Posts Tagged As: Daily Agenda

The Daily Agenda for Sunday, May 22

(d. 2001) A true hero, Mark Bingham was among the passengers who stormed the cockpit of United Airlines Flight 93 after it had been hijacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists on September 11, 2001. His personal bravery was well known before that fateful day. His boyfriend of six years, Paul Holm, recalled that Bingham had thwarted two attempted muggings, one at gunpoint. His friends recalled that he proudly showed off the scars he received during a running of the bulls in Pamplona. During the hijacking, Bingham, who was sitting in first class, made a brief call to his mother. She later called him back after learning of the other 9/11 attacks and said the flight was being used on a suicide mission. Bingham has been honored with several others for bringing the aircraft down and preventing a much greater loss of life.

From NEST (Baltimore, MD), March 1978, page 6. (Personal collection.)

From NEST (Baltimore, MD), March 1978, page 6. (Personal collection.)

The Drinkery has held court in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood ever since it opened in 1972. But last Thursday, it was forced to close up shop after the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners voted 2-1 not to renew the Drinkery’s liquor license.

Those opposing the Drinkery’s license renewel included a city councilman, City Council president, the president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, and several of the Drinkery’s neighbors:

Mark Henderson, who identified himself as gay man who lives near the establishment on Read Street, said that “management let the place go and that [management] doesn’t care about the noise and violence.” Henderson specified loitering and bringing drinks outside and said he contacted the owner, Frederick Allen to help with the problems to no avail.

Michael Pugh, who is also gay and lives on the same street as The Drinkery, testified that prostitutes, drug dealers and johns hang outside the bar during the day but it becomes a “pirates’ cove” of intense activity at night. He added there was a need to “clean up blood, condoms, and vomit” on a daily basis. Pugh said there was “horrendous noise” at closing and people come out of the bar with glasses and bottles.

…(Drinkery owner Frederick) Allen, 87, disputed the accusations. He had been a resident in an apartment above the bar for more than 40 years. Allen said beverages are sold only in cans, not bottles. In his 44 years associated with The Drinkery, Allen testified that there had been no arrests inside the bar and that he cannot be held responsible for actions taking place on a city street.

…“The Drinkery was a melting pot for everyone to meet and have a great time,” RJ Ladd, a frequent patron of the bar, told the Blade. “It will be dearly missed by us all as it was one of the last remaining gay bars in Baltimore.”

Allen’s lawyer said he will appeal.

Representatives of various East Coast homophile groups had already been protesting in support of gay rights over the past year and a half, in New York (Sep 19Apr 18), Washington (Apr 17, May 29, Jun 26, Jul 31, Aug 28, and Oct 23) and Philadelphia (see Jul 4). And so how appropriate is it that when gay rights leaders decided to stage one of the earliest organized protests in Los Angeles, a city known for its car culture and not for its walkability, their protest took place in cars and not on foot?

The occasion for the Los Angeles protest was Armed Forces Day, scheduled to take place that year on May 21. It was military policy that “The homosexual is considered unsuitable for military service and is not permitted to serve in the Armed Forces in any capacity.” On February 19, representatives of a dozen homophile groups had gathered in Kansas City to take part in the National Planning Conference of Homophile Organizations, with the idea being to form a national confederation of gay rights groups. Little was accomplished at that meeting, except a general agreement to protest the exclusion of gay people the military on Armed Forces day. The idea was met with great enthusiasm, initially, with a burst of plans and coordinating communications taking place among committees in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Sacramento, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

But it didn’t take long for the first obstacles arose. The principal one was due to the unpopularity of the war in Viet Nam. Some gay men of draft age found the Defense Department’s policy to be one of the very few distinct advantages they had over others who opposed the war and didn’t want to serve. Aside from the political debates over the morality of the war, why would they want to protest against one of the very few advantages that gay people had in society, at least for those of draft age who didn’t want to fight?

