University of Chicago history professor George Chauncey ’77 GRD ’83, a scholar in gay history whom Yale may seek to hire, discussed his forthcoming book, tentatively titled “The Strange Career of the Closet: Gay Male Culture, Consciousness, and Politics from the Second World War to the Gay Era,” at a talk Tuesday afternoon in the Hall of Graduate Studies.
Addressing a gathering of about 50 students and professors, Chauncey discussed gay culture in mid-20th century New York, the effects of Cold War politics on gay life, and changes in gay self-identification from the 1920s through the 1960s.
“Managing the gay life was constantly difficult for most men and occasionally excruciating for almost everyone,” he said. “There was much more of an oppressive attitude in the Cold War period.”
Though Chauncey — the author of two other books on gay culture and history — has a tenured post at the University of Chicago and has received an offer from New York University, History Department Chair Paul Freedman said Yale also hopes to extend Chauncey an offer, pending the approval of other department faculty and the University administration.
“We hope there’s a possibility we might be able to attract him,” Freedman said. “Of course, he has a perfectly good job right now, and he has an offer from New York University. So that doesn’t mean he’s coming here, but yes, we’re interested.”
Chauncey has not indicated whether he would accept an offer to teach at Yale. Under University policy, candidates for professorships must be approved by the relevant academic department’s advisory committee and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Steering Committee.
In his talk Tuesday, Chauncey described how researching for his most recent book altered some of his previous conceptions about the dynamics of gay life in post-World War II America. For example, he said, some 1950s New York communities had enough of a gay presence that they were able to withstand periodic public outlashes against homosexuals caused by newspaper spreads and local elections with greater success than he had originally believed.
“Despite our preconceptions about postwar repression, this group of gay bars [in Greenwich Village] was remarkably stable,” he said. “Two of these bars kept their doors open for 25 years.”
Chauncey described an attitude shift among gay men toward fusing one’s private and public life from the 1950s to the 1960s. He said the increased emphasis on social openness in the ’60s stood in contrast to the attitude of many men — both heterosexual and homosexual — during the ’50s, who more strictly partitioned their public and private lives. This change in outlook prompted many more gay men to “come out of the closet” in the 1960s, Chauncey said.
“Men in the 1950s found it easier to hide their homosexuality because they saw that hiding one’s private life was a discipline to which most men habituated,” he said. “The youth movement [in the 1960s] engaged in an existential quest for authenticity and personal meaning. The rejection of role playing, the insistence on civility itself and on expressing one’s holistic self coursed through ’60s culture.”
But as a consequence of the new openness, Chauncey said, backlash against gay men became more pronounced during the 1960s than it was in the 15 years following World War II.
By the mid-1960s many Americans had come to associate homosexuality with drug addiction, vandalism and juvenile delinquency, he said, and the growing preoccupation with policing homosexual behavior continued to consolidate the walls between homosexuals and heterosexuals.
Gerry Cadava GRD ’08 said he thinks Chauncey would make a strong addition to the Yale faculty.
“I thought he was great,” Cadava said. “I know very little about the actual material, but I think it’d be great to have him here.”
Larry Kramer ’57, for whom the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies at Yale is named, told the News last fall that he hopes to endow a new professorship in gay and lesbian history.