Soap And Education

To a political historian, the 1950s is a goldmine. The Cold War. Eisenhower. McCarthyism. China. The Civil Rights movement. Korea. Eden. Space Race. Churchill. Socialism. For a political historian who dabbles in the politics of gay rights, the 1950s sets up two very distinctive paths: progress, and stagnation.

The 1950s began with witch hunts in both the US and the UK. The rise of communism, the expansion of the Eastern Bloc (although, no Berlin Wall yet, that wouldn’t happen until 1961), the war in Korea and fear over the unknown all created an atmosphere that resulted in purges. Although the European continent was not immune to the rise of communism, and in reality had a closer acquaintance with it, the rise of the United States as a world power and Britain’s newly cemented relationship with its former colony created a particular anti-communist fervour in the US and the UK that the rest of Europe didn’t participate in.

By February 1950, the first purges of what would become known as McCarthyism began. The Undersecretary of State tells a US Senate committee that there exists a homosexual underground in the State Department. His comments, along with some comments by Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, ignited what history has called the lavender scare. The reasons behind the lavender scare require a little connection: because psychologists had classified homosexuality as a mental illness, the assumption existed that homosexuals were susceptible to blackmail by communist agents, because they’d rather leak state secrets than risk exposure (you have to want the connection…just go with it). Between McCarthy and his chief of staff Roy Cohn, they used the threat of homosexuality to bully opponents into silence and were responsible for the firing of hundreds of men from the US government. The lavender scare was as prolific and dangerous to US government employees as the HUAC hearings were to Hollywood…in fact, a few HUAC hearings were the result of accusations of homosexuality among high ranking state department employees.

On 11 November 1950, one of the earliest, and largest, gay rights organisations was founded in the United States. The Mattachine Society was founded by five friends in Los Angeles. In June 1952, co-founder Dale Jennings was arrested for lewd behaviour…he was accused of soliciting an undercover police officer for sex in the toilets of what is now MacArthur Park. In an unusual move, he insisted on a jury trial, instead of pleading guilty, which was the norm. The Mattachine Society enlisted the help of attorney George Sibley, who was a member of the Citizens’ Council to Outlaw Entrapment. During the trial, Jennings admitted to being homosexual, but denied the charges. The jury was split, 11-1 and Jennings was acquitted on the basis of police intimidation, entrapment and harassment. The publicity surrounding the trial brought huge attention to the Mattachine Society and membership skyrocketed.

Jennings and several other members of the Mattachine Society realised that there existed a fundamental difference in ideology between them and co-founder Harry Hay. In 1953, Jennings and a small group reconciled that their ideologies were too different and split off, and formed ONE, Inc. ONE, Inc published ONE Magazine and sold it on the streets of Los Angeles. In 1954, the US Postal Service classified the magazine as obscene and refused to deliver the magazine. ONE, Inc sued.

In 1952, two very huge things happened in Britain: first, the commissioner of Scotland Yard began his own McCarthy-esque purges of the British Government. Throughout the 1950s, over 1000 men, both government and civilian, were arrested as a result of a massive police suppression of homosexuality in Britain….which included undercover police officers posing as gay men and soliciting in public places.

Secondly, British computer scientist and codebreaker Alan Turing was charged with gross indecency. Turing was advised to plead guilty, which he did, and on 31 March 1952 the case of Regina v. Turing and Murray was heard. Turing was given a choice between imprisonment and probation, with condition. Turing chose probation, and underwent chemical castration (injections of a synthetic oestrogen which rendered him impotent). Turing’s conviction resulted in the loss of his security clearance, the loss of his consulting job with the British government, and he was denied entry into the United States on the grounds of an immorality conviction (although no other nation prevented him from travelling). On 7 June 1954, Turing committed suicide.

On 27 April 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which established “sexual perversion” as grounds for investigation and dismissal from federal service. EO 10450 was only applicable to civilian federal employees. This gave McCarthy and HUAC legal ability to purge homosexuals from the federal government, at all levels.

In 1954, following a very public trial of 3 men accused of homosexuality, the Home Secretary appointed a committee to report on the laws covering homosexual offences. The Wolfendon Report, which took over 3 months to compile, recommended that homosexual acts between consenting adults no longer be a criminal offence. The Report also declared that homosexuality was neither a mental nor physical disease, nor was homosexuality a threat to society, and that the law should not be allowed to intervene in the private life of citizens. For the first time, a government report explicitly ignored the moral objections to homosexuality, and recommended an about face in laws regarding homosexuality.

Part XVI: Homosexual Politics and The 1950s- part 2


[History Note: Roy Cohn is an interesting political figure, mostly because he’s one of the most hypocritical men in the history of America (and that’s saying a lot). Cohn led the McCarthy-era homosexual purges, although he himself was a homosexual. Cohn’s sexuality was, no joke, the worst kept secret in Washington…even more not a secret than Hoover, although Cohn spent a good portion of his professional career blacklisting homosexuals. Cohn died in 1986, of complication from AIDS (although he insisted, literally with his dying breath, that it was liver cancer). He has a square on the AIDS quilt (anonymously donated) which reads: Roy Cohn: Bully, Coward, Victim. ALSO: the term ‘lavender scare’ was created by a phrase popular with Senator Everett Dirksen, who used the term ‘lavender lads’ to mean homosexuals. The phrase was picked up by the media, and became a synonymous phrase in the 50s.]

[Note: A movie about Alan Turing has been made, based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma (which is good). Early accounts hint that it’s mostly historically accurate. It’s a Weinstein Company film, so I have hope. By all means, go see it when it’s released later this year…but take with you some salt, just in case.]

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