Pretty soon, all national coordination stopped, but planning continued in Los Angeles by the Los Angeles Committee to Fight Exclusion of Homosexuals From the Aimed Forces. It was an all-volunteer effort, directed out of the offices of Don Slater’s magazine Tangents (Aug 21) with Slater and Harry Hay (Apr 7) co-chairing. The committee issued a press release in late March announcing the Armed Forces Motorcade, which caught the attention of L.A’s newspapers and radio and television stations. That press release not only publicized the event, but also acknowledged some of the anti-war arguments against it. The statement pointed out that while the military was “publicly paying lip service to the idea that homosexual persons are unfit for military service, (it) has quietly instructed induction centers to make discreet ‘exceptions’ to the rule (in) the case of homosexuals who are not the ‘obvious’ types.”

But even with the advance publicity, it wasn’t easy drumming up support within the gay community. As Harry Hay told Time magazine the night before the Motorcade:

We’re all tired from the work,” said Hay, “but if this comes, off, it will be something our city has never seen before. If it comes off. Imagine a motorcade of 15 cars and about a 20 mile route through Los Angeles. Ideally we should have had the support of the entire homophile, community; then we could have staged a really grand demonstration. But most homosexuals are still hiding.” He continued vehemently: “With the work we have put into this thing and with the thousands of homosexuals in the area, it is fantastic to realize we will be lucky to have 40 persons show up for the motorcade tomorrow —and at least 20 who do will not be gay.”

The motorcade, consisting of more than a dozen cars with four-sided signs attached to their roofs, wound their way through the streets of Los Angeles and Hollywood. Despite the initial interest expressed in the press, only the alternative Free Press, a Time photographer and a CBS News crew showed up to cover the event. The city editor of the Los Angeles Times said he’d send a reporter “only if someone was hurt. All our reporters and cameras are in Watts.” The incident went off without a hitch, with no adverse reaction from the public, no interference from police. That in itself was a major accomplishment.

While national coordination all but disappeared soon after the February meeting in Kansas City, other Armed Forces Day protests went ahead. The Mattachine Society of Washington D.C., picketed the White House and marched from there to the Pentagon. Frank Kameny, the group’s past president (see below) then flew to New York to be the principal speaker at a rally sponsored by the Daughters of Bilitis. Protesters also handed out leaflets at the Philadelphia Navy Yards, and picketed the Federal Building Plaza in San Francisco.

[Additional Source: C. Todd White. Pre-Gay L.A.: A Social History of the Movement for Homosexual Rights (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009): 183-187.]

aaawhitenightpaper1On this date, Dan White was found guilty in the shooting death of San Francisco Supervisor and LGBT advocate Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Nov 27). Incredibly, he was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter instead of first-degree murder, and sentenced to a paltry seven years in prison. (He would only serve five.) The jury bought the defense arguments that White was suffering from diminished capacity due to depression and an overload of junk food, a defense that has since been derided as the “Twinkie defense.”

The gay community was already angry with the police and fire department, which had raised money for White’s defense. That anger boiled over when the verdict was announced, leading to rioting at City Hall. A dozen police cars were set ablaze as protesters waged a four-hour battle against police in riot gear — their badges were covered with black tape to prevent identification –on Civic Center Plaza.

Later that night, San Francisco police staged a retaliatory raid in the Castro, catching people by surprise, since most of those still in the Castro that evening hadn’t gone downtown. Police descended on the Elephant Walk, a popular gay bar, with shouts of “dirty cocksuckers” and “sick faggots” while beating patrons with batons and shattering a large plate glass window. For the next two hours, police officers indiscriminately attacked passers by on the street. Fred Rogers, the bar’s owner, described the melee:

San Francisco Police charging into the Elephant Walk.

San Francisco Police charging into the Elephant Walk.

