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Compulsory discrimination against ‘Homosexuals and Sex Perverts,’ 1935-1969

Gail Bederman | Wednesday, April 21, 2010

“Have American homosexuals ever experienced the types of legal discrimination facing women or racial minorities?” The answer is a resounding “Yes!” even if we ignore the issues of marriage and military service. Between 1935 and 1969, federal state and local governments went to previously unknown lengths to find, expose and rid the nation of what authorities called “sex perverts.”

Today, these policies are mostly forgotten. Yet if we forget them, we cannot understand why LGBT Americans began to organize for gay and lesbian civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. This column discusses only four of the era’s many types of compulsory governmental discrimination against LGBT Americans.

1. Arrests for Disorderly Conduct, Loitering, Cross Dressing and Private Sexual Behavior. Until 1880, laws criminalizing voluntary sodomy were rarely enforced. Between 1880 and 1920 all states with large cities, except Texas, made oral sex a felony, too. Arrests increased. Across the nation, police began arresting visibly gay men and women for cross dressing, disorderly conduct or “loitering with lewd intent.” Between 1946 and 1967, hundreds of LGBT persons were arrested each year for sodomy or attempted sodomy, and thousands for lesser offences like “cruising,” propositioning an undercover policeman or woman, wearing sex-inappropriate clothing and being present in a gay or lesbian bar during a raid. Newspapers routinely printed the names of those arrested, who frequently lost their jobs as a result.

2. Liquor Authorities Targeted Gay and Lesbian Bars. After Prohibition, control of alcohol was returned to the states. To regulate bars, saloons and restaurants, states and localities issued liquor licenses, revoking them for establishments considered disorderly. Bars that regularly served “prostitutes or homosexuals” were, by definition, “disorderly.” From California to New York, gay bars were regularly raided and closed.

These state and local laws remained in effect for decades. In 1967, the New York Court of Appeals overturned the state law, ruling that allowing gay persons to congregate, dance and or kiss did not render a bar intrinsically “disorderly.” In the same year, however, the Florida courts upheld Miami’s ordinance prohibiting liquor licensees to “knowingly sell to, serve to or allow consumption of alcoholic beverages by a homosexual person, lesbian or pervert … or to knowingly allow two or more persons who are homosexuals, lesbians or perverts to remain in his place of business.” Continued raids on New York’s gay bars catalyzed the famous 1969 “Stonewall Riots,” widely recognized as the opening salvo of 1970s Gay Liberation.
3. Immigration, Deportation, Citizenship: Although immigration law had long excluded people convicted of “crimes of moral turpitude,” in 1917, the Public Health Service (PHS) began refusing entry to “sexual perverts” or people with “abnormal impulses.” In 1952, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 explicitly forbade to those with “psychopathic personality” — which the PHS assured Congress included “homosexuality or sexual perversion” — from entering the country, or becoming citizens. In 1964, after the Supreme Court ruled the term “psychopathic personality” too vague, Congress passed a new law excluding “sexual deviants.” In 1967, the Supreme Court affirmed the deportation of an otherwise law-abiding Canadian bisexual man who, according to psychologists, showed no signs of psychopathology.

These policies were repealed only in response to the gay rights movement. In 1976, the INS announced that it would no longer deny citizenship to “practicing sexual deviates.” Yet, paradoxically, the INS continued to actively refuse gays and lesbians entry at the border until 1980, when it adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Finally, in 1990, Congress repealed the “sexual deviancy” exclusion.

4. U.S. Civil Service Fires All Homosexuals. Between 1947 and 1950, the Truman administration, responding to Republican accusations that the federal civil service was a hotbed of “sex perversion,” opened 192 investigations; most of the accused lost their posts. The investigations continued. In 1953, shortly after taking office, Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450, requiring each federal department and agency to find and fire all current and potential employees who met listed criteria, including disloyalty, drug addiction and “sexual perversion.” Thousands of gay and lesbian civil servants were fired or forced to resign, well into the 1960s.

Ex-civil servants fired or suspected to be gay were placed on a central list of “security risks” which precluded government employment and often also work in the private sector. The FBI acted as a clearinghouse, consolidating its own investigations with those of the armed forces and local police. The Bureau also investigated homosexuals in the private sector, their associates and — increasingly — the new “homophile” civil rights groups like the Mattachine Society of Washington, founded by Dr. Franklin Kameny, an astronomer fired from the Army Map Service for being gay.

Activists like Kameny founded the gay rights movements of the 1950s through 1960s in order to oppose this unprecedented campaign against America’s sexual minorities. Were these policies unjust? Perhaps only theologians and philosophers can answer such questions. Yet those claim that LGBT Americans have never faced widespread discrimination would do well to consider the years between 1935 through 1969, and learn a lesson from history.


Gail Bederman, an associate professor of history, Gender Studies, and American Studies, recommends the Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America, available online through the Hesburgh Library, for more information on scholarship in this area.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.