Homosexuality in the US – The 20th Century On
Claude Hartland’s autobiography, The Story of a Life, which documented his sexual history, led him to become the first documented homosexual in the United States. The book was an autobiography, written in response to what he saw as the ignorance of doctors and psychologists that failed to ‘cure’ him of his homosexuality.
In 1908, the first American defense of homosexuality was published. The Intersexes: A History of Similisexualism as a Problem in Social Life by Edward Stevenson, writing under the pseudonym of Xavier Mayare also wrote Imre: A Memorandum which was considered one of the first homosexual novels.
As time went on, society became more aware of the homosexual subculture. At the turn of the 20th century, New York City found itself with a large underground homosexual population. This subculture had a strong sense of self-definition and began identifying with terms like ‘middle class queer’ and ‘fairy’. Anthony Comstock, leader of the YMCA in Connecticut, pressed Congress for stronger censorship laws in an attempt to suppress information regarding members. Because of this, YMCAs across the country saw an increase in homosexual conduct.
During the 1920’s, the United States saw a decadent period of partying, and with it, sexual liberation. Several songs were written, including ‘Masculine Women, Feminine Men’ (click to see/hear the song). It was written in 1926 by Edgar Leslie and James Monaco. The recorded version of the lyrics:
Masculine women, feminine men
Which is the rooster, which is the hen?
It’s hard to tell ‘em apart today! And, say!
Sister is busy learning to shave,
Brother just loves his permanent wave,
It’s hard to tell ‘em apart today! Hey! Hey!
Girls were girls and boys were boys when I was a tot,
Now we don’t know who is who, or even what’s what!
Knickers and trousers, baggy and wide,
Nobody knows who’s walking inside
Those masculine women and feminine men!
The 20’s also brought a social acceptance of homosexuality. Up until the 1930’s, many gay clubs were openly operated, and commonly known as ‘pansy clubs’. Famous actors, like William Haines, led openly gay relationships. In 1927, Mae West wrote The Drag, a play about homosexuality, and became an early advocate of gay rights, stating that the issue of sex was a human rights issue.
Unfortunately, as the US progressed into the 1930’s, society saw a reintroduction of Victorian era values, and a shift towards Conservatism. Homosexuality became regarded as a mental disease, and police forces conducted operations to arrest homosexuals. Gays and lesbians were diagnosed as diseased, and ‘treated’ with lobotomies, castration, pudic nerve surgery and shock treatment.
However, when the United States entered WWII in 1941, women were actively recruited, and nearly 250,000 women served in the Armed Forces, mostly in the Women’s Army Corp (WAC). They were recruited with posters featuring masculine women with short hair in tailored uniforms. Rosie the Riveter has become an icon for lesbians. Women began showing up for their inductions in men’s clothing, with slicked back hair. Lesbians were not turned away from service, and in fact, were specifically recruited for positions as mechanics and motor vehicle operators. After the war, many women did not return to their traditional gender roles. This helped redefine societal expectations, and helped lesbian, black, and gay liberation movements.
Yet again, there was a shift in society, and homosexuals again faced persecution in the eyes of society. In 1959, police forces in New York City began closing down gay bars, largely due to efforts by NY Mirror columnist Lee Mortimer. He claimed that all gay bars were operated by the Mafia, and were operating illegally. While this was true of a large number of gay bars, it was also true about ‘straight bars’ as well, but because of the stigma of homosexuality, gay bars were specifically targeted. The New York State Liquor Authority had passed provisions stating that it was illegal for homosexuals to gather and be served alcoholic beverages in bars.
On April 21, 1966, Dick Leitsch, president of the New York Mattachine Society, and two other members took part in the Sip-in at Julius Bar in Greenwich Village. The Sip-in led to the SLA’s provisions being overturned. Because of this victory, the Mattachine Society then put pressure on NYC’s mayor to answer questions regarding discrimination in employment. Their actions led to changes in policy regarding discrimination. However, the police and fire departments did not approve of the changes and did not follow policy. Police continued to raid gay bars.
Around 1:20 am, on Friday, June 27, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. They gathered patrons in the men and women’s bathrooms, arresting any cross-dressers. As they were brought out to the wagons outside of the bar, a crowd had gathered. Fueled by the crowd, as well as being fed up by mistreatment, the patrons, and members of the crowd, began to get rowdy. The police responded by violence, and riots broke out. The rioting continued again the following night, and again a few nights later.
These riots are considered a pivotal turning point for the modern gay rights movement. To commemorate the Stonewall Riots, June is considered Pride Month across the country, and many communities hold Pride events throughout the month.
Homosexuality saw a relative acceptance in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It wasn’t until 1986 that all references to homosexuality as a mental illness were removed from psychological text. Acceptance in society took a hit again in the late 70’s and early 80’s, when doctors saw young men being diagnosed with Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a cancer usually associated with elderly men of Mediterranean ethnicity.
When it was discovered that these young men were all homosexual, the syndrome was dubbed ‘gay cancer’, but this was later changed when other diseases, like pneumocystis pneumonia, were discovered. Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) was the official name given to the disease, and was said to have originated in bath houses in San Francisco. Not much was understood about this aggressive disease, and served to boost homophobia throughout society. It became apparent within the medical community that the disease was not specific to gay men, when it was discovered that others, like blood transfusion patients, intravenous drug users, heterosexual and bisexual women, and newborn babies, had contracted the disease. In 1982, the CDC renamed the syndrome as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, but the stigma still stuck with gay males.
It wasn’t until 2003 that homosexuality (specifically the act of anal sex) was decriminalized. Landmark court cases proved that homosexual sex was not illegal between consenting adults. The 21st century saw a shift in the legalization of same-sex marriage not only in the world, but in several US states. That fight continues today, and in 2011, the Obama Administration announced that provision 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional, and though it would continue to enforce the law, it would no longer defend it in court. The Supreme Court is expected to release a decision on the constitutionality of DOMA at the end of June 2013.
This ends the series A History of Homosexuality. My next post will take a look at homosexuality in various religion, and religion’s impact on the social acceptance of the LGBT community.