Chapter 4 World War II to the 1960s

Sunday 9 April 2017.

Chapter 4 World War II to the 1960s

The homosexual as a distinct person, which was first advocated in Germany during the 1860s by homosexuals themselves seeking legal rights, was next adopted by sexologists and then by psychiatrists. But it was the American military during World War II with the psychiatric profession that was to play a leading role in defining the homosexual as a character type, who was sick that persisted until the early 1970s.

Examining the evolution of gay and lesbian identity shows that two pivotal periods in history were essential to the establishment of the gay rights movement in the 1950s. Sexologists in the nineteen-century argued that sexual orientation is a core trait that defines the essence of human beings. Under their influence, those who were attracted to people of the same gender began to think of themselves as homosexuals. Following this change in personal identity, homosexuals had the opportunity to form communities during World War II, when the crisis afforded them chances to meet others like themselves and develop networks. For the first time in history, gay men and lesbians could share their stories and find like-minded friends and partners. (Burns, Editor, Gay Rights, p.21)

In 1940, in conjunction with the peacetime draft, the military adopted psychiatric screening. One of the chief proponents of screening, Henry Stark Sullivan, was himself homosexual and believed that homosexuality in itself should not bar a potential recruit from military service. (Edsall, Toward Stonewall: Homosexuality and Society in the Modern Western World, p.262)

The status of homosexuals changed around the time of World War II. Prior to this point, identifications with homosexuality were primarily individual experiences. The identification of homosexuals as a group was given impetus by the actions of the military and the federal government who attempted to identify homosexuals and remove them from military positions. Early in the war effort, discovered homosexuals were given dishonorable discharges by the thousands. Later, those who had served in the war were given a newly created category of discharge - a general discharge which was neither honorable or dishonorable (Licata, 1980). The labeling and singling out of these individuals by the government helped to create minority status of homosexuals as group and to promote discrimination against them. (Heyl, Homosexuality: A Social Phenomenon, p. 341 in Human Sexuality: The Societal and Interpersonal Context, edited by Kathleen McKinney and Susan Sprecher)

Over the course of the 1940 build-up, all the backing and forthing between the military and the burgeoning psychiatric community, and then, once when war was declared, all that psychiatric screening, in whatever its final form created in the mind of huge portions of the general population a picture of the a character type known as the homosexual. (Archer, The End of Gay and the death of heterosexuality, p.106)

What the military did in its rough and ready way was to mush all these things together into one character type the homosexual. The homosexual was now, for all the world to see an effeminate man (and after the war, a masculine woman) who had sex with members of the same sex, and was either passively or actively pathological. (Archer, The End of Gay and the death of heterosexuality, p.105)

While the discussion of such things as the relationship to gender to sexuality was limited to scientific, literary, intellectual, and interested circles as it was, mostly from the nineteen-century through the Second World War the link was not firmly or especially popularly made. Many pieces of what would eventually be the popular conception of the early-modern homosexual (which let’s say dates from the Second World War to about 1969) were floating independently between sexologists and psychiatrists. There was the effeminate man or pansy, there was the pervert and/or psychopath who could be expected to commit violent crimes of a sexual nature on any sort of person at all, and there was the man or woman, not much spoken of in polite company, who had a tendency to have sex with others of the same sex. When this was spoken of, it was in purely non-sexual terms, like the partners on ranches that Front Runner author Patricia Nell Warren remembers her father mentioning in Montana when she was a child in the late thirties and forties, or those urban bachelors and the ubiquitous maiden aunts and their companions. (Archer, The End of Gay and the death of heterosexuality, p.105)

Despite this modicum of sympathy initially extended to sexual perverts, the military categorically declared homosexual behavior and proclivities as incompatible with military service. Historian Allan Berube (1990) has documented the ill effects of this military ban on those who managed to stay in the service and those given dishonorable discharges simply for being homosexual. The psychiatric profession that dedicated itself to screening out homosexuals also promised to treat the problem of homosexuality as it was perceived to affect the individuals discharged and the society that would receive them. (Rosario, Homosexuality and Science A Guide to the Debates, p. 89)

This military ban on homosexuals was a result but not the intent of two psychiatrists. President Roosevelt received a memo from Harry Stack Sullivan and Winfred Overholser suggesting a screening process for identifying potential soldiers who may later suffer from mental health issues. Their intent was to help prevent a situation that occurred after World War I, in which men by the thousands required treatment for mental health issues, including hospitalization that resulted in a tremendous financial cost and burden. President Roosevelt accepted this idea and had these two psychiatrists draw up guidelines, which became known as Medical Circular Number One. But within one year, both the army and navy had revised the guidelines, adding homosexuality to the list of deviations Sullivan and Overholser had said should disqualify those from military service. This revision resulted in the military for the rest of the war and decades thereafter, referring to men and women who engaged or were prone to homosexual activity as sexual psychopaths. This military ban on homosexuals was the unintended result of the actions by psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan, who was a homosexual himself. One interesting part of Sullivan’s life was his relationship with, James Inscoe, who was 20 twenty years younger than Sullivan. When they meet in 1927 Sullivan was 35 and James was 15 years old.

