For much of American history, homosexuality was largely considered unspeakable and unprintable, and this was evident with how some apparently closeted politicians were addressed. In 1924, Harold Knutson’s (R-Minn.) apparent tryst in a car with a male bureaucrat was reported as a “grave moral offense” and despite offering officers a bribe he survived the scandal and even became chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. It was regarded as an open secret that Senator David I. Walsh (D-Mass.) was a homosexual, but the public of the state had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude on it. As long as Walsh’s homosexuality was kept in the shadows, the Massachusetts public largely chose to look the other way. It was only after unsubstantiated accusations by Walter Winchell of him frequenting a Nazi-infiltrated brothel that he was defeated for reelection in 1946. During the 1950s, homosexuals were thought of as security risks in government by numerous American anti-communist politicians and the American government as they were under the belief that they were vulnerable to blackmail by Soviet agents. They also thought them to be susceptible to communist recruitment and psychologically disturbed. Such beliefs were bolstered by the fact that most of the founders of the gay rights organization, the Mattachine Society, were along with its leader, Harry Hay, communists. Ironically, Hay himself was expelled from the Communist Party, at his own recommendation to protect the party which also opposed homosexuality at the time, as a “security risk” (Feinberg).
In President Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450 in 1953, “sexual perversion” is the term employed for grounds for investigation and dismissal rather than outright stating “homosexuality”. Although that term was probably employed so that other practices regarded as objectionable by society could be grounds, most of the time it meant homosexuality. This was the greatest legal product of the Lavender Scare. In addition to investigating the government for the presence of communists, anti-communist politicians also investigated homosexuality. Senators Kenneth Wherry (R-Neb.) and Lister Hill (D-Ala.) were central figures in the Senate in investigating homosexuality in the government through a short-lived committee. Wherry himself expressed an attitude that reflected that of many of his fellow legislators and Americans, “You can’t hardly separate homosexuals from subversives…But look, Lerner, we’re both Americans, aren’t we? I say let’s get these fellows out of the government” (Lerner, 313-16). This was followed up by another, larger investigation headed by Clyde Hoey (D-N.C.), which included six other senators. The talk about homosexuality was constrained, however, by the fact that the six male senators, all who were socially conservative, were deeply uncomfortable discussing sex in front of Margaret Chase Smith (R-Me.). In fact, the courtly Senator Hoey even asked Smith to skip discussions on the ground that they couldn’t ask more explicit questions with her present (Adkins). Unlike the investigations of HCUA, McCarran, or McCarthy into communists, this one didn’t involve the public naming of names, thus its comparative obscurity. Thousands of people, mostly men, were dismissed from federal government jobs on grounds of “sexual perversion”. Some committed suicide after their dismissal. The assertion that these people were psychologically disturbed was in that time backed by the American Psychiatric Association, which in 1952 classified homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance” but noted within the report that they were “ill primarily in terms of society and of conformity with the prevailing cultural milieu” (Adkins). Thus, their failure to be within society’s range of “normal” was the foremost issue. However, politicians and the public weren’t reading the fine print. Thus, at least on the surface their views had the backing of the medical community in that day and age. While many think the gay rights movement started with the police raid at Stonewall Inn in 1969, I think it can be more accurately said that it started with the military’s firing of astronomer Franklin Kameny in 1957 over an arrest the previous year for “lewd and indecent acts”. Kameny went on to found the Washington D.C. branch of the Mattachine Society in 1961 with Jack Nichols, which actively lobbied for gay rights. By this time, the Mattachine Society had become more decentralized, and the leadership was no longer communist. The movement had a long way to go, though. In 1972, a same-sex couple challenged Minnesota’s marriage law, which the Supreme Court dismissed with the following sentence, “The appeal is dismissed for want of a substantial federal question” (Morini, 2017). You might even argue that the Lavender Scare did not technically end until 1975, when the Civil Service Commission officially ruled that sexuality was not longer a criterion for dismissal. This was two years after the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a “psychiatric disorder”, instead classifying it as a “sexual orientation disturbance” (The New York Times). A lot of this was thanks to the efforts of Kameny. Since this declassification, gradually homosexuality began to grow in acceptance. However, there was pushback. Phyllis Schlafly, as part of her arguments against the Equal Rights Amendment, warned that such an amendment could force the sharing of public bathrooms with men and women (turns out ERA wasn’t necessary for this development) and the legalization of same-sex marriage (this proved correct with Hawaii’s ERA in 1993) (Gallagher & Bull). In 1977, Anita Bryant founded Save Our Children, Inc., and managed to lobby voters to overturn recently passed local laws that protected against discrimination by sexual orientation. The following year, California legislator John Briggs proposed an initiative to ban homosexuals and those who would advocate that lifestyle from teaching in California. Polling on the initiative was initially showed it at 61% support and 31% opposition, that is, until Ronald Reagan came out against it and the measure failed 41-58%. However, Reagan would not be viewed favorably by gay activists during his presidency for his administration’s response to AIDS.
