Throughout the United States’ long and varied history, LGBTQ individuals have been routinely marginalized, discriminated against, and in extreme instances, even violently persecuted. From the “blue papers” of World War II to the mockingly dubbed “Lavender Scare” of the Cold War era, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans have faced intense discrimination by both the federal government and society at large.
Beginning in the 20th century, LGBTQ Americans have often been denied basic human rights. They have been forcibly exited from the Armed Forces, turned away from government jobs, and relegated to a second-class status for nearly a century. Queer women have faced exclusion from women’s rights movements, and gay men have been labeled communists, militants, and pedophiles.
Modern American history has been defined by its great social movements; the movement for LGBTQ rights stands out among them. Read on to learn more about The Unfair Marginalization of LGBTQ Americans Throughout Modern U.S. History.
LGBTQ Americans Weren’t Allowed to Openly Serve in the United States Armed Forces Until 2011.
The Vietnam War draft of the 1960s garnered national media attention for its exclusion of homosexual men. However, the decommissioning of gay servicemen had officially started during the Second World War via the distribution of “blue papers”, colloquially referred to as such due to their distinctive blue color. Without warning and often without due process, gay servicemen were honorably discharged upon insinuation or proof of their homosexuality. The rationale behind these directives was wholly discriminatory, rooted in societal expectations of masculinity rather than the actual competencies and abilities of gay servicemen in battle. In fact, many LGBTQ servicepeople received medals of honor and accolades for their military service prior to being discharged on account of their sexuality. The Vietnam War’s specific exclusion of gay draftees led many young men to feign homosexuality in order to evade being drafted. Particularly common among affluent potential draftees, this practice shielded countless young men from the horrors of the conflict but did little to address the underlying, systemic homophobia that would define military policy for decades to come.
In 1993, the Clinton Administration issued Department of Defense Directive 1304.26. Better known as “don’t ask, don’t tell”, the policy officially allowed closeted gay individuals to serve in the Armed Forces for the first time in U.S. history, though it did continue to bar known homosexuals from serving in the military. During his first term as president in 2011, Barack Obama led an initiative to repeal DADT. Though successful in finally allowing gay Americans to openly serve in the Armed Forces, his administration’s efforts failed to fully resolve The Pentagon’s abhorrent history of LGBTQ discrimination.
Unfortunately, the repeal of DADT did not end the military exclusion of all LGBTQ Americans. Even today, under the Trump Administration, transgender individuals are barred from serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Known Homosexual Men and Women Used to Be Systematically Weeded Out of Federal Government Agencies.
As the Cold War heated up at home in the U.S., the Red Scare gave way to the so-called “Lavender Scare”, and McCarthyism dominated U.S. domestic policy. In 1950, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy revealed the identities of over 200 State Department officials who had allegedly been turned by the Soviets. While he was actually wrong and there was no “internal communist menace”, McCarthy’s toxic, dogmatic approach to the Soviet threat inspired a barrage of similar accusations within the agencies of the federal government. Most notably, two analysts within the National Security Agency, Bernon Mitchell and William Martin, widely suspected to be engaged in a homosexual relationship, fled the U.S. in 1960 and defected to the Soviet Union. Upon discovery of their defection, Senator McCarthy declared homosexuals most susceptible to the communists, and demanded the federal government suspend all suspected LGBTQ workers from their official government posts, prompting a wave of suspicion and homophobia that would later be dubbed the “Lavender Scare”.
McCarthyism would ultimately culminate in the issuance of Executive Order 10450 in April of 1953, which would purge over 5,000 LGBTQ government workers between the presidencies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bill Clinton. In the chaos of the Cold War and the fight against communism worldwide, America’s leaders would unitarily fail to address the systemic erosion of the civil liberties of LGBTQ Americans that would ensue throughout the remainder of the 20th century and into the 21st.
Gay Men Were Considered Effeminate “Half-Men” by Many Americans in the 1950s.
The intense rise in hateful anti-LGBTQ rhetoric lasted throughout the Cold War era as an increasing number of Americans began to associate homosexuality with the communist threat. Men were regularly encouraged to act more “manly” so that they would not be ostracized by their communities, labeled Soviets, or fall prey to immorality. Americans willed the nation to reject socialist, communist, and “deviant” lifestyles, ideologies, and behaviors, ostracizing and even persecuting homosexuals, prostitutes, and other groups whose actions they deemed immoral and ungodly. As the era continued on, conservatism would come to define America for much of the Cold War as the rejection of perceived immorality became a cornerstone of American culture and society.
