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The long journey to Stonewall

By Nancy C. Unger


When I was invited by the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco to participate in its month-long program “The LGBT Journey,” I was a bit overwhelmed by all the possibilities. I’ve been teaching “Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.” since 2002, and my enthusiasm for the subject grows every time the course is offered. It’s a passion shared by my students. They never sigh and say, “Gay and lesbian history again?”

But what to present in only forty-five minutes? My most recent scholarship examines lesbian alternative environments in the 1970s and 1980s. In the end, though, I decided to make a larger point. For many people, LGBTQ American history begins with the Stonewall Riots in 1969, so I determined to use this opportunity to talk about the history of same-sex desire that is as old as this nation.

To briefly develop that fascinating history, I touch on some of the sodomy trials in the colonial period, in which communities were surprisingly tolerant of men who were well known for seeking sexual contact with other men. I note women in early America who passed as men, often marrying other women, and develop the difficulty in determining if these were lesbians — or simply women who had no other way to earn a living wage, vote, walk the streets unescorted, and enjoy independence and autonomy. Those same questions also apply to the Boston Marriages that began forming in the late 1800s. Professional women (many of whom graduated from the new, elite women’s colleges in the Boston area) entered into lifelong partnerships with other women. Certainly, some were lesbian. But, like passing as a man, being with a person of the same sex is what allowed a woman to have a career, to travel, to enjoy all the independence that came with not being a subservient wife.

Boston Marriages and same-sex intimate friendships became less socially acceptable with increasing public awareness of same-sex desires. The “medicalization” of those desires began in 1870s and 80s, with the term “homosexual” coming into being around 1892. Same-sex sexual behavior acquired a name — and was defined as deviant. Arrests of men begin to increase. And with the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, homosexuality became unpatriotic and un-American. As Kevin Murphy develops in Political Manhood, in 1907 Roosevelt warned Harvard undergraduates against becoming “too fastidious, too sensitive to take part in the rough, hurly-burly of the actual work of the world.” He cautioned that “the weakling and coward are out of place in a strong and free community.” The “mollycoddle” Roosevelt warned against was sufficiently similar to emerging definitions of the male homosexual that the two were often conflated, and used to marginalize and stigmatize certain men as weak, cowardly, sissy, and potentially disloyal.

Environmentalists, denounced as being anti-progress, were ridiculed as “short haired women and long haired men.” John Muir, for example, was lampooned as both effeminate and impotent. He was depicted in drag on the front page of the San Francisco Call in 1909 for his efforts to sweep back the waters flooding Hetch Hetchy Valley.

John Muir - San Francisco Call cartoon
John Muir lampooned for being effeminate in a San Francisco Call cartoon from December 13, 1909. Public domain via the Library of Congress.

Gay men and lesbians operated under a variety of burdens: religious, legal, medical, economic, and social. So how did we get to Stonewall and beyond? Out of changes wrought by World War II and the Cold War came a number of early organizations and challenges to homophobia.

In 1957 it occurred to psychologist Evelyn Hooker that all of the big medical studies on the pathology of the homosexual were based on gay men hospitalized for depression. Her report, “The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual” demonstrated that, despite pervasive homophobia, most self-identified homosexuals were no worse in social adjustment than the general population. Her work was an important step towards the American Psychiatric Association’s decision in 1973 to remove homosexuality from its list of illnesses.

Frank Kameny was a World War II combat veteran who earned his PhD in astronomy at Harvard in 1956. In the middle of the Cold War and the nascent space race, astronomers were at a premium. Kameny, however, was terminated from his position in the US army map service when his arrest on a lewd conduct charge was uncovered. He took his case all the way to the Supreme Court in 1961, but lost. As John D’Emilio notes in Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, Kameny urged his gay brothers and sisters in 1964 to quit debating whether homosexuality is caused by nature or nurture: “I do not see the NAACP and CORE worrying about which chromosome and gene produced a black skin, or about the possibility of bleaching the Negro [as the solution to racism]. I do not see any great interest on the part of the B’nai B’rith Anti-defamation League in the possibility of solving problems of anti-Semitism by converting Jews to Christians . . . We are interested in obtaining rights for our respective minorities as Negroes, as Jews, and as Homosexuals. Why we are Negroes, Jews, or Homosexuals is totally irrelevant, and whether we can be changed to Whites, Christians, or Heterosexuals is equally irrelevant . . . I take the stand that not only is homosexuality. . . not immoral, but that homosexual acts engaged in by consenting adults are moral, in a positive and real sense, and are right, good, and desirable, both for the individual participants and for the society in which they live.” In 1965 Kameny organized the picketing of the White House to protest homophobia in the government.

Clearly, queer American history did not begin with the Stonewall Riots. It’s a history of oppression that spans several centuries, but also an inspiring story of people fighting for equal rights and acceptance for all Americans.

Nancy C. Unger is Professor of History at Santa Clara University. Her publications include Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer and Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History. You can follow her on Facebook and listen to her CSPAN lecture on the subject.

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