A tactical squad had charged the doors, smashing news cameras attempting to record the raid. Once inside they made a sweep from the front of the 1,800-square-foot room all the way to — and over — the bar, swinging their clubs at anything that moved. Or didn’t. Brian, one of the bartenders, was sporting head bandages. He said that it all happened fast, without warning. There was no place to hide. Behind the bar I could see our industrial-strength, stainless-steel blender. It bore the deep imprint of a police baton, mute testimony to the fierceness of the assault. My cocktail waitress, Paula, was just finishing her first week on the job when the assault began. Luckily, she found refuge behind a closed gate in the kitchen area. She said that she had not seen such police brutality since her days on the UC-Berkeley campus.

Later that night, a freelance reporter overheard a group of police officers celebrating at a downtown bar. “We were at City Hall the day [the killings] happened and we were smiling then,” one officer said. “We were there tonight and we’re still smiling.” Gay leaders refused to apologize for the riot at city hall, and an investigation into police misconduct in the Castro and City Hall ended without any charges being filed.

WeslayanCollegeMiddletownCtWesleyan University of Middletown, Connecticut announced that it would become the first American college to offer special housing option to accommodate transgender students. Incoming freshmen will have the option of living in a new “gender-blind” floor of a dormitory without specifying their gender. According to the new university policy, those who choose to live in the gender-blind area “will be assigned a roommate without the consideration of gender.” Mike Whaley, dean of student services, estimated that there were twelve to fifteen transgender students on the 3,000-student campus. But after opposition and obstruction from other members of the administration, the transgender housing policy was very nearly scrapped a year later when the dean in charge of student housing refused to pair students who were not of the same “biological gender.” Finally, with input from mental health professionals and transgender advocates, a new policy was implemented in 2010.

(d. 1993) He started out as a stage actor, landing on Broadway in 1941 for Crazy with the Heat. It didn’t take long for him to switch to the silver screen for the film noir classic Raw Deal (1948). He was adept at playing the heavies, as an aggressive prosecutor in A Place in the Sun (1951), and as the murder suspect in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). But he is best know for his two long-running television roles, in Perry Mason (1957-1966) and Ironside (1967 -1975). Like most gay actors, Burr rarely spoke about his private life. His official biography listed three marriages, but later investigations could only verify the second one. What has been verified is that Burr enjoyed a long 35-year relationship with his partner, Robert Benevides, who he met on the set of Perry Mason. Benevides was not only his life-long partner until Burr’s death in 1993, but together they owned an orchid business(orchids were one of Burr’s passions) and then a vineyard. Benevides still operates the Raymond Burr vineyards today.

(d. 2011) Easily one of the giants of the American gay rights movement, Frank Kameny fell into it when he was fired from his job as an astronomer with the Army Map Service in 1957 because of his homosexuality (Dec 20). Kameny took on the U.S. Civil Service Commission and argued his appeal all the way up to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear his case. They missed out on quite case. Kameny wrote his own petition to the Supreme Court, in which he denounced the government’s ban on hiring gay people as “a stench in the nostrils of decent people, an offense against morality, an abandonment of reason, an affront to human dignity, an improper restraint upon proper freedom and liberty, a disgrace to any civilized society, and a violation of all that this nation stands for.”

Throughout his lifetime, Kameny placed himself in the middle of many first in the gay rights movement. He founded the Washington D.C. chapter of the Mattachine Society in 1961, a group which distinguished itself for its aggressiveness. In 1965, Kameny helped to organize the first gay rights protests in front the White House (Apr 17, May 29, Oct 23), the U.S. Civil Service Commission (Jun 26), Philadelphia’s Independence Hall (Jul 4), the Pentagon (Jul 31), and the State Department (Aug 28). That same year, Kameny published a ground-breaking essay which declared the gay rights movement’s independence from the mental health professions and its shoddy pseudo-scientific research on homosexuality, proclaiming, “We are the true authorities on homosexuality” (May 11). That landmark declaration proved a turning point from or the gay rights movement, which soon shifted from a position of deference to professional authorities who declared that gays were mentally ill, and toward an eight year struggle to convince the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders (Dec 15). In 1968, Kameny created the slogan “Gay is Good” (Aug 12) and in 1971 he was the first openly gay candidate for Congress (Feb 22).

