Love on the March
Reflections on the gay community’s political progress—and its future.
Although the formerly unspeakable practices associated with homosexuality are older than recorded history, the notion of a distinct gay identity is a relatively recent invention. Not until the nineteenth century did anyone have the idea of dividing humanity neatly into those who desire their own sex and those who desire the other. Before then, confusion reigned. Gay sex acts were forbidden almost everywhere, but punishment was inconsistent. Between 1786 and 1873, there were only twenty prosecutions for sodomy in New York. George Chauncey, in his classic 1994 book, “Gay New York,” evokes a loosey-goosey metropolis at the turn of the last century, in which single men from all classes of society could amuse themselves with fairies—flamboyant, often cross-dressing men, who played the passive role in sex—when girls weren’t readily available. Lesbian relationships could flourish under the cover of Boston marriages: socially acceptable alliances between unmarried women, so named for the charged friendship between Olive Chancellor and Verena Tarrant, in Henry James’s “The Bostonians.”
The American gay movement drew inspiration from Germany, where, in 1867, a renegade legal scholar named Karl Heinrich Ulrichs went before the Congress of German Jurists, in Munich, to plead for the repeal of sodomy laws. He was shouted down, but by the end of the century Magnus Hirschfeld had established the first gay-rights organization, in Berlin. In Chicago, in 1924, a German immigrant named Henry Gerber, who had studied Hirschfeld’s organization, founded a Society for Human Rights. It was quickly stymied by the police, with the press shuddering at the existence of a “strange sex cult.” Even so, gay subcultures were surreptitiously thriving in large cities. At the end of the twenties, gay life became almost chic in New York, with curiosity-seekers attending drag balls, Mae West parading gay friends, and the cabaret star Jean Malin presiding over a “pansy craze” in midtown. (“I’d rather be Spanish than mannish,” Malin sang.)
The first creaking open of the closet led to a colossal shove of repression. Chauncey’s book gives a queasy sense of a progressive society suddenly grinding in reverse: it seems as though the public-spiritedness of the Depression and the Second World War era required certain individuals to be expelled as scapegoats. New York passed laws against cross-dressing, onstage representations of homosexuals, and gatherings of gays in clubs. Police could close a bar if they heard men talking in high-pitched voices. In the thirties, the Motion Picture Production Code banned any hint of homosexuality. Leading psychiatrists, abandoning Freud’s relatively nonjudgmental position, described homosexuals as “sexual psychopaths.” There were experiments in electric and pharmacological shock treatment, hormone injection, castration, and lobotomy. One site of such remedies, Atascadero State Hospital, in California, later became known as “Dachau for queers.”
The hysteria reached its climax in the fifties, when politicians seized on the idea that lesbians and gays were a security risk. Senator Joseph McCarthy set off the witch-hunt when he noted the presence of homosexuals on his infamous list of Communists at the State Department. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which banned, among other things, “sexual perversion” in government; the historian David Johnson estimates that some five thousand gay people lost their jobs as a result. In an episode loosely dramatized in the novel and film “Advise and Consent,” Senator Lester Hunt, of Wyoming, killed himself after Styles Bridges, a senator from New Hampshire, threatened to expose Hunt’s son as a homosexual. Bridges still has a highway named after him.
Despite the noxious atmosphere, a more forthright gay culture emerged. In fact, the inquisition may have only hastened the process. The question lobbed at prospective soldiers during the Second World War—“Are you homosexual?”—raised consciousness rather than suppressing it. (Wait, am I?) G.I.s who carried the stigma of the “blue discharge,” for homosexual behavior, had nothing to lose by living openly. Lesbians were emboldened by the shakeup of gender roles in the era of Rosie the Riveter and Eleanor Roosevelt. “I venture to predict that there will be a time in the future when gay folk will be accepted as part of regular society,” Edith Eyde wrote in the pioneering magazine Vice Versa, which she distributed via carbon copies. And a few literary figures came out: before Gore Vidal and Truman Capote, there was the poet Robert Duncan, who, in his 1944 essay “The Homosexual in Society,” asked liberals to “recognize homosexuals as equals.”