Considering the depth and width of the subject matter, along with the pitiful extent to which it has been covered, this will be a multi-part series, covering many facets of gay American history. Before we begin, let’s cover some basic points.
First, this article, and this series, will be a rough ride. Gay men and women have emerged through it all as survivors, but the journey was brutal, to say the least. Nowhere near all of us made it through alive. Even after established systems of law stopped murdering homosexuals, systems of psychological health and experimentation took over. The results were no less horrific; people were imprisoned in asylums as wards of the state for the rest of their lives, given shock treatments, lobotomies, clitorectomies, castrated, and kept in solitary confinement. Some of these practices weren’t stopped until less than 50 years ago.
Second, it is a fair question to ask what the point is in even bringing up old wounds, and bringing these old resentments back to the surface again, when things aren’t so bad anymore. In addition to the important concept of history repeating, and the ignorance that allows it to repeat, you can bet that all of these people who were strapped into a hospital cot and electrocuted were amazed to see it happening. They couldn’t afford to disbelieve it, they were living it. If we aren’t aware that these things happened in the past, then we won’t be wary of them happening again in the future. Not only will we be allowing them to happen again, we will be helpless to stop them.
Another thing to consider, and possibly the most heart-rending, is that it sometimes takes years for society to catch up with just how awful it has become. Ironically, we who make up society are sometimes the last to know the full extent of its degradation. How many victims of shock treatment hated themselves because of what they had been told their entire lives, and didn’t fight back because they trusted the doctors in control to help them? How many family members looked at their institutionalized children and siblings and thought “this is a necessary evil”? How many people thanked the doctors who tortured them?
Sometimes it takes years for all the screams to be heard. You have to start listening, as soon as possible.
Yet, there is no ‘gay history month’ to help educate the public. They do not teach it in schools. In the last 200 years, there has been only one authoritative, exhaustive collection, entitled Gay American History written by Johnathan Katz in 1976. Even as a gay man, I was shocked to read most of it. I literally had no sense of my own history in that regard. What little bits I could cobble together weren’t enough to serve as the basis for anything but a badly written fictional farce, where the protagonist always died.
At least I was right about one thing, the story is tragic.
But it’s a story which desperately needs to be told, and it deserves to be. In spite of every attempt by an oppresive religious dictatorship to silence the truth, many scraps of its fabric are laid out for us today. Sadly, in direct opposition to what one might expect, academia offered no warm embrace to run to when it came time to tell this story. What should have been a haven for rational thought and a sanctuary for free thinking was instead a source of deepest opposition. Katz writes in the introduction:
Only recently have the first two Ph.D. theses on homosexuality been permitted in the history and political science departments of American universities. The writers were both warned that they were risking their academic careers by taking up this topic; both went ahead nevertheless. I know of two other recent instances in which a history department and an English department did not allow theses on homosexual subjects; another German department Ph.D. candidate was discouraged from writing on homosexual literature because the topic would impair future teaching prospects. Researching the present work without capitalization from academia took considerable ingenuity, and could not have been accomplished without the valuable voluntary assistance of a number of Gay people and a few heterosexuals, all named in the acknowledgments. This book is significantly not a product of academia; it does not play it safe; it is rough at the edges, radical at heart.
That was 1976. That was 42 years ago.
When one considers the history of homosexuals in a global sense, out of the depths of the ancient world, and through the dark ages of religious persecution, it’s really no wonder that this environment would serve as the birthing ground for our own American chapters of gay history. This religious fervor was the basis to kill homosexuals, as one would expect, on the same pyre with witches and heretics (powerful women, and political dissenters) in the original 13 colonies.
Though the main form of execution for males over 14 found guilty of homosexuality in English law (and therefore in her colonies) was hanging, there were other methods utilized. According to Katz:
During the 400 years documented here, American homosexuals were condemned to death by choking, burning, and drowning; they were executed, jailed, pilloried, fined, court-martialled, prostituted, fired, framed, blackmaled, disinherited, declared insane, driven to insanity; to suicide, murder, and self-hate, witch-hunted, entrapped, stereotyped, mocked, insulted, isolated, pitied, castigated, and despised.
The first governor of the Massachussetts bay colony, John Winthrop, in his 1646 History of New England, wrote:
Mr. Eaton, the governour of New Haven, wrote to the governour of the Bay, to desire the advice of the magistrates and elders in a special case, which was this: one Plaine of Guilford being discovered to have used some unclean practices, upon examination and testimony, it was found, that being a married man, he had committed sodomy with two persons and England, and that he had corrupted a great part of the youth of Guilford by masturbations, which he had committed, and provoked others to the like above a hundred times; and to some who questioned the lawfulness of such filthy practice, he did insinuate seeds of atheism, questioning whether there was a God, etc. The magistrates and elders (so many as were at hand) did all agree, that he ought to die, and gave divers reasons from the word of God. And indeed it was horrendum facinus [a dreadful crime], and he a monster in human shape, exceeding all human rules and examples that ever had been heard of, and it tended to the frustrating of the ordinance of marriage and the hindering the generation of mankind.
This is just one of many examples covered in the first section of another book by Katz, Trouble: 1566-1966. In it, he addresses the more barbaric treatments of gay men (mostly), usually resulting in them being put to death in horrible ways. At the end of that last passage reads two of the main arguments lodged against simply letting homosexuals live: “frustrating the ordinance of marriage,” and “hindering the generation of mankind.” These were to be the basis for similar persecutions for hundreds of years to come. If you weren’t expanding the population, then you were the enemy of it.
Although this first installment has a decidedly dark atmosphere surrounding it, the series will not be all shadows and death. Part two will continue with the true formation of the United States during and after the American Revolution, and the experiences of gay men and lesbians living in this new society.