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Take the Stranger By the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA

Take the Stranger By the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA

Take the Stranger By the Hand
  • Nonfiction
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication Date: 1998


David K. Johnson: This review, by David K. Johnson of Northwestern University, originally appeared in the Newsletter of the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History, issue 15/2(Fall 2001), and is reprinted with the permission of the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History at www.usc.edu/isd/archives/clgh online.

It has long been an open secret that the Young Men’s Christian Association has historically been a center of male homoerotic activity. As early as 1933, Paul Cadmus painted a well-known canvas in which men and boys in various stages of undress exchange knowing glances and subtle caresses in a YMCA locker room. 1950s drag performer Rae Bourbon lampooned such men in his song “Queen of the YMCA.” In the 1970s, the Village People hit the pop charts by telling America where to go to “hang out with all the boys” and “do whatever you feel.” More recently gay historians such as George Chauncey have highlighted how YMCAs, founded to protect young men from the evils of the modern metropolis, paradoxically became virtual homosexual welcome centers for many urban immigrants. With Take the Stranger by the Hand, John Donald Gustav-Wrathall takes us further inside the history of the YMCA and its complex relationship to same-sex relations.

Founded in the 1850s as Bible study and prayer groups for young men in burgeoning cities in Britain and the northeastern U.S., the YMCA quickly earned the competitive ire of established churches. To differentiate itself, the Association undertook a program of developing “the whole man” that emphasized physical education. Drawing on the turn-of-the-century fear that “civilization” was sapping men of their vitality, YMCA leaders promoted a philosophy that integrated exercise, bodybuilding and other physical programs into a Christian framework. This programmatic shift brought the YMCA into a leadership role in the dissemination of medical “knowledge” concerning physical and sexual health. As Gustav-Wrathall argues, “The growing emphasis on the redemptive powers of physical education after the 1880s and 1890s drew sex education from the periphery of the organization to its center” (44).

This new emphasis on sex education posed a threat to the way of life of much of the institution’s leadership. Gustav-Wrathall reveals that many of the most revered YMCA leaders of the late nineteenth century were “life-long bachelors known for their intense love for young men.” Comparing them to women reformers of the era such as Jane Addams and Lillian Wald, he notes that while single, these men were “never alone.” Drawing on the rich historiography on female relationships and intimacy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he argues that early YMCA leaders led lives that were emotionally, economically, and socially “men-centered.”

But as medical models of homosexual pathology and heterosexual normativity became integral parts of the YMCA’s sex education program, such relationships became suspect. The Y’s sex-segregated environment came to be seen as unnatural. “It was difficult, if not impossible,” Gustav-Wrathall argues, “to sustain intense friendships while attacking homosexuality” (46). The result is what Gustav-Wrathall labels the “heterosexualization” of the YMCA. Leaders who devoted their lives to the care of young men within a homosocial setting were replaced by married men whose wives played a prominent, if ceremonial, role. In 1933, despite protests from the YWCA, women were welcomed into full membership in the organization. According to Gustav-Wrathall, the demise of the bachelor secretary and the sexual integration of the Y sapped the organization of much of its spiritual dynamism.

Gustav-Wrathall examines the complex relationship between the YMCA’s physical education program and homoeroticism—how the program “created a culture that facilitated and shaped same-sex sexual desires” but simultaneously called for increased self-control. By creating not only a discourse but also a physical setting devoted to men’s bodies, the YMCA became a center of contestation for notions concerning the male physique and male bonding. YMCA publications featuring eroticized images of athletic young men hailed the “pleasant companionships” available through sports but warned against the “seamy side of athletics”(148). Gustav-Wrathall’s astute analysis of photographs of YMCA sports teams vividly underscores the effect this discourse had on physical contact between men. Whereas posed photographs from the turn-of-the-century show team members unselfconsciously touching and holding hands, by the 1920s team members maintained a careful distance from one another’s bodies.

Gustav-Wrathall persuasively shows how one cannot understand the history of the YMCA without placing issues of gender and sexuality at the center. Drawing extensively on the YMCA’s own archives in St. Paul, Minnesota, Gustav-Wrathall’s work provides an insightful institutional history of the organization, its leaders, and its mission and how they fit into the larger context of the history of sexuality in nineteenth and twentieth century America. Paradoxically, the underground sexual economy that flourished in YMCA gymnasia and dormitories—celebrated by Cadmus, Bourbon and the Village People—gets marginalized in Gustav-Wrathall’s treatment. Although he takes advantage of a wide variety of source materials — published memoirs, court records, and a score of original interviews with older gay men—Gustav-Wrathall curiously saves his analysis of how men used the YMCA for sexual encounters for the last chapter, as if not to tarnish the rest of the book.

In an appendix, Gustav-Wrathall explains that he initially “resisted” including cruising in his study because “at the time I believed that there was an unbridgeable abyss between the historic Christian mission of the YMCA. . . and the sexual behavior that occurred on its premises.” He assumed that the men who used the YMCA as a sexual arena were “non-Christians” and therefore had no place in a study like his, which “took seriously the Christian mission of the Association.” (191-192). Although he admits that these initial assumptions were wrong, his treatment of homosexual cruising suggests that these biases continue to infuse his analysis.

In analyzing same-sex relations in the YMCA, Gustav-Wrathall privileges those which conform to his own sense of morality. He praises many of the “passionate commitments” that young men of the YMCA made to each other as “exclusive, life-long, and emotionally intimate,” reflecting his own positive experiences with male bonding in Christian institutions (2, 55). But he criticizes the men who found sexual encounters in the YMCA dormitories and showers as “unable to integrate their sexuality into a sense of love for or commitment to other men,” asserting, without much evidence, that such encounters were often “profoundly alienating” (159). Here he seems to dismiss both how “romantic friendships,” however nurturing, were often based on a denial of sexual attraction and how illicit sexual encounters, however stigmatized, often provided entrance into a vibrant and sustaining homosexual community. The very title of the book invokes the supportive potential of an encounter between strangers.

By limiting his discussion of cruising to the periphery of the narrative, Gustav-Wrathall weakens his own argument. Surely the public scandals regarding homosexual cruising at YMCA facilities which Gustav-Wrathall documents played a role in the organization’s efforts at “heterosexualization.” But his bracketing of homosexual cruising leaves the reader with the impression that the driving force behind this major shift was the YMCA’s adoption of the medical discourse on homosexuality. This privileging of intellectual discourse over the culture of the sexual underground ignores much recent, and some not so recent, scholarship that questions the influence of professional discourse on the development of same-sex sexuality. The heterosexualization of the official organization and the homosexualization of its facilities cannot be considered apart from one another.

Like the institution it chronicles, the book seems to struggle with the issue of how to integrate same-sex desire and notions of Christian fellowship, finding the only model in Walt Whitman. Yet Gustav-Wrathall provides hints that others also struggled with this problem. He quotes activist Jim Kepner professing that he enjoyed cruising the YMCA because the men there were more “religious.” He reports that many ministers and YMCA leaders participated in the cruising scene and were exposed in public scandals. Such examples suggest that the homosocial world of the bachelor secretaries and the homosexual world of the YMCA dormitories had a complex relationship that deserves closer examination.


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