Watching the coverage of this week's U.S. Supreme Court hearings about same-sex marriage, many people had the sense that gay history, whether sweeping or incremental, was being made. Back before the media cast such a relentless eye on the concerns of LGBT folks, however, history was still being created by sexual minorities. But it has taken intellectual excavators such as George Chauncey to re-discover it and shape it into stories.
Chauncey, chair of the history department at Yale, is essential to "The Nance." His book "Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940" was so crucial to Douglas Carter Beane that the playwright named the main character Chauncey, who is gay, in honor of him. The production further notes the historian's contribution by selling copies of his book at the merchandise stand in the lobby of the Lyceum.
To discover in detail why the book inspired Beane you would have to read it as I, recently, did. The main takeaway is that the invisibility of gay men in New York before the 1969 Stonewall uprising is a myth. "Gay men," writes Chauncey, "were highly visible figures in early-twentieth-century New York, in part because gay life was more integrated into the everyday life of the city in the prewar decades than it would be after World War II."
Gay men had to take precautions, notes Chauncey, "but they forged an immense gay world of overlapping social networks in the city's streets, private apartments, bathhouses, cafeterias, and saloons." From the opening scene of "The Nance," which takes place in an Automat in Greenwich Village -- Chauncey says that New York's gay enclaves before the war were in the Village, Harlem, and Times Square -- we observe the world Chauncey details being dramatized.
Connections between Chauncey's research and Beane's play are so manifold that it would take me a dozen blog entries to note them. So let me highlight just two things. The first involves the show-biz world of "The Nance": burlesque. Chauncey writes that that "pansy" acts became so popular in New York in the late 1920s and early 1930s that "Times Square entrepreneurs began to evoke the flamboyant image of the pansy to generate business." Burlesque, whether in midtown or further downtown, as in "The Nance," also began to rely on stock gay figures. By the early 1920s, burlesque had been reduced to "a showcase for strippers and comedians who relentlessly played to salacious interests." But by the mid-1930s, when "The Nance" takes place, homosexual situations -- known as "queer doings" -- were found in almost every burlesque performance. Why? Because burlesque owners and managers had learned that homo-sex sold.
My second observation regarding the relationship between historian Chauncey and dramatist Beane involves the final pages of "Gay New York." Chauncey writes that beginning in the late 1930s panics "over sex crimes and the 'sex deviants' who committed them recast the dominant public images of homosexuals." The new images were "invoked to justify a new wave of assaults on gay men." This crackdown included not only increasing arrests for gay solicitation but a limiting of gay subject matter that could be addressed, whether comically or dramatically, in the theater, whether burlesque or legit. As "The Nance" demonstrates, in terms both literal and metaphorical, the curtain was brought down on the gays.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com