Speaker discusses history of Latino gay community

Kathryn Monroe

Latino gay culture flourished in the 1950s and 1960s as gay men escaped to New York, a city that “asked no questions,” George Chauncey told a group of 80 students and faculty Thursday at University Hall.

Chauncey, a history professor and the director of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Project at the University of Chicago, focused on Latino gays and the urban politics of New York City after World War II. He talked about the tolerance of homosexuality, the thriving sexual culture in the Puerto Rican community and the hostility encountered outside of that community.

“For many men desperate to escape pressures they felt at home from marriage and traditional lives, New York was only the latest stop in a journey that had already taken them from their homes to their island’s capital cities,” Chauncey said.

The source of Chauncey’s talk came from his upcoming book, “The Strange Career of the Closet: Gay Culture, Consciousness and Politics from the Second World War to the Stonewall Era.”

He described a crackdown on homosexuals and on gay bars in 1959 that followed a murder case in which two male Latino teen-agers, depicted by the press as gay, were accused of killing two white male teenagers.

Latino gays were closely linked to organized crime and corruption during this time, Chauncey said. He explained that organized crime protected gay bars by paying off the police. These negative ideas were further fueled by racial tensions and by the view of homosexuality as degenerate, he said.

“George Chauncey is pushing at the frontiers of what we know about gay culture and gay sexual identity,” said Alexandra Owen, director of the gender studies program, which sponsored the talk. Gender studies is working to broaden the range of scholarship about sexuality and sexual identity, she said.

“He illuminates very well the intersection of racial and sexual identity and how they are used to reinforce each other,” said Matthew Barbour, a Weinberg junior and the former president of the Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Alliance.

Chauncey said he wants to disprove opponents of gay rights who say gays have not been a part of society in America until recently. He said he hopes his work will give a historical perspective on the debates in today’s culture, such as gays in the military and same-sex marriages.