The YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association, also known as "the Y") is an organization dedicated to putting "Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all." One of the primary ways that this three-part goal has been achieved is through building dormitories for young men in need of housing, and providing gymnasiums for their physical development. The combination of communal housing, distance from family, and the overt physicality of the setting has often been credited with positioning the YMCA as a same-sex playground. The YMCA has been popularly understood as a place where homosexual encounters were possible, although not actively encouraged. The 1970s disco hit "YMCA" by the Village People depended on this understanding, encouraging men to visit so that they could "hang out with all the boys."
The YWCA (Young Women's Christian Association) is an organization with a similar mission and early history. It was a more revolutionary concept than the YMCA, perhaps, because in the late nineteenth century the idea of providing physical education for women was unheard of. The YWCA did not become associated with homosexual activity in a general way, however. This had to do partly with its different emphasis; while the men's organization encouraged employment by providing housing for men in search of work, the YWCA actively engaged in job training. In this way, its atmosphere was more like that of a professional school than a mere dormitory. Similarly, social expectations of women dictated closer and more careful supervision than was true of men, providing fewer opportunities for illicit sexual behavior of any kind. It is notable, however, that the YWCA movement began in Boston, and that the long-term live-in relationships between unmarried women, including many YWCA members, were called Boston marriages in the nineteenth century.
George Williams, who had come to the city to work as a draper, founded the YMCA in London in 1844. Realizing that many men like himself were flocking to the cities in search of work, and that they were particularly susceptible to moral corruption in their new surroundings, Williams and a group of Evangelical Christians founded the organization to provide healthy, morally sound activities for young men. The movement quickly spread to other countries, and was brought to the United States in 1851 by missionary Thomas Sullivan. In the United States, the YMCA retained its primary function of providing a Christian-based home for young men who had moved to the city in search of work, and offered a social structure to protect them from the corrupting influences of the city. The first American YMCA was established in Boston, but the movement quickly spread. By 1855, there were twenty-four YMCAs, and more than, 400 by 1895.
From its beginnings, the YMCA focused on Bible study, self-help, and prayer, which required no specialized facilities. Most chapters met in rented buildings or used public buildings such as schools. Because so few chapters owned buildings, the original residential aspect was fulfilled more through coordination; they assisted young men in finding housing rather than providing it themselves. In the 1880s, the focus changed to emphasize the importance of physical fitness, which required the construction of special facilities and gymnasiums. Several sports, including basketball and volleyball, are said to have been invented in YMCA chapters, and the organization was the first to build and maintain indoor swimming pools. In the custom of the day, men swam in the nude, lending to the homoerotic atmosphere of the setting. As the YMCA local associations built gymnasium buildings and acquired property, they also built dormitories to provide on-site housing for their members. Thus, the YMCA offered men the chance to be in a very physical setting with each other, often in the nude, and to live in close quarters as well. The physical temptations that the organization originally set out to counteract seemed, in fact, to be replaced by physical temptations within the YMCA itself. There has also been speculation that the YMCA is largely responsible for a new attention paid to men's bodies in general in the United Sates in the twentieth century. The physical fitness programs made it possible to discuss the human body in public in a way that had not existed before, and men's bodies were at the center of this discussion and scrutiny. While YMCA policy rejected homosexuality, it also valued creating beautiful male bodies and keeping them in close proximity to each other.
The dormitories were very popular with members, and as expected, were inhabited by young men newly arrived in the city. Residence was open to all members, however, and in many cities unmarried men chose to move into the YMCA instead of other accommodations. It was not uncommon for men, particularly those in leadership positions (called secretaries) in local chapters to cohabit in YMCA lodgings. One such well-known couple was Richard C. Morse (whose autobiography is entitled My Life with Young Men) and Robert R. McBurney (for whom the chapter in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood is now named), who lived together for five years in a YMCA in Manhattan. There is evidence that the organization's leaders were aware of the potential for homosexual activity in the dormitories, as rules governing who could serve as secretaries were changed in the early twentieth century. While not completely excluded from leadership, unmarried men were discouraged from becoming secretaries, thus making it less likely that those formulating and implementing rules governing the dormitories would also be residents. Even with these measures in place, homosexual activity continued in YMCAs across the country. Even more disturbing to organization leaders was the fact that such activity was not confined to unmarried members. The YMCA became known as a place where married men could find easy access to extramarital homosexual liaisons.
In the twentieth century, non-resident membership at YMCAs increased dramatically, as men joined primarily to use the gymnasium facilities. Because of their founding mission, YMCAs have catered to transient populations, which increased the possibility for casual, short-term relationships between members and residents. The locker rooms and showers enabled men to interact in the nude, allowing opportunities for voyeurism, exhibitionism, and sexual activity of all sorts. In this way, the YMCA is the forerunner for the sexual function of the gymnasium in general. YMCAs in certain locations became known as sexual destinations, particularly the Chelsea Y in Manhattan and the San Francisco Y.
Following World War II, San Francisco emerged as a gay metropolis; many have attributed this to its function as the disembarkation point for most of the Pacific fleet returning from war. The U.S. Navy has long been popularly understood as the most homoerotic of the armed forces (the flamboyant band the Village People recorded a hit song called "In the Navy") and the large number of naval personnel in San Francisco during and immediately following the war years has long been attributed to its transformation into the most famous gay-friendly city in the United States. Because of its military function, San Francisco also had a large population of temporary or short-term residents, many of whom made use of the YMCA facilities. From the 1950s through the 1970s, the San Francisco Y was famous for the homosexual activity on its premises. It became common for men to vacation at the Y, staying in the dormitory for a weekend of casual sexual activity. It is this function of the YMCA that the Village People popularized in their 1978 disco hit.
Ironically, the YMCA became well known as a location for illicit homosexual activity just as that function was coming to a halt. The growing gay rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s allowed for more gay clubs and bars to operate openly in communities throughout the United States, thereby eliminating the YMCA as the primary place for men to meet each other for sex. Likewise, the covert nature of homosexuality at the Y was distasteful for many; when it was the only option it had been acceptable, but most preferred gay-friendly establishments where men meeting men was sanctioned, not illicit. The rise of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s also made casual anonymous sex dangerous, thus leading to the decline of the YMCA (as well as other establishments such as bathhouses) as a location for sexual activity.
In the later twentieth century, the YMCA significantly changed its mission to be family-centered rather than exclusively male. Membership became open to all community members regardless of sex, and children's athletic programs became a focus of the organization. It is somewhat remarkable that the YWCA, which might seem a more likely organization to focus upon family and children, has largely retained its female-centered mission, largely tied to social justice for women, while the YMCA has significantly broadened its mission. While the YWCA has been a focus of feminist ideas and practice, which in popular culture may be associated with lesbianism, the YWCA has none of the history of actual sexual activity that the YMCA has.
see also Physical Culture.
Chauncey, George. 1989. "Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion?: Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War One Era." In Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr. New York: New American Library.
Gustav-Wrathall, John Donald. 1998. Take the Young Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations at the YMCA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mjagkij, Nina, and Margaret Spratt, eds. 1997. Men and Women Adrift: The YWCA and YWCA in the City. New York: New York University Press.
Neumann, Caryn E. "YMCA." GLBTQ. Available from http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/ymca.html.
Young Women's Christian Association. "History" and "Mission." Available from www.ywca.org.
Brian D. Holcomb