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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:  Chauncey was on his way to being a minor celebrity, showing up on TV as a talking head; by this year he was even 4 Down in a crossword puzzle.
DAN DRY

Chauncey was on his way to being a minor celebrity, showing up on TV as a talking head; by this year he was even 4 Down in a crossword puzzle.

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.

>> page 3

 

 


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