The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

The Not-So-Fabulous Fifties

It's a cliché, but not necessarily untrue, to say that some conservatives want to the social clock back to 1950's America, due to some longing for "the good old days." It's also a cliché, but not necessarily untrue, that the "good old days" weren't exactly good for everybody. How "not good" were they? Trey over at Daddy, Papa and Me has a post up (via Pam) that paints a picture of just how bad those days were for gay people. In Greensboro, NC, in 1957 came to be called "the purge", but for gay people in America it was pretty much called every day life.

The now-obscure episode, which some longtime residents came to call "the purge," was the largest attempted roundup of homosexuals in Greensboro history and marked one of the most intense gay scares of the 1950s.

Unlike sweeps of subsequent decades, involving raids on public parks and gay bars, Greensboro’s 1957 trials focused on private acts behind closed doors.

The purpose, in the words of the police chief, was to "remove these individuals from society who would prey upon our youth," and to protect the town from what a presiding judge called "a menace."

Some 32 trials in the winter and spring of 1957 would end in guilty verdicts, 24 of them resulting in prison terms of five to 20 years, with some defendants assigned to highway chain gangs.

Thirty-two men, arrested for private acts "behind closed doors," and twenty-four sentenced to prison terms. It sounds pretty bad, and I'm willing to bet that even some opponents of gay & lesbian equality would stop short (at least publicly) of saying they want to return to those days. It might be tempting, even, to write it off as atypical of the ear; an isolated incident. Except that it wasn't I got a feeling of deja vu when reading the story about the Greensboro "purge," because I'd heard one very much like it not long ago.

I don't remember how I came across the book, but it was a few years ago. Maybe I was looking for titles to recommend to the book group the hubby and I belonged to then. But when I read the blurb about Sex-Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950s, I ordered it and read it without ever getting around to recommending it to the book group. The details are different, but the story is pretty much the same. This time it Iowa 1955, and after the brutal, sexual murders of two children, public hysteria leads to the arrests of twenty gay men, who had nothing to do with the murders but were charged with being "sexual psychopaths" and were incarcerated in a state mental hospital.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingDoug Thorson and Duane Wheeler emerged from the rear of the automobile and were led through an inconspicuous side entrance into the main building of the Mount Pleasant State Mental Hospital.

The men had been traveling all day from Sioux City. They hadn’t eaten throughout the entire 10-hour journey, permitted to stop only to go to the bathroom. Doug and Duane carried no suitcases. They were dressed in the same clothes they had been wearing the day they had been arrested three weeks before, charged with conspiracy to commit a felony.

In Sioux City, Doug had been a management trainee at S.S. Kresge, the five-and-10 cent store downtown on 4th Street, and Duane had been a student at Marie Ellis’s School of Cosmetology. But that counted for little now. In the admissions area, on the first floor of the hospital, a doctor was asking them the standard series of questions that was asked of all incoming mental patients:

"Do you know what your name is?"

"Do you know where you are?"

"Do you know what the date is?"

"Do you hear voices?"

He spoke in a Slavic-sounding accent so thick that the young men could barely make out a word.

The doctor seemed satisfied with their answers and scribbled down the same diagnosis for both of them: "Sociopathic personality disturbance. Sexual deviation (Homosexuality)."

… They were there because they were homosexuals, "sexual deviates" in the popular language of the time. They were among 20 men from Sioux City and the surrounding towns who had been rounded up and declared to be criminal sexual psychopaths and sentenced to the state mental hospital at Mount Pleasant for an indefinite period of time — until they were "cured." They were there because in Sioux City, a little boy named Jimmy Bremmers and a little girl named Donna Sue Davis were dead: victims of two terrible sex crimes. These men had nothing to do with those crimes; the authorities never claimed they did. However, in Sioux City, indeed in the entire state of Iowa, the public was clamoring for action. Something had to be done. So Doug and Duane and the other men were arrested and put in a locked ward in a mental hospital far from Sioux City. They were scapegoats in a "sex crime panic." …

They were there because five months after the second murder, the state legislature passed a bill intended "provide for the confinement of persons who are dangerous criminal sexual psychopaths." And in the 1950s that definitely meant people who were attracted to or even had sex with members of their own gender, even if it was private and consensual. Of course, the men of Mount Pleasant saw their lives and reputations either ruined or all but ruined, and the state wasn't sure exactly what to do with them. The compulsory "Friday Night Dances" with female patients may have been an attempt to "cure" the men, but it comes off as just bizarre.

