What did the Movement for Gay Rights in the U.S.A. Achieve before the 1970s?

 Britt Bean M.A.  (April 2015)

The Second World War was a catalyst for social upheaval, in terms of race, gender and sexuality. There was a radical change in attitudes where ones race, sex or sexuality could affect ones political views. It was a far cry from 1779, when Thomas Jefferson proposed legislation that would see gay men castrated as punishment for being homosexual. In some cases homosexuality was evenpunishable by death. From 1939 onwards, there was a moral battle between homosexuals and the government. Before this though, the Society   for Human Rights in Chicago became the country’s earliest known gay rights organisation, back in 1924. Its charter stated its aim was to ‘protect the interests of people who by reasons of mental and physical abnormalities are abused and hindered in the legal pursuit of happiness.’ From the 1940s, the rights of homosexuals and the voice from this sexual minority grew in strength.

This was a time of reform, with the civil rights movement, demands for equality for women and the right to express ones sexuality. Gay and lesbian political movements flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, with sexuality becoming more politicised.

To find out what the movement for gay rights achieved before the 1970s, we must first, look at the four Ps of the gay community: plight, persecution, prejudice and police raids. On top of this came the intimidation and discrimination. Secondly, it is important to look at the organisations and events that fought back, including key court cases. Finally, let us assess the political and progress made by the gay community, but more importantly what was left undone by the 1970s.

After 1940 homosexuality seemed to be more widespread. In 1948, Alfred Kinsey published his report ‘Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male’, claiming homosexuality was more common than previously thought. Kinsey claimed ‘homosexual activity in the human male is much more frequent than is ordinarily realised.’ He said around thirty-eight per cent of adult males between thirty-six and forty years old had had some homosexual experience, and that ten per cent of men had spent at least three years being ‘exclusively’ gay. Betty Friedan argued there was no evidence of extra homosexuals, just its overt manifestation.  

During WWII, women’s military organisations such as the Navy WAVES and the WACS tested for sexual deviancy and often rooted out ‘manly’ women. In the semi-autobiographical The Beautiful Room is Empty, Edmund White recalls being thrown out of the army for ticking the ‘homosexual tendencies’ box. The army doctor asked him if he had tried psychiatric treatment for it. Meanwhile, homosexuals were punished even ‘after’ serving their country in the armed forces. The 1944 G.I. Bill prevented gay personnel from taking post-service benefits. Margot Canaday, in Building a Straight  State, said it was the first federal policy that explicitly excluded gays and lesbians from the economic benefits of the welfare state. Although this was a deliberate anti-gay policy, actually the structure of the welfare state was family orientated, and thus by its fundamental structure, was pro-family, therefore pro-heterosexual. The discriminatory policy backfired though, because many closeted homosexuals in the army, kept quiet, and claimed the benefits anyway.

In the 1950s, the Lavender Scare classed gay people as a security risk, open to blackmail, and on a par with the anti-Communist Red Scare. It led to the sacking of many government personnel. Things were worse in Florida, where a war on ‘perverts’ was created, resulting in a mass exodus. Gay bars were routinely closed down, and there was a campaign to sack gay teachers. In 1950 onwards, civil service sackings continued and Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450, banning all sexual ‘perverts’ from government employment.

The employment discrimination followed intimidation in the gay bars, with undercover police trapping suspected gay men and women, and in military towns and ports, the army and navy also patrolled the gay areas, during and just after the war. They banned personnel from frequenting bars associated with homosexuality. Under the 1941 May Act, the military could shut them down. This gave the police confidence to constantly raid bars. In Nan Anamilla Boyd’s Wide Open Town, Joe Baron talks about police entrapment in San Francisco in the 1950s, being groped by undercover police and how gay people would sometime be put on the deviants register (like the sex offenders register in the UK). 

