Stonewall Celebrations, 1969
An unidentified group of young people celebrate outside the boarded-up Stonewall Inn (53 Christopher Street) after riots over the weekend of June 27, 1969. The bar and surrounding area were the site of a series of demonstrations and riots that led to the formation of the modern gay rights movement in the United States. (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)


This month is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, considered the beginning of the modern LGBTQ rights movement.

I didn’t hear about the Stonewall riots until years after it happened. But my partner, who was in the military at that time, was subscribing to the Village Voice—as his link to the gay world—so he learned of those events soon after they occurred.

Stonewall was not the first fight against oppression of homosexuals, however. As early as the 1870s, gay people in Germany were working to decriminalize homosexual acts—a movement that flourished following WWI.

After the 1919 armistice, Carl Holman, the main character in my novel Acquaintance, serves in the allied occupation of Germany, where he learns of this early homophile movement.

Elements of this scenario are based on the life of Henry Gerber who served with the US army of occupation from 1920 to 23 and became familiar with the German homosexual emancipation movement.

Gerber was in contact with Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Community in Berlin where Hirschfeld established the first sexology institute in the world with an immense library. You can guess where that ended—the Nazis burned the library in the streets in 1933.

When Henry Gerber returned to Chicago in 1924, he and a few friends started a gay rights organization, the Society for Human Rights, incorporated in the state of Illinois, and they published a newsletter called “Friendship and Freedom.” Following a police raid of Gerber’s home, he lost his job at the Post Office and spent his life savings defending against his prosecution for “deviancy.”

However WWI changed society. People were asking about rural farm boys: “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?” By the 1920s more than half the population of the USA had migrated to urban areas. Carl and Jimmy, the lovers in Medicine for the Blues, both grew up in rural Oregon and moved to Portland.

At the same time that Jazz was becoming popular and Freud was all the rage, women got the vote, automobiles were changing life styles as well as social mores, and although alcohol was illegal, every one seemed to be drinking.

In spite of society’s new openness, the stigma of homosexuality remained deeply ingrained. But early gay subcultures were developing surreptitiously in major cities.

David K. Johnson’s book The Lavender Scare, recounts: “Washington [DC] In the 1930s and 1940s, under the New Deal and then World War II, was a boomtown. The total population of the metropolitan area doubled…while the number of federal workers in the city increased fourfold.” FDR’s programs created a large number of clerical jobs that attracted hoards of young men and women—many of them gay. World War II only accelerated that process. With the economic concerns of the Great Depression and then the preoccupation with WWII, these decades were a period of loosening societal norms.

When Sigmund Freud died in 1939, the American Psychiatric Association became more conservative and more hostile toward gays.

In the 1940s military screening for WWII viewed homosexuality in terms of psychiatric disorders and mental illnesses and devised various methods of identifying traits that revealed these tendencies.

In 1952 the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality on the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

By the late 1930s an East Coast patrician named Sumner Welles became the most influential man in FDR’s State Department. In the midst of Roosevelt’s third run for the presidency in 1940, Welles became involved in a sex scandal by propositioning African-American railroad porters on a trip back from Alabama. Although the scandal was hushed up to protect the FDR administration, Welles was eventually fired, but rumors of the incident lingered for years.

After 18 years of Democratic control of the U S government under FDR and then Truman, the Republicans were intent on regaining power. As early as 1947 with the start of the Cold War, Republicans began expressing concerns about homosexuals in the Democratic administration’s State Department. Early purges took place in private and soon fell out of news headlines.

Not until the national news coverage of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s 1950 accusations that there were Communists in the State Department did the issue of homosexuals in government become a matter of popular hysteria.

Soon after McCarthy began getting headlines, State Department officials, under questioning by Republicans in a Senate hearing, revealed that 91 homosexuals had been removed from the State Department as security risks.

Even though McCarthy stopped pushing the issue of homosexuals in the government after 1950, he pursued the Communist threat, continuing to use the euphemism “security risk” to conflate homosexuals with Communists—without being explicit about homosexuality. Perhaps this is because he was, like Carl Holman, an unmarried, middle-aged man who was subject to having his own sexuality called into question. It is significant that his close legal advisor, Roy Cohn, was much later outed as gay.

The Kinsey Report had come out in 1948, publicizing that one third of the male population had engaged in same-sex relations at least once.

There were indications that the American public was more dismayed by the revelation that the government might be controlled by homosexuals than that it might be infiltrated by Commies. So other congressional Republicans continued to vilify the Democratic administration for lax oversight.

McCarthy’s place in the limelight only lasted from 1950 until his censure by the Senate in December 1954. While he became the poster boy for the Communist & homosexual witch hunts, these “security risk” purges of government agencies predated him as far back as 1947, and anti-gay policies were institutionalized within the federal system, becoming standard government policy until the 1970s.

