George Chauncey Defines LGBTQ Life Before and After Stonewall

Wilson Valentin
May 23, 2019

Almost any gay person can tell you that in the early morning of June 28, 1969 a combination of grief over Judy Garland’s recent death, a waxing full moon and one-too-many police raids sparked the Stonewall riots in New York City—five nights of mayhem that ushered in the modern LGBTQ rights movement.

George Chauncey appreciates that myth of moonlit grief sparking a cultural and legal shift, but as a history professor, he can also tell you all about the decades of activism, struggle and community building preceding that night, going as far back as the 19th century. It is all meticulously documented in his groundbreaking 1994 book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, (reissued this spring with a new preface), which overturned notions that gay life only existed in the closet before the 1960s.

“The way the story of Stonewall is told, it’s like everything started that night,” said Chauncey, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History, who notes that the first documented gay rights organization, formed in 1924, was the Society for Human Rights. It wasn’t until 1955 that the Mattachine Society began focusing on acceptance and support for the LGBTQ community, and in 1966 used Civil Rights sit-ins as a model for their own “sip-in,” at a West Village bar. At the time, the state prohibited bars and restaurants from serving or employing gay people. Some members went into a downtown bar, identified themselves as gay, and ordered drinks. When they were refused, the press coverage drew attention to the injustice of the rule. 

“What I love about teaching and informing students about LGBTQ history is that it gives them a completely different perspective on some things they’re never taught in high school. It kind of rocks their world.”

George Chauncey

These are just some of the lessons that Chauncey shares in his “U.S. Lesbian and Gay History” course, which he taught for 11 years at Yale University. It came with him when he joined Columbia in 2017. “It drew more than 300 students the last time I taught it at Yale,” he said. “I took that as a sign of just how engaged students are today with these issues, how alive they are for them.”

At Columbia, he also teaches “Sexuality in the City” among other classes, and is director of the Columbia Research Initiative on the Global History of Sexualities, which will shine a spotlight on LGBTQ scholarship and resources at the University while also convening scholars from around the world at Columbia Global Centers.

Chauncey does not just teach LGBTQ history, he helped make it when he served as an expert witness in more than 30 lawsuits involving gay rights and marriage equality. These include the 2013 and 2015 cases that led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage in all 50 states.

His expertise and activism intersect in the book that he is currently writing about post-World War II gay culture and politics. “In my teaching—and in the book and in my testimony—I really try to explain the history of anti-gay politics,” he said. “What I love about teaching and informing students about LGBTQ history is that it gives them a completely different perspective on some things they’re never taught in high school. It kind of rocks their world.”

Q. How do current events affect your “U.S. Lesbian and Gay History” class?

A. Years ago we ended the course by discussing the military ban, the Defense of Marriage Act and marriage. Now it’s trans issues, which are a central issue for this generation and last generation’s consciousness. I’ve been really pleased to see students realize that these issues didn’t just explode out of nowhere, but have a deep history. Controversies make more sense when you put them in the context of that history.

Q. Is there any historical moment that you’re surprised to find students don’t really know?

A. I’m struck again and again by the fact that college students basically have never heard anything about the history of AIDS. Your incoming first year students were born in about 2002, so they know it’s an issue, but they think of it as a problem in Africa and the rest of the world. Some don’t even realize it was ever associated with gay men; most do, but they have no idea how many people were killed, how many leaders and artists and so forth were lost. Once they learn about it they are both deeply affected by it and also astonished to realize that no one has ever told them about it before. That’s always very powerful.

Q. You’re writing a book about gay life in postwar New York. What can you say about it at this point?

A. It’s the long overdue sequel to Gay New York. I describe it as being about gay culture and everyday life in the segregated neighborhoods of post-World War II New York City. Harlem has an incredibly rich history, but it’s very hard to track down and reconstruct. Trying to write a truly multiracial history, and show how profoundly segregated New York was in those post-war years has delayed finishing the book. I have separate chapters on the very different queer worlds that developed in black, white and Puerto Rican neighborhoods.

Q. How do you relate this history to the current cultural moment in the LGBTQ community?

A. I’m very interested in how to analyze and understand the sources of anti-gay politics and anti-gay animus. We typically describe that just as homophobia, which is really a kind of psychological concept that locates anxiety or hostility towards homosexuality in an individual. Obviously it has a psychological dimension, as racism and anti-Semitism do, but if we stop there we’ll never be able to understand why the culture changes. We need a historical analysis to understand why anti-gay politics have become prominent in some eras in this country’s history and why they’ve been less prominent in others. Before the Trump election one could say that the worst days of anti-gay discrimination and demonization were behind us. But we still live with the legacy of that discrimination.

Q. What can you tell us about your newest project, a global history of sexuality?

A. The University has given me funding to develop this initiative, which will support teaching and research at Columbia in a variety of ways. A key element will be a website that I expect to launch in the fall. It will be an extensive guide to resources available in all the different libraries here. There are more than a hundred archival collections, unbelievable materials. I think that’s going to signal to the city, to the world actually, that Columbia is an incredible research center for the history of sexuality.

Q. You make a point to include local history in your classes. What interests you about Harlem’s LGBTQ history?

A. In my historical scholarship I try to undermine a persistent myth that black communities are inherently and inevitably more homophobic than white communities. In Gay New York, and in my next book, I show that for a long period of time black society in Harlem was more welcoming to the queers in its midst than most of white New York was. Many prominent figures in black society who were known to be gay or gender queer got a lot of attention in the black press in a way that was unimaginable in the white press. The most striking example of this is the drag balls held in Harlem in the 1920s. The largest was organized by an organization called the Hamilton Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Odd Fellows. The Harlem press loved to report on the very odd fellows who threw these balls.

Q. What did the gay rights movement learn from the Civil Rights movement?

A. Any movement needs to do two things. First, it needs to organize its community around the places where they feel their dignity challenged most directly and where they feel their second class citizenship, be it not being allowed to eat at a lunch counter in a store where you spend your money, or being forced to sit at the back of a bus. One of the places where gay people felt discrimination most directly was in bars, which were run by the mob and frequently raided by police. They were very important social centers, but they were places where gay people were never allowed to forget that they were a criminalized population.

The other lesson is that a movement must stage an event that reframes the issue. It had been easier for most New Yorkers, and certainly the government, to think of homosexuals in bars as just a part of the vice, corruption and criminal element of the city. With the sip-ins you see the LGBTQ community trying and to some extent succeeding in saying no, you have to think of homosexuals not as alien pariahs from another universe who threaten you, but as citizens with rights like any other citizens. That was a fundamental challenge of the gay rights movement for the next several decades.

Q. How is Columbia advancing the field of LGBTQ studies?

A. What’s exciting and surprisingly little known, even at Columbia, is just how many faculty here have major research and teaching interests in LGBTQ studies. Last fall I asked people I knew, “Who do you know who’s doing work in this field?” I developed a list of more than 30 people, between the Arts and Sciences and the Law School and Public Health—all over the University. There’s a good core of people doing this work, so now there are more courses and more working groups on campus. I’m focusing on sustaining and advancing historical scholarship, because it is less developed here. The University is totally supportive and it’s the only one I’m aware of which has actually built LGBTQ studies into its diversity initiative in hiring to try to build the field. That’s path breaking.