by Scott
April 15, 1993


The Evolution of the Homosexual Rights Movement in the United States

Homosexuality has been an issue in American society and American politics since a colonial government was first created. In fact, the very nature of those colonials has set the stage for the problems that continue to exist today. As is commonly known, e arly colonials were escaping religious persecution in Europe; this meant that they were themselves highly religious people. Their first laws, and most of those which have followed, were therefore based on Christian Protestant principles (Oaks p.268).
One of these Christian principles is that of sexual ethics. The Puritan colonies patterned their laws after the Old Testament, except for Rhode Island, which patterned its laws after the New Testament (Oaks p.268). Homosexuality was referred to as "sod omy" and sometimes "buggery" (Oaks p.268). More eloquent judges referred to it as "the infamous crime against nature" or "a thing fearful to name" (Oaks p.268, Murphy p.52). There was, in fact, never an actual definition of sodomy or buggery; it cam e to refer to any sexual act which offended those in positions of power, such as government and law enforcement officials.

This relationship between colonial laws and elite Christians is quite understandable, but was very uncomfortable for gay men living in the colonies. In 1636, Plymouth became the first colony "to make sodomy and buggery punishable by death" (Oaks p.268). Usually, the sentence was lowered to something less extreme, such as being "whipped, burned on the shoulder with a hot iron, and banished from the colony" (Oaks p.270).

Lesbians were not vexed by these laws at this time. One possible reason for this is that, quite simply, no one ever considered whether two women could even, physically speaking, be guilty of sodomy (Murphy p.61). Another possibility is that the common perception of women at this time was that they were asexual, and would not have any motivation to commit the crime (Crooks and Baur p.12).

At this point, homosexuals were primarily thought of as evil. One man convicted of sodomy, for instance, was described as, "moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil" (Murphy p.52). Modern scholars now believe that the actual sins of the town o f Sodom had nothing to do with homosexuality whatsoever; the actual crimes were probably "inhospitable treatment of visitors," as well as "general wickedness," and "forcible sexual abuse" (Murphy p.51). Therefore, these early sodomy laws are an excelle nt example of how cultural norms can mold and alter a religion, which is contrary to the common sensibility that religion creates norms.

Sodomy laws were incorporated into state laws as the colonies formed the United States of America, and the same sort of legal prudery continued to exist. For this reason, the Victorian Era made very little difference to homosexuals when it arrived in 183 7. To homosexuals in Europe, the Victorian Era and its accompanying anti-sex law making was a jolt which finally began the first wave of the homosexual rights movement in 1864 (Lauritsen and Thorstad p.6). Apparently, the movement was purely reactionar y, and since American homosexuals were experiencing no change to react to, there was no incentive to fight.

By World War II, the first homosexual rights movement in Europe had been over for a decade. The first organization for homosexuals had been in existence in Germany for forty years, but was swiftly squashed by the Nazi regime (Marcus p.1). Society, in g eneral, no longer considered homosexuals to be evil; now, psychiatrists and psychologists believed "that all homosexuals were mentally ill and that their illness was treatable" (Marcus p.16).

World War II was the jolt that American homosexuals seemed to have been waiting for. There are three main theories as to what the nature of this jolt was. Some historians believe that World War II cause a rash of cases of "institutionalized discriminati on in the military,government employment, and in urban gathering places across the country" (Marcus p.1). Others believe that the military itself, with its "nonfamiliar, often sex-segregated environments," offered countless opportunities for homosexuals to discover, "that they were not alone" (Marcus p.1). In other words, World War II was experienced as a unique combination of oppression and hope by American homosexuals.

In 1948, the Kinsey Report on male sexuality gave homosexuals even more fuel for the fire. This report indicated that 37% of males "had experienced erotic psychological responses to the same sex" (Crooks and Baur p.318). While this helped homosexuals t o feel that they were not alone, its was actually damaging in that it increased the public's fear of homosexuals. The institutionalized discrimination brought on by the war was continued during the Cold War with similar consequences (Marcus p.1). "Homo sexual," was identified with the equally un-American terms, "communist," and "atheist."

The early social structure of homosexual communities was similar to what it is now. Major communities developed in Los Angeles and San Francisco first, simply by chance. Major cities have since then been the heart of American homosexual society, perhaps because only in these places were there enough homosexuals for a community to actually be formed. Once communities had been established in Los Angeles and San Francisco, they grew fairly rapidly as word of the existence of such communities reached other parts of the country.

These communities were kept very quiet. They consisted of homes of homosexuals, used for parties, meetings and general socializing, and gay bars, where males and females alike could go, although some bars were segregated. There were even gay comics and male and female impersonators. Law enforcement officials' standard practice was to occasionally raid these bars, especially the men's clubs, and arrest a few people. Often, some roughing up of the men by the police occurred. (Marcus p.5-15)

The first lasting official homosexual organizations were formed at this time. The Mattachine Society was formed in 1950 in Los Angeles as an organization for gay men. Lesbians founded the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955 in San Francisco. Initially, the on ly purpose of these kinds of organizations was to provide social support for other homosexuals. Several periodicals were published by these groups and others; some still exist, such as The Mattachine Review.