As I said earlier, Sullivan’s standing in psychiatric history is not quite what it was. This is, in part, due to rumors that he was as one colleague said upon hearing of his death, a homosexual, an alcoholic, and a paranoid schizophrenic. (Allen, Sullivan’s Closet: A Reappraisal of Harry Stack Sullivan’s Life and His Pioneering Role in American Psychiatry, p.5)

Sometime in 1927, he met a young man named James Inscoe. Jimmie who later took Sullivan’s surname, was about 15 or 16 years old at the time. Although Helen Perry wrote that nobody would tell her how Harry met Jimmie, she confessed to me when we met one quiet fall afternoon in her Cambridge, Massachusetts, apartment, that Jimmie had been a male hustler in Washington D.C. Shortly thereafter, Jimmie who was to become Sullivan’s secretary, housekeeper, office manager, and longtime companion, moved into Sullivan’s suburban Maryland home. Harry and Jimmie made a home together in Maryland and in New York City, for twenty-years, until Harry’s death in 1949. Jimmie’s place in Sullivan’s life was complex and ambiguous; to Sullivan’s colleagues, he was Harry Stack’s foster son, although they had no official or legal relationship; among Sullivan’s friends. Jimmie was known simply as the man who came to stay (Perry, 1983). (Allen, Sullivan’s Closet: A Reappraisal of Harry Stack Sullivan’s Life and His Pioneering Role in American Psychiatry, p.9)

Not all soldiers who experienced homoerotic feelings toward other soldiers or who even engaged in sex with other men were gay. Often heterosexual men engaged in situational homosexuality, having sex with other men only to attain a level of physical intimacy deprived by the war experience. It was not uncommon for men to dance together at canteens, to share beds at hotels when on leave, or to share train berths while in transit. The critical point is not the Second World War led to an increase in the number of homosexuals; such a statement can be neither confirmed nor denied. Rather, the war created a sexual situation where individuals with homosexual feelings or tendencies could more readily explore them without the absolute fear of exposure. (Engel, The Unfinished Revolution: Social Movement Theory and the Gay and Lesbian Movement, p.23)

The decisions of particular men and women to act on their erotic/emotional preference for the same sex, along with the new consciousness that this preference made them different, led to the formation of an urban subculture of gay men and lesbians. Yet at least through the 1930s this subculture remained rudimentary, unstable, and difficult to find. How, then, did the complex, well-developed gay community emerge that existed by the time the gay liberation movement explored? The answer is to be found during World War II, a time when the cumulative changes of several decades coalesced into a qualitatively new shape.
The war severely disrupted traditional patterns of gender relations and sexuality, and temporarily created a new erotic situation conducive to homosexual expression. It plucked millions of young men and women, whose sexual identities were just forming, out their homes, out of towns and small of cities, out of the heterosexual environment of the family, dropped them into sex-segregated situations as - GIs, as WACs and WAVEs, in same-sex rooming houses for women workers who relocated to seek employment. The war freed millions of men and women from the settings where heterosexuality was normally imposed. For men and women already gay, it provided an opportunity to meet people like themselves. Others could become gay because of the temporary freedom to explore sexuality that the war provided.
(D Emilio, Capitalism and Gay Identity p. 471-472)

Men and women who were aware of same-sex attraction, but had not acted upon it, could explore it in a relatively safe environment. Individuals already aware of their homosexuality could meet others, embark on relationships, and build further ties to help foster the development of a gay community. The point is not that the war experience fostered homoerotic feelings and a rise in homosexuality. Rather, the disruption in the social environment caused by the war provided the opportunity for homosexuals to meet, to realize others like themselves existed, and to abandon the isolation that characterized the homosexual lifestyle of the pre-war period. (Engel, The Unfinished Revolution: Social Movement Theory and the Gay and Lesbian Movement, p.23-24)

