GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
 

Moment of Decision
WRITTEN BY RICK PERLSTEIN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAN DRY

Chicago professor George Chauncey has spent a fair portion of his life fighting for civil liberties. His latest battle weapon? Historical scholarship.

George Chauncey is a modest man. Shy, even. A few minutes before he began a lecture this past spring, just about every one of those swing-armed deskettes that populate Cobb Hall seminar rooms was occupied. The Chicago history professor entered, flushing a bit; sat, set down some papers; stood up; exchanged a few words—only a few—with his host, the head of the campus chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He returned to his chair, crossed his legs, then his arms, as if protecting his body. Students were still filtering in—30, then 40, then 50. It was long past standing room only when Chauncey opened with a mumbled confidence that he said he hadn’t told anyone in 25 years. “But since this is sponsored by the ACLU, I’ll say it. When I was a teenager I was invited to join the board of directors of the Richmond, Virginia, ACLU for my work on high-school rights.”

It was an appropriate entrée to the evening’s subject: The bashful professor, author of one of the most acclaimed works of scholarship of the 1990s, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940, had once again been compelled into a public fight for civil liberties. He was there to explain the amicus curiae brief he had written in the Supreme Court case of Lawrence v. Texas, which the court relied upon in rendering its June 26 decision that laws regulating what goes on sexually behind closed doors between consenting adults of any gender have no place in our constitutional order.

Begin the story in 1986, when the Supreme Court handed down Bowers v. Hardwick, a decision that sharply reversed the court’s own trend toward protecting privacy—but only for a single group of people: same-sex couples. Upholding the constitutionality of state sodomy laws, the majority argued that banning gay sex was allowable because such proscriptions were “deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition.” Chauncey, then a graduate student in the embryonic field of gay history, recognized the fallacy behind this reasoning. Sodomy laws, for most of America’s history, were not antihomosexuality laws but bans on all manner of nonprocreative sex. Then came the 1970s. Most states repealed their sodomy statutes as embarrassing anachronisms. But some passed new laws outlawing gay sex exclusively. These laws were as deeply rooted in America’s history and tradition as the lava lamp. At Cobb, Chauncey explained the significance: Bowers did not merely uphold some originary tradition of outlawing sodomy. “It reinterpreted it as if it applied to homosexual couples only. The court said, ‘It’s okay to single out these people.’” Thus a Supreme Court decision became “the cornerstone for a whole edifice of discrimination against gays.” Opponents of, say, placing foster children with gays or gay adoptions could now rely on Bowers: criminals make unfit parents. Right-wing activist groups could also cite the decision, accelerating their efforts to strike down gay antidiscrimination laws.

Chauncey, his shyness gone, paused to let the packed room absorb the exposition. Attentions were galvanized. When he gets started on his favorite subject—exposing the shabby underbelly of our received notions of what is “timeless” when it comes to sex and gender—attentions always are.

Chauncey was born the year of another landmark Supreme Court civil-rights case, 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. As a historian he makes devastating arguments about how closely the racial prejudices of that era resemble the sexual prejudices of our own. He argues from personal experience as well. His father was a Presbyterian minister in the South who was loved—initially—by every congregation he led. “Then,” Chauncey recalls, “he would do these things that shocked them.” The thing he did in his first pulpit in Brownsville, Tennessee (pop. 5,000), was to express his support for Brown v. Board of Ed. The young family was politely told to leave town. At his next post he helped escort the children who integrated Little Rock Central High in 1957. “That night we had death threats,” Chauncey recalls.

It was only in Richmond, working for the national staff of the Southern Presbyterian Church, that George Chauncey Sr. could first agitate in relative security—against, by then, the Vietnam War. George Jr. was his father’s son. In high school he organized a failed movement to desegregate the cafeteria, a citywide high- school student antiwar group, and an underground newspaper. (For this last he was called into the principal’s office, recited his constitutional rights, and allowed to continue. The local ACLU took note.) In the process he was beaten by the tough white kids, anointed with the monikers “nigger lover,” “egghead,” and “peace freak.” By his junior year, when things were so bad he would instinctively flinch when he saw the bullies walking down the hall, he was marked further as “queer” and “faggot.” It had nothing to do with whom he was attracted to sexually—he would only recognize himself as gay in college—but with a sin eggheads of all orientations will find familiar: “I didn’t play sports well.” In an inchoate way, it had something to do with his future vocation.