These attempts to rid government agencies of homosexuals, not only destroyed many lives and careers, it sowed the seeds for the gay rights organizing that grew up in the decades that followed.

During these post WWII years “sexual deviance,” same-gender dancing, and cross-dressing were illegal, and police routinely raided gay bars across the country.

In 1948, Harry Hay put out the call for a gay movement in Los Angeles, then he formed the Mattachine Society in 1950 and began organizing gay discussion groups. By 1953 there were more than 2000 members in California. When Harry Hay’s Marxist background was exposed, he stepped down from the Mattachine Society to protect it from McCarthyism.

Still Harry Hay continued to advocate for gay rights and when the Stonewall riots occurred in 1969, he declared that the East Coast was finally catching up with California.

In 1955 a lesbian organization named the Daughters of Bilitis was formed by Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin in San Francisco. By 1959 there were chapters in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Rhode Island.

During 1965 an umbrella group including the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis staged a number of picket lines in front of the White House in Washington, DC, and Independence Hall in Philadelphia, protesting the treatment of homosexuals.

In 1950, Portland’s Mayor Dorothy McCullough Lee attempted to close down some of the gay and lesbian bars that had been thriving in the city since the 1940s. She only succeeded in closing down drag shows in one bar, while numerous other gay and lesbian bars continued to operate during the 1950s and 60s.

After Mayor Lee’s crackdown, Portland police exercised a hands-off policy, believing it was better, in their words, “to have deviates concentrated in a few places.” In addition to this informal policy, Mayor Lee’s vice and graft crusades in the early 1950s ended the system whereby illegal and questionable entertainment establishments paid police to leave them alone. As a result, Portland’s few bars and their patrons were not mired in quite the desperate situation as were those in New York City, San Francisco, or even Seattle.

A collision between the shifting culture and Portland’s conservative establishment occurred in the heat of the divisive 1964 presidential campaign between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater. Mayor Terry Schrunk and the Portland city council launched the first concerted attack against gay and lesbian bars since Mayor Lee’s campaign in 1950. After a series of hearings in late 1964, the city moved to shut down six gay bars, pressuring the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to revoke their licenses.

The bars hired attorneys who argued that shutting the bars because of the type of customers they catered to violated the recent Civil Rights Act, which protected people who assembled in public accommodations. When the OLCC agreed, there was little else the City could do.

Then in 1969 came the Stonewall Riots, and growing activism began in Portland’s LGBTQ community, leading to a number of firsts for Oregon over the decades that followed.

George Nicola published a list of Oregon firsts on GLAPN’s website:

Here are just a few examples:

1971 – After being fired from her Oregon teaching job, Peggy Burton was the first LGBTQ public school teacher in the U.S. to file a federal civil rights suit, and the first one to win.

1971 – The ACLU successfully lobbied the Oregon Legislature for the criminal code revision that decriminalized adult homosexual conduct. Oregon was only the third state to do that permanently.

1985 – Oregon attorney Cindy Cumfer handled the first same-gender parent adoption in the United States. It served as a prototype for adoptions around the country.

1998 – Tanner v. OHSU. The Oregon Court of Appeals became the first court in the nation to decide that government is constitutionally required to recognize domestic partnerships for purposes of employee benefits at government entities.

2003 – Rives Kistler was the first openly gay male state supreme court justice in the nation.

2006 – Virginia Linder was the first openly lesbian state supreme court justice.

Earlier Kistler and Linder wrote an amicus brief in opposition to Colorado’s anti-gay Amendment 2 adopted in a 1992 statewide referendum, the same year that Oregon’s anti-gay Measure 9 was defeated. The case was appealed to the US Supreme Court. The reasoning applied in the Oregon amicus brief was used in the majority opinion issued by Justice Anthony Kennedy, which declared Colorado’s law unconstitutional. Kennedy later extended the reasoning from that decision to subsequent cases and similarly invalidated laws banning homosexual conduct, the Defense of Marriage Act, and prohibitions against same-gender marriage.

2008 – Portland was the first of the nation’s 40 largest cities to elect an openly LGBTQ mayor, Sam Adams.

2009 – African American mother Antoinette Edwards founded PFLAG Portland Black Chapter, the first PFLAG group in the country created by and for the Black community.

2013 – State Representative Tina Kotek was the first openly lesbian woman to head a state legislative chamber when she became Oregon House Speaker.

2016 – Oregon was the first state to elect an openly LGBTQ governor: Kate Brown, who had long openly identified as bisexual.

—Jeff Stookey, June 2019


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