Take the Stranger By the Hand

The Young Men’s Christian Association’s reputation as a hotbed of homosexuality goes back a long way. When I was in the process of coming out as a gay man (in the early seventies, AKA the Stone Age), I quickly learned that the Miami “Y” was the place to cruise, along with the Greyhound Station, the Rio Theater and Bayfront Park.

Though I never did cruise the “Y”, I knew men who did; and they regaled me with stories and anecdotes that went back to World War Two and beyond.

By the time the late Jacques Morali got around to writing the song “YMCA” for his Village People (1978), the YMCA was as much of a gay Mecca as San Francisco, Fire Island, or Key West. This went over the head of most heterosexuals, to who “YMCA” was just a fun party song with clever hand signals. Little did they know.

The long and storied history of the YMCA and same-sex relations is told in Take the Young Stranger By the Hand, by independent scholar John Donald Gustav-Wrathall.

From its beginnings in London, in 1844, the “Y” reeked of homoeroticism. The product of evangelical churches in England and America, YMCA’s were “Christian support groups” which “offered young men the love and friendship of other young men.”

“In the YMCA, same-sex romantic friendship was the primary vehicle of Christian evangelism and the key to the Association’s success among young, white, middle-class men in the nineteenth century.”

No one saw anything wrong with two youths sleeping together, or writing each other hot, passionate letters. Many of the early YMCA “secretaries” – according to Gustav-Wrathall, “‘Secretary’ was the term used to refer to the employed general executive of a YMCA” –were lifelong bachelors who devoted their lives to their young charges and who enjoyed long, intimate relationships with other single men.

All this changed after the 1880s, when society became more aware of unorthodox sexuality. The YMCA itself “shifted from a purely spiritual mission to a mission that encompassed physical culture and vigilance against sexual immorality”.

Same-sex “friendships” and bachelor secretaries began to be suspect. Still, “the emphasis on friendship was too important a part of the organization not to survive into the twentieth century.

But after 1900, YMCA leaders began to qualify the stress on friendship with warnings against excess and concern about homosexuality.” Women began to be admitted to the “Y”, and heterosexuality became the order of the day.

Ironically, the YMCA’s new emphasis on “family values” came at a time when the organization became (in)famous as a haven for gay sex.

“The new stress on physicality, masculine strength, and male beauty that evolved in the YMCA’s physical culture actually encouraged the sexualization of male relationships. . . The fact that YMCA buildings were physically oriented, male-only spaces, easily accessible, largely free of supervision, and safe from police surveillance made them an ideal setting for same-sex sexual activity.”

Staff members, often gay themselves, tolerated gay cruising at YMCA buildings, and only when scandal broke was society aware of the “Y’s” dirty little secret.

The story of the YMCA, and how it “went from celebrating to suppressing men whose emotional center was other men”, is a tale worth telling, and it is only surprising that it hasn’t been told till now.

In Take the Young Stranger By the Hand, Gustav-Wrathall examined the YMCA files and the existing literature to write a thorough, scholarly tome. At times the book is too scholarly, bogging down in details and statistics what could have been a very exciting story.

The narrative picks up considerably when it quotes from Donald Vining’s diaries, and we can only regret that Gustav-Wrathall did not spice his tale with more of this kind of personal, and sexy, anecdotes.

Doing so would have made Take the Young Stranger by the Hand much more interesting to readers who are intrigued by the topic but who might be turned off by all the dry details. This is a shame, for by doing so the reader would miss learning about an important chapter in gay and men’s history.

The YMCA has traveled a long way to its current status as a “family health club”, and Take the Young Stranger By the Hand shows us how it got here. The 100 Greatest Gay Novels:

The Publishing Triangle–best-known for its Ferro-Grumley and other awards–has compiled a list of “the 100 greatest gay and lesbian novels of all time”, as voted by a panel of literary judges.