Decades later scholars of sexuality would arrive at a rule of thumb: how a society organizes its sex and gender norms is often complexly codetermined with the manner in which it organizes its other major axes of social classification—in America, race and class. It becomes second nature for high-school bullies to further stigmatize someone who fraternizes too easily with blacks by questioning his manhood; in that way what constitutes “normal” is produced and reproduced. This insight has launched a thousand cultural-studies papers. But Chauncey arrived at it without benefit of theory, foreshadowing how he would later make a living. Unlike those cultural-studies scholars, Chauncey always grounds broad insights about processes of social and identity formation in the experiences of real people as recorded in the documents they left behind.

The written history of gays and lesbians began more than a century ago on a less promising intellectual footing: filiopietistic tracts celebrating all the gay (or presumed-gay) greats through the ages. The field’s scholarly legitimacy was established by the late Yale professor John Boswell, who in his 1980 tour de force Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality mobilized sources in a dozen languages to demonstrate that sex between men had been a tolerated facet of life for the Christian West’s first millennium. Boswell was an important mentor for Chauncey. “I was thinking about doing history,” he recalls, “and I wanted to know what it would be like as a gay man”—just as a gay man, not as a scholar of gays. At that point he was launching a senior thesis on Rhodesian copper miners. “That was still back in the time when you might have these sort of conversations in hushed tones.” Boswell was encouraging, for Chauncey was a promising student whose senior thesis earned him a fellowship to Zambia.

After that came graduate school at Yale. There Chauncey encountered his second great mentor, in Nancy Cott’s first-semester seminar in U.S. history. “About the only thing I take credit for with regard to George,” Cott laughs, “was that my course was interesting enough that he decided to change to U.S. history.” He says it was “the way she approached historical problems” that intrigued him.

Cott’s 1978 classic The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780–1835, published just before Chauncey began his Ph.D., examined the history of two ideologies, one so apparently entrenched it’s been hard to see as an ideology at all—the notion of complementary “separate spheres” for women and men. The other was a construct of apparently more modern vintage: feminism. Cott discovered that their emergence was simultaneous, one helping to constitute the other; both accompanied the 19th-century revolution in market capitalism and the concomitant breakdown in the system of household production. This most productive insult to intuition can be seen, in retrospect, as an early masterpiece in an emerging historical methodology: studying the formation of entire categories of identity—in this case the “true” woman—as a historical process, through close analysis of historical documents. Chauncey would go on to apply this emerging method to the sexual categories of “gay” and “straight.”

But the idea snuck up on him. He decided to write his final paper for that first-year seminar on turn-of-the-century medical literature on lesbianism. He came armed with an assumption shared by both Boswell and the filiopietists who preceded him: homosexuals had always and everywhere existed. “My plan had been to look at shifting medical explanations for these phenomena,” Chauncey says. He came away from his canvas realizing that it wasn’t the explanations that were ambiguous, but rather what was being explained. Reading the earliest articles, he casually transposed the Victorian term “invert” into our familiar “homosexual”—a word that began showing up in 20th-century articles. He was caught up short: the two terms didn’t refer to the same thing. His sense of what that signified became clearer when he wrote another paper early in his graduate career, “Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era,” in which he found that some men who enjoyed sex with other men weren’t stigmatized as homosexuals at all—so long as they never took the “female” role in intercourse.

Chauncey finished the piece realizing that he didn’t even know what a “homosexual” was. This kind of radical skepticism was already familiar to readers of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, whose first volume of The History of Sexuality was translated into English in 1978. But where Foucault saw new identities emerging solely via the discourse of an all-powerful medical science, the first-year graduate student trumped the maître penseur by demonstrating that the doctors were really just trying to catch up with the streets—to grasp new sexual identities emerging in increasingly visible, urban, gay-male subcultures.

