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social sciences

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As John Loughery reports, the systematic expulsion of homosexuals from public service becomes clear if one compares the number of dismissals between 1947 and 1950 with the figures for 1951 alone. In the three years before the "pervert inquiry," an average of sixty federal administrative employees and one thousand military personnel were dismissed each year as a result of investigations into their sexual histories. By 1951, these numbers had dramatically increased: federal workers were then dismissed at a rate of sixty per month and homosexual discharges from the military amounted to two thousand a year.

When Dwight Eisenhower assumed the presidency in 1953, he soon issued Executive Order 10450, which codified homosexuality as sufficient and necessary grounds for denying or dismissing persons from federal employment. Homosexuals were to be eradicated from government positions, and they could be fired simply on the basis of anonymous accusation.

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Representations of Homosexuals in the Media

Established by security and governmental authorities, the link between homosexuals and political subversives was effectively publicized by the media, especially by the popular press. Gay men and lesbians were increasingly depicted as adepts of a sect devising both sexual and political plots.

As Lillian Faderman has documented, lesbians were portrayed in these popular magazines as preying on innocent victims. She quotes, for example, the description of the lesbian given by Jet, a Black magazine, in 1954: "If she so much as gets one foot into a good woman's home with the intention of seducing her, she will leave no stone unturned . . . and eventually destroy her life for good."

Publications aimed at higher social classes spouted the same warnings. Human Events, a Washington newsletter for business and professional leaders, urged readers to hunt down homosexuals because "by the very nature of their vice they belong to a sinister, mysterious, and efficient International, [and] members of one conspiracy are prone to join another conspiracy."

Response and Resistance

But the 1950s should not be remembered only as years of oppression and persecution. It was also a time of resistance. Gay men and lesbians began to form organizations and to create their own subcultures, though these mainly had to stay underground.

As Faderman contends, homosexuality in the 1950s became "not only a choice of sexual orientation, but of social orientation as well, though usually lived covertly." World War II and the process of urbanization that followed in its aftermath increased the numbers of gay men and lesbians who could take part in homosexual subcultures. Yet, with the advent of McCarthyism, "suddenly there were more reasons than ever for the subculture to stay underground."

But the harassment of homosexuals throughout the 1950s also led them to believe in the necessity of mutual support. Although fighting back was not always possible and many gay men and lesbians were affected by guilt and internalized the stereotypes of the era, the 1950s was also the beginning of activism in the lesbian and gay communities.

The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, which together inaugurated the American movement, were in many ways shaped by McCarthyism.

The Mattachine Society had from its very beginnings in the late 1940s a Marxist agenda. Harry Hay and most of the co-founders of Mattachine were current or former Communist Party members. Their background in the Communist party made them aware of the necessity of organizing and protest, as they argued that homosexuals were a distinct cultural minority deserving of respect and protection at a time, as Lillian Faderman notes, "when the idea of rights for sexual minorities was inconceivable."

Yet the leaders' association with Communism also imperiled the organization and tended to give credence to the alleged link between Communism and homosexuality.

The fear of being discovered and identified as homosexual was both real and justified in the era, and seriously impeded the efforts of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis to create a mass movement for gay and lesbian rights. Understandably, both organizations devoted great energy to protecting the secrecy of their membership rolls and reassuring prospective members that they would not be exposed.

As John Loughery has concluded, the founders of these first organizations had the great merit to attempt, in an extremely hostile society, "to articulate an idea of gay people as something more than the sum of their sexual appetites."

Still, given the climate created by McCarthyism, it is not surprising that these organizations were unable to create a mass movement for change. At the same time, however, they deserve credit for setting the stage for the modern gay and lesbian rights movement that would emerge in the 1960s.

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