Homosexuals as Second Class Citizens in 20th Century America and Today

According to John D’Emilio, the expansion of capital and the spread of wage labor profoundly affected traditional structures. Free market labor, as a person’s means of income, questioned the viability of the nuclear family, the ideology of family relations, and the meaning of procreation.[1] As George Chauncey asserted in Gay New York, the growth of population in the cities during early 20th century facilitated the emergence of homosexual identity. The inequalities of industrial labor ran hand and hand with social inequalities in a period when gender inversion defined same sex male desire (1900-1930).[2] Mostly working class gays pursued an open desire to be with other men, dressing in feminine ways to increase their visibility to other men who may want a sexual encounter. If men dressed feminine, some employers denied middle class employment opportunities.

During the 1930’s, conceptualizations of sexuality changed as a heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy emerged. By distinguishing men who engage in sexual activities with other men as homosexual, the labeling of one category created an opposite category for those who engage in sexual relations with the opposite sex. Medical doctors, psychologists, and anti-vice squads stigmatized homosexuals as diseased, mentally ill, and unnatural.[3] In reaction to the professionalized response, society repressed, outlawed, and discriminated against homosexuals.[4] The negative labels placed upon homosexuals by society remained through the 20th century and persist even today. Tracing the rights of homosexuals during this century, they attained the distinction of second class citizenship in the . By discussing the after effects of World War II, 1950’s conservative culture, the 1960’s and the push towards Gay Liberation, the AIDS epidemic, and gay family formation all shed light as to how homosexuals received little to or no access to standard citizenship that heterosexuals enjoy.

After World War II ended, some gays received dishonorable discharges from military service for committing acts of sodomy under the 94th Article of Sex Perversion.[5] The military discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation, as it does today, that meant the Armed Forces limited membership to heterosexuals only, while discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.[6] With gays afraid of facing negative criticism from their families at home, discharged homosexuals avoided the shame and stigmatization of returning home and explaining to their family how the military discharged them because of their “perverted” sexual orientation. By choosing to remain in cities like San Francisco and New York that boasted large gay populations, gays cultivated theopportunity to build solid self conceptions of a homosexual identity amid their peers.

Moving into the 1950’s, conservative American culture moved women away from the workforce and back into the kitchen. Returning from the war men reintegrated back into the civilian workforce, thereby replacing women who dominated production in men’s absence. Men, as primary breadwinners, reinstituted traditional gender roles of pre-1941 and from 1950 forward patriarchy reigned. With an ideological framework of family, heterosexuals viewed homosexuality as the biggest threat to their strict model of tradition and normalcy of family. Alfred Kinsey’s Reports on Americans’ Sexual Behavior intensified heterosexual fears of the “homosexual threat” to family since Kinsey noted that 6.3 percent of males received orgasm from homosexual contacts.

With the public’s negative response to Kinsey’s high estimates of the homosexual population and the vibrant gay culture in cities, this led to the U.S. Senate investigating “Sex Perverts” in government. Published in 1950, the federal government designed this document to exclude homosexuals from working for the federal government. The document concluded that homosexuals constituted a security threat and practiced criminal acts of homosexuality. Drawing from the Cold War threat of the spread of Communism (the Red Scare of the McCarthy Era), the government claimed that gays possessed a weak moral fiber since they may provide sensitive information to communist interrogators. Such thought permeated the minds of the U.S. Senate, Central Intelligence Agency, Navy, Air Force, Army, and Federal Bureau of Investigations as they reported to the Senate. As a whole, the federal government indicted homosexuality as a crime under Federal, State, and municipal statutes. Therefore the government denied homosexuals access to work in government solely on the basis of sexual orientation. The government also claimed homosexuality to be immoral or “wrong” in light of the needs of society.