Both of Chauncey’s papers were published, the first in the prestigious journal Salmagundi in a special issue devoted to homosexuality whose cover featured Chauncey’s name alongside Boswell and Foucault. Both became classics in the field—the second reprinted in ten collections in three languages. Nevertheless, Chauncey had been warned: writing an actual dissertation on gay urban subcultures would be professional suicide. Boswell, a savvy manager of his own career, knew of what he spoke; he had waited for his first, traditional monograph to be embraced before submitting an earlier one on homosexuality for publication. And so it was on a safer topic, the persecution of gays in the 1950s Red Scare, that Chauncey began his first dissertation attempt. He spent a year on the project, then quit to risk a study of gay urban life. “Once he started writing the history of gay New York,” Cott recalls, “he made very rapid progress. It was like a statue in the marble trying to get out.” And “Gay New York: Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940” was a blockbuster. It won the top dissertation awards for both the Yale history department and the entire university; it also won the department’s triennial gold medal for a “pioneering work of scholarship.” One history chair considering him for a tenure-track hire, Chauncey was told, plunked down the work at a departmental meeting with the frank assessment, “This is amazing.”

Then he is supposed to have added: “Now let’s hire this conventional political historian instead.”

George Chauncey almost didn’t get to join the historical profession at all. Over lunch in Hyde Park, he reflects, “My advisers had been right. It was almost professional suicide to write this dissertation.”

The lot of homosexuality scholars had certainly improved since the early 1970s, when their first conference, organized in Manhattan by activist, playwright, and historian Martin Duberman, was emptied by a bomb threat—or since 1985, when a van of scholars traveling from Buffalo hid their destination, a conference sponsored by the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, from the customs agent lest they be detained at the border. Although the intellectual mood among those collective pioneers was exciting—“just exactly why you’re an academic,” rhapsodizes Martha Vicinus of the University of Michigan, who met Chauncey at the 1982 Amsterdam conference—getting their work established within the academy was difficult. Chauncey spent 1988 through 1990 unsuccessfully pounding the pavement for a permanent academic job. To many his subject matter seemed odd, off-putting, queer—too far afield from the familiar to merit that most conservative of investments, the tenure-track post. To others it seemed to embody the most awful trends in the humanities: faddishness, wanton provocation, political correctness. A story reached him through the grapevine: a faculty member at one of the three schools to grant him an on-campus interview terminated his candidacy in part because Chauncey’s dissertation was dedicated to his then-partner. “Clearly,” he was reported to have said, “this is a work of advocacy, not scholarship.”

Meanwhile Chauncey, Vicinus, and Duberman had edited Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. The collection—an omnibus of scholarship on subjects from pederasty in ancient Athens to the nearly compulsory nature of bisexual desire in early modern Japan, to the “marriages” between “straight” men toiling in South African gold mines, to the community formation of gay men serving in World War II—was soon a syllabus staple. Chauncey began giving invited lectures at universities across the country. Only the job opportunities lagged. A national gay-studies conference that first drew 200 scholars in 1987 attracted 2,000 in 1992—but that same year Chauncey felt compelled to offer a reflective presentation at the Association of American University Presses convention called “Publish and Perish.” Young scholars of sexuality were doing both: putting out great work and seeing history faculties hire traditional political historians instead.

But by 1992 Chauncey himself was finally finishing his first year of a true-blue university faculty appointment—in a job for which he almost didn’t apply.

Warning: what you are about to read seems fit only for a storybook. Or for an alumni magazine. But it’s all true.

The ad placed by the University of Chicago history department in 1990 was about as open-ended as such ads can be: calling for “applications for the position of assistant professor, tenure track, in all fields of interest. Candidates from neighboring disciplines with a strong historical interest are invited to apply.” When current history chair Kathleen Conzen dug it out from the departmental files, she was surprised by just how vague it was. But not too surprised. “We’re least successful when when we set out to hire a particular kind of historian than if we simply seek out what’s interesting.”

Chauncey was skeptical; he had been through enough by then to suspect that a school with as hidebound a reputation as Chicago’s was hardly worth the stamp. He sent in his application package belatedly and indifferently; then it floated to the top of the hulking stack. “At our end it was rather undramatic,” recounts Professor Michael Geyer, chair of the hiring committee. “We were quite undramatically unanimous that he was one of the people we wanted to listen to. Very strong letters of recommendation marked him as one of the most innovative social and cultural historians.” Geyer recalls, “All along the way I expected someone to raise flags.” None emerged—“and this is not a bunch of people that wouldn’t raise flags if they wanted to.” When he hears how hard a time Chauncey had being taken seriously by other schools, his answer is straightforward: “That’s the kind of fog you sometimes have to look through.”

