Respectability on Trial: Sex Crimes in New York City, 1900-1918
by Brian Donovan
SUNY Press (September, 2016)
By Hugh Ryan
As a queer historian, a frustrating amount of my research comes from records of arrests. Sodomy, prostitution, disorderly conduct, masquerading, vagrancy, the crime against nature, solicitation – the list of laws that have been used in New York City to criminalize queer lives is long, varied, and stretches all the way back to 1634, when a Dutch colonial anti-sodomy law was used to prosecute a settler named Harmen van den Bogaert and an enslaved African man called Tobias.
I say frustrating because these arrests rarely say much to the historian interested in queer life: a name, a date, a charge; perhaps if you’re lucky you can find a newspaper squib that gives a line or two of context. Often, they are indicia in the truest sense, pointing towards something but not revealing much of anything (other than the existence of the state apparatus of criminalization). But in times where there was little public discussion of queer lives, records of arrests are some of the few regularly discoverable signposts pointing to where queerness may have existed.
This is the history I tried to capture in Hell’s Kitchen and the Battle for Urban Space. It was, admittedly, a task that exceeded my talents, but I have tried to bring it to life in its various locations: the tenement rooftop, the hold of the cargo ship, the sidewalk, the ash heap, the dead horse, the spaces of daily living where real people form real relationships, where shifting loyalties, new solidarities, old divides, and modes of resistance and acquiescence form the daily stuff of historical change.
Click below to read an excerpt from “Hell, Death, and Urban Politics,” Chapter Six of Hell’s Kitchen and the Battle for Urban Space (Monthly Review Press, 2013)
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