Books: Torn off a strip

THE GAY METROPOLIS 1940-1996 by Charles Kaiser Weidenfeld pounds 20
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DESPITE its title, this is the story of just one metropolis, New York, and the development of a modern gay identity there over the past 50 years. Weaving interviews, media coverage, fictionalised accounts of gay life in the city, and reports of wider social and political changes, Kaiser charts the march out of the shadows and into the mainstream.

Back in the Fifties, to be gay was to be, at worst, a non-person. Joe Schoener, an Associated Press reporter, recounts what would happen when a man was found murdered in his apartment: "We would all go to the scene to wait for the coroner. Then we would wait for him to examine the victim. If the coroner came out, and said, `Loose sphincter', that meant the victim was gay. Then we would all leave - because that meant there was no story." Police harassment was routine up until the late Sixties, with police entrapment of gay men, even inside gay bars. In fact, gay bars were, strictly speaking, impossible, as knowingly serving a drink to a gay person automatically made a bar disorderly under state law, and it was illegal for two men to be on a dance floor together without a woman present. Lesbians, meanwhile, were routinely brought to book for being too butch - women were legally required to wear at least one article of female clothing.

Change in the status of homosexuality came both gradually and suddenly. In the wider world, for example, the Kinsey Report rocked cosy assumptions about people's sex lives and slowly helped loosen attitudes and laws. One of Kaiser's interviewees recounts being questioned by Kinsey for the report and then taking Kinsey to watch two of his friends having sex to show him what gay men did in bed. If the latest biography of Kinsey is anything to go by, this was probably of more than scientific interest. One single, dramatic event, however, struck a blow for gay liberation which reverberated across the US and the wider world and which alone justifies a gay history centred on New York. "Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad", screamed the Daily News in its account of a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Christopher Street on Friday June 27 1969, the day of Judy Garland's funeral. The raid on the Mob-owned bar backfired and the authorities had a riot on their hands, led by drag queens. It was a defining, radicalising moment and the ferment continued and spread beyond that night. Allen Ginsberg arrived to investigate. "The guys there were so beautiful," he said. "They've lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago."

There is a great story being told here, but this is not a great book. Much of what is quoted has been used elsewhere, in better books and documentaries. The chapters on the Forties and the Nineties are the thinnest. The tone is one of gushing, rainbow-flag-wrapped liberationism, rather than considered analysis, and although an impressive number of sources have been corralled, Kaiser often doesn't seem to know what to do with them.

George Chauncey, who wrote the well-researched and authoritative Gay New York: The Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (Flamingo, 1996) is now working on The Making of the Modern Gay World 1935-1975 which will perhaps be what Kaiser's book aspires to be. There are also several classic novels about gay life in New York which are better than any history, from the Thirties Harlem demi-monde of Blair Niles's Strange Brother to the apogee of Seventies Fire Island hedonism in Andrew Holleran's Dancer from the Dance. The latter, bizarrely, is not even mentioned by Kaiser.