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social sciences

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Washington, D. C.  
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Policing Gay Desire

Besides its groundbreaking black glbtq and lesbian feminist movements, the District of Columbia stands out in glbtq history for being the site of one of the worst crackdowns against lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals in the twentieth century. Responding to the increased visibility of gay men in the parks and bars of Washington after World War II, and to Cold War hysteria that linked homosexuality and Communism, the city's Park Police launched a "Sexual Perversion Elimination Program" and the District Police formed a special morals squad. Together, they arrested more than a thousand gay and bisexual men per year in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The persecution culminated with Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt against suspected gay men and lesbians in the government, which led to the firing of hundreds of federal workers and the enactment of a 1953 Executive Order barring federal agencies from employing "sexual perverts."

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Inasmuch as the government is the major employer in the city, this ban posed a severe hardship, particularly for white gay men. The number of government dismissals declined by the 1960s, but it was not until the 1990s that federal agencies began instituting anti-discrimination policies to protect the rights of their lesbian, gay, and bisexual workers.

In response to this persecution, Washington's first effective organization, the Mattachine Society of Washington, was organized in 1961 by activists Frank Kameny, Jack Nichols, Lilli Vincenz, and others. Not associated with the national Mattachine Society, which had briefly sponsored a Washington chapter in the 1950s but which was in disarray in 1961, the new local organization's most visible action occurred in 1965, when it initiated a series of pickets of government institutions, including the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Civil Service Commission, that discriminated against lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals.

The Federal vs. Local Government

While the federal government has historically been antagonistic toward the glbtq community, the local District government has been at the forefront of enacting glbtq rights legislation ever since Congress granted limited autonomy to the city in the early 1970s.

In 1973, Washington became the first major city in the country to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment, and public accommodations, and in 1976, these rights were extended to include child custody and visitation cases, the first such law in the United States. Lobbying from gay activists also led the city to cut off funding for the police department's morals squad in 1975, effectively ending decades of persecution.

Since the 1980s, however, the federal government has regularly tried to prevent the District from enacting pro-glbtq measures under a provision of the home-rule charter that enables Congress to overturn legislation passed by the D. C. city council. In this way, the government prevented the District from repealing its law for twelve years, finally relenting in 1993, and blocked a domestic partnership law until 2002--nine years after it was passed by the city council.

Congress continues to prevent the District from spending funds to implement a clean needle exchange program to combat the spread of HIV and from enforcing a ruling by the D. C. Commission on Human Rights that ordered the Boy Scouts of America to reinstate two openly gay local scout leaders.

National Headquarters

As the national capital and the center of political power, Washington, D. C. has become home to a number of organizations important to the glbtq movement for equality. The Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, GenderPAC, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, the AIDS Action Council, the National Minority AIDS Council, and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) are just a few of the organizations headquartered in the capital.

Because Washington is the nation's capital, it has also been the site of the most important national demonstrations for glbtq rights, including four Marches on Washington.


Discussions involving Washington, D. C. and glbtq people often focus on the lack of support, if not outright hostility, of the federal government toward gay and lesbian rights. But the capital has vibrant glbtq communities with rich histories that deserve to be documented. A bookstore, medical clinics, bars and restaurants, and political and cultural organizations are just a few of the lively community institutions enjoyed today by glbtq residents of Washington.

[Same-Sex MarriageOn May 4, 2009, the Washington, D. C. City Council overwhelmingly approved a bill that recognizes same-sex marriages performed in jurisdictions where they are legal.

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