Chauncey: ‘No other group … faced so many popular initiatives designed to take away its rights’

Leading LGBT historian George Chauncey headlines School of Humanities’ Campbell Lecture Series

George Chauncey, a historian of gay life who is a professor at Yale University, discussed the history of discrimination against and harassment of gay people in the United States during the School of Humanities’ 2017 Campbell Lecture Series April 3-5. His lectures also highlighted the vibrancy of LGBT culture, particularly black queer culture, in the face of such discrimination and attacks.

The Moody Center for the Arts’ Lois Chiles Studio Theater was filled to the last row for George Chauncey’s first lecture April 3. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

“The political history of gay life is not a linear story of liberalization,” said Chauncey, the Samuel Knight Professor of History and American Studies at Yale, in his opening night lecture April 3. “It’s counterintuitive, but the early 20th century was more open for queer people than the most repressive years from the 1930s to the 1960s would be, and it’s been a constant struggle ever since. A key lesson that we can take — a lesson that feels all too relevant today — is that progress on gay rights issues has never been steady and has never been secure.”

Dean of Humanities Nicolas Shumway, who has known Chauncey for more than 30 years, welcomed the attendees gathered at the Moody Center for the Arts’ Lois Chiles Studio Theater. Shumway was an assistant professor at Yale when Chauncey was a graduate student there.

“My first memories of George were not of him as a student, because he was not in my department, but rather it was George as a frequent speaker at political rallies of different sorts, where he used to give stirring, rousing, entertaining talks,” Shumway said. “I knew him as a person who was out there fighting the good fight for gay rights, which I think we should actually call human and civil rights for gay people. Since then he’s made a very good name for himself as a scholar, but as a political activist as well. That person I met 30 years ago has continued to prosper and flourish in both of those fields.”

Chauncey is best known for his book “Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940” (1994), which Shumway called “a major turning point in gay history.” Not only has Chauncey written about gay history, he has participated in it as an expert witness in more than 30 gay-rights court cases. Five of those cases went to the U.S. Supreme Court, including the recent marriage-equality cases.

Chauncey said giving the lectures in Houston had a special meaning for him because he organized and was lead author of the historians’ amicus brief in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which the court cited in its decision overturning the nation’s remaining sodomy laws.

“That brief was designed to educate the court about the history of sodomy laws and Texas’ homosexual-conduct law, and the fact that the court cited our brief and incorporated its historical arguments and narrative into its opinion, declaring those laws to be unconstitutional, was truly one of the most meaningful, rewarding and unexpected developments of my career,” Chauncey said.

The fateful impact of Prohibition

In his first lecture, Chauncey spoke on “The Politics of Antigay Discrimination in the McCarthy Era and Beyond.” He painted a picture of how harsh life was in America for gay men during this time. Bars were not allowed to serve alcohol to known homosexuals, movies couldn’t portray them in a favorable light and careers were ended if one’s sexual orientation became known.

The persecution and harassment had begun decades earlier. “In the early 20th century, municipal police forces began using a wide range of misdemeanor charges to harass homosexuals, including disorderly conduct, vagrancy, lewdness and loitering,” Chauncey said. “These were misdemeanor charges, so they carried lower evidentiary standards, requirements and fewer procedural protections than the felony charge of sodomy. So it made it easier to use them to harass people.”

Between 1923 and 1966, when gay activists in New York City forced police to stop using entrapment to arrest gay men, there were more than 50,000 arrests on such misdemeanor charges in that city alone, Chauncey said.

There was a short time of reprieve, though. Lesbian, gay and trans culture became much more visible in many American cities during the 1920s, when Prohibition made almost all nightlife illegal and the speakeasy culture that emerged in response challenged many legal and cultural barriers, Chauncey said. “In this context, heterosexuals’ curiosity about gay life led many of them to visit gay clubs and drag balls and African-American and white working-class neighborhoods,” he said. “By 1931, there was a so-called ‘pansy craze,’ and two of the three most popular nightclubs in Times Square had openly gay masters of ceremony whose entire act revolved around their camp repartee with their customers.”

The end of Prohibition in 1933 ushered in an era of repression and punishment for gays and lesbians. Morality crusaders blamed the hard times of the Great Depression on those who had enjoyed the liberation of the Roaring ’20s, Chauncey said. Accusing fingers pointed to gay men as one of the causes of the hard times. “Some people took the fact that queer entertainers had become celebrated figures as a sign of how far America had wandered from the straight and narrow.”

New laws and regulations banned such things as plays and movies with gay and lesbian characters, female impersonation and jokes with gay themes. “The effects of this censorship were really dramatic,” Chauncey said. “We’d seen a pansy club in Greenwich Village in (1932’s) ‘Call Her Savage,’ but that was the last queer club or bar to appear in a film for 30 years. A gay bar didn’t appear again until 1961.”

The LGBT community was dealt a further blow beginning in the 1930s when state agencies regulating liquor licenses began targeting the community. “From the beginning, a number of state agencies … prohibited bars, restaurant and cabarets from serving homosexuals on the theory that the mere presence of homosexuals at a bar made that bar disorderly,” Chauncey said. “Serving a single drink to a single gay person could result in that bar losing its license or at least be put on warning.”

Gays and employment discrimination

In the 1950s, the discrimination took on further dimensions, Chauncey said. “In 1953, one of President Dwight Eisenhower’s first acts in office was to issue an executive order banning the employment of homosexuals throughout the federal government and civilian federal agencies as well as the military and requiring that private businesses with federal contracts seek out and fire their gay employees,” Chauncey said.

At the height of the McCarthy Era, more gay people than communists were dismissed over time at the State Department, Chauncey said.

Across the country, state and local governments in the 1950s also took steps to ferret out and discharge their homosexual employees, which led countless teachers, social workers, hospital workers and other state employees to lose their jobs, Chauncey said.

“We still live with the legacy of this discrimination, and also with the demonic stereotypes of gay people to justify it,” Chauncey said. “No other group in American history has ever faced so many popular initiatives designed to take away its rights.”

Chauncey also lectured on “From Drag Balls to Vogue Balls: Black Gay Culture and Politics Before and After Stonewall” (April 4) and “AIDS, the Lesbian Baby Boom and the Campaign for Marriage Equality” (April 5). He highlighted the lives of gay African-Americans and how they took a very different trajectory than their white counterparts and explored the realities of AIDS, the parenting responsibilities of lesbians raising children and the legal protections of marriage for the LGBT community.

The Campbell Lecture Series was made possible by a $1 million contribution from Rice alumnus T.C. Campbell, who wanted to further the study of literature and the humanities with a 20-year annual series of public lectures. Through special arrangements with the University of Chicago Press, each lecture series is later published as a book. A list of previous Campbell lecturers is online at http://campbell.rice.edu.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.