To keep the communist threat at bay, many Americans opted to strictly enforce gender roles in the home. The baby boom that took place after World War II and during the Cold War allowed Americans to encourage heterosexual, moral behavior among the next generation, whom they were dependent upon to ensure both freedom and capitalism would thrive in the future. Men and women, in order to save themselves from sexual immorality, were encouraged to have children to satisfy their sexual desires in a godly manner. Traditional American norms were not simply enforced by preachers and parents, however; many states and the District of Columbia instituted official policies against the expression of homosexuality and dressing in drag throughout the 1950s. Senator Kenneth Wherry, a comrade of Senator McCarthy, openly supported such policies on the Senate Floor, stating in 1950 that “perverts” were “poor security risks” to the U.S. and should be dealt with accordingly and met with the harshest law enforcement available to ensure the safety and security of the U.S. and its children.
Homosexuality Was Formerly Classified in the United States as a Mental Illness.
The liberal agendas of presidents JFK and LBJ in the Sixties affirmed the federal government’s support for civil rights amid national backlash and the emerging movement for LGBTQ rights. The anti-war movement that arose in reaction to the American conflict in Vietnam in the late Sixties inspired several similar movements within immigrant and Latinx communities, among Native Americans, and within the LGBTQ community. As gay activists broadcast their message of equality across the U.S., they were consistently challenged with a singular, polarizing question: What exactly caused homosexuality?
World-renowned pioneer of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud attributed homosexuality to a lack of sexual maturity among young men who never grew beyond their prepubescent sexual disposition, a stance adopted by leading health experts in both the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association who classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. A number of conversion therapies loosely based in Freudian theory emerged throughout the Sixties and Seventies as clinical psychologists encouraged the development of a cure for homosexuality. The beginnings of a concerted movement by LGBTQ Americans against this classification began with the rise of the Gay Liberation Front in Chicago, New York City, and San Francisco in 1970. Writing from San Francisco, Gay Liberation leader Carl Wittman dispelled harmful myths about homosexuality in the form of a manifesto. “Homosexuality is not a lot of things,” wrote Wittman. “It is not a makeshift in the absence of the opposite sex; it is not genetic; it is not the result of broken homes except inasmuch as we could see the sham of American marriage. Homosexuality is the capacity to love someone of the same sex.”
Sadly, the stigma surrounding the health of LGBTQ Americans still exists today. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, routinely defers men who have sex with men from donating blood until at least 12 months have elapsed since their most recent sexual encounter, effectively barring healthy gay men in committed relationships from donating blood indefinitely.
Lesbian Women Were Routinely Excluded by the Women’s Liberation Movement’s Most Prominent Leaders.
The Women’s Liberation Movement was perhaps the most successful feminist coalition of the 20th century, making great strides for female equality by establishing a number of political fundraising organizations and encouraging women to find jobs outside of the home. Unfortunately, the Women’s Liberation Movement had a discrimination problem. The New York City based Third World Women’s Alliance, founded in 1968 by Black womanists, was the first to call out the systemic racism and sexism of the predominantly upper class, white, and heterosexual movement via the publication of a newsletter called Triple Jeopardy. The first concerted movement for LGBTQ women’s rights would later take shape in the form of the “Radicalesbians” of the Seventies.
Betty Friedan, lauded feminist author of the 1963 Feminine Mystique, was highly critical of the movement for lesbian rights she saw stirring within the ranks of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Though a radical feminist who called for a total societal rejection of the sentiment that marriage and motherhood should be a woman’s primary goals in life, Friedan believed a “fringe” movement of lesbians within her organization would detract from the Women’s Liberation Movement’s overall message. As chairwoman of the National Organization for Women in 1970, Friedan publicly labeled lesbian feminists the “Lavender Menace”. Her derisive speech had the opposite effect; members of the ostracized Lavender Menace boldly joined hands at the Second Conference to Unite Women in 1970 to form their own feminist group, calling themselves the Radicalesbians.