So who was fighting back in the gay community? There were some key organisations, events and incident. In 1951, The Mattachine Society was founded. It was the first national gay rights organisation, based on an outspoken civil rights leadership style, surviving in separate cells. It was followed by the launch of ONE, the first pro-gay magazine, sold openly on the streets of Los Angeles. The union of gay rights campaigners began to strengthen the cause. It was continued in 1955, when the lesbian group, Daughters of Bilitis, formed in San Francisco, to work for the acceptance of lesbians in society. By the mid 1960s gay people in the U.S. were forming more visible groups, and whole communities, as a basis for influencing radical social change. Many groups arranged sit-ins, strikes, pickets and protests over discrimination. The right for freedom of choice and privacy became a key social and political issue.

The famous court case Stouman vs. Reilly was also a turning point in gay rights. In 1949, the Black Cat restaurant was accused of serving gays, was raided and shut down. Its owner argued that gay people had a right to gather. Initial court hearings backed the authorities, but it went as high as the state’s Supreme Court in 1950 which ruled that gays were human beings and had a right to gather. It said homosexuality remained illegal, but the actual gathering of homosexuals was not illegal. The Black Cat got back its liquor license.  After the ruling, police policy on gay bars changed, and were more relaxed. Gay bars openly flourished, and changed from bars which welcomed gays, into actual gay bars. In 1955 new laws allowed increased intimidation and surveillance under the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Baron says San Francisco went from a wide-open town with a sexual sub-culture, to a town hostile to the gay community.

In 1969, the Stonewall riots turned isolated gay rights campaigns into a unified and widespread organisation demanding equal rights. Customers in New York gay bar, The Stonewall Inn, fought back during a police raid, sparking three days of rioting, in opposition to continued police persecution. Hundreds of people got involved.  The significance of the riots was great. They influenced gay rights campaigners on a national level. Just days after Stonewall, many local gay rights groups were formed, to join the fight against discrimination. Even the quieter campaign groups were spurred on to organise new marches and events to further their cause. Stonewall brought the seriousness of the situation to the forefront of politics and social discussion. In 1969, after Stonewall, the Gay Liberation Front was created out of several gay rights movements, becoming an influential organisation in the fight to promote rights for homosexuals. Its demand for equality and an end to gender roles was seen as a strong force fighting for its rights. Supporters claimed the GLF increased the visibility of gay men and women, furthering their cause with great vigour. It is credited with creating a better public awareness of the link between homosexuality and politics.

In conclusion, one can sum up progress made by gay rights campaigners, by what they achieved and by what they ‘failed to achieve’.  They achieved much by a strong militant resistance, especially in the GLF and Stonewall riots.  The U.S. Supreme Court finally put an end to laws criminalizing same-sex intercourse in Lawrence v. Texas case, 2003 Law makers at state and federal level continued to target lesbians and gay men with draconian legislation and hateful rhetoric. The gay rights movement is still working to change this. Some progress was made, in 1962, when Illinois became the first state to decriminalise homosexual acts in private, between adults. Gay rights continued its struggle after 1970, with Harvey Milk becoming the first ever openly gay publicly elected official on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. After that, came the struggle to fight Proposition 6. Gay rights and gay identities emerged and flourished as a result of events like Stonewall, the Stouman vs. Reilly case and the ONE
magazine. A homosexual voice emerged, in protest. By 1961, the Illinois Sodomy Law was repealed, legislators claiming it was a victimless crime; by 2003 it was still illegal in fourteen states though. A few states adopted the same legislation. To answer the question, was anything achieved before the 1970s, it must be said ‘yes’, but it was only the beginning. I would argue that the real achievements, on top of the foundation events of the 1950s and 1960s, happened AFTER 1970; the beating of California’s Proposition 6 in 1978, the removal of homosexuality from the list of mental disorders in 1973, and the further overturning of anti-discriminatory laws, tolerance in the military and eventual acceptance, leading to recognised civil partnerships and equality.

www.outhistory.org  www.harryhay.com  www.lesbianlife.about.com

Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male

Margot Canaday, Building a Straight State

Edmund White, The Beautiful Room is Empty