Take the Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA. – Review

Take the Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA. – Review – book review

Mark Tebeau

Take the Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA. By John Donald Gustav-Wrathall (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. xiv plus 267pp.).

In Take the Stranger by the Hand John Donald Gustav-Wrathall re-interprets the YMCA in the context of the growing literature in the history of sexuality. Gustav-Wrathall traces the history of the same-sex relationships in the YMCA and argues that they provided the foundation for the development of the YMCA as an institution. Moreover, he identifies how many of the men whose work defined the “Y” created a same-sex family. It matters little whether these men engaged in sexual activities with other men. To Wrathall it is more significant that these men’s commitments to one another, and to the organization, offered them an alternative to heterosexual family norms. This book marks an important contribution to the growing literature in the history of sexuality, especially the study of same-sex relationships between men.

This lucidly written monograph has many strengths, especially its conceptual framework. Gustav-Wrathall proposes a decidely original theoretical perspective in which he avoids categorizing the same-sex male relationships that formed the basis of the YMCA as either homosexual or purely homosocial. For Gustav-Wrathall these terms are twentieth-century constructions that do not fully capture the complexity of nineteenth and early-twentieth century experience. He argues that these notions are not fixed, but exist on a continuum of same sex male relationships and love. Looking into the past, he finds that same-sex relationships, such as those that flourished in the YMCA, contain both homoerotic and friendship components. To separate these two aspects of same-sex relationships does a disservice to the real historical experiences of many YMCA leaders and employees. Indeed, the men who formed the backbone of the YMCA used the ambiguity of their brotherhood to create lives that deviated sharply from heterosexual norm s. These men used their employment in the YMCA to create an alternative family, choosing to live as bachelors within a community of men.

Secondarily, Gustav-Wrathall revises our understandings of how twentieth-century sexual norms were transmitted throughout American life. Take the Stranger by the Hand challenges the idea that sexual norms–especially the construction of homosexuality as deviant–developed and were communicated primarily by the medical community. To the contrary, he argues that such values were inculcated throughout society by community organizations like the YMCA. During the 20th century, the YMCA followed the lead of the medical community and became hostile to its thriving culture of masculine love. Ironically, even as same-sex relationships continued to blossom in the “Y”, the organization actually helped to translate medical culture’s definitions of homosexual deviancy into popular culture through its aggressive program of sex education.

Gustav-Wrathall draws a provocative and convincing portrait of the YMCA’s bachelor culture through a careful quantitative analysis of YMCA records. Most simply put, he argues that the marriage patterns of the organization’s secretaries deviated from those found in the broader population–which supports his broader analysis of the YMCA’s bachelor culture as a culture of male love that developed as an alternative to heterosexual family norms. To overcome the limitations of his data, Gustav-Wrathall’s evaluated the records using demographic techniques to estimate the average age at marriage among YMCA secretaries. These analyses convincingly show that YMCA secretaries married later than the population and that a higher percentage of secretaries remained bachelors than in the entire population.

Unfortunately, despite the excellent analyses and their conceptualization, Gustav-Wrathall’s presentation of the quantitative data leaves much to be desired. The prose in this section, and in the appendix that discusses his methods, is frequently opaque. In addition, the book does not contain tables, and the numerical figures are only included in the text discussion. This makes it difficult for readers to arrive at their own conclusions. In addition, it is sometimes hard to place these quantitative analyses within historical context, even by an informed reader, Gustav-Wrathall’s argument would have been more effective if he had presented aggregate comparative data as well as his own findings in tables to support his textual discussion.

For all of its many strengths, the argument of Take the Young Stranger By the Hand is nonetheless compromised by other weaknesses. Most importantly, this book examines the history of an organization with religious foundations, but it pays little attention to religious institutions or religious beliefs. How did organized churches view intense same-sex relationship during the nineteenth-century? How did the men of the YMCA mix their daily lives with their religious beliefs? How did the community of men that formed the backbone of YMCA culture reconcile (if, indeed, they even needed to) their choices with dominant religious values? And, importantly, how did the co-mingling of religious fervor and intense same-sex relationships change during the twentieth-century when physicians and others identified homosexuality as deviant? With serious consideration of religious beliefs and institutions, this book could have made an even more significant contribution to the scholarly literature by identifying the interactions among gender, sexuality, and religious faith.

Finally, we learn in the conclusion that this book developed from Gustav-Wrathall’s deeply personal struggle with his sexual identity and evangelical religion. Although “objectivist” historians may be troubled by such revelations, these confessions serve to illuminate Gustav-Wrathall’s argument and perspective. Unfortunately, because of their significance, the author should not have left mention of these formative social and intellectual experiences to the Epilogue. After all, these perspectives inform the entire project and its interpretive framework. Historians and social scientists with an appreciation for ethnographic approaches to scholarship–the audience most attuned to such a revelation–will undoubtedly appreciate that the author has “positioned” himself vis-a-vis the subject matter. But by waiting to divulge this information until the end, we are left without crucial information that would have further clarified and strengthened the narrative. In addition, I-and I suspect many other readers as well –would have been interested to learn more about the personal experiences that shaped Gusrav-Wrathall’s choice of topics and which informed his analysis.

These limitations aside, this is a compelling and original book that scholars of gender and sexuality should find invaluable.

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