Reflection on “Urban Culture and the Policing of the City of Bachelors” by George Chauncey

The opening line of Chauncey’s text says volumes about the culture of homosexuality in early New York: “ The men who built New York’s gay world at the turn of the century and those who sought to suppress it shared the conviction that it was a distinctly urban phenomenon” (Boehm 185). Much like the rise of pickpocketing and boarding homes, homosexual communities developed naturally out of the urban landscape. While the need for home amenities for single women and bachelors was feed by the boarding house, the anonymity of city living, due to large a populace, served as plain sight hiding for pickpockets and homosexuals. While pickpockets may have been deserving of the persecution they received, both they and homosexuals were hoping to escape it in the vastness of New York life. Not knowing that homosexuality stemmed from individual factors rather than societal, early activists blamed the city and its “breakdown of family and other social ties” (Boehm 185) for the development of homosexuality. Like other perceived “vices”, homosexuality was seen as yet another reason to fight against the city in America and return to the rural roots of Christian morality. While, this argument works in limited context, it fails to see the larger picture that Chauncey wisely points out: “The making of the gay world can only be understood in the context of the evolution of city life and the broader contest over the urban moral order: (Boehm 185). What the city afforded gay men and women, was the opportunity to leave rural settings, where everyone knew your personal business, and move to a situation where the size of settlement allowed mobility and the development of an “organized, multilayered, and self-conscious gay subculture” (Boehm 186). The more that gays moved to the city, the stronger the connections became. A network, which helped to keep them safe much like the pickpockets, grew out of necessity and security. Jobs remained available, alibis where created, social events were discreetly organized, and most important in a biased capitalist society, face was saved. As some of these pockets of culture were exposed or even rumored to exist, they too became the subjects of scrutiny for the moral activists committees. Anti sodomy laws were more strictly enforced and these boards and review committees worked to eliminate safe havens by pushing to have new housing developments created to standardize homes as place for men and women to “live morally”. They even went as far as to have costumes and types of dancing regulated for clubs to help reduce the possibility for immoral behavior to take place. All in all, the development of gay communities in city living is inevitable. As environments develop where people can be more free to move about in their lives in the pursuit of happiness without the scrutiny of the public eye, more persons will feel the need to migrate and live as they wish. While city life can offer rare opportunity for crime and moral vice, it can also offer incredible opportunity for those who have had their chance at happiness and abundant life taken from them by small town nosiness and bigotry. The homosexuals of New York, and many other cities, did not become gay because of the urbanization. They were, however, more free to be who they were because of that urbanization. The difference in opinion between moralists and modern city dwellers is simple. One question answers both arguments. Is this a cage or a community?

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