Having read most of the chosen books (if I may be so immodest), I can vouch for their quality, though why A Single Man is so far down (or The Well of Loneliness so far up) is beyond me. Nevertheless, without further ado:

1. “Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann.
2. “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin
3. “Our Lady of the Flowers” by Jean Genet
4. “Remembrance of Things Past” by Marcel Proust.
5. “The Immoralist” by Andre Gide
6. “Orlando” by Virginia Woolf
7. “The Well of Loneliness” by Radclyffe Hall
8. “Kiss of the Spider Woman” by Manuel Puig
9. “The Memoirs of Hadrian” by Marguerite Yourcenar
10. “Zami’ by Audre Lorde

11. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde
12. “Nightwood” by Djuna Barnes
13. “Billy Budd” by Heman Melville
14. “A Boy’s Own Story” by Edmund White
15 “Dancer from the Dance” by Andrew Holleran
16. “Maurice” by E. M. Forster
17. “The City and the Pillar” by Gore Vidal
18. “Rubyfruit Jungle” by Rita Mae Brown
19. “Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh
20. “Confessions of a Mask” by Yukio Mishima

21. “The Member of the Wedding” by Carson McCullers
22. “City of Night” by John Rechy
23. “Myra Breckinridge” by Gore Vidal
24. “Patience and Sarah” by Isabel Miller
25. “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” by Gertrude Stein
26. “Other Voices, Other Rooms” by Truman Capote
27. “The Bostonians” by Henry James
28. “Two Serious Ladies” by Jane Bowles
29. “Bastard Out of Carolina” by Dorothy Allison
30. “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers

31. “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf
32. “The Persian Boy” by Mary Renault
33. “A Single Man” by Christopher Isherwood
34. “The Swimming Pool Library” by Alan Hollinghurst
35. “Olivia” by Dorothy Bussy
36. “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith
37. “Aquamarine” by Carol Anshaw
38. “Another Country” by James Baldwin
39. “Cheri” by Colette
40. “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James

41. “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
42. “Women in Love” by D. H. Lawrence
43. “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott
44. “The Friendly Young Ladies” by Mary Renault
45. “Young Torless” by Robert Musil
46. “Eustace Chisholm and the Works” by James Purdy
47. “The Story of Harold” by Terry Andrews
48. “The Gallery” by John Horne Burns
49. “Sister Gin” by June Arnold
50. “Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall” by Neil Bartlett

51. “Father of Frankenstein” by Christopher Bram
52. “Naked Lunch” by William S. Burroughs
53. “The Berlin Stories” by Christopher Isherwood
54. “The Young and Evil” by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler
55. “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” by Jeanette Winterson
56. “A Visitation of Spirits” by Randall Kenan
57. “Three Lives” by Gertrude Stein
58. “Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli” by Ronald Firbank
59. “Rat Bohemia” by Sarah Schulman
60. “Pale Fire” by Vladimir Nabokov

61. “The Counterfeiters” by Andre Gide
62. “The Passion” by Jeanette Winterson
63. “Lover” by Bertha Harris
64. “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville
65. “La Batarde” by Violette Leduc
66. “Death Comes for the Archbishop” by Willa Cather
67. “To Kill a Mockinbird” by Harper Lee
68. “The Satyricon” by Petronius
69. “The Alexandria Quartet” by Lawrence Durrell
70. “Special Friendships” by Roger Peyrefitte

71. “The Changelings” by Jo Sinclair
72. “Paradiso” by Jose Lezama Lima
73. “Sheeper” by Irving Rosenthal
74. “Les Guerilleres” by Monique Wittig
75. “The Child Manuela” by Christa Winsloe
76. “An Arrow’s Flight” by Mark Merlis
77. “The Gaudy Image” by William Talsman
78. “The Exquisite Corpse” by Alfred Chester
79. “Was” by Geoff Ryman
80. “Therese and Isabelle” by Violette Leduc

81. “Gemini” by Michael Tournier
82. “The Beautiful Room Is Empty” by Edmund White
83. “The Children’s Crusade” by Rebecca Brown
84. “The Story of the Night” by Colm Toibin
85. “Les Enfants Terribles” by Jean Cocteau
86. “Hell Has No Limits” by Jose Donoso
87. “Riverfinger Women” by Elana Nachman
88. “The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon” by Tom Spanbauer
89. “Closer” by Dennis Cooper
90. “Lost Illusions” by Honore de Balzac

From its beginnings in London, in 1844, the “Y” reeked of homoeroticism. The product of evangelical churches in England and America, YMCA’s were “Christian support groups” which “offered young men the love and friendship of other young men.”

91. “Miss Peabody’s Inheritance” by Elizabeth Jolley
92. “Rene’s Flesh” by Virgilio Pinera
93. “Funny Boy” by Shyam Selvadurai
94. “Wasteland” by Jo Sinclair
95. “Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing” by May Sarton
96. “Sea of Tranquility” by Paul Russell
97. “Autobiography of a Family Photo” by Jacqueline Woodson
98. “In Thrall” by Jane DeLynn
99. “On Strike Against God” by Joanna Russ
100. “Sita” by Kate Millett

By Jesse Monteagudo


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