I remember the book made for bizarre reading at the time, at least for me living with a partner in 2002 and planning to adopt a child. The Iowa panic wasn't that long ago. I'd been born in 1969, four months before Stonewall (another raid), and the last of the two raids in Iowa took place in 1958; just a little over ten years before Stonewall. But the attitude of the men in Mount Pleasant's sexual psychopath ward were a world away from the way the people at Stonewall responded.

Social worker Jackie Yamahiro, who saw the Sioux City men when they were first admitted and took their medical and family histories, began to see changes in them. Initially they were depressed, scared, anxious. They didn’t know what was going to happen to them or how long they would have to remain at the hospital. Once they settled down and realized what life was going to be like at Mount Pleasant, they began to express varying degrees of anger and resentment. But overall, Jackie never saw as much anger as she had expected. There was a certain passivity about the men, a passivity that may have had to do in part with being gay in the 1950s. By and large, they seemed to accept their fates, and, somewhere in the back of their minds, perhaps they thought they deserved them.

But I have to remind myself that these men existed in a society that gave them no healthy or safe context in which to be who they were, or any other option but marriages that were all but doomed or a life lived on the fringes of that society, and always in fear of the law. Here's a fascinating radio interview with the author, in which he and a professor who's also a guest on the show make a compelling case for considering the men in Mount Pleasant's "sexual psychopaths" ward as political prisoners. The third guest on the show is one of the gay men who was imprisoned in the mental facility, under the sexual psychopath law. He was 80 years old at the time if the interview, and used a pseudonym. Here's a snippet about him from the above article.

For Harold McBride, perhaps more than any of the rest of the 20 men, incarceration was extremely difficult. A hairdresser from the town of Kingsley who had admitted to Sioux City police that he had sex with other men, Harold worried about his wife Glenda and their three children. He had lost his license to cut hair, a consequence of pleading guilty to a felony. He watched despairingly as his wife was forced to sell his business, put their furniture in storage, and moved herself and the children out of their Kingsley apartment to stay with his family in Woodward, near Des Moines. And, in his darkest moments he was convinced he would never get out of Mount Pleasant. "My life was shattered," Harold said 40 years later. "It was gone. I was devastated and scared to death. I didn’t know what was going to happen." …

If you want to get a even better sense of the times, I recommend The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government and Jeb and Dash: A Diary of Gay Life 1918-1945 ,if you can find a copy of it.

Trey's right when he points to stories like these as the reason gay people seem to be in a big hurry to get what doesn't seem like a big deal to a lot of people. Think about it. If you had this history in your rear view mirror (remember "objects reflected in the mirror may be closer than they seem"), would you be in a hurry to put more distance between you and it?

The most rabid anti-gay groups (Focus on the Family, Concerned Women, Family Research Council, American Family Association, and the list goes on) want us to take steps back. Lots of them. They want the reversal of Lawrence v. Texas which decriminalized our lives, they want to make it impossible for us to raise children, they want to make sure we can be fired and kicked out of our homes at will.. in short, they want us back… and deep into the closet. They want us back to the abyss of 1957.

So, EVERY step we take forward, civil union passing, employment acts enacted, a gay family on a PBS cartoon, a gay candidate, corporations marketing to our community, health benefits… every step, is a step AWAY from the abyss that was our lives in 1957. An abyss that we are still too uncomfortably close to.

Depending on who you ask, they want to take away from our families the few legal rights and protections we've managed to get. As was common in the era they seem to idolize, they lump us in with pedophiles and violent sex offenders. We might as well add that they'd like to see us reclassified as mentally ill, too, if not "sexual psychopaths" like the men in Mount Pleasant's "sexual psychopaths" ward. Whether that would also mean imprisonment until "cured" we don't yet know.

As unbelievable as it sounds, and even I'm tempted to say "oh, that would never happen now," There's not that much distance between now and then, and forward progress hasn't always been steady. It was just back in 1983 that Sharon Kowalski was left brain-damaged after an care accident involving a drunk driver, and her partner Karen Thompson was left to fight a seven year battle to win the right to care for Sharon. And it was only as long ago as 1993 that Sharon Bottoms lost custody of her son because she was a lesbian. And those are just the stories that made the nes. Like trey, I've known people who've been ostracized by their families, denied jobs, lost their children, etc., because they're gay or lesbian.

Several years ago, in an online forum, I tossed out the aforementioned cliché about conservatives wanting to take us back to the "not-so-good old days," and had woman respond that they'd like to go back to those days and "make them good for everybody." My response at the time was that I didn't believe it was possible for them to do it. After reading a bit about what those days were like for gay people, I don't want to find out if they can do it or not. Or, for that matter, whether they intend to.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for mentioning “Sex-Crime Panic.” I’ve been putting together a reading list for myself, focused on the 1950s mindset; this will definitely go on the list.

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