Recent work in the history of sexuality has been energised by the startling proximity of the mundane and the "unspeakable". Thus the title of John Donald Gustav-Wrathall's history of the YMCA locates a dangerous sexual allure at the heart of an institution that seems to embody "what mainstream America likes to take for granted about itself".
This tension encapsulates the historical ironies Gustav-Wrathall recounts, wherein the spirit of Charles Kingsley meets the Village People. A programme founded to rescue young men from the lures of the Victorian city grew into the space of sexual possibility celebrated in the camp 1979 disco anthem "YMCA", which arguably brought gay sexuality in America to a wider audience than anything before.
But Gustav-Wrathall's book is far more sober, even sombre, than its insinuating title might suggest. It focuses on the constraints of male desire brought about by a momentous transition in American understandings of masculinity.
Founded in an ascetic, evangelistic tradition that encouraged passionate same-sex friendships, the YMCA ultimately undermined that tradition through a growing emphasis on "physical culture" (including sex education) that made the body a focal point of increasingly anxious self-consciousness. The homoerotic desire elicited by late Victorian preoccupation with the male body was both allurement and anathema: Y officials unwittingly created an arena for homosexual activity even as they stressed the dangers of intimacy among men.
Gustav-Wrathall tellingly juxtaposes the personal correspondence of early officials, who found spiritual understanding inseparable from intimate friendship, with later official publications counselling a more guarded and superficial friendliness - a caution reflected in a new mistrust of physical contact, which is captured in photographs.
The domestic lives of Y secretaries also registered the change. While early secretaries were disproportionately unmarried and saw bachelorhood as a mark of consecration to their calling, unmarried secretaries and their passionate friendships with young men became a source of growing anxiety, as officials increasingly worried that the initial, resolute exclusion of women from involvement in Y activities would encourage homosexuality. Even though marriage itself remained peripheral to YMCA activities, by 1910 "absentee marriage was better than no marriage at all".
Take the Young Stranger by the Hand elicits a rich trove of evidence for historians of sexuality and gender, but the study is ultimately more a traditional (albeit lucid and accessible) social history than a history of sexuality. More attention to work in gay history and queer theory would have enriched the engaging story Gustav-Wrathall tells, enlarging its significance while provoking greater clarity and economy in its analysis of same-sex desire.
As such work clarifies the larger bearings of this rich material, it also encourages a broader sense of audience: while Gustav-Wrathall's preface addresses "those of us today who are struggling for justice and social equality for sexual minorities", his study has powerful lessons for anyone interested in the force of gender and desire in modern life.
James Eli Adams is associate professor of English and Victorian studies, Indiana University, United States.
Take the Young Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relationships and the YMCA
Author - John Donald Gustav-Wrathall
ISBN - 0 226 90784 8
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £18.50
Pages - 267