Pre 1990s

1950s

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Government Persecution of the LGBTQ Community is Widespread

Frank Kameny appealed his 1957 firing by the U.S. Army in the first known legal proceedings that used pro-LGBTQ arguments.
Frank Kameny appealed his 1957 firing by the U.S. Army in the first known legal proceedings that used pro-LGBTQ arguments.

The 1950s were perilous times for individuals who fell outside of society’s legally allowed norms relating to gender or sexuality. There were many names for these individuals, including the clinical “homosexual,” a term popularized by pioneering German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing. In the U.S., professionals often used the term “invert.” In the mid-19th Century, many cities formed “vice squads” and police often labeled the people they arrested “sexual perverts.” The government’s preferred term was “deviant,” which came with legal consequences for anyone seeking a career in public service or the military. “Homophile” was the term preferred by some early activists, small networks of women and men who yearned for community and found creative ways to resist legal and societal persecution. 

With draft eligibility officially lowered from 21 to 18 in 1942, World War II brought together millions of people from around the country–many of whom were leaving their home states for the first time–to fill the ranks of the military and the federal workforce. Among them were gays and lesbians, who quietly formed kinships on military bases around the world. They served in silence, always fearful that revealing their identity to a potential new partner or friend could get them dishonorably discharged, if not court martialled. The military first developed formal punishments for homosexual behavior during WWI, and over time developed increasingly probing means to root out “deviants” from within and prevent them from enlisting. In 1947, President Dwight Eisenhower implemented new standards for civil servants that banned homosexuals from serving in many positions. 

The Lavender Scare 

Thousands of members of the military and civil servants would be dismissed because of rules against homosexual behavior. A few anecdotes seemed to support the government’s reasoning homosexuals were a grave security threat because they could be blackmailed by foreign governments. The idea was hard to counter as few homosexuals were in a position to publicly discuss their identity.  

In the years following WWII, homosexuals were more directly tied to communism. The Cold War period gave rise to Senator Joseph McCarthy, who explicitly targeted “deviants,” not only in government service, but also in Hollywood as part of a larger project to rid America of its undesirable elements. The highly publicized effort to rid the U.S. of communists came to be known as the “Red Scare,” while the effort to dismiss homosexuals would later be termed the “Lavender Scare.”

There were no out LGBTQ elected officials in the entire country.

Pauli Murray Publishes Book Outlining Civil Rights Movement Strategy

UNC Archives
UNC Archives

Pauli Murray was a trailblazing civil rights activist, women’s right activist, lawyer and Episcopal priest who spent a lifetime advocating for civil and human rights for all people.  

In the 1930s Murray changed their birth name from “Anna Pauline” to “Pauli” and attempted to pursue gender-affirming treatments but was denied.  

Murray’s involvement with the civil rights movement began in 1938 when they attempted to enroll in the University of North Carolina, an all-white graduate school. Pauli was arrested in 1940 for refusing to sit in the back of a bus in Richmond, Virginia. Murray attended law school at Howard University and received the Rosenwald Fellowship for graduating at the top of the class. Past winners of the Fellowship attended Harvard, but Murray was rejected on the basis of gender.

Murray’s 1950 book, States’ Laws on Race and Color laid the groundwork for the strategy of the burgeoning civil rights movement and its legal analysis is considered the basis for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which sought to end legal segregation in schools. Murray had public relationships with women and wrote extensively about sexual and gender identity.

Daughters of Bilitis Forms

Beginning with only eight members in San Franscisco, the Daughters of Bilits (DOB) was established in order to give lesbians to find refuge during a period of intense discrimination. DOB soon transitioned to become the first lesbian political organization. Their name comes from a collection of poems by Pierre Louÿs titled Songs of Bilitis, a female character who was in a relationship with Sappho, a Greek lyric poet. 

DOB’s official publication was The Ladder, a magazine which articulated the goals of DOB by emphasizing the normalcy of lesbians. From 1956 until 1972, The Ladder featured the mission statement:

  1. Education of the variant...to enable her to understand herself and make her adjustment to society...this to be accomplished by establishing...a library...on the sex deviant theme; by sponsoring public discussions...to be conducted by leading members of the legal psychiatric, religious and other professions; by advocating a mode of behavior and dress acceptable to society.
  2. Education of the public...leading to an eventual breakdown of erroneous taboos and prejudices...
  3. Participation in research projects by duly authorized and responsible psychologists, sociologists, and other such experts directed towards further knowledge of the homosexual.
  4. Investigation of the penal code as it pertain to the homosexual, proposal of changes,...and promotion of these changes through the due process of law in the state legislatures.

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