Kameny has been recognized as a national treasure; his papers are now a part of the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian holds several of Kameny’s picket signs and other artifacts in its collection. His home is now recognized as a D.C. Historic Landmark, and in 2009, he received an official apology for his firing from the Office of Personnel Management. He passed away in 2011 at the age of 86.

From This Week In Texas, May 14, 1982, page 74. (Source.)

From This Week In Texas, May 14, 1982, page 74. (Source.)

Located alongside the parks of Dallas’s Turtle Creek (a popular cruising area), the location today is a trendy farm-to-table restaurant.

HeadlinesThese days, probe can be such a funny word. In days gone by, it was a handily short idiom that headline writers could use that didn’t take up nearly as much space as investigation. So headlines like these were common during the Lavender scare of 1950. Go ahead. It’s safe to snicker today, but in 1950, this was serious stuff.

I think one of the most unconscionable gaps in our understanding of American History is the fact that everyone knows about McCarthy’s Red Scare. But what nobody knows about — and what never gets talked about in the documentaries and history books — is that for most of the first year of that national obsession over subversives in government, homosexuals were the focus of everyone’s fears much more so than communists. (Feb 28Mar 14,Mar 21Mar 23Mar 24Apr 14, Apr 18Apr 26, May 2, May 15, and May 19). After all, this was the era when the epithet “pinko fag” became one of the worst insults one could deliver.

Sens. Kenneth Wherry (R-NE) and Lister Hill (D-AL)

Sens. Kenneth Wherry (R-NE) and Lister Hill (D-AL)

Just one day before headlines about Senators demanding a “pervert probe” hit the papers, Senate Majority Leader Kenneth S. Wherry (R-NE) and his counterpart in a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, segregationist Sen. Lister Hill (D-AL) engineered the release of supposedly secret testimony which gave what was considered a rather shocking figure of “3,750 sex perverts” — their term for gay people — in federal employment, with “300 to 400” of them in the State Department alone (May 19). What was buried in most of those reports was that those figures were nothing more than wild guesses put forth by Police Lt. Roy Blick, head of the D.C.Police Department’s vice squad.

But with those headlines blasted in newspapers across America, Wherry had the momentum they needed to put on the floor of the Senate a resolution calling for what the Associated Press described as “a speedy Senate inquiry into federal employment of sexual perverts described as likely tools of Communist conspirators.” The previous day, Wherry and Hill tried to plant another link between gay people and communists by claiming to have uncovered a conspiracy linking “a nest of homosexuals” to the Soviet embassy, where, if a war broke out, a “Red Fifth Column” would sabotage Washington, D.C. using “sex degenerates for subversive purposes.” Few details were forthcoming, but on May 20, the United Press provided this sketchy account:

The purported “blueprint for disaster,” an inch-thick volume, contained detailed instructions for bombing key government offices, destroying public utilities and poisoning the city’s water supply. The aim of the plan would be to paralyze the government, particularly Congress, the military establishment and the State Department.

The volume is currently in the custody of Sgt. James K. Hunter of the Washington police subversive squad. It has been examined already by Senators Kenneth S. Wherry (R-Neb.), and Lester Hill (D-Ala.) … “It looks genuine,” Wherry said.

To put his spin on things, Wherry released a statement which said:

“Only the most naive could relive that the Communists’ fifth column in the United States would neglect to propagate and use homosexuals to gain their treacherous ends in view of the resort to every conceivable form of sabotage revealed in every enemy country infiltrated and finally taken over by the ruthless Communists.”

Hill also chimed in:

It is accepted and agreed that persons who are homosexuals are bad security risks and should not be in sensitive positions or in any positions on the government where they might in any way aid or abet or be a party to subversive activities.

