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AUGUST 2003
Volume 95, Issue 6
 

PRINT-FRIENDLY VERSION

Moment of Decision
WRITTEN BY RICK PERLSTEIN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAN DRY

IMAGE:  As a historian Chauncey makes devastating arguments about how closely the racial prejudices of the 1950s and 1960s resemble the sexual prejudices today.
DAN DRY

As a historian Chauncey makes devastating arguments about how closely the racial prejudices of the 1950s and 1960s resemble the sexual prejudices today.

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.”

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