The war functioned as an opportunity to promote homosexual visibility in a variety of ways. First, by asking recruits if they have had felt any erotic attraction for members of the same sex, the military ruptured the silence that shrouded a tabooed behavior, introducing some to the concept for the first time. Furthermore, the act of considering a homosexual unfit for service illustrates both a sharp shift in the language of military policy as well as a change in the common perception of the homosexual. Previously the sexual act was the problem; individuals discovered in sexual relations with a member of the same sex were punished accordingly through the military’s criminal justice system. Yet, the drafting procedure initiated by the Second World War viewed the person as mentally ill. In an interesting parallel to Foucault’s argument, the sexual act was not banned, rather the homosexual himself was banned. Second, the war functioned to bring previously isolated homosexuals together. Given that the recruits could merely lie about their sexual inclinations and that the draft preferred young and single men, it was likely that the armed forces would contain a disproportionately high percentage of gay men. Third, soldiers often resorted to antics which exaggerated common homosexual stereotypes to alleviate sexual tension. (Engel, The Unfinished Revolution: Social Movement Theory and the Gay and Lesbian Movement, p.22)

The Second World War coupled with the Kinsey studies of the late 1940s created the opportunity for men and women unsure of their sexual orientation or already aware of their homosexuality or bisexuality to meet others like themselves and realize their commonality. (Engel, The Unfinished Revolution: Social Movement Theory and the Gay and Lesbian Movement, p.29)

Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of the opportunity provided by the Second World War for gay men and lesbians to explore their identity and the subsequent repressive environment of the 1950s fostered a dissonant atmosphere from which the first politically active gay and lesbian organizations emerged. (Engel, The Unfinished Revolution: Social Movement Theory and the Gay and Lesbian Movement, p.29)

It was as a result of this military response to homosexuality and after the war a similar response to homosexuality adopted by the federal government that led to homosexuals beginning to organize themselves. Harry Hay and other male homosexuals founded one such group, the Mattachine Society in 1951 in Los Angeles. The Daughters of Bilitis founded in 1955 was a similar organization of female homosexuals. The term homophile was chosen by the homosexuals who founded these groups to be used in describing these groups so as to de-emphasis the difference between homosexuals and other members of society, that is the difference of sexuality, i.e. who one had sex with.

In November of the previous year, 1950, five men had met at the home of Harry Hay in Los Angeles, and out of that meeting grew the first substantial and lasting homophile organization in American history, the Mattachine Society. (Edsall, Toward Stonewall: Homosexuality and Society in the Modern Western World, p.269)

Homophile Movement

The emphasis on self-education, minority-group distinctiveness, and community organizing evident in the statement of missions and purposes prepared by the founders of the Mattachine Society stood in marked contrast to the ideas aired by Donald Webster Cory in The Homosexual in America. Cory argued that prejudice was responsible for negative stereotyping and discrimination, and he maintained that the public had to be taught that homosexuals were in important respects like heterosexuals and were therefore worthy of equal opportunity and a place in the mainstream. These ideas bespoke the world view of liberals and civil rights leaders who believed that America was an admirable melting pot and that progressives should be concerned with acculturating and integrating members of excluded minority groups. But Hay and his followers held the Marxist view that capitalism required the oppression of minorities. They believed that homosexuals had to organize so that they could explore their sexuality, become aware of how it equipped them to contribute to a more humane society, and prepare to join with other organized minorities in the struggle to replace capitalism with socialism. (Moratto, The Politics of Homosexuality, p. 9-10)

They had, in fact, what is here called the basic homophile outlook-the belief that prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination were the source of the homosexual’s problems and that education, policy reform, and help for individual homosexuals would bring about the recognition of basic similarity, equality of treatment, and integration that were tantamount to social progress. (Moratto, The Politics of Homosexuality, p.11)

During the 1950s, the term homophile was used as a euphemism for homosexual by those who wanted to combat the stereotype that homosexuals were obsessed with sex. The suffix phile was suppose to suggest that homosexuality was more an emotional than a sexual attraction and that homosexuals, like respectable heterosexuals, were interested in love more than sex. Early in the 1960s, Mattachine leaders in the east suggested that the word homophile be used to refer to their movement to secure rights and status for homosexuals. The term is used here both to identify the ideas about gay political activity that predominated before the gay liberation movement and to characterize the groups, leaders, and activities that were guided by these ideas. (Moratto, The Politics of Homosexuality, p.11-12)

