Life Before Stonewall

Last week new york city's population swelled by several hundred thousand people as lesbians and gay men from around the world gathered to celebrate Gay Games IV and the 25th anniversary of Stonewall. The Games attracted 10,000 athletes from 44 countries, including a 37-year-old black lesbian grandmother who wrestles and the first figure-skating competition featuring same-sex pairs. There were at least 25 dances -- from prom formal to disco -- some for as many as 5,000 people; events with corporate sponsors ranging from Joseph E. Seagram & Sons to Continental Airlines and AT&T; a one-man show with Sir Ian McKellen on Broadway, and a cocktail party honoring 120 gay government officials -- the largest number ever assembled in a single room.

To many Americans -- gay and straight -- the Greenwich Village riot sparked by a few drag queens outside the Stonewall Inn a generation ago marked the beginning of modern gay life in America. That's why last week's was the longest, largest and most elaborate celebration of gay life ever held. And it should put to rest all doubts about the community's diversity, its growing clout inside mainstream American institutions -- or its legendary ability to party.

But the present notion of a gay identity really began to take shape almost 30 years earlier, with the outbreak of World War II. The wartime draft acted like a giant magnet, pulling all types of men together from every hamlet and metropolis. As a result, the army became the home for the largest concentration of gay men ever found inside a single American institution. Volunteer women who joined the WAC and the WAVES experienced an even more prevalent lesbian culture.

The army did attempt to stigmatize homosexuals by collaborating with the psychiatric establishment to try to exclude them from the military. But postwar studies concluded that those efforts were mostly a failure. Instead, many of the gay men and lesbians who served their country in uniform gained a dramatic new vision of their diversity and ubiquity. To a few, the experience even suggested how powerful they might one day become. The army's role as an unwitting engine of gay liberation is one of the great ironies of recent history.

Some gay soldiers who were sent abroad were amazed by what they found. A 26-year-old army captain from Cincinnati was dumbfounded in 1945 when he first walked into the Boeuf sur le Toit in Paris: "It was a great gay nightclub," he remembered. "Beef on the roof! Suddenly you realized the size of homosexuality -- the total global reach of it! There were hundreds of guys from all over the world in all kinds of uniforms: there were Free Poles dancing with American soldiers; there were Scotsmen dancing with Algerians; there were Free French; there were Russians. It was like a United Nations of gays. It was just incredible. There were men dancing with each other! I had never seen that before in my life!"

Most Americans didn't see such events and would not have much cared for it if they had. Homosexuality as a public issue in American life remained in the postwar closet until the publication of a remarkable book about sexual behavior. In 1948, Alfred Kinsey, an Indiana University zoologist, published his report on human sexuality. He shocked the conventional wisdom by asserting that one third of all American men had had at least one homosexual experience after puberty. And he became the first significant opinion maker to argue that scientists should divorce their judgments about sexuality from the "religious background" of the culture. He also enraged the psychiatric establishment by suggesting that homosexual inclinations might not be "abnormal or unnatural," or even "constitute evidence of neuroses." These assertions made this huge national best seller the first essential document of gay liberation. By adopting a disinterested tone and divorcing all of his judgments from the traditional Judeo-Christian influences, Kinsey helped many Americans to think about sex in ways they never had before.

Elderly gay men sometimes romanticize the lives they led 50 years ago. "We had nothing to worry about as serious as AIDS," said the painter Paul Cadmus. "I'm glad I'm not growing up now, starting a career and a sex life." Otis Bigelow, remembered by many of his contemporaries as the best-looking man in Manhattan in 1940, said he never worried about being ostracized after he realized he was gay. "Gay society at the point was so hermetic, and so safe and so wonderful," he said. "Everybody was very classy in those days. You had to have tails and be polite."