Homosexuals were first defined as normal by a psychologist, Dr. Evelyn Hooker, in 1956 at a meeting of the American Psychological Association in 1956 (Marcus p.24). Her study had been begun at the direct urging of the homosexual community of the Univers ity of California at Los Angeles (Marcus p.16-24). This began a drastic alteration of traditional social science and societal views of homosexuals. As might be expected, the majority of the scientific community and society did not go along with Dr. Hoo ker's report, but it was very beneficial to the homosexual community, which had been closely following her work.

The sexual revolution began in the early 1960's as a result of media influence (Smith p.415). That is to say that there really was no "sexual revolution"; societal values had been slowly changing for quite some time (Smith p.419). Actually, the chang es associated with the sexual revolution, such as "communes and cohabitation, free love and easy sex, wife swapping and swinging, coming out of the closet and living out of wedlock, x-rated movies and full-frontal foldouts" (Smith p.416), had been becomi ng more and more prevalent since World War II. These things were simply not discovered by the media until about 1963.

The ironic thing about this media-synthesized sociological event is that the announcement of a sexual revolution actually gave people permission to become sexual revolutionaries. In effect, the media caused the sexual revolution instead of discovering it .

The sexual revolution actually had little, if any, effect on the general public's view of homosexuality (Smith p.417). This is quite contrary to the common expectancy that the sexual revolution would have caused increased acceptance of homosexuals. The effect of the revolution on homosexuals was similar to that of the population at large, but more exaggerated. Sex among gay males became very "free," to use the jargon of the time.

The important aspect of the sexual revolution on the homosexual rights movement is that it helped, along with the civil rights and women's rights movements, inspire homosexuals to become active and public about gay liberation (Knopp p.25). This change i n the psychology of gay society had become gay militancy by 1969, much as the feminist and black movements had transformed.

Most people, including the gay and mainstream press, often assert that the gay rights movement began in 1969 (Marcus p.ix). This is because the Stonewall riots, which began on June 28 of that year and lasted for three days, put gay militancy into action and launched the vocal, confrontational gay movement that most people associate with the term "gay movement" today. In addition, it is the one most dramatic event in the history of American homosexuality.

Up until the Stonewall riots, police raids on gay bars had been routine. The Stonewall Inn was a gay bar at 53 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, New York City which was mainly patronized by black and latino customers, most of which were male. Sho rtly after midnight on June 28, a routine raid began, but within 45 minutes it had turned into a violent riot which lasted for two more nights. The riots made it into national headlines and inspired resistance to such police raids in other cities.

Stonewall also marks the first inter-generational gap in the homosexual community and the beginning of the break between gay society and lesbian society. Previous generations of homosexual men were more sexually conservative and preferred to keep their s exuality to themselves, the new generation was promiscuous and vocal. Lesbian society, like older gay male society, preferred to be more sexually conservative and private, so a gap began to emerge between the two groups. (Teal p.1-37)

In 1970, the gay power movement had reached such proportions that parades were held to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots. In the meantime, the Mattachine Society had sponsored homosexual liberation meetings and the Gay Liberation F ront had been formed. The aim of the new organization was not to meekly show that homosexuals were acceptable, as it felt the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis had been doing, but rather to force themselves upon society without mercy (Teal p.38).

Homosexuals became increasingly organized and concentrated in cities such as New York and San Francisco. Gays who were unhappy with the speed at which the Gay Liberation Front was moving formed even more extreme organizations. By 1980, most large cities had "at least one predominantly gay neighborhood" (Knopp p.25). "in 1984, the city of West Hollywood, California, incorporated and became what is probable the first majority-gay city in North America" (Knopp p.25).

The second most dramatic event in gay American history is the AIDS epidemic which began officially in 1981. In previous years, gay lifestyles had become increasingly promiscuous. A common pastime was going to "bathhouses" where one could have almost ano nymous sex with a large number of partners every night of the week. (Shilts) For example, Gaetan Dugas, now recognized as patient zero of the initial wave of the infection in North America, had been with at least 2,500 men by 1981, after only ten years of leading a gay lifestyle (Shilts p.83). He was actually typical for the time (Shilts p.83).

The often celebrated sexual restraint exercised by the gay community after the discovery of the disease was actually not nearly that simple. Gay man vehemently protested suggestions that they should curb their sexuality or use condoms until well into 198 3 (Shilts). By that time, their lives and political position were in extreme danger.

Coincidentally, the New Religious Right had formed a coalition with the Republican Party in 1980, after first becoming motivated specifically because of the gay issue in 1977. The wide favor that the New Right enjoyed was probably partially a societal re action to the permissiveness of the 1960's and 70's. Patrick J. Buchanan, political and religious conservative, wrote in 1983, "The poor homosexuals - they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution" (Shilts p.311). In essence, the religious right was returning to the rhetoric of the seventeenth century; therefore, their position was not just conservative, but very reactionary.