On May 20,  Wherry introduced Resolution 280, with the co-sponsorship of Sen. Lester Hunt (D-WY), asking for a committee “to make a full and complete study and investigation of (a) the alleged employment by the departments and agencies of the Government of homosexuals and other moral perverts, and (b) the preparedness of authorities of the District of Columbia, as well as the appropriate authorities of the Federal Government within the District…for the protection of life and property against the threat to security, inherent in the employment of such perverts.” Crucially, the resolution didn’t specify which committee would do the investigation. And this is where some inside baseball is important to understand what’s happening.

There were two separate motivations for pursuing an investigation like this that would potentially be problematic for the Truman Administration. For the Republican side of the aisle, the motivation is obvious: any time they can successfully sling mud at a Democratic president, Republicans win. But there were also Truman enemies within his own party. Remember, before the Southern political re-alignment of the 1980s, Southern Democrats were often Democrats in name only, what with the Republican brand still so closely identified with what was still being called in more polite circles, “Mr. Lincoln’s War.” And many of those southern Democrats, ardent segregationists that they were, had walked out of the 1948 Democratic Convention over a civil rights platform adopted by the Democratic Party and Truman’s 1948 order to end racial segregation in the military. These Dixicrats failed in their bid to derail Truman’s re-election, and just two years later, those memories were still raw.

And so that’s how Wherry was able to get a Democratic co-sponsor and garner Democratic support in what was still a Democratically-controlled Senate. But in order to secure that support, Wherry dropped his preference that it go to the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Pat McCarran (D-NV, who, by the way, was well known for his xenophobia and admiration for Spain’s Fascist dictator Francisco Franco). His resolution instead left the committee’s designation open. The Senate passed Wherry’s resolution on June 8. The presiding officer, freshman Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) ruled that Vice President Alben Barkley would decide on the committee referral. Barkley referred the investigation to the Investigations Subcommittee of the Committee on Expenditure in the Executive Departments, headed by Sen. Clyde Hoey (D-NC), who in 1948 supported Truman over the Dixicrat challenger, Sen. Strom Thurmund (R-SC), and who Democrats believed would conduct the investigation in a manner that would result in an outcome less damaging to the Administration.

[Additional sources: Randolph W Baxter. “‘Homo-Hunting’ in the Early Cold War: Senator Kenneth Wherry and the Homophobic Side of McCarthyism,” Nebraska History 84 (Fall 2003): 119-132. Available online here (PDF: 2MB/16 pages)

Roger McDaniel. Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt (Cody, WY: Wordsworth, 2013): p 160.]

L-R: Luc Montagnier and Robert Gallo

In a paper published in the US journal Science, a team from France’s Pasteur Institute, led by Luc Montagnier, described a suspect virus which had been isolated in a patient who had died of AIDS. Montagnier’s groundbreaking work led to the determination by US researcher Robert Gallo in 1984 that the virus was indeed the cause of AIDS. Gallo named his virus HTLV-III, and promptly claimed credit for discovering the virus. But the rest of the world began calling it the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV. A three year acrimonious spat between Gallo and Montagnier ensued over who was the first to discover it. The dispute was finally settled after intensive negotiations resulting in both parties being awarded credit, and everyone lived happily ever after, as it were.

Photo of an Amendment 2 Protest from the Nov. 11, 1992 issue of Out Front.

On this date, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Romer v. Evans, handed down the landmark decision striking down Colorado’s Amendment 2 to the state constitution which would have disenfranchised that state’s LGBT citizens from the right to petition their state and local governments for laws banning discrimination.  Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, rejected Amendment 2 supporter’s arguments that the ban on anti-discrimination laws were meant solely to deny LGBT people “special rights”:

[W]e cannot accept the view that Amendment 2’s prohibition on specific legal protections does no more than deprive homosexuals of special rights. To the contrary, the amendment imposes a special disability upon those persons alone. Homosexuals are forbidden the safeguards that others enjoy or may seek without constraint. They can obtain specific protection against discrimination only by enlisting the citizenry of Colorado to amend the State Constitution or perhaps, on the State’s view, by trying to pass helpful laws of general applicability. This is so no matter how local or discrete the harm, no matter how public and widespread the injury. We find nothing special in the protections Amendment 2 withholds. These are protections taken for granted by most people either because they already have them or do not need them; these are protections against exclusion from an almost limitless number of transactions and endeavors that constitute ordinary civic life in a free society.

