Monday, December 20, 2010

Homophobia and the Birth of the Gay Civil Rights Movement in 1950s America

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below, I discuss the development of the gay civil rights movement in the 1950s and the "Gay Scare" backlash it inspired.

During the war, millions of gay men and women left their small towns and farming communities where they had lived lonely lives of isolation and entered the military where for the first time they met large numbers of other gays. As a 20-year-old gay draftee wrote a friend, life in the military provided freedom from parental and neighborly scrutiny. “You see, the Army is an utterly simplified existence for me,” he said in a letter. “I have no one to answer to as long as I behave during the week and stay out of the way of the MPs [military police] on weekends. If I go home, how can I stay out all night or promote any serious affair? My parents would simply consider me something perverted and keep me in the house.”

After the war, many homosexuals from middle America settled in cities that already had substantial, established gay communities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Gay servicemen often evaded detection because military psychiatrists, given the job of screening out homosexuals, relied on stereotypes of effeminate gay men and masculine lesbians. Gay men turned to YMCA dormitories and public parks, along with the more traditional gathering places like bathhouses and gay bars, to find sexual and romantic partners and to connect with a larger community. Kinsey’s report on the prevalence of homosexual behavior among men, and his estimate that gays constituted between four to 10 percent of the population, bolstered the confidence of the community even as positive images of lesbian relationships appeared in the paperback novels of Ann Bannon and Paula Christian.

The Cold War, however, sparked a new wave of anti-gay oppression. Some allies of the red-baiting Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy claimed that homosexuality represented part of a communist conspiracy to undermine American masculinity, the family and the country’s military resolve. Government officials claimed that gay government workers posed a security risk because they were weak and vulnerable to blackmail by Soviet agents. In 1950, a State Department official revealed that his office had fired dozens of employees for suspected homosexuality. Republican members of Congress charged that gays had infiltrated President Truman’s administration while the party’s national chair, Guy Gabrielson, sent a letter to thousands of party activists, warning that “sexual perverts” were “perhaps as dangerous as actual communists.” In June 1950, the Senate authorized an investigation into “homosexuals and other moral perverts” serving in the government.

In December 1950, the government issued a report, “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government” that charged, “The lack of emotional stability which is found in most sex perverts and the weakness of their moral fibre makes them susceptible to the blandishments of foreign espionage agents . . . [and] easy prey to blackmailers.” A purge of gay government workers ensued in which employees not only faced the loss of a job. Investigators warned the targets of the gay witch hunt that their lifestyles would be publicly revealed and they could face criminal prosecution if they did not provide names of other homosexuals working in federal agencies.

The number of government employees sacked during the “gay scare” increased by twelve times in the period between 1950 and 1953. Shortly after being sworn in as president, Dwight Eisenhower issued an executive order barring any gay man or woman from working for the federal government. A gay purge happened in the military, with annual discharges doubling through the 1950s. Even companies doing business with the federal government began screening employees for “homosexual tendencies.”

Media outlets like the magazine Newsweek piled on. Responding to Kinsey’s findings, the magazine argued against the tolerance for gays that Kinsey implicitly advocated, declaring that “the sex pervert, whether a homosexual, an exhibitionist, or even a dangerous sadist, is too often regarded as merely a ‘queer’ person who never hurts anyone but himself. Then the mangled form of some victim focuses public attention on the degenerate’s work.” Newsweek held out the hope that modern psychiatry might help gays discover the “error” of their ways but called for tough legal measures against homosexuals, warning that, “The sex pervert [should not] be treated as a coddled patient, but as a particularly virulent type of criminal.”

The federal gay purge probably inspired increased harassment of homosexuals by local police departments, which increased raids on gay bars and bathhouses. Police frequently beat gay suspects. Washington, D.C. police arrested more than 1,000 suspected gays a year in the early 1950s, with other police sweeps of gay hangouts taking place in cities like Baltimore, Miami, New Orleans, and Dallas. So pervasive became homophobia, author Barbara Ehrenreich suggested, that men remained with wives they wanted to leave because of the fear they might be accused of being gay if they left to live on their own. The psychiatric profession, meanwhile, defined homosexuality as a mental illness and many gays found themselves involuntarily committed to mental hospitals where, like unconventional women, they found themselves subjected to electro-shock therapy or to insulin injections aimed at causing “curative” seizures.

Ironically, two of the top figures promoting the Red Scare and its related Gay Scare were Roy Cohn, the closeted gay attorney for Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Committee On Government Operations, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. It was rumored of Hoover that he was gay and a cross dresser. Most gay men like Cohn, and possibly Hoover, stayed in the closet, and a few tried to prove their heterosexuality by being publicly anti-gay. Watching a climate of fear settle over the gay community, however, Henry Hay created what could be described as the first gay civil rights organization in the United States, the Mattachine Society. “The country, it seemed to me, was beginning to move towards fascism and McCarthyism; the Jews wouldn’t be used as a scapegoat this time -- the painful example of Germany was still too clear to us,” Hay said later. “ . . . It was obvious that McCarthy was setting up a pattern for a new scapegoat and it was going to be us – Gays. We had to organize, we had to move, we had to get started.”

The Mattachine Society derived its name from the Italian word mattachino, which referred to medieval court jesters who risked telling the king painful truths. The first chapter of the society formed in Los Angeles in 1951, with affiliates soon popping up in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver and Washington, D.C, the latter city the epicenter of the Gay Scare. In its founding statement of principles, the group sought to consciously imitate other “minority” groups like “the Negro, the Mexican, and the Jewish people,” in developing an “ethical homosexual society” and to campaign against “discriminatory and oppressive legislation” and assist “our people who are victimized daily as part of our oppression.”

The year 1951 also saw publication of "The Homosexual in America," written by Edward Sagarin (who published under the pseudonym Donald Webster Cory). He contended that gays represented a discriminated-against minority group due civil rights and wrote, “there is no homosexual problem except that created by heterosexual society.” Sagarin told his audience that, “What the homosexual wants is freedom – not only freedom of expression, but also sexual freedom.” A gay American had the right to use his body, he said, “so long as he does not use the force of violence, threat, or superior age, so long as he does not inflict bodily harm or disease upon another person; so long as the other person is of sound mind and agrees to the activity.” Unless the gay man would “rise up and demand his rights” then “he will never get them, but until he gets those rights he cannot be expected to expose himself to the martyrdom that would come should he rise up and demand them.” Gays remained trapped in this political paradox, unable to expect others to respect their human dignity but facing horrible consequences for coming out of the closet through political activism, through the 1960s. It would not be until the Stonewall Riot in New York City in 1969 that the gay civil rights movement would make significant headway.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.


Anonymous said...


Tamara Koehler said...

Excellent post.