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The Work of George Chauncey, LGBTQ Historian and Kluge Prize Honoree

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George Chauncey took to the stage in the Library’s Great Hall last Wednesday night to formally accept the 2022 Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity. It was a black tie event that had an emotional undercurrent that belied both the formal wear of the crowd and the formal nature of academic dinners.

Chauncey, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University and director of the Columbia Research Institute on the Global History of Sexualities, is the first LGBTQ scholar to win the Kluge’s prestigious $500,000 prize. After four decades helping pioneer the field in academia – and of testifying or filing briefs in court cases that helped establish gay rights – the awards ceremony had the feeling of a victory lap.

“With pride tonight, it is my honor to say that Dr. Chauncey is the first scholar – the first scholar, not the last – in LGBTQ+ studies to receive the Kluge Prize,” said Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, before draping the Kluge medal around Chauncy’s neck, in front of an applauding crowd of Madison Council members, members of congress and invited guests. “The Library of Congress’ mission is to connect and engage with all Americans, and that means telling the rich, diverse stories of all citizens of this country.”

Chauncey, acknowledging the award by joking that he was “never going to win an Olympic medal,” thanked friends, family and colleagues, but most emotionally his spouse, Ronald Gregg. Gregg, a film historian and director of the master’s program in Film and Media Studies at Columbia, met Chauncey in Chicago three decades ago. They have been together for 28 years and married for eight – the latter due in no small part due to Chauncey’s key work on the Supreme Court cases that legalized gay marriage. Without Gregg, Chauncey said, “I could barely imagine my life.”

Color medium shot of Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden bestowing the Kluge Medal on George Chauncey, while Kluge Director Kevin Butterfield looks on. Both men are wearing black tuxedos; the Librarian is wearing a black dress. The on-stage curtains behind them are a light gold.
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden bestows the Kluge Medal on George Chauncey, while Kluge Director Kevin Butterfield looks on. Photo: Shawn Miller.

“I gratefully accept this prize not just for myself but on behalf of a field of study and a group of courageous scholars whose work on the LGBTQ past was marginalized for far too long,” he said in his 15-minute acceptance speech. “To have the Library of Congress recognize the scholarly quality and significance of this field is profoundly important.” 18:57

Chauncey’s research over the decades has shown that laws criminalizing homosexuality are not millennia-old traditions of western society, but mostly creations of mid-century American conservative politics, beginning in the Depression and continuing for the next half century.

“Chauncey’s work gives us that story that we need to tell about ourselves so that we can be our better selves,” said Martha S. Jones, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, in an interview before the ceremony.

Cover of "Gay New York," with color illustration of two men in top hats and tuxedos, one lighting a cigarette for the other
“Gay New York” is Chauncey’s best known book.

Chauncey’s landmark 1994 book, “Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940,” documented that in the first three decades of the 20th century gay life in many American cities was often relatively open and tolerated, reaching a peak in the Jazz Age 1920s. During Prohibition, speakeasies serving illegal liquor became a popular attraction for millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens, creating an realm where social rules were far more relaxed.

In this environment, openly gay, cross-dressing acts became popular (particularly in New York), making camp humor standard fare in many nightspots. Singers such as Gladys Bentley (who performed wearing a tuxedo) and Gene Malin, who performed camp novelty songs, were headliners. The “pansy” craze swept the east coast, drawing thousands gay and straight partygoers of all races and economic backgrounds to drag balls.

At the same time, Chauncey wrote, the societal understanding of what made a man “gay” was profoundly different than today for a number of reasons. For one, the growth of cities brought millions of people, many of them single young men, into urban environments and away from the strictures of family and small-town life.

In these cities, societal norms of the era also prohibited women from being in many workplaces, almost all saloons (unless they were prostitutes) or even to be unaccompanied in public. In these overwhelmingly male environments, men who sometimes or even frequently had sex with other men were not considered to be homosexual unless they were openly effete, known at the time as “pansies” or “faeries.”

In “Gay New York,” Chauncey demonstrated this now-forgotten world, showing that particularly among working-class men there was far more acceptance of such relationships, particularly if they were private.

Only a reactionary wave of laws that began in the austerity of the Depression created an entire class of people as “gay” and then discriminated against them in almost every facet of society. This created the realm of the gay “closet.”

Chauncey, born in the 1950s, grew up as the son of a Presbyterian minister in the Deep South who campaigned for civil rights. He learned early that stands for social justice were often unpopular and greatly discouraged, sometimes with violence.

He received his undergraduate and doctoral degrees from Yale University. After a difficult time finding work as a young historian specializing in what was then considered to be a small and unimportant field, he landed a teaching position at the University of Chicago from 1991 through 2006. He returned to Yale as the Samuel Knight Professor of History & American Studies from 2006 to 2017. He then moved to Columbia.

In court, he’s been involved in 30 cases that targeted gay rights, testifying or filing amicus briefs about his research. Four of those cases went to the U.S. Supreme Court, including landmark cases Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, which overturned the nation’s remaining sodomy laws; and the marriage equality cases, United States v. Windsor in 2013 and Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.

Chauncey joins a prestigious group of Kluge winners that includes the most recent honoree, Danielle Allen, a political theorist at Harvard University; Jürgen Habermas, the German philosopher; Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a former president of Brazil; Drew Gilpin Faust, a Harvard historian; and John Hope Franklin, the veteran scholar of African American history.

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