03 December 2010

Book Review: Take the Stranger By the Hand

John Donald Gustav-Wrathall teaches American Religious History as adjunct faculty at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton, Minnesota. He wrote this social history of the YMCA.

I had always wondered exactly why the Village People sang a song about the YMCA. Let be liberally quote from the lyrics and you can fill in the background with prancing Village People in their costumes:

You can stay there, and I'm sure you will find
Many ways to have a good time.


You can get yourself clean, you can have a good meal
You can do whatever you feel ...


No man does it all by himself.
I said, young man, put your pride on the shelf,
And just go there, to the Y.M.C.A.
I'm sure they can help you today.
Well, it turns out that the whole YMCA phenomenon really did start as a "Young Men Christian Association." The first turn from a devout evangelical movement to a pre-gay community culture in the mid 1900s in the US was that churches were concerned that the YMCAs were competing with churches. To accommodate the churches, they added "physical" work to their program and were able to develop a theological basis for it. At this time, there was a very body negative approach to human life by evangelical Christians. Everything was focused on the spiritual/mental side of things. (Yes, it was the Victorian period.)

Once the YMCA organization entered into the physical side of the universe, sex education appeared. At this point, the whole YMCA program focused on very intimate male friendships and well, from the 21st century perspective, it really all sounded like thinly veiled gay guys using the Bible to talk about how much they were into each other. Then, as the infrastructure of gyms and dormitories appeared, then the gay-sex cruising subculture appeared and was apparently tolerated even with major public scandals in 1912 and 1919 until the 1970s when the gay consciousness and rights came to the fore and technology allowed panopticism to invade the architecture and spatial politics of YMCA buildings.

This reminded me of all of the Youths for Christ or Victory Christian Fellowship and other Protestant youth movements where their leaders just seem so really really gay. Remember Gigil? The whole conflict starts because Katrina Halili falls in love with one of these closeted gay evangelicals who, when confronted with marriage, comes out.

The first half of this book may not be interesting unless you're interested in American social and religious history. Of course, it does lay out the framework for modern U.S. gay community and how a repressive anti-sex/anti-body Victorian Christian culture ends up producing a gay cruising scene.

I also found fascinating the discussion of how homosexuality was once completely engendered -- that is "real men" or "straight men" were the tops and the "queans"/"queens" were the bottoms. This is an under-researched area in global LGBT/gender studies that I'd like to hear more about in a comparative or transcultural way.

The version I read was a 288 page paperback published by University of Chicago Press (June 1, 2000), ISBN-13: 978-0226907857. It is written in English. The lowest price I found online was at abebooks.com.


  1. how interesting. i've always wondered about the ymca. we have a few slides about it at work and of course, there's that song but i always wondered why "gay" always registered whenever i think about it.

  2. since gay rights became an open issue in the 1970s in the US the YMCA has strenuously attempted to remake it as a "family institution" being co-ed, offering children swimming lessons and summer programs for out-of-school kids. but, 100 years of gay sex is hard to shake with only 10 years of marketing. esp. when the discreet gay-sex thing continues to hover in the background....

  3. truth is, there's thrill in the shadows. terrible thing to say, i know but there's something so romantic about having to hide.

  4. yes. i agree and that is probably heresy the day after the pride parade. it is privacy that has allowed romantic life to thrive. its much more difficult to have a relationship when one is firmly anchored to one's family day and night and potential suitors have to enter the household fold. (of course, that type of repression did bring us the kundiman). we can thank private spaces (moviehouses, sogo, car passenger cabins, etc.) for breaking down the traditional surveillance structures of the family in favor of more experimentation.

  5. *facebook like*

    and a *grin* at heresy. look at me, controversial and all. lol