The Reagan Administration’s approach to gay rights was expressed by Reagan himself in the 1980 campaign, stating, “My criticism is that [the gay movement] isn’t just asking for civil rights; it’s asking for recognition and acceptance of an alternative lifestyle which I do not believe society can condone, nor can I” (Scheer, 154). He was criticized for not publicly speaking about AIDS until 1985, and although annual funding for AIDS had skyrocketed from $44 million in 1983 to $1.6 billion in 1988 his administration’s response was regarded as insufficient. Many gay activists interpreted the government’s falling short as a product of homophobia, and this wasn’t helped by Reagan’s public refusal to condone homosexuality as a lifestyle and the fact that some of the Reagan Administration’s most prominent supporters were outspoken in their condemnation of homosexuality as immoral, such as Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Representative William Dannemeyer (R-Calif.). Although there was consensus reached in developing a comprehensive governmental response to AIDS and gay activism got more attention, homosexuality was still not mainstreamed. Although in 1996 the Defense of Marriage Act passed overwhelmingly, it was in the 1990s that the change in the public’s perception of homosexuality started to accelerate.
One of the major changes, according to Hart-Brinson (2016), is that older generations of Americans regarded homosexuality as a “behavior” while people who came of age after 1990 regard it as an “identity”. This change in public perception becomes critical to understanding the increasing acceptance of it. The idea is that behavior is controllable while identity is not. As Morini (2017) notes, “The crucial shift in public opinion was possible thanks to a coordinated nationwide political campaign which was able to position gay and lesbian rights as a civil rights issue, making it more difficult for others to oppose the changes. The strategy also included high profile individuals who publicly disclosed that they are gay or lesbian. Additionally, the entertainment industry helped in making particular efforts to show gay and lesbian characters as more mainstream in their productions. What it achieved was remarkable: not just a Supreme Court decision but a revolution in the way America sees homosexuals”. Additionally, the Gallup organization examined numerous moral issues and found that in their polling between 2001 and 2015 acceptance for numerous practices had moved in a more liberal direction, with same-sex marriage gaining a whopping 23 points in acceptance, the highest of all changes. This was reflected as well with Democratic politicians, particularly ones who were major figures like Hillary Clinton shifting from opposition to same-sex marriage in 2004 to embracing same-sex marriage in 2016. As Morini (2017) notes, “Hillary Clinton’s re-positioning on LGBT rights simply reflects the evolution of the political zeitgeist. In the United States of 2004, there were things that could not be said without moving out of the mainstream, of the socially acceptable. In the United States of 2016, the situation has completely reversed: if those same things are not said, people can even be barred from civil debate, at least from that of the Democratic Party”.
The true turning point on same-sex marriage was the 2012 election. Before then, conservatives had a powerful argument that this was an outsider movement that lacked support from the electorate. Indeed, in all cases before the 2012 elections, same-sex marriage lost at the ballot box. The voters of Maine, Maryland, and Washington that year, however, voted to legalize same-sex marriage. The truth is, that by the time Obergefell v. Hodges was decided in 2015 that invalidated all state laws restricting marriage to between a man and a woman, the national debate had already been won by the advocates of same-sex marriage.
Now what we have is a political controversy between the roles of LGBT rights and freedom of religion in our society. Additionally, with trans rights the matter is muddier as to what degree it is identity and what degree it is, in fact, mutable behavior. GLAAD, a major gay rights lobby, has the following on their website, “Many transgender people are prescribed hormones by their doctors to bring their bodies into alignment with their gender identity. Some undergo surgery as well. But not all transgender people can or will take those steps, and a transgender identity is not dependent upon physical appearance or medical procedures” (GLAAD). Under this reasoning, there is no objective way to tell if someone is transgender other than by their word for policy purposes. Civil rights activists, by the way, think this should be enough to justify policy changes (Trotta). That’s not even to mention the contradictions that exist in transgender ideology, including the idea that biology is not destiny, but gender identity is innate and immutable (Anderson). It has become gender informing biology rather than biology informing gender. That is, if you even believe in John Money’s gender theory. But the story on him is, possibly, for another time.
Adkins, J. (2016). “These People Are Frightened to Death” – Congressional Investigations and the Lavender Sacre. Prologue Magazine, 48(2).
Anderson, R. (2018, February 9). Transgender Ideology is Riddled With Contradictions. Here Are the Big Ones. The Heritage Foundation.
Feinberg, L. (2005, June 28). Harry Hay: Painful partings. Workers World.
Gallagher, J. & Bull, C. Perfect Enemies: The Religious Right, the Gay Movement, and the Politics of the 1990s. The Washington Post.
Hart-Brinson, P. (2016, February 8). The Social Imagination of Homosexuality and the Rise of Same-sex Marriage in the United States. American Sociological Association.
Lerner, M. (1959). The unfinished country: a book of American symbols. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
McCarthy, J. (2021, June 8). Record-High 70% in U.S. Support Same-Sex Marriage. Gallup.
Morini, M. (2017). Same-Sex Marriage and Other Moral Taboos: Cultural Acceptances, Change in American Public Opinion and the Evidence from the Opinion Polls. European Journal of American Studies, 11(3).
Scheer, R. (2006). Playing president: my close encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan, and Clinton – and how they did not prepare me for George W. Bush. Akashic Books.
The A.P.A. Ruling on Homosexuality. (1973, December 23). The New York Times.
Transgender FAQ. GLAAD.
Trotta, D. (2017, August 2). Born this way? Researchers explore the science of gender identity. Reuters.