A Place You Can Go

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

When independent scholar John Donald Gustav-Wrathall began exploring gay history more than a decade ago, the first book he read was John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. In 1980, Boswell's groundbreaking tome was the first gay-studies book to be published by the University of Chicago Press, a press that has since come to be synonymous with strong queer scholarship.

Eighteen years later, after presenting a paper on cruising and the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) at a historians' conference, Gustav-Wrathall was besieged by calls from a dozen different presses clamoring to publish his research. The University of Chicago Press, of course, was one of those, and this fall the publisher released his book, Take the Young Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA. "I'm delighted to have the book published with them," Gustav-Wrathall says. "The editor who oversaw the publishing of Boswell's book was the same person who oversaw the publication of this book, so that was very exciting." As a scholar writing a dissertation in American History at the University of Minnesota, Gustav-Wrathall's research originally focused on American religious history, a task which led him to begin to look at the early years of the YMCA. At its inception, the YMCA was an inventive, forward-thinking ecumenical institution, and Gustav-Wrathall took a keen interest in the organization's religious aims and programming. But while sifting through the YMCA's archives (conveniently located on the U of M's St. Paul campus), the scholar stumbled upon a pattern that intrigued him: Intense same-sex relationships, perhaps even homosexuality, played an important part in the early development of an organization that came to be known, oddly, both as a gay cruising spot and a respected religious establishment.

When did you first suspect that there might be queer undercurrents in the YMCA's history?

I was reading through some biographical materials, and a reference was made to Robert R. McBurney, one of the central figures in the early YMCA, and a parenthetical reference was made to "our great bachelor secretary," and I thought, "Oooh, a bachelor." It seemed like a lot of these men were not married, or at least I never heard mention of wives. Eventually, I got some personnel records of the 19th century that included marriage information and I was able to confirm that a disproportionate number of YMCA leaders were lifelong bachelors. My estimate is between 20 and 30 percent. I thought it was intriguing because it was kind of a parallel phenomenon to the Boston marriages.

What were your goals as a gay person versus your goals as a scholar?

I'm up front about where I'm coming from and what my biases are. As a scholar I'm trying to document a piece of history that hasn't been documented and to raise the whole question of what role sexuality plays in our social structures and in our relationships outside of the bedroom. My agenda as a gay person was wanting to document and make space for gay people in religious institutions. So many of us have been browbeaten into believing that there is no place for us in churches, and when you look at this history, the truth is that we have often been in leadership roles in every religious institution in history.

There's quite a "cruisy" image on the cover of the book. Did you feel that there was a push to make an otherwise scholarly book sexy?

There was absolutely no pressure from the University of Chicago Press to move it in that direction, but I have noticed that a lot of people who bought the book and started reading it said, "Oh, I thought it would be a lot more about sex." Indeed, sex is an important part of the story, but I hope this book will provide gay men with a new way of seeing themselves as opposed to the "down and dirty in the locker room" sort of thing. Not that that isn't a very important and joyful part of our history, but to see ourselves as spiritual leaders as well, and to see ourselves as individuals who have been drawn into movements because we felt called to something larger than ourselves. We wanted to bring people together, because we wanted to try to open up society. All of those things are so important and gay men have done that historically, and it is important for us to celebrate and acknowledge that too.

One gets the sense that there is very rigid scholarship for the first 7/8 of the book, and then when you reach the part about cruising, the tone gets sort of tentative.

The whole issue of cruising in the Y was probably the hardest of the pieces to document. I had to go beyond the Y archives and go to a lot of outside sources. I did some research at the International Gay and Lesbian Archives in West Hollywood, I interviewed a lot of older gay men who had experiences at Y's anywhere from the 1920s to the 1960s. I also had to turn to legal proceedings and newspaper articles.

The book ends in an era when the cruising at the Y was commonplace. Do you think that reputation decreased as other venues opened to gay men? Or was there a clampdown?

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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