1975. He distinguished an early medical and psychological discussion centered on gender inversion from a later one organized around sexual orientation. That is, the earlier writers tended to stress that the men they studied were effeminate and the women masculine, and that this was the result of a biological condition that made such people a third or intermediate sex. (This biological idea of a third sex must be kept separate from the concept of a third gender that is culturally produced.) Later writers stressed that homosexuality was a psychological condition and did not connect it to masculinized or effeminate behavior. Chauncey maintains that the majority of gay men of all social classes began to understand themselves in terms of this new concept of sexual orientation after World War II. Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis used the same distinction in their history of Buffalo lesbians in the 1940s and 1950s, as did Esther Newton in her study of the two gay resort towns on Fire Island. Kennedy and Davis even argued that the transition from a gender-based homosexuality to one of sexual orientation was crucial in creating the sense of community that produced the liberation movement after 1969.(5)

This distinction is clearly going to have a long life. But I wonder whether the transition it seeks to analyze is best conceptualized in this way. Chauncey admits that effeminacy among gay men did not disappear after 1940. And I can assure him that it is alive and well if less flamboyant in the West Village streets and bars in 1996. What did change after 1940 was the preferred sexual object of most gay men. Before 1940 they would have said that they wanted a "real" or a "normal" man, though most of them often must have settled for another gay man. After 1940 they preferred another gay man. As a result the heterosexual and the homosexual worlds grew apart, and this may in fact have helped to create the community that produced the liberation movement. Gert Hekma suggests that something similar occurred in the Netherlands and there is evidence for it also among the British men Jeffrey Weeks interviewed.(6)

The first and most original part of Chauncey's book analyzes the sexual interaction before 1940 of "normal" men with "queers" and "fairies." He is especially interested in the Italian and Irish men who had sex with effeminate male prostitutes, only some of whom were transvestites. This is very valuable since usually in the anthropological and historical studies of third gender males like the American berdache or the Indian hijra, their sexual partners from the majority are never discussed. Chauncey's working-class Italians and Irishmen engaged in homosexual relations without having a homosexual identity. Middle-class Anglo-American men, on the other hand, did not. Chauncey sees the difference as one of class. But it is possible that the Italian men came from a Mediterranean culture in which sexual relations between men and boys were still licit, and that this made their sexual interaction with "queers" easier. The case of an Italian boy (p. 81) who had sex with a man is understood by Chauncey and his American source in terms of the effeminate role, but the dynamic was probably one of differences in age. The Irish are a harder case since we know nothing of homosexual relations in Ireland, especially before the Famine. Chauncey does not discuss the interaction of poor "normal" Anglo-Americans with "fairies" who were prostitutes. There were two other kinds of sexual interaction between "normal" men and gay ones. The tough young male prostitute whose customer was a "queer" reverses the dynamic that occurred between the "fairy" prostitute and the "normal" man, but he unfortunately is not discussed in the first part of the book and makes only a brief later appearance, even though both types of male prostitution can be found from the eighteenth century onwards. Chauncey also mentions but does not analyze the many cases in which gay men were prosecuted for sexual relations with "normal" boys who were not prostitutes. The effeminate male prostitute was, however, the average man's idea of "queers." This was difficult for gay middle-class men to accept, but it is unlikely as Chauncey suggests that this was anything new, since prosperous men had faced this difficulty for two centuries. But the "fairy" prostitute did eventually become marginalized in gay culture after 1940. And in the last generation such an individual sometimes identified with the newly created medical category of the transsexual who is not supposed to be a gay man at all.

In the second part of his book Chauncey describes in dazzling detail the social world gay men made for themselves in the rooming houses, the YMCAs, and the apartment buildings where they lived and the cafeterias where they ate. He contrasts the relatively dangerous sexual encounters in parks, streets and public toilets where violence from "normal" men and arrest by the police were always a possibility with a fascinating chapter on the development of gay bath houses, which the police did not raid and where all sexual encounters were necessarily with other gay men. He ends with the development of gay neighborhoods in the Village and in Harlem.