Storybook, chapter two: investment richly rewarded.

It would take another article entirely to do justice to the extraordinary things that transpired when Gay New York came out in 1994. Basic Books was eager to put it out in time for the 25th anniversary of the event universally considered gay liberation’s birth date: June 26, 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, and its clientele, a motley assortment of drag queens preeminent among them, dared fight back. Chauncey darkens when he recalls the push to get the book finished: “Literally, for about 18 months,” while teaching at Chicago, “I would take about one Friday or Saturday night off a month.” He met his deadline (after several anxious and unnecessary last-minute calls to Cott, reading paragraphs to her over the phone to make sure he had gotten them exactly right). Basic met its deadline too, presenting Chauncey the finished book only six weeks after he delivered the final text. The author was dead on his feet. He had surmounted the traditional long lag time between the completion of a manuscript and its publication. Now he thought he would have to endure the customary yearlong wait for scholarly books to get reviewed.

He waited two months. On June 19, 1994, as Gay New York began filtering through bookstores, the Sunday New York Times was a Chaunciad. In his editorial-page column Frank Rich used the book to advance the lesson George Chauncey first learned in high school: that the history of discrimination against gays “can’t easily be blamed on historical or religious precedent, but only on our own minds and hearts; it is we who stigmatized gay people to shore up our own embattled definitions of manhood.” In his architecture column Herbert Muschamp argued one of the book’s central and most difficult themes, that the identity “heterosexual” was a recent human invention because “sexual preference has not always been the crucial standard by which the normality of men is measured.”

The next Sunday’s Times was a repeat. The lead op-ed was a précis of his book’s arguments—by George Chauncey. And the Book Review pined for a sequel (Chauncey is completing that project, The Strange Career of the Closet, this summer). Some time later Chauncey wrote an obituary of John Boswell for the London Guardian, noting that gays “who never met Boswell spoke of him with an awe bordering on reverence and with the deepest sense of gratitude.” Meanwhile, on June 28 Stonewall was being celebrated in the streets, and in New York Chauncey experienced a Boswell-like moment: marching in a parade with friends, “bystanders would yell at me, ‘Love the book!’ It happened to me a dozen times that day.” His tone suggests wonder; the week changed his life. “I had lived alone with this world I was recreating for such a long time, and suddenly everyone was invited in.” About the same time he met his partner, Ron Gregg, director of programming in the University’s Committee on Cinema & Media Studies.

With Gay New York Chauncey was on his way to being a minor celebrity. That summer the American Social History Project at George Mason University began plans to turn the book into a full-length documentary (the project is on hold for fund-raising). Soon Chauncey began showing up on TV as a talking head; by this year he was even 4 Down in a crossword puzzle published by a gay and lesbian newspaper syndicate. Which, of course, should afford no professor worth his Ph.D. reason to be impressed (as opposed to envious). But note the ironies that survived what academics might consider a work made suspicious by its success. This is not a forgiving book. Though at points entertaining, it makes none of the concessions to middlebrow taste—novelistic scenarios, plotting, and characterization—that it usually takes to make the public notice history. It’s dense with social-science language, thickened with abstruse historiographic debates, numbingly documented, and full of the community-building tropes of a social historian’s social historian: we need more research on X.... Resources exist for an necessary study of Y. Its popularity also can’t be chalked up to the standby charges of the anti–political correctness trade: that it’s a therapeutic sop to the parade-patronizing victimization jockeys. Or that it is degraded by its commitment to—that dreaded word—advocacy.

Sure, Gay New York’s opening formulation was striking enough to earn a place in the Columbia World of Quotations: “In the half-century between 1890 and the beginning of the Second World War”—when systematic persecution of gays began evolving in earnest—“a highly visible, remarkably complex, and continually changing gay male world took shape in New York City.” But it also complexifies, at their very foundations, comforting bromides of gay mythology: that the community was uniquely and universally oppressed before it liberated itself by its own heroism in 1969; that therefore Sappho, Whitman, and, by extension, gays today are martyrs by the very fact of their existence.