Homosexuals begin to speak for themselves in the language of civil rights and social inclusion in the post-World War II period. Initially, the war spawned urban networks of among homosexuals; the antihomosexual politics of the 1950s and 1960s in the midst of general liberalization of society and the materialization of homosexual life in urban areas provided a favorable context for movements of homosexual empowerment. By the early 1970s a self-identified, self-accepting homosexual population had swelled, and a collective homosexual life developed in the exclusively gay bars, social clubs, friendship networks, and political organizations that cropped up across the urban landscapes of America. Skirmishes between a new militant, self-respecting homosexual and the guardians of heterosexual privilege broke out in bars, the courts, and in the worlds of science, literature, and art. In particular, these emerging gay subculture gave birth to a cultural apparatus that challenged religious and scientific-medical definitions of homosexuality as an illness or sin. Discourses issued forth the gay culture that projected new, affirmative identities: homosexuality was reconfigured as a natural human expression, as a basis for a new minority, as an alternative lifestyle, and as a political rebellion against patriarchy and heterosexism. Symbolic of this change was the substitution by the homosexual community of the term gay for homosexual. Whereas the latter term carried resonances of deviance, disease, and destruction, and gave the legal, medical and scientific institutions control over individuals’ lives, gay signified dignity and personal integrity; it framed homosexuality as a social identity. Self-identification as gay symbolized a community that was intent on taking control of its own lives. (Seidman, Embattled Eros, p.147-148)

A historical sketch of American gay and lesbian movement reveals that the movement’s guiding ideology exhibits a bipolar pattern exacerbated by gender-based rifts. Movement philosophy tends to swing between periods of moderation or assilimationism on one side and militancy and liberationism on the other. These seemingly oppositional ideologies have divided the movement throughout the post-war era. The homophile movement, initiated in 1951 with the formation of the first modern gay rights organization, the Mattachine Society, illustrates the effect of these conflicting ideologies on mobilization. The history of the Mattachine Society specifically, and of the homophile movement in general, follows a pattern of brief militancy followed by long period of assimilation and moderate leaders leading to a crescendo of renewed radicalism climaxed by the Stonewall riots. (Engel, The Unfinished Revolution: Social Movement Theory and the Gay and Lesbian Movement, p.30)

Founded by Harry Hay in April 1951 in Los Angeles, and modeled after the communist party, the Mattachine Society became the first organization of what would become the homophile movement. The secret hierarchical and cell-like organization adapted from the communist party was necessitated, according to the founders, by the oppressive environment fostered by McCarthyism. Yet, Mattachine drew on the communism for more than just a structural guide; Marxist ideology functioned as a means to mobilize a mass homosexual constituency for political action. Utilizing a Marxist understanding of class politics, that is, a class as merely a socioeconomically determined entity until it gains consciousness enabling recognition of its inherent political power, Hay and the other founding members theorized that homosexuals constituted a similarly oppressed minority group. Homosexuals, like members of the proletariat, were trapped in a state of false consciousness purported and defended by the heterosexual majority which maintained homosexuality to be a morally reprehensible individual aberration. Hence, the early Mattachine attempted to promote a measure of cognitive liberation and homosexual collective identity. During a time when both religion and law condemned homosexuality, and medicine viewed it as an individual psychological abnormality, the Mattachine Society was advocating the development of a group consciousness similar to that of other ethnic minority groups in the United States. (Engel, The Unfinished Revolution: Social Movement Theory and the Gay and Lesbian Movement, p.30)

Since not only Hay but two others of the original five had been Communist Party members, the society inevitably reflected party doctrine in its ideology and to some extent in its structure. They defined homosexuals as a distinct cultural minority schooled in the values of the dominant heterosexual culture but not, of course, able to fit into that cultural except at great personal and social cost. They therefore saw the first task f the new society as raising consciousness, not, as in the Communist Party, of class, and through increased self-awareness as a group to install pride and solidarity and ultimately to inspire political and social action. (Edsall, Toward Stonewall: Homosexuality and Society in the Modern Western World, p.273)

By asserting that homosexuals constituted a minority comparable to other ethnic groups, Mattachine defined itself rather being defined by the dominant culture: homosexuality was distinct from and morally equivalent to heterosexuality. Self-definition is a recurring theme in the attempts to create a validating and positive collective identity, and the sexual minorities community continued the trend with the adoption of gay in the 1970s and less widespread adoption of queer in the 1990s. Furthermore, the comparison to ethnic minorities provided a model for action; homosexuals should follow the lead of other groups and politically organize for equal civil rights. (Engel, The Unfinished Revolution: Social Movement Theory and the Gay and Lesbian Movement, p.31)

