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social sciences

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New York City  
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As the cultural and economic capital of the United States, New York City has attracted people from across the country and over the globe. Today, approximately one of every three New Yorkers was born outside the United States.

Off and on over two centuries, New York City has also reigned as the capital of homosexual, , and life in America. It has frequently provided an environment in which homosexuals, transgender, and other queer people have found their niche. No doubt, the percentage of glbtq people (by any definition) living in New York City far exceeds the conventional estimate for the population as a whole. Current estimates range from 750,000 to more than one million glbtq people living in New York City proper.

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But New York City, probably more than any other city in the country, is also the capital of sex. Walt Whitman celebrated this aspect of New York in his poetry. "City of orgies, walks and joys," he wrote, "as I pass O Manhattan your frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love." New York City was the stage upon which millions of men and women realized desires--sexual, artistic, and commercial--that they could never have fulfilled in the small towns and provincial cities of America.

The Wild Years, 1790-1890

Early American culture, as historians Timothy Gilfoyle and Helen Horowitz have noted, showed an earthy acceptance of sexuality that was later suppressed by the purity and anti-sexual crusades of Anthony Comstock and other late nineteenth-century reformers. Though it was highly misogynist and male-dominated, New York's sexual culture offered men and (to a lesser extent) women a sexual freedom that stressed individualism and erotic choice.

However, the sexual culture was highly commercialized. Prostitution in New York City was conducted quite visibly throughout the city. Brothels flourished in every neighborhood and street walkers dominated many of the city's main thoroughfares, such as Broadway, the Bowery, and Church Streets. Walt Whitman's poetry accurately reflected this commercialized sexual culture: "You prostitutes flaunting over the trottoirs or obscene in your rooms / who am I that I should call you more obscene than myself?"

In this same period, an elementary homosexual subculture also emerged. Contemporary observers noted that "," as they were called, were usually young men of "feminine appearance and manners." The growing visibility of a homosexual subculture paralleled the growth of a rowdy and macho "sporting" culture of young, heterosexual, and working class men who engaged in wild rounds of bar hopping, drinking, and promiscuous sex with prostitutes.

The "sporting press," like the tabloid press of later periods (contemporary examples being the National Inquirer and the Star), routinely clamored about the spread of sodomy. They complained that sodomites were frequently foreigners and that they congregated in City Hall Park, where they accosted "respectable men." Supposedly, the theater was rife with them. New York's sodomitical subculture of young effeminate and cross-dressing men sometimes overlapped with the social world of prostitution. Many brothels featured boys who as prostitutes adopted feminine manners and dress.

There is also a long history in New York City of cross-dressing men. Before the Revolution, Edward Hyde the royal governor of New York was known to like to dress in his wife's clothes. A well-known painting in the New York Historical Society collection shows him dressed in women's clothes. In the 1830s, an African-American man, Peter Sewally, dressed in women's clothes and lived in a brothel as a housekeeper until he was arrested and convicted for grand larceny.

The Fairy Craze, 1890-1914

The 1890s were a key decade in the public emergence of glbtq community life in New York City. Again, as earlier in the century, it was predominantly a male community that emerged. Homosexuality and cross-dressing had existed on the margins of the sexual culture since the 1840s--in the dance halls, brothels, and docks, and in the crowded working class neighborhoods of the Bowery and the Lower East Side. But in the 1890s gay male life became more visible. Gay men had developed a sophisticated system of sub-cultural codes of dress, speech, and gestures that enabled them to recognize and communicate with one another.

Slumming was a common sport of middle-class straight men and women, who visited the red-light districts, black and tan clubs (bars and clubs that attracted a racially mixed clientele), and fairy resorts to see the seamy side of city life. The Bowery was the center of homosexual activities in the 1890s. A vice inspector noted that "fairies," as these men were then known, "act effeminately; most of them are painted and powdered; they are called Princess this and Lady So and So and the Duchess of Marlboro, and get up and sing as women, and dance; . . . call each other sisters and take people out for immoral purposes." The masculine men who had sex with the fairies were not considered fairies, but normal men.

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Top: New York City in 1848.
Above: Times Square in 2006. Photograph by John Kolter.

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