The Radicalesbians partnered with the Gay Liberation Front in a successful attempt to open up a dialogue between lesbian and heterosexual women leaders of the feminist movement in order to both humanize and dispel myths surrounding lesbianism. Along with Women’s Liberation leaders like Anne Koedt, the Radicalesbians sought a refutation of the Freudian myth that women could have two different orgasms, clitoral and vaginal, and encouraged research into clitoral stimulation and the creation of new products such as vibrators. They also advocated for the classification of catcalling as a crime comparable to rape.
Early Christian Dispensationalists Saw the Emerging Gay Rights Movement as a Sign of Impending Doom.
In the 1920s, Aimee Semple McPherson led one of the first major Christian movements against the radical progressivism that would ultimately culminate in the social and economic policies of FDR. McPherson lambasted “motion pictures in the parish-house, chicken suppers, festivities, preaching of psychology, community uplift and social reform”, none of which, she claimed, were able to “fill the empty void” or “[still] the heart-broken cry” of disbelievers. Her professions would eventually inspire a new generation of far-right fundamentalists who followed a strict religious doctrine known as Christian dispensationalism.
The advent of Christian dispensationalism in the 1960s posited that biblical eschatological prophecy was unraveling before Americans’ very eyes, blaming much of the world’s dismal state of affairs on the rise of “militant” homosexuality and other “deviant” lifestyles. Dispensationalists argued that the social and economic liberalism of the Sixties had wrecked the American political system and the American way of life, and if not addressed, the U.S. would be laid to waste at the hands of God Almighty.
Dispensationalists truly believed that the liberal social politics of the Democratic Party were playing an enormous role in preparing the global stage for the Christian apocalypse, pointing out the inherent “immorality” of liberalism and the societal inclusion of LGBTQ Americans as signs of the times. Dispensationalist Christians took to the airwaves as well as the print media to share their message, not of hope, but of strict morality and preparedness for the end times, condemning the vulgar and unrestrained techniques of the Sixties counterculture by emphasizing the importance of traditional gender roles and opposite-sex relations in an appeal to Christian Americans who felt left out by the radical social upheaval that defined the era.
LGBTQ Activists Were Frequently Labeled Militants and Sexual Predators by Members of the Evangelical Christian Right.
The rise of Evangelical conservatism began in reaction to the sexually expressive, progressive, and in some ways flamboyantly homosexual anti-war counterculture of the Sixties. In the fight against communism during the Vietnam War, economic and moral conservatism became increasingly enmeshed as Evangelicals involved themselves in the politics of Cold War America. Many of the Evangelical right’s most eminent leaders, including Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell, routinely made headlines through their demonization of the movement for LGBTQ equality and vilification of gay Americans as militants, perverts, and pedophiles.
Anita Bryant first made a name for herself in the Fifties and Sixties as an American singer and pageant star before turning to anti-gay activism in the Seventies. Bryant claimed to have been inspired to pursue Evangelical advocacy upon becoming a mother in the face of “perverted homosexual militancy” in her hometown of Miami, Florida. In reality, Bryant was referring to the very real fight for LGBTQ equality when she launched her campaign against gay rights in the form of Anita Bryant Ministries in 1977. Bryant would devote the rest of her life to, among other things, the federal criminalization of child pornography, though defamatory anti-gay activism would forever remain at the forefront of Anita Bryant Ministries’ political platform.
Unlike Bryant, Jerry Falwell first found fame as a televangelist, preaching a sort of capitalistic fundamentalism through the establishment of numerous business enterprises in the name of religion. Through Moral Majority, Inc., his political action committee, Falwell sought to spread his message of fire and brimstone and faith and salvation with the help of ultraconservative Republican megadonors. Falwell’s Evangelical agenda focused almost exclusively on five key areas: abortion, pornography, humanism, the “fractured family”, and, of course, homosexuality. All of these factors combined, Falwell claimed, threatened to end the great American experiment and ultimately lead to global moral decay. In particular, he argued that the widespread societal acceptance of the “sinful”, “deviant”, and “perverted” homosexual lifestyle would set America on a path to destruction comparable to that of the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah.
To this day, Liberty University, Falwell’s fruitful attempt at establishing an institution of higher learning, continues to discourage homosexuality among their student body and preach against it in the classroom.