Complexity is academic history’s coin of the realm. And Chauncey’s work has enjoyed success where it counts to him the most: among his academic peers, where the arguments one inspires, not the acclamation one receives, are how reputations are made and sustained. It would take still another article—or perhaps a monograph—to trace the influence of the arguments Chauncey has inspired, not merely in history, but also in disciplines as diverse as English and sociology. He has accomplished one of the hardest, most valuable things a historian can do: tell a richly debatable story about a social reality that had been so taken for granted it had never been debatable before. Few wouldn’t judge him an ornament to the University—where he has trained some of the most important new students in one of the most important new fields around. In 1997 he cofounded Chicago’s Gay and Lesbian Studies Project, which supports graduate students with financial and intellectual help. In 2000 the project hosted the biggest gay-studies conference in the field’s history, “The Future of the Queer Past.” (Law professor Geoffrey Stone, JD’71, provost at the time, notes that the event was held on campus during Parents Weekend. “I was proud of the fact we did that. Not many universities would.”) Few wouldn’t judge him an ornament to universities—where he has been instrumental in getting his field, at long last, safely institutionalized.

A happy ending?

Cue chapter three: storm clouds.

Begin in 1990, the year New Criterion editor Roger Kimball published Tenured Radicals, his assessment of recent trends in academia by then subsumed under the soubriquet “political correctness.” (“A swamp yawns before us, ready to devour everything...”). Newsweek’s December 24 cover article “The New McCarthyism” described the politically correct university as a place where “it would not be enough for a student to refrain from insulting homosexuals.... He or she would be expected to ‘affirm’ their presence on campus and to study their literature and culture alongside that of Plato, Shakespeare, and Locke.” It was all rather reckless, not least when you learn that conservative federal judge and Chicago law lecturer Richard Posner began researching his 1992 volume Sex and Reason after completing the quintessentially U of C act of reading Plato’s Symposium and—as he has recorded—being “surprised to discover that it was a defense, and as one can imagine a highly interesting and articulate one, of homosexual love.”

Fast forward to 1995, when the NYT Week in Review printed a piece that led, “Newly arrived in town, the lanky 28-year-old lawyer did not have money to buy bedding from the 23-year-old merchant. So the merchant made an offer. ‘I have a larger room with a double bed upstairs,which you are very welcome to share with me,’ he said. The lawyer beamed with pleasure as he accepted the kindness.”

The lawyer was Abraham Lincoln. The article—which didn’t mention that the lawyer and the merchant exchanged letters of extraordinary intimacy for many years afterward—went on to explore the rather reductionist question of whether today’s Republican Party should be more welcoming of gays because, after all, their founder was gay. Chauncey contributed a quite nonreductionist quote to the reporter: “That he could marry [a woman] and have a deep, psychologically and physically intimate friendship with Joshua Speed shows that he was operating in an emotional universe very difference from our own.” Another professor, Michael Burlingame of Connecticut College, was quoted thus: “I don’t see how the whole question of Lincoln’s gayness would explain anything other than making gay people feel better. And I don’t think the function of history is to make people feel good. Celebratory history is propaganda.” The furor that ensued, unsurprisingly, followed Burlingame’s knee-jerk logic. It inaugurated a new spell of debate over gay and lesbian scholarship’s very right to exist.

In 1997 Chauncey’s alma mater, Yale, rejected an offer from gay playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer to endow a professorship in gay and lesbian studies because, among other reasons, the field was too narrow for an endowed chair. (“I’d be happy to take the money,” Chicago provost Stone was quoted in the Times. “It is not too narrow. It is interesting and important and likely to be important for a long time.”) The Times piece also reported on “the uneven path” of new scholarly fields more generally, quoting a California state assemblyman’s comment on the University of California, Riverside’s undergraduate minor in lesbian, gay, and bisexual studies, “Gee, send somebody off to San Francisco for six months and let them learn there.” Then in the Wall Street Journal Roger Kimball denounced a women’s sexuality-studies conference at the State University of New York at New Paltz as evidence that “festivals of politicized sexual libertinage are now every day occurrences in many education and cultural institutions.” The New York Times picked up that story in an atrociously jumbled front-page piece that played closer to Kimball’s logic than to Stone’s. As did Sixty Minutes.