…(Amendment 2) is at once too narrow and too broad. It identifies persons by a single trait and then denies them protection across the board. The resulting disqualification of a class of persons from the right to seek specific protection from the law is unprecedented in our jurisprudence. …We must conclude that Amendment 2 classifies homosexuals not to further a proper legislative end but to make them unequal to everyone else. This Colorado cannot do. A State cannot so deem a class of persons a stranger to its laws. Amendment 2 violates the Equal Protection Clause, and the judgment of the Supreme Court of Colorado is affirmed.

Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer joined Kennedy in the majority opinion.

Dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas, considered Colorado’s attempt to disenfranchise an entire class of people “unimpeachable under any constitutional doctrine hitherto pronounced.” Pointing to Bowers v Hardwick, the 1986 Supreme Court Decision which declared sodomy laws constitutional (Jun 30), Scalia wrote, “If it is rational to criminalize the conduct, surely it is rational to deny special favor and protection to those with a self-avowed tendency or desire to engage in the conduct.” Seven years later, the Court would correct that contradiction in Lawrence v Texas, which finally struck down anti-sodomy laws in the 13 states where such laws were still in effect (Jun 26).

From Wilde Side, September 1, 1976, page 8.

This is one of those places where it’s hard to find any information. The Town and Country Club on Farnum Pike in Smithfield, Rhode Island, appears to have been a swim club with an Olympic-size swimming pool that went bankrupt in 1969. But when this ad was published in a New England gay bar guide in 1976, it was back in operation, perhaps under new ownership. Since no specific address is given for the Town and Country Club, it’s hard to know what happened to it. I don’t know for sure, but it may (or may not) be the same facility that was, until recently, the Effin Last Resort Club — a bar with an Olympic-sized swimming pool — which also went into receivership in 2013, only to open again as simply The Last Resort.

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Roger Williams established Providence Plantation (“Plantation” was a synonym for a settlement or colony) in 1636 as a refuge for religious freedom and on the principle of majority rule among the heads of households for “civil things.” He had established his colony after Massachusetts banished him for spreading “diverse, new, and dangerous position.” Those positions included theological and legal disputes with the leaders of Massachusetts colony, and since Massachusetts laws were based on Puritan theology, Williams was found guilty of sedition and heresy simultaneously. His Providence Plantation would be far different, becoming the first outpost to uphold the diverse, new, and dangerous position of the separation of church and state.

The following year, Massachusetts banished the followers of Anne Hutchinson, who preached the doctrine of Antinomianism, which held that if salvation came through faith and divine grace alone, then the strict imposition of a moral law by political authorities was an unbiblical reliance on good works over faith. Hutchinson’s followers settled in present-day Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Other settlements soon followed.

In 1647, representatives from Providence, Portsmouth, Newport and Warwick came together in Portsmouth to establish a government for the Rhode Island Colony, and to draw up a body of laws which would become one of the earliest governmental codes enacted by colonists in the New World. With Rhode Island being a refuge for those “distressed of conscience,” Rhode Island’s new code was modeled more on the statutes of England rather than on Biblical texts as in Massachusetts. But that didn’t mean it was devoid of Biblical citations — Rhode Island Colony may have prized religious freedom, but there was still an assumption that Biblical principles were important in public life. And so Rhode Island Colony’s law addressing sodomy cited, in addition to English law, Paul’s letter to the Romans as part of its justification. That section read:

Touching Whoremongers. First of sodomy, which is forbidden by this present Assembly throughout the whole colony, and by sundry statutes of England 25 Hen. 8, 6: 5 Eliz 17. It is a vile affection, whereby men given up thereto leave the natural use of women and burn in their lusts toward another, and so men with men work that which is unseemly, as that Doctor of the Gentiles [St. Paul] in his letter to the Romans once spake, i. 27. The penalty concluded by that state under whose authority we are is felony of death without remedy. See 5 Eliz 17.(2)

The citations of 25 Henry 8, 6 and 5 Elizabeth 17 refer to, respectively, the 1533 buggery statute enacted under King Henry VIII, and its 1563 reenactment under Queen Elizabeth I. The reference to Paul’s letter to the Romans was unusual. Legislation at that time would have much more typically referenced Leviticus 20:13. But remember, Rhode Island Colony was settled by colonists who rejected salvation by works of the law, and there’s nothing more workier-of-the-law than Leviticus. Hence, the New Testament citation rather than the Old.

By imposing the death penalty for men who “work that which is unseemly” with other men, sodomy joined treason, murder, manslaughter, witchcraft, robbery, arson, and rape as crimes meriting the death penalty. There were no recorded persecutions under this law or any subsequent laws which included the death penalty, although that may be due to a lack of rigorous record keeping rather than a lack of prosecutions. The ultimate penalty was eliminated in 1844 and replaced with one to twelve years’ imprisonment. The minimum penalty was raised to seven years in 1872, and the maximum was raised to twenty years in 1881. The Rhode Island legislature didn’t get around to decriminalizing consensual sex between same-sex couples until 1998.

The two-year ordeal began in 1895 when Oscar Wilde was denounced as a homosexual by the Marquess of Queensberry. Wilde, who was involved with the marquess’ son, Alfred Douglass, sued the Marquess for libel but lost the case when evidence supported the marquess’ allegations (Apr 5). Because homosexual behavior among men was still considered a crime in England, that evidence led to Wilde’s arrest. His first trial resulted in a hung jury, but a second jury in 1895 sentenced him to two years of hard labor (May 25). Wilde was imprisoned in Pentonville and then Wandsworth prisons in London. The regime consisted of “hard labour, hard fare and a hard bed.” Ill with dysentery and weakened from hunger, Wilde collapsed during Chapel, bursting his right ear drum. He spent two months in the infirmary, and his health never fully recovered.

He was later transferred to Reading prison, where he wrote a 50,000 word letter to Douglass. He wasn’t allowed to send the letter, but he was permitted to take it with him when he was released. The letter, since named De Profundis was published in 1962’s Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. It reads, it part:

When first I was put into prison some people advised me to try and forget who I was. It was ruinous advice. It is only by realising what I am that I have found comfort of any kind. Now I am advised by others to try on my release to forget that I have ever been in a prison at all. I know that would be equally fatal. It would mean that I would always be haunted by an intolerable sense of disgrace, and that those things that are meant for me as much as for anybody else – the beauty of the sun and moon, the pageant of the seasons, the music of daybreak and the silence of great nights, the rain falling through the leaves, or the dew creeping over the grass and making it silver – would all be tainted for me, and lose their healing power, and their power of communicating joy. To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development. To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.

From The Pittsburgh Press, May 19, 1950, page 2.

Imagine seeing a headline like this one while reading the morning paper over coffee. A surprising number of newspapers used a headline very similar to the one the Pittsburgh Press used for this story.

What we now know as the McCarthy Red Scare of the 1950s, which was ostensibly about allegations of communists in the U.S. government, actually had its roots in the Lavender Scare of 1950, about which history books today are mostly silent. But for much of 1950, it was actually Congress’s obsession with the perceived threat of homosexuals in government which consumed most of the front pages of the nation’s newspapers, with Communist-hunting pretty much relegated to the background. (Feb 28Mar 14,Mar 21Mar 23Mar 24Apr 14, Apr 18Apr 26, May 2, and May 15;).

