A Place You Can Go

John Gustav-Wrathall unearths the history of same-sex relationships in the early YMCA

It's a combination of things. There were more choices, and the Y did start making efforts to decrease this kind of activity. I think that AIDS was sort of a damper on cruising scenes everywhere, and I think that had an effect. However, it is still happening. There is still the ongoing battle at the downtown Y, but it doesn't have the reputation it had back in the '60s and '70s.

How did the YMCA react to your research?

The director of the YMCA archives is considered staff of the U of M, but she works very closely with the Y in managing the collection. She has been very supportive of this from the beginning. I think she has always had it as a priority for the archives to especially encourage scholars who are trying to document those parts of YMCA history that have been underdocumented--women's roles in the Y, people of color in the Y. She saw this very much in that spirit. It seems clear that gay men have played a huge role in the organization and that story was not being told. I think the institution has had a little bit more difficulty with it, though I can't say that the response from the Y has been uniformly negative. I think there are pockets within the Y whose response to this project has always been "Wow! It's about time."

You're quite careful about not stating that the historical material you've gathered constitutes proof of gayness in various individuals. Was that intentional? Did you personally have doubts?

There is a very real aspect of being cautious with your sources because you don't have proof. My take on that is that most historians do biographical scholarship with the bias that an individual is heterosexual until proven homosexual and they usually demand high levels of evidence and proof that that person was gay for them to believe it. My starting point is that we don't know what a person's sexual orientation is when we begin researching a person's biography, and we can only guess at that on the basis of what info is available. I never come out and say "so and so was gay," I just quote the letters and show what kind of relationships they had with one another and then leave it to the reader. What I do say in the book is that given the huge number of lifelong bachelors who were leaders in the organization, given that the membership was overwhelmingly single men, given the kind of atmosphere that you found in the organization, the likelihood that this was a haven for gay men was very strong. I am willing to say that the organization was probably very gay, but as far as individuals, you can't draw conclusions.

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