07.25.2014 - 01.25.2015

Out of the Shadows: Gay America from Kinsey to Stonewall

Two events brought sexuality into everyday conversation in post-War America:

The 1948 Kinsey Report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, followed five years later by Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, showed that significant numbers of the nation's men and women had engaged in homosexual activity. The other event that made sex a commonplace topic happened in 1952 when it was publicized that George Jorgenson renamed Christine, had undergone sex­ reassignment surgery.

The backlash against this sexual openness was not long in coming. Journalists and politicians started sounding the alarm about gays being part of the Communist international movement. The "Lavender Panic" spread and anti-gay persecutions took place throughout the country. In Florida, a legislative committee conducted a nine-year investigation starting in 1955 into suspected Communists, civil rights leaders and homosexuals, primarily in universities and public education.

Gay enclaves nonetheless emerged in New York, San Francisco and other cities. California also gave rise to the first gay and lesbian rights organizations. In 1950, Harry Hay founded the Mattachine Society, and Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon founded the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955.

Hollywood movies and, later on, television were the dominant popular-culture outlets in the years after World War II, but the political backlash meant that gays and lesbians were largely absent from both. Faced with that popular-culture void, gays and lesbians sought other means to express themselves, notably through mass-market paperback books.

Gay and lesbian authors writing about gay and lesbian themes familiarized the reading public with the subject even if they were subjected to withering criticism . Among the most influential books in popularizing gay culture were Donald Webster Cory's The Homosexual in America and John Rechy's City of Night.

A gay sensibility was also present in painting and music. The apex of homosexual creativity in this era is arguably West Side Story, with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Alfred Laurents, and choreography and direction by Jerome Robbins.

Operating with fewer restraints than Hollywood or television, Broadway productions were able to deal guardedly with gay and lesbian themes Matt Crowley's The Boys in the Band, a bitterly funny if stereotypical look at gay life, ran for over a thousand performances. The emergence of a visible gay and lesbian culture was in large part a reaction to social restrictiveness and foreshadowed the fight for equal rights. In the early1960s, pioneering activists picketed Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the White House in Washington D.C. to protest the federal government's policy of discrimination and hostility against its homosexual American citizens. In 1961, Illinois became the first state to decriminalize homosexuality by repealing its sodomy laws.

And then in the early hours of June 28, 1969, New York City police officers launched a raid on the Stonewall Inn, a well-known gay bar in Greenwich Village, and patrons fought back against this harassment. Three nights of rioting would eclipse all that went before and put the gay movement in line with the mass movements of the 1960s. The era of gay and lesbian liberation was about to begin.

During the quarter century between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and the Stonewall Riots in 1969-an event commonly cited as the beginning of the gay rights movement-the United States underwent enormous change.

Rapid urbanization, the nascent civil rights and feminist movements, and the looming Cold War challenged the country's self-image and sense of security. These social and political changes also challenged the self-image of gays and lesbians and how they were perceived during that period.

Politicians, psychiatrists and journalists tried to define-usually negatively-what it meant to be homosexual.

In reaction, gays and lesbians began defining themselves, in much different terms through political and social action and, perhaps more importantly, through popular culture and the arts. In the process, a visible gay and lesbian culture was created in the United States for the first time.

This is the story of how the country sought to define what it meant to be gay and lesbian in post-War and pre-Stonewall America.

This exhibition was organized by Stonewall National Museum & Archives, as part of its mission to collect, preserve and disseminate materials related to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender culture. Much of the material featured in this exhibition was drawn from the Stonewall National Museum & Archives collection.


« Back