In order to help develop the homosexual consciousness, the Mattachine Society coordinated public discussion groups. By late 1951, approximately twelve discussion groups existed throughout southern California; Mattachine billed these events as positive alternatives to the anonymous sexual encounters fostered by the bar and bathhouse subculture. (Engel, The Unfinished Revolution: Social Movement Theory and the Gay and Lesbian Movement, p.31-32)

In order to mitigate some of the growing dissension, the original five members called for a convention in April 1953 to convert the Mattachine Society into an above-ground organization. However, rather than ameliorating tension, the conference merely exacerbated the rift between moderate and militant perspective. Chuck Rowland and Harry hay were confronted by the demands of Kenneth Braun, Marilyn Reiger, and Hal Call. The former individuals stressed the need to build an ethical homosexual culture and to end prejudice that privileges heterosexuality as morally superior. Burns, Reiger, and Call took the opposite stance. They emphasized assimilation and suggested that homosexual behavior was a minor characteristic that should not foster a rift with the heterosexual majority. (Engel, The Unfinished Revolution: Social Movement Theory and the Gay and Lesbian Movement, p.32)

Even so, for the sake of unity and to free the society from the imputation of Communist ties, the founders as a body decided to bow out of the leadership. Gradually they drifted away as the moderates took over. Activism, the questioning of majoritarian values, and the raising of gay consciousness gave away to a policy of accommodation in which homosexuals were urged to adopt a pattern of behavior that is acceptable to society in general and compatible with recognized institutions . . . of home, church and state” and to pursue a program of working with experts in the medical and scientific community to educate and change public perceptions and gain creditability. (Edsall, Toward Stonewall: Homosexuality and Society in the Modern Western World, p. 281)

Abandoning its communist-based ideology, the post-convention Mattachine Society no longer sought to promote a homosexual culture or mass movement. Instead, it established an assimilationist tendency emphasizing homosexuality as primarily an individual problem, and it turned to psychology to provide theories on homosexuality. The new leadership proposed, and members endorsed, an elimination of any mention of homosexual culture from the statement of purpose. Indeed, the statement no longer even identified the Mattachine Society as a homosexual organization; the word homosexual was eliminated from the passage altogether. (Engel, The Unfinished Revolution: Social Movement Theory and the Gay and Lesbian Movement, p.33)

It was this homosexual that was popularly known and accepted until the late 1960s when once again homosexuals themselves begin speaking for themselves and defining themselves. It is was this new generation of homosexual activists, who differed from the previous generation of homosexual activist who comprised the homophile movements of the 1950s and early 1960s. Stonewall is often cited as the beginning of this transition. Whereas members of the homophile groups worked together with the psychiatrists, this new generation of homosexual activist’s tactics were to protest and fight against psychiatrists. While homosexuals seemed to gain control of their lives and their destinies which was the commercialization of homosexuality and the adoption of gay and lesbian as defining terms/identities. The result was AIDS.


Allen, PhD. Michael S Sullivan’s Closet: A Reappraisal of Harry Stack Sullivan’s Life and His Pioneering Role in American Psychiatry.Journal of Homosexuality. 1995, Vol. 29 (1), p.1-18.

Archer, Bert. The End of Gay (and the death of heterosexuality). Thunder’s Mouth Press. New York, 2002.

Burns, Kate. Editor. Gay Rights. Greenhaven Press/Thompson Gale. Farmington Hills, MI, 2006.

D Emilio, John. Capitalism and Gay Identity, p. 467-476 in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader by Henry Abelove, Aine Barale, and David Halperin. Routledge. New York and London, 1993.

Edsall, Nicholas. Toward Stonewall: Homosexuality and Society in the Modern Western World. University of Virginia Press. Charlottersville & London, 2003.

Engel, Stephen M. The Unfinished Revolution: Social Movement Theory and the Gay and Lesbian Movement. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, UK, 2001.

McKinney, Kathleen and Susan Sprecher editors. Human Sexuality: The Societal and Interpersonal Context. Ablex Publishing Corporation. Norwood, New Jersey, 1989.

Moratto, Toby. The Politics of Homosexuality. Houghton Mifflin. Boston, 1981.

Rosario, Vernon A. Homosexuality and Science A Guide to the Debates. ABC-CLIO. Santa Barbara, CA, Denver, CO & Oxford, England, 2002.

Seidman, Steven. Embattled Eros: Sexual Politics and Ethnics in Contemporary America. Routledge. New York, 1992.

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