Driving the hysteria over homosexuals in the Senate was a coalition of the Republican caucus, which was then in the minority, and Southern Democrats who were furious over President Truman’s order to integrate the Armed Forces and who worried that he might have a few more integration tricks up his sleeve. As ABC radio commentator Elmer Davis remarked in mid-May, “‘It looks as if the enemies of the State Department, and of the administration generally, have gotten hold of a more profitable issue than communism.”

That profitable issue got a greater boost when the following United Press article appeared in newspapers nationwide:

3750 Perverts Listed on Payroll

Senate Republican Leader Kenneth S. Wherry said today that Washington police estimate there are 3750 sex perverts in the Government here.

In a report to a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, Senator Wherry said police authorities testified that 300 to 400 State Department employees are “suspected or allegedly homosexual.”

The Nebraskan also said that Washington police reported they have uncovered “what purported to be a plan of Communists to sabotage and damage” Washington in case of war with Russia; that a Red Fifth Column is using sex degenerates for subversive purposes; and that “there are 1000 bad security risks” in Washington.

The report gave no details on the purported plot to sabotage Washington.

The New York Times had a more in-depth account, which revealed that Police Lieutenant Roy Blick, head of the department’s vice squad, testified that his estimate of 300 to 400 gays employees in the State Department was based on “a quick guess”:

This, he said at one point, was a “quick guess,” in the sense that it was based upon his experience that arrested persons not connected with the State Department would sometimes say: “Why don’t you go get so-and-so and so-and-so? They all belong to the same clique.”

“By doing that,” Lieutenant Blick added, “their names were put on the list and they were catalogued as such, as the suspect of being such.”

But Blick’s arrival at the 3,750 number was, by his own admission, based on pure guesswork. He gave a “quick guess” of five thousand homosexual men in the District of Columbia (out of a population of 800,000). He guessed that three-fourths of them were government jobs.

Senate Majority Leader Kenneth Wherry (R-NE)

Senate Majority Leader Kenneth Wherry (R-NE)

Sen. Wherry and his Democratic counterpart, Lister Hill (D-AL), were alarmed at what they considered a lax attitude toward homosexuals in government employment, and had conducted closed-door hearings with DC police and federal agency witnesses since March 23. More than a dozen witnesses testified, including those from the State Department, Defense Department, the FBI, and D.C. police. The Navy protested that they were doing their job by removing more than 7,800 “known or alleged homosexuals” since 1947, and the Army boasted that more than 5,000 were discharged during the same period.

But Blick wound up being the star witness by suggesting that the work in rooting out homosexuals wasn’t completed. Wherry praised Blick as a “one-man watchdog of the city’s morals,” but he was disappointed that the city’s vice squad didn’t maintain a master list of arrested homosexuals to cross-check against federal employment rolls. But Blick wound up providing the crucial testimony that Wherry was looking for: a confirmation that there were “thousands” of homosexuals working in the government, far more than the 91 that the State Department acknowledged getting rid of in February (Feb 28).

Sensing a political advantage, Republicans leaked Blick’s secret testimony to the press in late March — but without Blick’s dubious methods for coming up with his number. By the time Wherry released his report to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, no one bothered to fact-check Blick’s number. His “quick guess” was simply repeated as fact. Later that July, Blick admitted to a reporter that his numbers were dubious and he regretted having been “caught between the Democrats and the Republicans.”

Oh, remember the communists? The thing that they were supposed to have been so worried about when the whole controversy started? Well, Wherry had an answer for that, too. He also passed on to reporters that D.C. police reported that they had uncovered “what purported to be a plan of Communists to sabotage and damage” Washington if war would break out. The plan involved a “Red Fifth Column” using “sex degenerates for subversive purposes,” though he didn’t give any details of the purported plot. He claimed instead to have traced a “nest of homosexuals” to the Soviet embassy.

[Additional source: Randolph W Baxter. “‘Homo-Hunting’ in the Early Cold War: Senator Kenneth Wherry and the Homophobic Side of McCarthyism,” Nebraska History 84 (Fall 2003): 119-132. Available online here (PDF: 2MB/16 pages).]

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