Walk Like a Man

Given its present mainstream, secular image, it's easy to forget that the "C" in YMCA stands for Christian, and despite (or perhaps because of) the current function of the Village People's "YMCA" as an all-purpose party song at football stadiums and hockey arenas, it's also easy to forget the organization's ties to gay male cruising. That the two--evangelical Christianity and modern homosexuality--are causally linked may come as a surprise, but this is one of the arguments of John Donald Gustav-Wrathall's fascinating new book, Take the Young Stranger by the Hand (University of Chicago Press). According to Gustav-Wrathall, the YMCA's particular brand of Christian evangelism was instrumental in shaping gay male identity in the 20th century.

The book begins by examining same-sex relations at the YMCA in the late 1800s. At the time, YMCA leaders worked under the assumption that intense male friendships between older and younger members, along with economic and educational support, would make for stronger, more Christian communities. Gustav-Wrathall argues that because public perceptions of sexuality were then less rigid, the decisions of some YMCA leaders to forsake marriage and devote their lives to other men went unquestioned.

At the turn of the century, however, new ideas about sexuality emerged, which in turn put pressure on the YMCA to change. YMCA leaders were expected to marry, homosexuality became an open concern, and the organization adopted an approach called "scientific man-making," which combined physical education, sex education, and spiritual guidance.

YMCA leaders were thus faced with the problem of how to forge close bonds with their younger members, while also cautioning them against the dangers of aberrant behavior. Further complications arose from the YMCA's physical- and sex-education programs. As pioneers in physical education, the YMCA taught young men to appreciate their bodies and the bodies of other men, and yet their sex-education classes strove to enforce heterosexuality as the only sexual option. At the same time the organization was warning against "homosexual perversion," YMCA publications like Association Men ran images that glorified (and, some would say, sexualized) the male form, and YMCA dormitories and locker rooms became havens for illicit gay liaisons.

Take the Young Stranger by the Hand has an academic slant to it--a portion of the material came from Gustav-Wrathall's dissertation--but there are great rewards for the casual reader. In a meeting at a Minneapolis coffee shop, he stressed his earnest efforts to make his book as accessible as possible. Though the author refrains from storytelling, he speaks through well-chosen primary-source documents, many from the YMCA archives in St. Paul. The early chapters on the lives of the "bachelor secretaries," for example, describe a romantic time when the object of passion was less relevant than its intensity, and where sexual identity came under far less scrutiny than it does today. Later on, the reader gets an intimate look into the hearts and minds of YMCA leaders as they struggled to maintain their very personal evangelical mission in the face of public fears that intense friendships between men, even Christian men, might lead to deviant behavior.

It's a sad tale, and in many ways it's also a tacit argument for leaving things well enough alone. One could argue that the YMCA was at its most effective when issues of sexuality were left undefined, when people were less quick to judge.

CITY PAGES: How did you tackle the problem of how sexuality and especially homosexuality are defined over the historical span of the book?

JOHN DONALD GUSTAV-WRATHALL: Prior to the turn of the century, the YMCA and most churches tended to define people in purely spiritual terms. What the YMCA did was say, in order to shape the whole man we need to look at physical development and intellectual development. The idea is embodied in the triangle, which is still the emblem of the Y, representing three aspects of humanity: physical, spiritual, and intellectual. This was the rationale for bringing in medical and psychiatric models of human development and human sexuality to apply to the moral realm.

In doing so they created a new definition of Christian manhood. Before, it would have been unthinkable to judge someone's manhood on the basis of their health or their sexual behavior. What took place in the YMCA has [since] taken place in the American churches and in American culture in general. We define people more on the basis of their sexual behavior or predilections.

CP: You refrain from claiming whether or not the early YMCA leaders were gay. Is this because of a lack of evidence or because you didn't want to sit in judgment?

GUSTAV-WRATHALL: I think if a lot of these men were living today, people would just assume they were gay. Whether or not they would be happy or comfortable with that assumption or not is a really good question [laughs].  

The reason I didn't make any judgments about the sexual orientation of these individuals is because I didn't feel comfortable imposing my definitions and my categories on them. I preferred to talk about how the atmosphere and ethos of the organization allowed male intimacy partly because it wasn't defined. They had more freedom to express their feelings for each other. Certainly, I find it interesting that so many men decided never to marry and instead gave their lives [to] living in community with other men.

CP: How did the YMCA negotiate the difference between their evangelical mission, which was founded on male intimacy, and their sex education programs, which discouraged it?

GUSTAV-WRATHALL: I think the YMCA attempted to stubbornly insist that love between men was not sexual, even though at some level it was. There is an interesting anecdote from the 1960s when the YMCA did an extended study on homosexuality and how the organization should respond. One of the people they interviewed was an older gentleman who was bitter about the whole thing. He asked the committee a rhetorical question: "Do you know what you call two men who love each other?" His answer: "Christians." He was really angry that society had come to define love between men as homosexuality.

CP: The big irony of your book seems to be that the harder the YMCA tried to "teach" heterosexuality, the more the organization became an integral part of homosexual culture.

GUSTAV-WRATHALL: I think what the book really shows is that gayness is inextricably linked to straightness. The moment you go about trying to define healthy heterosexuality it's impossible to avoid creating other identities. It's all part of the same package. I think in a very real sense some of the dilemmas we see about gay rights and gay marriage come from trying to define people in different ways.

In the case of the YMCA, I think defining sexuality was used as a vehicle of control. They tried to mold and shape people into certain definitions of family, and I think the moral of the story is that you can't exert that kind of control. The harder you try, the more problems you create for yourself.

CP: How significant a role did YMCA programs and literature play in creating gay identity?

GUSTAV-WRATHALL: One of the institutions that has really created the gay identity in America is the Army, the American military. The best study on this is Coming Out Under Fire by Alan Nerubi, which talks about the American psychiatric profession's role in instituting sexual screening in the military. During World War II, millions of American men and women were indoctrinated into medical models of sexuality through the military. Many of them realized they weren't heterosexual and that they must be homosexual. But once you've internalized that identity, then you either internalize all of the negative baggage that comes with it, or you take aspects of it and re-create it for yourself in a more positive way.

What is significant about my book is that I have identified a sector of American life and American culture where these identities were being disseminated a lot earlier than Alan Nerubi thought. I think that along with the American military, the YMCA was an important institution in laying some of the groundwork for modern gay communities.

CP: Has today's YMCA abandoned its original mission?

GUSTAV-WRATHALL: In the past, to be a member you had to share their mission and calling, and it was very much a Christian mission and calling. The national organization used to stipulate that you had to be a member in good standing of an evangelical church. How that was determined was left up to individual YMCAs, but you had to show that you were a Christian.

The purpose of the organization was very much saving young men from the city. Not just saving as in converting to Jesus Christ but also finding jobs and respectable room and board and helping them get educated. There was economic concern but--and this is where the Christian element came in--you were really concerned about the well-being of their souls. You wanted them to know that people cared about them and that there was somebody they could turn to and that they weren't alone. That's what so many activities at the YMCA were about; the prayer circles, the bible studies, and all of those things were about providing men with an emotional home.

When you just sell memberships, you lose that. There is a feeling that the YMCA has totally lost touch with its Christian roots. Today it operates very much as a business. I think that there are people who are interested in trying to bring back the good old days, trying to reinfuse the original spirit of the organization, which included this element of intense friendship between men. But I don't think that is going to happen.

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