The last part of the book analyzes the social (as opposed to sexual) interaction of gay men with the majority. Some gay men moved in an entirely gay world, but most had to work and socialize in the other. But during Prohibition, gay life appeared in a few novels and plays. And some "fairies" became entertainers for middle-class audiences. All this ended with the repeal of Prohibition and the rise of a new puritanism. The stage and the clubs were censored. And it became legal to close down any bar that served a homosexual who could be identified as such by his mannerisms. As a result the exclusively gay bar appeared, though one hesitates to believe that there were none before. Hundreds of such bars were closed in the next twenty-five years and as a result only organized criminal syndicates would run them. But at any one moment there were as many as seventy bars in operation. The bar had become the central institution of gay life. Chauncey does not analyze it in those terms, and one supposes that he will do so in his next volume. But in the meanwhile, there is this masterful volume with its living, moving stories and its challenging theses that establish the twentieth-century history of a third gender role that had had its origins three hundred years before and that continues to be perhaps the most important element in the construction of the modern western system of gender and sexuality. Homosexuality and heterosexuality are therefore not biological constants to be found in all cultures. They are instead the language in which western societies have increasingly over the past century described the operation of our system of three genders.

Department of History New York, NY 10010


1. Mary Mcintosh, "The Homosexual Role," Social Problems 16 (1968): 182-92; Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out (London, 1977); Randolph Trumbach, "London's Sodomites: Homosexual Behavior and Western Culture in the Eighteenth Century," Journal of Social History 11 (1977): 1-33.

2. John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (Chicago, 1980); Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London, 1982); Michael Rocke, "Male Homosexuality and Its Regulation in Late Medieval Florence," (Ph.D. thesis, State University of New York at Binghamton, 1989); Rocke, Forbidden Friendships (New York, 1996); Randolph Trumbach, "Gender and the Homosexual Role in Modern Western Culture," in Dennis Altman et al., Which Homosexuality, (London, 1989) 149-69. And the other essays cited in Trumbach, "Sex, Gender and Sexual Identity in Modern Culture," in Forbidden History, ed. John C. Fout (Chicago, 1992) 89-106; Theo van der Meer, "Sodomy and the Pursuit of the Third Sex in the Early Modern Period," in Third Sex, Third Gender, ed. Gilbert Herdt (New York, 1994) 134-212.; D. J. Noordam, "Sodomy in the Dutch Republic, 1600-1725," in The Pursuit of Sodomy, ed. Kent Gerard and Gert Hekma (New York, 1989) 207-228.; Michel Rey, "Parisian Homosexuals Create a Lifestyle, 1700-1750: The Police Archives," in 'Tis Nature's Fault, ed. Robert P. Maccubbin (New York, 1987) 179-191; Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant Ragan eds., Homosexuality in Modern France (New York, 1996).

3. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Vol I: An Introduction (New York, 1978); Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault (Cambridge, MA, 1991), 316.

4. George Chauncey, "Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War One Era," Journal of Social History 19 (1985): 189-211.

5. Chauncey, "From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the Changing Conceptualization of Female Deviance," Salmagundi no. 58-59 (Fall 1982-Winter 1983): 114-156; Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold (New York, 1993); Esther Newton, Cherry Grove, Fire Island (Boston, 1993); and for commentary on the last two, Trumbach, "The Origins and Development of the Modern Lesbian Role in the Western Gender System: Northwestern Europe and the United States, 1750-1990, Historical Reflections/Reflexions Historiques 20 (1994): 287-320.

6. Gert Hekma, "The Amsterdam Bar Culture and Changing Gay/Lesbian Identities," Sexual Cultures in Europe (Conference Papers, Amsterdam, 1992); Kevin Porter and Jeffrey Weeks, eds., Between the Acts (New York, 1991).
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Author:Trumbach, Randolph
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Dec 22, 1996
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