Gays who sought refuge from the overtly “heterosexual” patriarchy predominating mainstream society often found solace in gay bars. Bars constituted a social space where homosexuals could socialize and assert their identity, in theory, free from persecution. Gays found a sense of community in the 1950’s in the bar scene. The mafia often controlled these bars and paid-off the police keeping them from shutting down the establishments. Since heterosexual society denied homosexuals equal access to social facilities, the mafia capitalized creating organized crime within municipal parts of government. Nonetheless, law enforcement rigorously persecuted against homosexuals employing violence and rape as intimidation techniques. In Stone Butch Blues Leslie Feinberg’s heroine repeatedly encountered the police when frequenting gay bars. Raped and brutalized in jail, Feinberg’s character characterized the many gays brutalized by mediated acts of police violence. Avoiding violence, gays remained closeted from society at large for another ten years.

On 27 June 1969 tensions of repression and the hope for social change culminated at the Stonewall riot. Through the impetus of the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, the black civil rights movement, and the student revolts these movements laid the ground work for Gay Liberation to thrive as a movement that pursued social equality. As gays expected better social and political treatment, they no longer wished to closet their identities as heterosexuals wished. The homophile movement in the 1960’s attempted to meet these needs through political protests by advocating respectability through appearance and demeanor. Yet the homophile movement stressed the need for a gay culture to assimilate to heterosexual norms thereby denying the roots of difference inherent between gays and straights. On the other hand, Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½Coming Out’ provided gays with a means to express and manifest their self identity through a visible community and in effect saying, “Here we are, this is what we are, and we are here to stay!” This strategy of coming out (late 1960’s through the 1970’s) ran central to developing a culturally accepting and sustainable homosexual identity. In all, Gay Liberation focused on individual expression (of coming out) to combat violence, oppression, and the lack of equal opportunities available to gays throughout the 20th century.

In the 1980’s the Regan administration ignored the AIDS epidemic. During Regan’s eight years in office, coincidentally the worst years of the epidemic, he never once mentioned “AIDS”. Denying that a problem exists does not solve problem. The medical community dubbed the epidemic as a gay disease while ignoring other groups infected by AIDS. The failure to research the epidemic that hit homosexuals hardest reflected a backlash in gay culture.

Yet “coming out” continually acted as the single most important strategy from 1980 to today in creating a visible homosexual mass culture that aided in AIDS research. Without a visible gay culture, as in the case of much of the 20th century up until 1965, the state and some members of society continued to discriminate in the work place, social spaces, and government; all on the basis of sexual orientation prohibiting equal access.

Unless the public perceptions rooted in the 20th century stereotypes change, homosexuals will be denied basic freedoms that heterosexuals enjoy. Remembering the repression, oppression, and discrimination gays faced for 100 years, the grassroots level needs to expand the consciousness that discrimination still exists. Denying equal citizenship the right to marriage, adoption, the military, and partner benefits solely on the basis of sexual orientation precipitates a criminal act of inhumanity. In short, gays are second class citizens in the , but that can change.
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[1] Abelore, Barale, Holperin, “The Lesbian and Gay Stories Reader.” NY: Rortledge, 1993. pp. 467-475.

[2] According to Chauncey, 19th century American masculinity deemed a man’s wish to engage in sexual relations with another man as a desire to invert one’s gender in order to be female. After the Great War, some men found freedom away from traditional patriarchic family structures of their homes. As a visible community grew to facilitate the social space necessary for homosexuals, heterosexuals discriminated against open homosexuality.

[3] The American Psychological Association considered homosexuality as a mental disease until 1973 when they voted to remove the label.

[4] John D’Emilio argues that living outside the heterosexual family people find it possible to construct their personal experiences according to their attraction with the same sex. In constructing new identities, gays faced social inequality as employers could terminate their employment if that identity were discovered.

[5] The military defined sodomy as loosely as possible to try and cut out the number of homosexual officers since homosexuals were not allowed to serve in the military.

[6] In response to the number of mentally ill soldiers from WWI, the military sought to recruit people less likely to suffer from a mental illness when exposed to the traumas of war. During the drafting process in 1941 and on, the military subjected draftees to psychological examinations to screen men and women. A sexual orientation of homosexual was grounds enough to fail the exam since it was deemed a mental illness.

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