[On January 9th, 1978 Harvey Milk was inaugurated to a seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, making him one of America’s first openly gay elected officials. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Milk and other historical moments and events in the early history of the Gay Rights Movement, leading up to a weekend post on an impressive visual exhibit on the movement at Fitchburg State University.]
On two horrific 1950s decisions, and whether we can find light in such dark moments.
The longstanding and widely-accepted narrative of the 1950s as a particularly conservative period in American society and culture has been challenged somewhat by historians and commentators in recent years, and for good reason: decades don’t tend to break down quite so cleanly into singular identities. While of course such narratives are generally based on particular starting points—such as American society’s return to a post-war status quo in the ‘50s, especially when contrasted with the radical cultural, social, and political changes that would come in the following decade—they also depend on eliding or minimizing all of the layers and contradictions that are present and significant in any moment. So while it would be easy to see the 1950s as entirely opposed to any acceptance (or even tolerance) of homosexuality in American society, the truth, as historians have long worked to remind us, is that many identities and communities flourished in the decade, despite various prominent forms of cultural conservatism or oppression.
Yet at the same time, we can’t swing the pendulum too far in the other direction, minimizing those oppressions and their striking and horrific effects. And the early 1950s saw too particularly ugly official decisions that not only oppressed but quite literally attacked gay Americans. In 1952, the American Psychiatric Association published the first edition of its seminal Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-I), and in it classified homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance”; that deeply offensive classification would be partly revised in 1973 but only fully removed in the 1980s, meaning that its painful and destructive effects for gay Americans lasted for nearly three decades. And in April 1953, shortly after taking office for his first term as president, Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which not only banned gay and lesbian federal employees but encouraged both private contractors and allied nations to fire their own such gay employees; this horrific federal action led directly to the so-called Lavender Scare, during which countless Americans were fired and persecuted due solely to their perceived sexuality. Taken together, these two official decisions reflect an early 1950s institutional culture extremely and aggressively hostile toward gay Americans.
Remembering these horrific decisions and oppressions is important, not because they embody the entirety of the decade but because they certainly illustrate a pervasive set of attitudes (in the supposedly scientific community just as much as the bureaucratic one) toward gay Americans and their fitness as members of society. Moreover, such darker memories shouldn’t and don’t make it impossible to focus as well on the kinds of individual and communal progress on which the historians to whom I hyperlined in the first paragraph above (among many other pioneering gay/queer studies scholars) have written. Indeed, recognizing some of the darkest sides to 1950s America for gay Americans makes the commitment and courage of those Americans that much more apparent and admirable still. In my most recent book on History and Hope in American Literature, I focused one chapter on the 1980s AIDS epidemic, and images of both those dark histories and of hard-won hope for gay Americans (and all Americans) through them. But the same could certainly be said of these 1950s oppressions, and of the ways that gay Americans and their allies fought for their rights and identities in the face of such horrific decisions and hostilities.
Next history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other histories or stories you’d highlight?
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