And so, to the general public, the situation stood: gay studies had finally been institutionalized in the academy—in the rank promotion of grotesquery and radical political advocacy. Until this year, when a powerful institution finally saw through the fog.

Now for the storybook ending.

Back at Cobb Hall this past spring, Chauncey described the amicus “Historian’s Brief” he drafted for the Lawrence v. Texas case with the assistance of many prestigious cosignatories, including Cott; Lynn Hunt of the University of Pennsylvania; Mark Jordan of Emory, author of a study of the Catholic Church’s remarkably belated theological proscription of homosexuality; and Chicago’s Thomas Holt.

The piece proclaimed modest ambitions: “Amici, as historians, do not propose to offer the Court a legal doctrine to justify a holding that the Texas law violates the U.S. Constitution. Rather, amici believe they can best serve the Court by elaborating on two historical propositions important to the legal analysis: (1) no consistent historical practice singles out same-sex behavior as ‘sodomy’ subject to proscription, and (2) the governmental policy of classifying and discriminating against certain citizens on the basis of their homosexual status is an unprecedented project of the twentieth century, which is already being dismantled.” The Historian’s Brief for Case No. 02-102 John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Gardner v. State of Texas is by no means modest in its accomplishments. It provides the sharpest and most sweeping 30-page summary imaginable of the history of homosexuals and society’s response to them. But Chauncey is a modest man. He closed at Cobb—to a loud ovation and students asking him to autograph copies of Gay New York—optimistically predicting a victory for his side from the Supreme Court, though he mumbled doubt at the prospect the Court would pay any mind to his brief.

Chauncey was wrong. The heart of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s new legal doctrine in the 6–3 decision, ranging over some dozen paragraphs, is a virtual recapitulation of the Historian’s Brief arguments. In Justice Kennedy’s paraphrase, “[f]ar from possessing ‘ancient roots...American laws targeting same sex-couples did not develop until the last third of the Twentieth Century.” He went on to cite Foucault’s The History of Sexuality and several works that shared its (and Gay New York’s) social-constructionist paradigm, such as Jonathan Ned Katz’s The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995). In doing so, the majority vindicated a key abstraction of the new historiography: that homosexuality could not have been outlawed as such before the 20th century because “homosexual” as a category did not exist. And they did so not out of any imaginable political agenda—what would the agenda be?—but simply because it seemed to them true.

So taken was the Court, in fact, by the spirit of the historians’ approach to exposing the soft underbelly of received notions of what is “timeless” about sex and gender that it conducted some original research of its own—buttressing its endorsement by unearthing and analyzing primary documents not mentioned in the brief.

Back in 1997 Roger Kimball told the New York Times that gay studies is “profoundly dehumanizing.” Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes, in an infamous “parental warning” before the broadcast, compared it to a dirty movie (“some of what is being taught on college campuses today is for mature audiences only”). The point is not that there is no work within the field of sexuality studies for which those criticisms may not apply. The problem is that those criticisms were part of a time, perhaps now past, when vast tracts of scholarship could be dismissed out of hand as so much postmodern, politically correct tribal cheerleading, simply because of their subject matter. And that, at bottom, is why the Lawrence decision, and Chauncey’s role in it, are important to those who care about scholarship and its relationship to society. The highest judicial body in the United States says that, in its historical incarnation at least, gay studies is sound scholarship. Bedrock, in fact, in combination with the relevant court precedents, for changing the law of the land. Chauncey couldn’t be happier. “I’m thrilled with the decision”—and that “the Court took the findings of recent historical scholarship seriously.”

Asked for a preview of his next piece of historical scholarship, The Strange Career of the Closet, Chauncey is purposefully vague—except to confirm that his title is a homage to Yale historian C. Vann Woodward, whose Strange Career of Jim Crow showed that civil-rights history is far more ironic than the customary, Whiggish narrative of inevitable progress allows. Though this he will reveal: “The next book will be more controversial, because of some of the arguments that I’ll make.” Controversial, he means, for other gay people. “I think also that we’re at a point in the development of gay culture and politics where it’s possible and really salutary to rethink some of our founding assumptions.”

George Chauncey is beyond question an advocate. But he is also, beyond question, a historian’s historian.

 


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