But those who came of age in the '50s remember a period of terrible repression, which was partly a reaction to the visibility homosexuals had achieved in the '40s. "The homosexual menace continued as a theme of American political culture throughout the McCarthy era," wrote historian John D'Emilio. Right-wing crusaders targeted homosexuals along with communists as security risks. Virtually no one was open about homosexuality. When a State Department official testified at the beginning of 1950 that most of the 91 department employees who had been fired for moral turpitude were gay, his remarks sparked a witch hunt inside the federal government. State and local authorities followed the lead of the Feds in trying to eliminate homosexuals from all government employment. "Those who engage in overt acts of perversion lack the emotional stability of normal persons," a Senate committee asserted in a typical report in 1950. "Indulgence in acts of sex perversion weakens the moral fiber of the individual."

Other minorities -- especially blacks -- also fought the oppressiveness of the Eisenhower era, but only gays struggled without any public allies in the liberal establishment. Practically every public reference to gays was a negative one. No politician would associate himself with anything so far out as the Mattachine Society, the tie-and-jacket gay-rights society, which was founded in Los Angeles in 1951. Every state still treated homosexual "sodomy" as a crime -- and almost half still do. The most that gays of the time could hope for was sympathy for their "illness" -- the view promoted by "progressive" psychiatrists.

Psychiatry, too, played a role in stigmatizing homosexuality. In a rare page-one discussion of the subject in The New York Times at the end of 1963, reporter Robert Doty wrote that "the presence [in Manhattan] of what is probably the greatest homosexual population in the world and its increasing openness has become the subject of growing concern of psychiatrists, religious leaders, and the police . . . The old idea, assiduously propagated by homosexuals that homosexuality is an inborn, incurable disease, has been exploded by modern psychiatry. It can be both prevented and cured." Psychiatrists, he added, have "overwhelming evidence that homosexuals are created -- generally by ill-adjusted parents -- not born." Six years later, in "The Kingdom and the Power," his book about the Times, Gay Talese called Doty's story "a superb article that was, by old Times standards, quite revolutionary."

In this era, gay people remained so self-hating that even their own organizations tolerated speakers who attacked them. As late as 1963, psychiatrist Albert Ellis told a gay group "the exclusive homosexual is a psychopath." ("Any homosexual who would come to you for treatment would have to be a psychopath," retorted one of his listeners.)

Self-diagnosis was all too easy: many homosexuals were convinced they were mentally ill. That pernicious notion began to change in 1965 when the Washington branch of the Mattachine Society endorsed what was a radical position for its time: "In the absence of valid evidence to the contrary, homosexuality is not a sickness, disturbance or other pathology in any sense, but is merely a reference, orientation or propensity, on par with, and not different in kind from, heterosexuality." Eight years later, the American Psychiatric Association finally adopted a similar position.

Fifty years ago being gay was an entirely private matter: almost no one knew anyone who identified himself as homosexual in public. It was that notion about the necessity of secrecy that would finally begin to unravel after Stonewall. But behind closed doors the kinds of relationships homosexuals were forming in the '40s were remarkably similar to the ones they have today. What was lacking was any public discussion of why gay liberation could be important for everyone. In a letter to Gore Vidal in 1948, British writer Christopher Isherwood offered such an explanation. Vidal never published it, but it offers a wonderful description of the subtext of this week's celebration in New York City: "It is quite true that many homosexuals are unhappy; and not merely because of the social pressures under which they live," Isherwood wrote. "It is quite true that they are often unfaithful, unstable, unreliable. They are vain and predatory and they chatter. But there is another side to the picture, which you (and Proust) don't show. Homosexual relationships [can be, and] frequently are happy. Men live together for years and make homes and share their lives and their work, just as heterosexuals do. This truth is peculiarly disturbing and shocking even to "liberal' people, because it cuts across their romantic, tragic notion of the homosexual's fate. Certainly, under the present social setup, a homosexual relationship is more difficult to maintain than a heterosexual one . . . but doesn't that merely make it more of a challenge and therefore, in a sense, more humanly worthwhile? The success of such a relationship is revolutionary in the best sense of the word. And, because it demonstrates the power of human affection over fear and prejudice and taboo, it is actually beneficial to society as a whole -- as all demonstrations of faith and courage must be: they raise our collective morale."

During the five decades since Isherwood wrote those words, no one has offered a better credo for gay life than that.

Life Before Stonewall | News