Once homosexuals had caught on to the precariousness of their position, they began even more militant political maneuvering. There were several things that were done. First, gays tried to gain public support for their infected comrades and sympathy for their group as a whole with the disease. Second, they fought the stereotype that only gay men caught the disease, even though this was basically true until just recently (this is only true in the United States; in other countries it is indeed a heter osexual disease) (Fumento p.51). Third, even more militant gay groups were created in reaction to public fear and hatred of homosexuals.

These new organizations often had a specific emphasis on AIDS. A few are National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Gay Men's Health Crisis, Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, Queer Nation, LEAGUE America, ACT UP, and Outpost (Turque p.22). Had the right wing and these gay groups been the only players in the game, it is questionable as to who would have won, but they were not.

The medical community was a fascinating player in unfolding of the AIDS drama. At first, it could or would not mobilize against the disease (Shilts). Later, it became a separate political entity that tipped the balance of power to the homosexual side. The medical community, motivated by a desire to contain the disease, consciously exaggerated the seriousness of the threat to the heterosexual community (Fumento 51). Its desire to prevent public panic motivated it to emphasize the body fluid transmiss ion method, even when it was not sure that exchange of body fluids was the only manner of contracting the disease, although it seemed likely that this was true from the beginning (Shilts). "Medical community" most specifically refers to the Centers for Disease Control and the former Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop.

AIDS became a symbol of oppression to gays, just as sodomy laws had been. To them, society had to put huge amounts of money into the disease or it was not adequately recognizing the needs of the gay community. In fact, AIDS spending exploded beyond the range that statistical arguments could justify; in 1990, it dropped to the fifteenth biggest killer of Americans, while it still received more federal funding than any other cause of death (Fumento p.51).

By 1990, the question of what caused homosexuality surfaced once again. The first theory is that it is cause either by a twist of genetics, a birth defect, or some sort of hormonal abnormality; in other words, it is biological. The second theory is tha t something about a person's socialization leads them to "choose" a homosexual lifestyle.

A gay man named Benkert first used the biology argument as a political tool in 1869 in Prussia. He wrote a letter to the minister of justice saying that the new law against homosexual acts among males was unjust because homosexuals were a naturally occur ring "third sex" and, since they were biologically determined to be gay, posed no threat to the sexual orientation of those with "normal sexualism" (Lauritsen and Thorstad p.6-7). In 1903, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, the first European gay ri ghts organization, even went so far as to suggest that homosexuals, male and female alike, shared a third "physical type" that was different than that of normal males and females (who were, of course, different from each other) (Lauritsen and Thorstad p. 48-49).

Another reason that it is advantageous for homosexuals to attribute their sexual orientation to nature in a sexually repressed society is that it relieves parents, siblings and acquaintances of the formative years from guilt. For these two reasons, resea rch is now being done on things such as the size of a gay man's hypothalamus in a futile attempt to prove that structural brain abnormality causes homosexuality. This is strangely reminiscent of the ludicrous assertions of the Scientific Humanitarian Com mittee. Basically, the powerful gay organizations which have developed are using their political muscle to alter public opinion and improve their lot in life.

With the election of President Bill Clinton came yet another battle for the gay rights movement. The United States military ban on homosexuals has long been a symbol of oppression for homosexuals, just as AIDS and sodomy laws have been. The interesting aspect of the military question is that it shows how far behind the United States is in homosexual rights. Homosexuality is legal in all European countries except Eire, Liechtenstein and Romania, while it remains illegal in 25 states in America (Knopp p .20-23); in 1986, the U. S. Supreme Court upheld states' rights to outlaw sodomy (Salholz p.23). Similarly, Western Europeans have long since abandoned their restrictions against homosexuals in the military.

The only explanation seems to be that Christianity is incredibly strong in American culture and American government. Apparently, the only way for homosexuals to gain "equal rights" is either for American Christianity to evolve to a point where it is acce pting of homosexuality or for American society to abandon Christianity. It could be a very long time before either of those things happen.

Since the threat of AIDS has been reduced to levels that are not too alarming, a second generational rift has occurred in homosexual culture. The younger generation of homosexuals, gays and lesbians alike, who were not sexually active during the deadly 7 0's and 80's, are once again embracing sexual hedonism (Baker p.22-23). The most interesting aspect of this is the sexual liberation in lesbian culture, which was previously almost prudish and rejected anything that could be considered erotica as exploi tative. Now, things such as lesbian erotica and strip clubs are surfacing. (Baker p.23).

In the future, the American public's acceptance will be closely related to religion as it has been in the past. This is actually more hopeful for homosexuals than might be expected. Churches are reacting to declining memberships by altering their doctri nes to conform to a more sexually liberal congregation. While the United States seemed to be moving towards a new era of Puritanism in the early 80's, it now seems to be moving back towards the more long term trend of ever increasing sexual liberalism. (Sheler, Horn p.64). On the other hand, this may simply be another point in a constant series of ups and downs. Ultimately, only time will tell.

References

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Shilts, Randy.  And the Band Played On.  Penguin Group.  New York, 1987.
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